Clean Fuels

– in the House of Commons at 10:34 am on 19th October 2001.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Stringer.]

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions 10:37 am, 19th October 2001

I am pleased to open this clean fuels debate, because it is an area of Government policy that helps us to meet many of the targets that we have set ourselves for improving the lives of ordinary people.

Vehicles are critical to modern life, but have a major impact on our environment. In recent years, they have become much cleaner and safer, but those improvements need to go much further as we understand more about how vehicles affect the environment, including their impact on air quality, noise and the global problem of climate change.

I want to explain how the Government are supporting the wider use of cleaner fuels and vehicles both now and in the longer term to deliver more sustainable transport, but I shall start by explaining the Government's commitment to our environment, which sets the context for the debate. After all, cleaner fuels are not an end in themselves. They are needed to help us to meet our climate change, air quality and other environmental objectives.

Climate change is arguably the greatest environmental threat facing the planet. In the United Kingdom, road transport is the third largest source of emissions of carbon dioxide—the main greenhouse gas—causing about 22 per cent. of UK emissions. Measures to reduce CO 2 emissions from transport will clearly play a central role in helping us to meet our climate change objectives.

Conventional petrol and diesel vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient and thus emitting less CO 2 thanks to on-going efforts by vehicle manufacturers, backed by a voluntary agreement negotiated in Europe. Indeed, by 2008, the average new car sold in Europe should be 25 per cent. more fuel efficient than the average in 1995. However, more significant greenhouse gas reductions will be needed, given the prospective increase in road traffic both here and abroad. Cleaner fuels and new technologies will have a critical role in delivering those further reductions.

The Government are committed to improving the quality of the air that we all breathe, whether we are residents, pedestrians, cyclists or motorists. In support of that commitment, we have set tough air quality objectives to be met throughout the country over the next few years. Our air quality strategy, published in January 2000, identifies the major sources of air pollution in the United Kingdom and sets out a framework of action for delivering cleaner air. We propose to strengthen those objectives by setting even higher long-term objectives for particles and other key air pollutants.

As road transport is one of the major sources of air pollution, especially in urban areas, any attempt to improve air quality must consider measures to reduce pollution from transport. Road transport is also one of the major sources of two of the pollutants of most concern in the United Kingdom—particulates and oxides of nitrogen. Recent studies suggest that the impact of particulates on long-term health may be greater than we originally thought. That adds greater urgency to our efforts to reduce vehicle emissions.

Much is already being done. New petrol and diesel vehicles are becoming much cleaner, thanks to tougher European emission standards and cleaner fuels. For example, all petrol cars have been fitted with catalytic converters, which dramatically reduce emissions, for a number of years now. As a result of those and the other measures that we have taken, total emissions from transport are steadily declining, despite increases in road traffic.

Emissions of particulates and nitrogen compounds—sometimes known as PM10 and NOx—from road transport have fallen by about 50 per cent. since 1990, despite continuing traffic growth. Emissions from all vehicle types are expected to fall by another 25 per cent. over the next five years as a result of more stringent European emissions standards. That is a significant achievement, for which vehicle manufacturers and fuel suppliers deserve much credit. It also shows the added value of action at a European level. On their own, individual countries have only limited influence on the international car market; but through collective action, the European Union has driven forward improvements to vehicles with major benefits for safety and the environment.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

The Minister has cited a number of European statistics and projections. Will he put those into the UK context?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

Many of the agreements that we have made in recent years, some by negotiation and some by directive, through our co-operation in the European Union, have effected considerable improvements in standards for emissions and fuel, and in car safety. They have been brought about through co-operation with our partners in Europe. Had we been trying to negotiate them singly, as 15 separate countries, it is unlikely that we would have been able to deliver.

Car manufacturers also welcome that structure, which brings them benefits, too. In the past when they were selling cars in the European Union, they may have been trying to meet 15 different standards, whereas now they can be confident that they can produce vehicles that sell throughout the Union. The EU regulatory process takes account of the industry's views, and means that it has to meet only one set of standards to gain access to all the markets in Europe.

However, even with the improvements in European vehicle and fuel standards, our air quality objectives for particulates and nitrogen oxides may not be met in some urban pollution hot spots. Further measures to reduce emissions from road transport may be needed in those areas.

The other major environmental impact of vehicles is noise. There is some good news on that as well, as vehicles and engines become quieter and new road surfaces help to reduce tyre noise.

I am also interested in the prospect of encouraging more delivery vehicles to switch to natural gas, which cuts engine noise substantially. Local authorities may consider allowing such vehicles to deliver at more sensitive times—at night or in the early morning—which in turn would reduce daytime congestion.

The benefits for business and the environment, too, could be substantial. Using quieter lorries for night-time deliveries could enable companies to reduce their vehicle fleets by as much as 20 per cent. One company in north London is looking into precisely that, and says that if it could negotiate its way out of the curfew for using vehicles at night it could cut its fleet by one fifth, thus reducing congestion at the times when it normally delivers, as well as air pollution.

That is some of the environmental background. I shall now turn to what the Government are doing to promote cleaner fuels. We have encouraged cleaner forms of petrol and diesel. Leaded petrol was banned from general sale on 1 January 2000. Ultra-low sulphur diesel is now the standard form of diesel in the United Kingdom, thanks to the Government's fuel duty incentives. Sales of ultra-low sulphur petrol now make up almost 100 per cent. of total petrol sales. As I am about to explain, we are also encouraging alternatives to petrol and diesel, in particular gas fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas, which is known as LPG, compressed natural gas—CNG—and electric vehicles.

Compared with petrol, the best gas vehicles offer small reductions in emissions of oxides of nitrogen—NOx—and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions of 10 to 15 per cent. Gas vehicles also provide significant particulate and NOx emissions advantages over current diesel vehicles, as well as being much quieter. Gas will generally emit slightly more carbon dioxide than diesel vehicles, which are inherently fuel efficient.

Electric vehicles are zero-emission at the point of use, as well as being very quiet, making them ideal for use in urban areas where pollution problems are most acute. Although they have limited range and performance, they are well suited to applications such as urban delivery and courier work. I am sure that Members have noticed that some of the deliveries to this House are now made in electric vehicles.

Given these potential environmental benefits, the Government have introduced a range of incentives to encourage their wider use. Road fuel gases such as LPG and natural gas now enjoy a low duty rate of 9p per kilogram. That reflects the air quality benefits that gas vehicles can provide. The duty on road fuel gases will not be increased in real terms until 2004 at the earliest. Vehicles powered solely by electricity are exempt from vehicle excise duty—VED.

My Department's PowerShift programme provides grants towards the additional cost of buying gas and electric vehicles. I shall say a little more about PowerShift, as I announced some significant changes in the programme following a consultation exercise. The consultation set out a number of proposals about how PowerShift could be better targeted to maximise its environmental and health benefits. We received many useful suggestions, many of which have been incorporated into the programme.

On the LPG side of PowerShift, the most radical change that we have made to the programme is its extension to include older petrol vehicles up to five years old, whereas it previously applied only to vehicles up to one year old. There are potentially significant environmental benefits from converting older petrol vehicles to run on LPG. Compared with petrol, good LPG conversions can offer lower emissions of oxides of nitrogen and up to a 15 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide. A wide range of PowerShift approved conversions are available, covering most of the major makes and models of what are known as Euro 2 cars—generally cars up to about five years old.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

My hon. Friend will know that I have been closely involved in the debate about the use of gas, and one of the difficulties is the chicken-and-egg argument about whether cars are to be on the road before distribution points are available, or vice versa. In some parts of the country, there have been planning difficulties in the installation of gas distribution points at the fuel pumps. Is he satisfied that local authorities have now been given good enough advice on removing that obstacle?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

I am very satisfied about the number of LPG stations opening around the country. There are 900 stations throughout the United Kingdom, and they are opening at a rate of one per working day. We hope that the 1,000th station will open in the new year. That means that anyone who converts to a dedicated LPG vehicle should find a supply readily accessible in almost all parts of the country. I would be happy to see any evidence of difficulties with planning permission that my hon. Friend may have.

Photo of Bill Wiggin Bill Wiggin Conservative, Leominster

I am curious as to what assurances the Minister can give us about what future taxation will be levied on LPG and whether the Chancellor's stealthy fingers will be dipping into our LPG tanks.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

The hon. Gentleman makes a beguiling argument. I look forward to his Front-Bench spokesman making commitments beyond this Parliament. He made great play during the election campaign about not giving commitments beyond one Parliament. Although I cannot speak for the Chancellor, I can say that the Government are totally committed to cleaner air and the objectives that I set out earlier, and we have put in place fiscal measures to ensure that they are achieved. The PowerShift programme means that cars can be converted, and the oil companies have ensured that LPG is available. Those are clear indicators of the Government's commitment to seeing through our objectives. However, I will not be tempted to outline a Budget for 2004, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman really expects me to.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

How accessible will LPG be in rural areas, given that many rural filling stations are closing down and it can be difficult to obtain conventional diesel and petrol?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

The hon. Gentleman's point has to do with the accessibility of all fuels in rural areas, not just LPG. That is of concern to us. For filling stations to stay open, it must be viable for the oil companies to use them.

A good friend of mine who lives in Cornwall—a rural area in which it can sometimes be difficult to access fuels—tells me that there are sufficient stations in Cornwall to enable him to go over to a dedicated LPG vehicle. My constituency is near Cornwall, and I know from my journey through Devon that one can travel through the whole of that very rural area and find LPG available. I see that Mr. Syms agrees with me.

The really good news is that the programme to have LPG at filling stations is continuing apace, so it will be more widely available as time goes on. It is a chicken-and-egg situation: we now have the stations and we need more vehicles to start using LPG fuel. That is why the PowerShift programme encourages use of other types of car.

The grants available through the PowerShift programme will provide between 30 and 50 per cent. of the cost of conversion, depending on the emissions performance that is achieved by doing so. That is excellent news for the estimated 2 million motorists who will be eligible for financial assistance to help with the extra cost of converting their vehicles to run on cleaner LPG. They will also benefit from low-duty fuel that costs less than 40p per litre on the garage forecourts.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

Will the Minister clarify something? He said that gas conversions were particularly suitable for older vehicles, but an engine can be converted to run on gas only if it is at the outset capable of running on unleaded fuel. In other words, conversion is not an option for vehicles that run on lead replacement petrol because the gas does not have the quality to lubricate the head of the engine, as LRP does.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

The thrust of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks is correct. However, the majority of vehicles will run on unleaded fuel, and they can be converted. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the programme cannot embrace every vehicle. Some specialist vehicles will be difficult to convert; converting some will be so expensive as not to be economically worth while. However, there are packs to convert the average medium-sized vehicle, and engines have been manufactured to the required standard. Given that, this facility is available to the majority of motorists.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

If I heard the Minister correctly, he said that the PowerShift grants may cover the cost of 30 to 50 per cent. of conversion. My understanding was that until recently they could, in some circumstances, cover up to 75 per cent. of the cost of conversion. Is he announcing that as a result of the consultation the amount that can be covered has been cut?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

No, I am not announcing it here. There was an announcement last week, which was made available to the House, that we had made some changes. The grant system that was in place, which was largely formulated by the previous Government—this is not a criticism, because we agreed—was focused on converting newer vehicles. At the time, that was the right policy. However, in the interim, newer, cleaner engines and cleaner fuel became available and the advantage of converting newer vehicles to LPG reduced. The emissions advantage of converting a brand-new vehicle coming out of the factory was limited, so the gap had narrowed. After the consultation, many people rightly said that we needed to refocus on the older vehicles, so the grant has moved away from newer, cleaner vehicles to older, more polluting vehicles. We have also given the manufacturers an extra incentive to put the grant at the point of manufacture rather than the point of conversion. I will come to that shortly.

Important changes were announced for LPG conversions of new vehicles by offering additional incentives for production-line conversions and for new LPG vehicles replacing diesel vans and taxis. At present, LPG conversions are done as after-market conversions. The petrol vehicle is taken to a garage and converted, sometimes very soon after it has come from the production line. Although many such conversions deliver good environmental performance, the process is labour intensive and consequently relatively expensive. We want to see a move away from after-market conversions to production-line LPG vehicles, which should reduce costs and improve reliability and environmental performance.

Giving higher grants for such vehicles gives a clear signal that the Government want to move in that direction. We have moved the emphasis of the funding to those areas in which we think the greatest advantage will be achieved. The grants will range from 50 to 60 per cent. of the cost of conversion, depending on the emissions performance. Higher grants for LPG vans and taxis reflect the significant air quality benefits to be obtained by replacing diesels with LPG. LPG offers reduced emissions of harmful particulates and oxides of nitrogen compared with diesels, as well as being much quieter.

With the additional incentives offered through PowerShift, I expect the number of LPG vehicles to grow significantly over the next few years from its current level of around 50,000. Thanks to the investment from fuel suppliers, the LPG refuelling infrastructure is also developing rapidly. As I said, there are already 900 LPG filling stations nationwide, with one opening every working day. By the end of next year, we expect around 10 per cent. of all petrol stations to be able to supply LPG, making it a practical fuel for most motorists.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Italy has more than 1 million vehicles that run on LPG. Even the Netherlands has more than 400,000. When does the Minister think that we will catch them up?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

That is difficult to predict. Many of us hoped that the market for LPG and CNG would grow. In Italy, there has been much greater take-up of CNG. We are putting the incentives in place. We have the infrastructure of supply in place. We have in place the fiscal encouragement to go ahead and convert. Hon. Members can go out and proselytise on behalf of cleaner fuels in their constituencies, because those fuels deliver cleaner air and the other objectives that I have set out.

It is true to say that LPG cars and vans have taken off in a big way. We are seeing further developments each day. The difficulty is that the news is not so good for the heavier gas vehicles such as trucks and buses. Despite the range of incentives on offer, operators have been reluctant to switch from diesel to gas. I intend that we should change that rapidly. Gas offers many advantages to the heavy vehicle operator. It is cheap and clean and the vehicles are reliable. Many fuel suppliers are happy to install the refuelling infrastructure free of charge, so refuelling need not be a problem.

To give operators the confidence to invest in cleaner vehicles and refuelling infrastructure, I announced recently that PowerShift grants for heavy duty gas vehicles would be maintained at their current levels of up to 75 per cent. of the additional cost of the vehicle. This grant level is also mirrored in CleanUp—PowerShift's sister programme that focuses on reducing pollution from existing vehicles.

My Department has set up two pilot initiatives with the London Mayor and Transport for London and with Manchester city council, with the aim of getting prospective compressed natural gas users and suppliers together. We believe that this partnership approach could encourage many transport operators in those two cities to invest in natural gas. If it is a success, we intend to roll it out to other towns and cities. Perhaps the hon. Member for Poole and others will watch that with great interest. If we achieve success in London and Manchester, perhaps smaller towns and cities will go over to a similar programme. We may see vehicles such as Royal Mail delivery vans and other vehicles that operate within a limited radius using natural gas.

Gas fuels such as LPG and CNG offer an immediate way of reducing vehicle emissions, in particular local air pollutants, but they do not do much to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. For that reason, the Government are also thinking about the next generation of fuels. I must stress that the role of the Government is not to pick winners in terms of fuels or technologies but to take a more strategic view of where we want to get to with environmental outcomes. Industry can then develop the appropriate fuels and technologies to deliver the outcomes that we want.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Whip

I suspect that the Minister is about to leave the subject of LPG. Before he does, will he reassure one of my constituents that there should be no safety concerns about new LPG refilling plants being opened close to residential properties?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

I can give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. LPG, properly fitted in a refuelling station or a vehicle, is probably safer than petrol. Many people ask whether the tank, which unfortunately tends to look like a bomb, is safe. The tank is built to resist considerable pressure, so it is much safer in the event of an accident than the conventional petrol tank. In road accidents, the ignition of the petrol and the fire that ensues causes many deaths. People can be assured that with both CNG and LPG, the likelihood of the tank rupturing and the fuel escaping is less.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

I agree with what the Minister said about safety, but there is a knotty little issue in that vehicles are not allowed to go through the channel tunnel with full LPG tanks, whereas caravans with full calor gas tanks are allowed to go through. Have further representations been made on that point?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that matter. He can be assured that it is in my in-tray. We have received representations and we are considering the matter.

Let us consider what outcomes we want. What is the ultimate destination? As I said, our longer-term emphasis will be on low-carbon technologies, given the potential impact of climate change on our environment. Security of supply is also important, since fossil fuels such as gas and oil are a finite resource, and we cannot rely on them to power our transport system for ever.

That is the destination, but how do we get there? The simple answer is that there are many different routes to achieving what we want. Cleaner conventional fuels will still have a vital role to play. For example, discussions are taking place in Europe about making effectively zero-sulphur petrol and diesel widely available in member states, potentially by 2005. Such fuels should help manufacturers to introduce a new generation of fuel-efficient engines. Many manufacturers are developing hybrid electric vehicles that use two types of power source together to maximise the benefits of each. For example, a petrol or diesel engine and electric motor can be combined to maximise fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. The system can offer twice the fuel efficiency of a conventional vehicle, with only half the carbon dioxide emissions, with air pollution benefits in the most polluted areas.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

As far back as 1993, Ricardo's of Shoreham showed the Science and Technology Committee a prototype hybrid engine designed for heavy vehicles. Unfortunately, it has not yet found its way on to the road, even though it is a leading piece of technology. Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the fiscal incentives are in place to promote such technology?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

The fiscal incentives are in place. It is unfortunate that the technology tends to be more expensive and the market tends to be conservative. It is difficult to persuade the purchasers of vehicles to make the appropriate changes. Having driven one of the hybrid vehicles, I can tell my hon. Friend that it was very satisfactory. It delivered about 60 miles per gallon, whereas a similar petrol vehicle would probably deliver about 35 mpg. Hybrid vehicles are already commercially available in the UK. Toyota and Honda offer hybrid electric petrol vehicles for sale, and other manufacturers are likely to follow. The Government are supporting the introduction of hybrid vehicles with purchase grants of £1,000 through the PowerShift programme.

Hydrogen and biofuels, which can, crucially, start to decouple mobility from climate change, will also form part of this journey. They are practical and can replace or be blended with fossil petrol and diesel in existing engines.

For biofuels, the carbon saving, compared with fossil fuel, is highest where the biofuel is made with waste or recycled material and less when the feed stock is specially grown, using fertilisers and energy. We intend this country to be a leader in biofuel technologies. The Chancellor launched the greener fuels challenge in last year's pre-Budget report, to identify the most promising fuels for special tax treatment. That led to the 20p per litre reduction in duty for biodiesel in the Budget. That will bring forward biodiesel produced in the UK with used vegetable oil.

I am aware of the arguments that there should be an even larger duty cut for biodiesel, to open the way for biodiesel made from virgin rapeseed, and that biodiesel duty should be on a par with LPG or CNG. The issue was fully dealt with in the Finance Bill debate.

As my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary explained, the prime purpose of the low duty on LPG and CNG is to help combat air-quality problems, whereas experts generally agree that biodiesel is not better than fossil diesel on the most important emissions. Rapeseed biodiesel offers some carbon savings compared with fossil diesel, but fairly limited benefits because of the amount of fertilisers and energy involved in growing rapeseed. It is also expensive. Other biofuels deliver greater environmental benefits at a lower cost, and they are already starting to be used in the electricity and industrial sectors.

Looking yet further ahead, we have the firm prospect of electric-drive vehicles running on fuel cell technology. That opens the way for a clutch of benefits: higher vehicle efficiency; better in-car amenities; zero-tailpipe emissions; lower carbon emissions; and inherently low carbon emissions when the hydrogen is renewably generated.

We want this country to be out in front in the development of all those new fuels and the associated technologies. The potential for job and wealth creation is significant, and the United Kingdom is well placed to benefit, with a strong manufacturing base and expert design engineering capabilities. All this activity is supported by about 50 universities and other centres of excellence in the United Kingdom. They are involved in providing education and advanced research into all aspects of vehicle, powertrain, component and materials engineering.

In November, my Department and the Department of Trade and Industry will produce a discussion document—"Powering future vehicles"—in which we will set out our strategy not only for promoting the development, introduction and take-up of fuel cell and other new technologies, but for ensuring that the United Kingdom automotive industry is fully engaged in the technology.

I hope that I have explained the importance that the Government place on cleaner fuels as a means of supporting our environmental objectives in the short and longer terms. I have touched on many issues in my speech, which, I hope, will provoke a strong and healthy debate today.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire 11:12 am, 19th October 2001

May I begin by offering an apology to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the House for my not being able to stay for the full length of the debate to hear the winding-up speeches? I am afraid that that is a result of the late change in business and constituency commitments, which I cannot alter at this stage.

We welcome this debate, even if the subject is not particularly pertinent to the moment. It is not acceptable for the Home Office to claim pressure of work to put off the drugs debate that was earmarked for today. Obviously, the Government do not have much good news to promote, hence this subject has been lifted off the shelf for this morning's debate.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the drugs debate is very important, but two major surveys have shown that air quality is the biggest single issue in the minds of my constituents—they live in a petrochemical manufacturing town.

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Gentleman makes his point. We agree that this is a very important issue, and I have welcomed the fact that we are debating it, but we know the circumstances in which this debate has been initiated. Some people may have thought it much more appropriate to use this parliamentary time to debate more contemporary subjects, such as the current international crisis or the collapse of Railtrack. The Minister is from the relevant Department, and given the situation that has arisen in the past week, I should have thought it more appropriate now for him to explain how the Government propose to fill the black holes in their financing of the railway industry in the future.

May I connect the correct security concerns with today's debate by asking the Minister whether he is aware that there are only eight oil refineries in Great Britain? If last year's fuel crisis taught us anything, it is that it does not take much to prevent distribution from those refineries, thus causing a national fuel shortage. What assessment has the Minister made of the threat of terrorist action against some or all those refineries? Can he assure us that the same security measures that are being put in place at reservoirs and nuclear power stations are being used to protect those refineries from threat?

To return to today's business, I assure the Minister that the Opposition welcome any sensible measures that encourage greener fuels and greener vehicles. We were disappointed that, despite promising in 1997 they would be "the greenest Government ever", it took this Government more than three years to announce a tax cut for ultra-low sulphur petrol, but we welcome their eventual decision. Members will recall that tax breaks introduced by Conservative Governments helped to encourage the shift away from leaded petrol to unleaded, and we welcome the fact that the Government are following in our footsteps. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government plan to go even further and encourage the production of no-sulphur fuels? What fiscal measures are the Government considering to speed the introduction of that even greener fuel?

We also welcome the tax cuts that the Government have made to compressed natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas. My hon. Friend Mr. Green was one of the first to suggest in the previous Parliament that tax on LPG and CNG should be cut to the lowest minimum EU level. The Minister should give the House a firmer assurance than he did in response to an intervention made by my hon. Friend Mr. Wiggin about the Government's ambition to maintain the tax on those clean fuels at that minimal level for the long term, not just until 2004, as the Chancellor has suggested. Converting cars to run on cleaner fuels can be a costly and bureaucratic business, as we all know, and consumers need to know that they are making an investment that the Government will defend in the longer term.

The Minister is, no doubt, aware that the number of vehicles that run on LPG, and particularly CNG, is still very small in this country—a point made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight. As the Minister confirmed, about 50,000 vehicles run on LPG in this country, but there are nearly 10 times that number in Holland. What strategy do the Government have to encourage a greater take-up of LPG at petrol stations, particularly in rural areas?

The Minister said that 900 such stations already exist and are opening at the rate of one a week, but that is small beer compared with the availability of conventional petrol and diesel at our stations. What discussions has the Minister had with the motor industry to ensure that more LPG vehicles are put onto the market, so that buyers do not have to arrange separate conversions? Do the Government have any targets regarding the number of vehicles that can run on LPG?

I thank the Minister for expanding on the measures that the Government intend to introduce to promote biofuels, which do not add to global warming. The EU proposes that 2 per cent. of road transport fuels should be biofuels by 2005. Does he intend to meet that target and, if so, how? Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford proposed that biodiesel should be taxed at the same rate as road fuel gases. Will the Minister consider such a proposal?

Looking even further ahead, Conservative Members are keen to encourage a whole range of alternative-fuel vehicles, such as dual fuel, solar, electric and fuel-cell powered cars. We proposed a cut in vehicle excise duty for those vehicles, and I hope the Minister will put pressure on the Chancellor to consider such a cut in his next Budget. Hon. Members will be aware that the Government have decided to change the current system and band VED for new vehicles according to four CO 2 emissions rates. I understand the sentiment behind that policy decision, but why should it be based only on CO 2 emissions? Would it not be better to discourage all air pollution by basing VED rates on the total emission standards of vehicles? I should be grateful for an explanation of the Government's thinking on that decision, especially in relation to company cars.

As the Minister will accept, company cars are among the most environmentally friendly vehicles on our roads. The Government plan to abolish mileage allowances and use CO 2 emissions to calculate taxation levels that will hit the pockets of those who need to use their cars for business. For example, a sales manager running a 1.9 litre diesel car, which costs about £21,000 to put on the road, and who drives 25,000 business miles a year, will have to pay between £800 and £950 of extra tax a year. That stealth tax is certainly not helping British manufacturing and industry.

Is not the Minister aware that, for many, a company car is a vital tool for business and public transport is simply not an option? I hope that the Government change their mind and realise that the job of company car fleet management is an integral part of our economy, not an evil to be rooted out. The Minister should be working with the fleet industry to encourage it to take up cleaner LPG vehicles, not hitting it with a new tax.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Given that company cars are replaced, on average, every two or three years, does not the hon. Gentleman think that the sales manager to whom he referred should be encouraging his employer—or, if he himself is in an executive position, making the decision—to shift away from using a 1.9 litre diesel to a more environmentally friendly car?

Photo of Malcolm Moss Malcolm Moss Conservative, North East Cambridgeshire

The hon. Gentleman's comments would have a little more integrity if the purpose of the tax were to bring about that shift, but we well know that it is just another stealth tax to add to the Chancellor's coffers.

As the Minister knows, old cars cause the majority of vehicle air pollution. Cars produced after 1997 emit only 4 per cent. of the hydrocarbons, 9 per cent. of the nitrogen oxides and 10 per cent. of the carbon monoxide emitted by a pre-1993 car. When are the Government going to do something about the real polluters? Banding VED rates to reflect the total environmental impact of cars will provide a strong, positive incentive in the tax system for people to upgrade to cleaner cars, which will significantly cut air pollution throughout the country.

Of course, the most polluting vehicles on our roads are buses and HGVs. Buses emit 68 times more nitrogen oxides and 37 times more particulates than an equivalent car. Oxford street is probably the most polluted street in the country, and there are no cars travelling on it. Even the Mayor of London has been forced to admit that his congestion tax will not reduce pollution in central London. Conservative Members would be grateful to learn what measures the Minister will take to reduce bus pollution.

The Conservative party firmly believes that transport policy should be shaped by environmental concerns, but we do not believe that an anti-car agenda, which many Labour Members are bent on, is the way forward. Many people have to use their cars because, for them, public transport is just not an option. The sensible approach would therefore be to cut taxation on greener fuels and cars, not try to tax people out of their cars. We welcome the fact that the Government have now started to get that message, and we hope that they continue to make constructive proposals to encourage greener motoring.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford 11:23 am, 19th October 2001

In opening the debate, my hon. Friend the Minister concentrated on cleaner fuels for transport, acknowledging the contribution of transport to climate change, which he described as the greatest environmental threat facing us. Prior to 11 September, climate change was the imperative driving the development of cleaner fuels. Air pollution and local environment degradation were obviously significant concerns, but it was the acceptance by the international community that global warming was upon us that gave the spur to low-carbon and non-carbon technologies.

After 11 September, no debate on clean fuels can ignore the security implications of current energy supplies and suppliers. Before that date, the nuclear industry was once again presenting itself as a clean technology and part of the fight against climate change. That was, of course, not true. We already have 10,000 tonnes of highly dangerous nuclear waste stored in the UK awaiting someone to find a solution to the problem of its disposal, and 500,000 tonnes of such waste are destined to be produced by existing nuclear capacity. Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs told the House that the cost of dealing with nuclear waste was about £85 billion, but that is as nothing compared with the obvious threat posed by terrorist action. We cannot begin to comprehend what the consequences would have been if the terrorist targets in the United States had been not the twin towers but nuclear power plants.

Our nation and our way of life are unsustainable without fuel for manufacturing, heating, transport, lighting and all public services. Today, more than ever, we cannot simply accept that it will come out of a pump or a tap or emerge at the flick of a switch. Suddenly, our military and environmental security have become closely interlinked and the imperative for change has rapidly accelerated.

The Government are undertaking an energy review, the preamble to which expresses their concerns about the following matters: ensuring diversity of supply, so that the UK is not dependent on one source; ensuring security of supply, because much of the UK's oil and gas comes from areas of political instability; meeting our environmental obligations to reduce CO 2 by 20 per cent. on 1990 levels by 2010 and by up to 60 per cent. by 2050; and the social consequences of high energy prices.

I do not intend, and it would be inappropriate in this debate, to set out a comprehensive response to that review, but I recommend the response made by SERA, Labour's Environment Campaign. It argues for bringing energy efficiency and combined heat and power into the mainstream of energy policy, with proper funding, a policy framework, and recognition that they contribute to all the main policy goals: competitiveness, reducing fuel poverty, increasing energy security and reducing emissions. The campaign also argues against any new nuclear power plants and is in favour of a comprehensive strategy for renewable energy. It is on those points that I wish to concentrate.

The key to the review must be diversity and security of supply. The natural assumption might be that there is some equivalence between the sectors—nuclear, coal, oil, gas and renewables—each having its place in the future, with mere shifts in the balance between them. However, there is another way for us to meet both fuel and security needs. First, we should decide once and for all that nuclear power has had its day in this country. We should spend no more time on future fantasies about nuclear power and get on with the job of dealing with the colossal output of nuclear waste. There is no economic or environmental case for new nuclear plants, and those that we have must now be regarded as a major terrorist target.

Secondly, we should ask whether we can obtain diversity and security of supply from the basket of renewable energy sources. All the evidence suggests that we can. Onshore wind, offshore wind, wave and solar energy each provide a resource sufficient to supply all the UK's power, if we choose to harness it. I acknowledge that progress has been made and that the Government have kept the promise on renewables that they made in opposition. They have increased funding, and there are incentives, but there is nothing on the scale that will enable us to meet all future energy needs from benign, clean and renewable resources.

The Minister gave us a comprehensive picture of the range of cleaner transport fuels that are available and of the incentives that the Government have provided. He accurately described what I regard as a transitional period. He is, of course, aware that all our efforts represent a constant battle. The positive reductions in emissions from each vehicle are offset by the increasing number of vehicles on the road and the fact that they are used more often. For that reason, we cannot treat transport fuels in isolation, and renewable energy sources provide the key to the future.

The potential for renewables is vast. BP has calculated that if modern solar photovoltaic technologies were applied to all appropriate roofs they would generate more electricity from this nation wide than we use in a single year. A recent performance and innovation unit study accepts that wind farms using only a small amount of the areas available to them and the use of available wave power could double current national demand.

Biomass power plants could balance the grid's need for constancy of supply and hydrogen fuel cells could provide the means of mass storage of energy. Hydrogen fuel cells and batteries mean that photovoltaics and other renewables will become centrally relevant to transport and oil. Hon. Members will know that hydrogen fuel can be made from water using solar and other renewable energy sources, thus completing a virtuous circle. Battery cars, chargeable from renewables, are already available. All those technologies are feasible, but they require a great leap of imagination, a real change of direction and, of course, the investment and incentives appropriate to the new imperatives.

The Government have said that they want our embryonic solar PV industry to be able to compete on a par with those of Germany and Japan. In the past year, about £16 million of grants have been allocated to that industry and more is promised from the additional £100 million for renewable energies beginning in 2002. That is just a fraction of what is available to our competitors. BP and Shell have estimated that it would take 15,000 roofs—equivalent to 30 MW a year—before manufacturing that product would be justified in the UK. Solar Century estimates that by 2004-05 the UK capacity will be only 10 MW, based on the Government's known programme. By comparison, 30 MW was obtained in the fourth year of the Japanese programme and in the second year of the German programme.

The company Solar Century has undertaken to fit 63 solar power plants, which have mainly been put on buildings around the UK in the past 18 months. It has five proposals that could transform the industry. First, it believes that the Government should support the UK's solar grant resource at a level equivalent to that of Germany and Japan. Secondly, it contends that the renewables obligation could be varied to place a solar obligation on industry for 1 per cent. of its renewable supply or 0.1 per cent. of its total supply by 2010. Thirdly, it thinks that planning authorities could be encouraged to require a proportion of PV on developments, as the Mayor of London has suggested for new buildings in the capital. Does my hon. Friend's Department plan to encourage planning authorities to require a proportion of their local and regional developments to include photovoltaics?

Solar Century's fourth proposal is to extend the Government's programme of enhanced capital allowances. Should not that be extended to photovoltaics in an effort to grow the market? Fifthly, it suggests that major oil companies could be required to spend a proportion of their profits on large-scale PV manufacturing. Once such plants were built, a self-sustaining market would emerge. My hon. Friend will be aware that the recent huge profits made by oil companies have led to calls for windfall taxes. Does he agree that a better solution would be for the Government actively to incentivise companies to invest a percentage of those profits in the manufacture of renewable energies?

I welcome my hon. Friend's announcement that in November the Government will publish a paper on powering future vehicles. That is long overdue. Perhaps he agrees that hydrogen fuel cells offer the best solution for the automotive industry. If so, does he believe that the development of photovoltaics should be accelerated as a critical route to the generation of hydrogen fuel?

The automotive industry, the oil industry and the green movement agree on two fundamental points: that the long-term use of petrol and diesel is not a sustainable option and that the ultimate fuel solution is hydrogen generated from renewable energy. The international community rightly perceives two enormous threats to global security and the environment—climate change and international terrorism. Our national energy review could not come at a more critical time. The right decisions taken now could transform our energy supply by the middle of the century, contributing not only to the international good but to the improvement of our environment, domestic comforts and security. It is an opportunity that we must not miss.

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Whip 11:37 am, 19th October 2001

First, I, too, apologise for having to leave before the end of the debate because of appointments that could not be rescheduled.

I welcome the debate but I am intrigued by its purpose and especially its timing. I listened carefully to the Minister and had great difficulty in finding anything in his speech that had not been announced in the Budget statement in March. The only change is that the "Powering future vehicles" consultation paper will be delivered in November, not in the summer as promised in the Budget. I am a little disappointed because there has been no progress since March. Instead, there has been a slippage in the publication of one consultation paper.

We agree that transport has a huge impact on the environment because of the greenhouse gases and local air pollutants that it generates. We certainly support the promotion of technologies to improve vehicle efficiency and the use of alternative fuel systems such as liquefied petroleum gas and, in the longer term, biofuels and zero-emission vehicles.

The debacle surrounding Railtrack and plans for the partial privatisation of London Underground have led me to question whether those developments will make a positive contribution to the modal shift that is desired. I suspect that they are going to have the opposite effect and that people will switch from public transport to their cars rather than from cars to public transport. However, the Minister made some positive comments and there are desirable developments in the air quality strategy, which are welcome.

In the Budget statement in March, the Chancellor announced several initiatives, prompted in part by responses to the Government's green fuel challenge. It is worth reminding hon. Members of what was said. The Government said that they would support pilot projects for hydrogen, methanol, bioethanol and biogas with duty reductions or exemptions, and would consult this summer to encourage the development, delivery and uptake of newer, alternative, greener fuels and technologies. However, as I said, the "Powering future vehicles" consultation paper will not be delivered until November. Six months on, it is worth taking stock of the progress that has been made on the promises of support that were given in March.

I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm how, in the past six months and in the future, the Government's performance measured and will measure up to Greenpeace's response to the Government's green fuel challenge. Greenpeace pushes harder, further and faster than any Government would desire, but I believe that the Government will get to the time frame that Greenpeace wants in the longer term. I will therefore remind the Minister of what it seeks.

Greenpeace believes that the aim should be to install 250 compressed natural gas—CNG—refuelling points, but there were no targets for such refuelling points in the statement in March. Will the Minister tell us whether there is a target for increasing their number? By how many more does he expect the number to increase over the next 12 months and over the term of this Parliament? According to Greenpeace, there are only 20 CNG refuelling points in the country. Even a change in the duty is unlikely to have any effect on the uptake of CNG, therefore, because very few people will be able to get to the 20 existing points.

Greenpeace called for grants for the conversion costs for 5,000 freight vehicles and for 25,000 cars a year. It will be interesting to learn how Government figures tie in with such an ambitious target. It also called for incentives for the installation of electricity refuelling points. Clearly, that is not within the Government's remit; it is something that local government can do. Presumably, however, the Government have given the matter some thought.

There may be concerns that electric vehicles result in the displacement of pollution, because they are supplied by electricity generated at a power station. Renewable energies can be used, however, and I invite the Minister to visit a residential development in my constituency—the Beddington zero energy development project—where, once the development is complete, a scheme will provide for a pool of electric cars to be powered by photovoltaics. That is a good example of how one can obtain complete sustainability in a development. Does the Minister have any views as to how many electricity refuelling points there should be after the next 12 months and at the end of this Parliament?

The Government talk about the need to take further steps along the road towards a hydrogen-based economy. Unless there is a distribution network for the hydrogen, I am not sure that it will be possible to take steps down that road. I do not know why the Minister shakes his head, because I have referred directly to what was said in the March statement. Do the Government have plans to install a hydrogen network and, if so, what is the time frame in which it will be rolled out?

On LPG, I thank the Minister for confirming that refuelling points and the fuel tanks in vehicles should present no safety concerns. I shall pass on that information. However, has he considered whether vehicles running on LPG should be subject to congestion charges? That is a matter of current debate.

In the statement, the Government talk about looking in the medium term towards bioethanol and biogas. How would the British Association for Biofuels and Oils rate the Government's proposals? It called for a tax derogation for biofuels of 7.5p per litre. Is the Minister able to give us any information about incentives?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

The hon. Gentleman asked the Minister about congestion charges. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he thinks LPG-driven vehicles should be exempt from congestion charges?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Whip

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. There needs to be way of determining the extent to which the LPG nature of a dual-fuelled car is used. Unless that can be established, it will be difficult to determine whether a dual-fuelled car is being used permanently in the LPG mode or permanently in the petrol-driven mode. I am pleased that the Mayor of London and his team will have responsibility for clarifying that point and resolving the dilemma.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised this point. As he can imagine, it is exercising our minds as well as his, and he is having almost as much difficulty as we are. Many LPG conversions are carried out under railway arches and some of them are not done well. Could he help the Government by telling us how we might distinguish between the good and the bad conversions? Might we not encourage something undesirable if we were to give a blanket exemption to all LPG vehicles?

Photo of Tom Brake Tom Brake Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Whip

I am pleased that the Minister seeks my assistance. I also seek his and that of his Department, because I am sure that it has considered the issue. I look forward to the Minister and his friend the Mayor of London resolving the dilemma between them.

I referred to bioethanol. There is potential for it to be developed as a relatively clean fuel in agriculture, and it can assist in combating global warming. It could play an important role in restoring our ailing farming industry.

Will the Minister set out the extent of the support that will be given to the pilot projects that were referred to in the March statement? Will the Government support a set number of projects, and will a budget be allocated in each year of this Parliament to support them? Have they set a ceiling for the special duty reductions or exemptions that will be available? Will they perhaps provide support in other ways, such as consultancy advice and secondments?

The Minister must think through the changes carefully and his thinking needs to be joined up in a way that it is perhaps not in relation to the electricity industry. It appears that the Government's plans for fighting global warming will be jeopardised by the new rules for the buying and selling of electricity. They will have a heavy impact on renewable energy and on combined heat and power.

This has been a useful debate and I regret the fact that I will not be able to stay for the Minister's winding-up. I hope, however, that he will respond to my questions. If not, I shall undoubtedly write to him in the near future to secure answers.

Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Labour, Hemsworth 11:49 am, 19th October 2001

Given what has been said so far in speeches and interventions, I think it possible that this will turn out to be two debates in one: a debate about motor vehicles, and a debate about other matters relating to clean fuels—"Clean Fuels" being, I believe, the title of the debate.

I want to speak about what may well be the minority interest in the House today—fuels used to generate power. No doubt the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is an excellent Transport Minister, and he is obviously an excellent Front-Bench colleague, but I feel that he is a poor substitute for the Minister for Industry and Energy. I would have liked to hear a response or perhaps an opening speech from him, but no doubt my comments and those of others will be passed on to him in due course.

As has been said, the Government have launched an energy review, the second that they have conducted. The first resulted in a White Paper, published in 1998. Preparing for the debate, I glanced at it to remind myself of its contents. I felt that its opening betrayed a lack of self-confidence in asking on what basis the Government should intervene in the energy market, a question to which it came up with a number of responses.

I do not think that such a lack of self-confidence would have featured if the White Paper had been written in the present circumstances. The situation has clearly changed since 11 September; it also changed when the power blackouts occurred in California. I shall say more about that shortly, but it seems to me self-evident—as might be expected, given that I originate from a Yorkshire coalfield—that the Government should intervene directly and proactively in the energy market. Indeed, I see a case for public ownership, which may make me old-fashioned. It certainly makes me a socialist, and proud to be so.

As the world's economies have advanced and become almost post-industrial, they have become increasingly interdependent. Energy is now one of the fundamental commodities—so fundamental that it is impossible to imagine civilised life being conducted for more than a few moments without the national grid. We saw what happened during the blackouts in California.

That is my first reason for thinking that the Government should intervene in the energy market. There is also the issue of security of supply. Following the events of 11 September, we should reflect again on the potential impact of a terrorist strike against nuclear plants. I shall say more about that shortly.

Finally—and perhaps the debate should centre on this—there is the question of the environment and the Kyoto protocols. As we know, the production of energy generally is a great pollutant, and those who cause pollution cannot restrict its effects to themselves: pollution travels around the planet. Forests in one country can be destroyed by pollution created elsewhere, and we know that the United Kingdom has contributed to the destruction and defoliation of trees and plants in other parts of the world.

For all those reasons, I feel that the Government should intervene actively in the energy market. We should bear in mind the inheritance that Labour received in 1997: a mixed economy in regard to fuel, but one that was disastrously and dangerously skewed from the point of view of the national interest. Three primary fuel sources constituted part of that inheritance from the Tories, the first being the nuclear industry.

We know from the Secretary of State's response yesterday to an oral question—it has already been mentioned this morning—that the nuclear legacy now faced by the country is terrifying. The Secretary of State estimated that dealing with nuclear waste would cost us £85 billion. When asked who would bear the cost, she said that the British economy would pay the price of dealing with waste already known to exist or currently being created. That means that every man, woman and child in the country, and for generations to come, must deal not just with the polluting effects but with the economic and fiscal effects of nuclear waste.

When asked whether the current energy review should bear in mind the wider costs of dealing with nuclear waste, the Secretary of State clearly said that it should. It is patently true that every kilowatt hour of energy produced by nuclear plants should bear the costs not just of fuel and construction, but of dismantling and attempting to deal with the potentially lethal legacy of those plants.

What happened on 11 September has also placed another large question mark over the use of nuclear fuel for power generation. It takes no imagination to consider the devastating impact that a direct strike against a nuclear plant anywhere in the country would have, not just on the local population but on the nation as a whole and, indeed, throughout Europe. We do not need imagination, because we have seen what happened on Three Mile Island and at Chernobyl. Those were disasters, but I venture to suggest that they would be overshadowed by a direct strike against a nuclear plant.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

I commend the hon. Gentleman for his honesty in describing himself as a socialist. It is nice to hear such honesty from the Labour Benches.

We are all rightly concerned about these matters, but is it not the case that all modern nuclear reactors, certainly in the United Kingdom, are able to withstand a direct strike by an aircraft? Is that not one of their critical design criteria?

Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Labour, Hemsworth

Some consideration has certainly been given to security aspects, but I am postulating a direct hit not necessarily by an aeroplane but, perhaps, by some percussive instrument. In any event, I am never entirely convinced by structural engineers' calculations. Regardless of whether a plant could withstand a direct impact with a small plane, perhaps single-pilot and single-engine, the calculations I have seen suggest that large jets with a full payload of fuel could devastate a nuclear plant. I feel that the least we can expect is the rapid conducting of a major review of all those aspects.

Photo of Jon Trickett Jon Trickett Labour, Hemsworth

I am still dealing with the hon. Gentleman's first point.

I understand that elsewhere, on the European mainland, artillery weapons and even surface-to-air missiles are being constructed in an attempt to defend existing nuclear plants from potential terrorist attacks. That does not inspire confidence in me that Governments who have far more knowledge than the hon. Gentleman or me are confident that current construction techniques result in plants that can withstand terrorist attack.

Having covered the nuclear power aspects of the fuel inheritance received by the Labour Government, I turn to the subject of gas. The Conservatives constructed an energy pool that was severely biased in favour of gas as a source for power generation. Natural gas is a clean fuel, but indigenous sources are limited. Estimates of how long that gas would endure were hopelessly optimistic: in 1990, it was estimated that known gas reserves would last us for 36 years, but less than 10 years later that estimate had more than halved. Indigenous sources of natural gas will expire in about 14 years.

When that happens, we will face the likelihood of importing gas from the middle east and the former Soviet Union. Half of the world's known reserves of natural gas are owned by just two companies—Russia's Gazprom and National Iranian Gas Company. If we continue to promote the use of gas, supplies of gas to the British economy will be in the hands of a duopoly. That troubles me, first because duopolies tend to exploit their position by forcing up prices, and secondly because the location of those gas resources—geologically and, more important, politically—means that there is a danger that they could be destroyed by either geological or political events. In addition, after the events of 11 September, it is not implausible that a gas pipeline thousands of kilometres long leading to the United Kingdom might enter the mind of terrorists as a possible target for attack. For those reasons, we should closely examine our gas supplies.

Earlier, I mentioned three fuel sources, but I should have said four. The Conservatives did little to promote renewables, so I am glad that the Labour Government are accelerating research and development into those sources, albeit not as quickly as I would like. Given the difficulties of nuclear and gas energy sources, the Government should be accelerating the development of renewables as much as possible. That should form a major part of the energy review.

The final fuel source is coal. The coal industry in this country was deliberately destroyed for political reasons by the Conservatives—the history is well known and I shall not dwell on it now. Coal currently provides one third of the fuel for energy generation. It is not a clean fuel, so something has to be done if we intend to use it as an energy resource. Other than renewables, coal is the only indigenous fuel source of which we have long-term reserves.

Our coal-fired power stations are becoming rather long in the tooth; investment is needed. It is possible to halve the emissions produced by such power stations, and that is something that the Government should do immediately. The Government are funding a foresight programme to investigate the use of clean-coal technology: the programme advocates rapid investment in coal-fired plant to reduce emissions. That is welcome and should be regarded as an imperative. Coal is the only fuel of which we have a large indigenous supply. In addition, UK-produced coal is the cheapest in Europe, and it offers long-term security and diversity of supply.

There is a large world market for the sort of technology that we might use to make our coal-fired energy plants more efficient, and new technologies, some of which have been tested and proved, would allow us to burn coal still more efficiently. Coal liquefaction is not yet tried and tested, but it offers great hope for the future, so more research should be carried out. Gasification of coal has been tried and tested; we should utilise it as a matter of urgency and so ensure that we have a secure and diverse long-term energy industry.

A by-product of coal gasification is carbon dioxide—a pollutant that must be removed to create clean fuels. However, carbon dioxide is needed to pump into North sea oilfields to extract oil, so the carbon dioxide extracted during the process of coal gasification could be recycled to extract oil from North sea reserves. That is an interesting development which the Government should consider during their overall energy review, especially as the Treasury would benefit from a windfall of approximately £300 million, which could be used to further research into renewables.

I hope that we can look forward to an early outcome of the energy review. We should finally nail down the nuclear option and begin its removal and the transfer to renewables. In the meantime, we should promote security and diversity of supply, which will direct us toward indigenous supplies such as Yorkshire coal and the use of new technologies.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire 12:07 pm, 19th October 2001

Having been a Member of Parliament representing another constituency for almost 15 years and having had the honour during that time to serve as Government Deputy Chief Whip and Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, I can hardly claim that this is a maiden speech. To do so would be like the pop singer Madonna turning up to her next wedding claiming to be a virgin. None the less, I shall observe some of the conventions of a maiden speech.

My constituency, formerly the constituency of Bridlington, has a long history of being well served by hard-working Members of Parliament. My predecessor in East Yorkshire discharged his constituency duties with diligence, energy and enthusiasm, and I hope to follow his example. I wish him and his wife Jennifer a long and happy retirement.

East Yorkshire contains some of the most beautiful countryside in England. It is an honour to represent the seat. To any of my hon. Friends who are considering an end-of-season holiday, I strongly recommend a visit to my constituency. It has everything to offer, from the traditional seaside holiday at Bridlington and Skipsea, to the beautiful scenery of Flamborough Head. Travelling west, the tourist will find the interesting historic market towns of Market Weighton, Driffield and Pocklington—

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

Indeed there is. On that note, I should be happy to treat any of Member of Parliament, Conservative or Labour—or you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—to a round of drinks. If you, sir, visit East Yorkshire, we could go to Jerome's and have a drink while overlooking the beach and Bridlington bay.

The subject of the debate today is rather like motherhood and apple pie; it is difficult to be against it. How could any hon. Member oppose the trend towards the introduction of clean fuels? I welcome the development of clean fuels and the progress that is being made in this area.

I remind the House that not all vehicles can use the new, cleaner fuels. The Government have accepted that because, so far, they have behaved responsibly in allowing the continued but limited sale of four star leaded fuel. Modern everyday cars do not need to use that fuel but it is necessary for most vintage and classic cars. It is here that I ought to declare an interest, although perhaps that word is inadequate. I should say that I declare a passion for restoring, maintaining, owning and driving historic and classic motor vehicles. These vehicles are part of our national heritage and bring pleasure to tens of thousands of owners. They also bring pleasure to many members of the public, judging by the numbers who attend classic car events. Many of these events are held in support of charitable organisations.

I hope that the Minister can assure the House that it is no part of his longer-term strategy to force these cars off our roads by the introduction of a complete ban on the sale of leaded fuel. Some vintage cars do not need to use four star fuel. It is perhaps a testimony to the build quality of Rolls-Royce vehicles that every single Rolls-Royce car ever made can run on unleaded fuel without sustaining engine damage. Other classic vehicles are not so fortunate and many valuable and cherished vintage cars need to use leaded four star to be kept on the road. The overall output of vehicle emissions from classic vehicles is negligible. The Government have rightly recognised that, and I hope that the Minister will continue to allow the sale of leaded four star fuel at specialist outlets.

I wish to refer to the use of gas as a fuel for vehicles. I agree with earlier comments that the take-up of such vehicles in the UK to date has been disappointing. When John Major was Prime Minister, I was one of the first members of his Government to use a car capable of running on gas. There is a loss of power in a car running on gas as opposed to petrol, but this loss is so small that, under normal driving conditions, one cannot notice the difference. When driving on a motorway, one certainly cannot notice the difference in performance.

I believe that gas is an ideal fuel for fleet users and users in the public sector. How many Government cars—I include cars used by civil servants—have been converted to use gas? What is this number as a percentage of the total? If it is not 100 per cent., why not? Surely the Government should be leading by example. If the fleet is not 100 per cent. converted, will the Minister tell us when he expects it to be so?

The Government face a dilemma, which has been picked up by a number of my hon. Friends. The Government say that they want the wider use of gas and other clean fuels. However, if enough motorists were to make the change to these fuels, revenue from fuel taxes would plummet. A number of business men to whom I have talked have said that they do not think it is worth changing to gas. They believe that once the volume of gas-powered vehicles on our roads increases, the Government will increase tax on gas. They feel that there would not be sufficient time to claw back the extra investment before fuel duties were increased. The Government may have to revisit their commitment not to interfere with the tax on gas until 2004. If they want to accelerate the changeover to gas-powered vehicles, particularly among fleet users, they may find that that commitment has to be extended into the future.

One of the main problems at present is the availability, or non-availability, of gas, a point touched on by Jon Trickett. No motorist will travel miles out of his or her way to purchase a fuel that, in the long run, is only marginally cheaper to use.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

Would the hon. Gentleman be prepared to give a commitment on behalf of his party on taxation on fuel beyond 2004?

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

Any commitment that my party might give must be given from the Front Bench. I would be extremely unwise, given the position from which I speak, to give a commitment on behalf of our new leader and his team. My Front-Bench colleagues have heard the Minister's remarks and will no doubt respond in due course.

One of the problems concerning the availability of gas has been the local authorities' planning permission role. Petrol tanks at filling stations are underground, but those filling stations that wish to start selling gas must apply for planning permission to have a tank on display above ground. A number of local authorities have refused permission for that to be done. I hope that the Minister will encourage local authorities to be sympathetic when they receive planning applications from garages that wish to stock this new, cleaner fuel.

Attempts to lower pollution should be part of a broad strategy—not an attack on the motorist per se—and should not be confined merely to encouraging the motorist to use cleaner fuels. The type of fuel used is important but it is only one aspect, and other measures should be considered. For example, if we manage to increase the number of motorists using cleaner fuel but congestion still increases at an alarming rate, reducing pollution per engine revolution will be meaningless if it is outweighed by longer engine running times. The Government, along with their crusade to encourage cleaner fuel use, should look at reducing congestion. This does not always have to be anti-motorist, and I hope that the Minister will be prepared to have an open mind in this area.

The nearest I get to road rage is when I am travelling in a non-rush hour period and, along with others, I am forced to sit at traffic lights that go to red in the direction I am facing to allow absolutely no traffic to come across the junction. For years, we have had traffic lights that work on a road sensor, so they can sense when traffic is waiting and give priority to traffic moving in that direction. In the year 2001, why do we still have traffic lights that work on a time basis? Many of these lights are in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mr. Field, and I encounter them when I leave this House late in the evening.

In America, there is an interesting system that has not led to an increase in road accidents. In non-rush hour periods, traffic lights are switched off from their normal use and all the lights at that junction will flash amber. The message to motorists is that they are approaching a road junction and should cross it with care. However, there is no mandatory instruction from the lights for motorists to stop; they approach with caution, the lights flash amber, and they can proceed on their journey if nothing is coming the other way.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

That is an interesting point. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in Germany there was an experiment whereby people travelling at the legal speed limit in the ring road system could go through something called the green wave, which prevented them from being endlessly encouraged to speed up to get through the next set of lights or being punished for keeping to the speed limit?

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

I was aware of that and am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It is something else that we should consider introducing in the country. The Minister looks puzzled. Basically, if motorists do not exceed the speed limit and if there is a series of traffic lights on a particular stretch of road, they find that they can get through all of them on green. If they exceed the speed limit, that is sensed by the traffic lights, which turn to red, so there is a non-financial punishment for breaking the speed limit, as people get stopped at traffic light after traffic light.

Insufficient research has been done into the level of pollution caused by traffic-calming measures—

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman again. The Minister seems to be showing an interest in this, so could I add one more thing? The other element of the green wave is that the timing of the lights and the distance between them is such that, if people drive at, say, 50 kph the lights will go green all the way around. It is simple to arrange that and it is extremely popular with motorists; by keeping to the speed limit, they reach their destination faster.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

Lembit Öpik makes a good point. The Minister is nodding, so I hope that he will look at these matters which, I trust, he finds helpful in the quest to reduce congestion on our roads.

We must also look at the pollution caused by so-called traffic-calming measures. Several local authorities are gung-ho about the introduction of speed humps. Insufficient consideration has been given to the increased pollution caused by motor vehicles having to brake, negotiate a hump before invariably gathering speed before the next hump and braking again. That process is noisy, as car suspension units rattle over the humps, and more fuel is consumed. In many cases in which road humps have been introduced, local residents who, before the introduction of humps were in favour of them, wish that they had never supported the scheme; they are kept awake at night and their lives are made a misery. We must look at the guidelines under which local authorities operate before they are allowed to put speed humps on our roads. Most humps are ineffective anyway against one culprit, the motorcyclist, because they usually have gaps in the middle allowing motorcyclists to roar through unimpeded without having to slow down.

The other issue that I wish to raise en passant is the M1 motorway. When my party was in power, we constructed an offside lane hard shoulder on the northbound carriageway of the M1, just south of the intersection with the M25. After it was constructed, members of the local constabulary refused to police that stretch of carriageway as they felt that motorists would use it as an overtaking lane. We therefore authorised the gravelling over and kerbing of that hard shoulder. The Minister should consider bringing it back into use as an extra traffic lane at the busiest point of the M1, where it runs across the M25. That lane would be available if the gravel and kerbing were removed, and could be used as an extra lane to facilitate traffic movement during the rush hour. I hope that the Minister will look at that.

We should all welcome the move towards cleaner fuels, but we must remember that pollution, not the motor vehicle itself, is the problem that we should be addressing. As we look ahead, we should strive for cleaner fuels that are readily available across the United Kingdom and are affordable. If we can do those things, we can help to protect the environment without penalising those who need to use the motor car.

Photo of Ms Jane Griffiths Ms Jane Griffiths Labour, Reading East 12:25 pm, 19th October 2001

It would be preferable to live in a country where public transport was so efficient and affordable that the goal that, I believe, we all share, of overall reduction in road traffic would appear credible. We do not live in such a country at the moment, but I believe that we will. Perhaps one day, the market, consumer preference and benevolent Government policies will lead to less traffic on our roads. However, it must be admitted that a significant reduction in road traffic is some way off, which makes addressing the pollution that we suffer all the more urgent.

I represent the constituency of Reading, East in the Thames valley. Every summer, a toxic pall of pollution hangs over us, and hospital admissions for asthma rocket. In that context, the game becomes one of minimising the negative effects of traffic, which is where cleaner fuels come in. My preferred mode of transport is the cleanest available; it is the bicycle, from which there is no pollution at all. I find it the best way to get around, but I know that it is not possible for everyone to manage that. I am interested in the passion of Mr. Knight for classic cars. I have never seen their attraction myself, but I know that a great many people do.

Fuels already exist that dramatically cut noxious emissions and noise. Successive Governments have added incrementally to the incentives to create a real, self-sustaining market for such fuels. From time to time, the Treasury has been tentative in constructing such incentives, but those for road fuel gases have been building up since the mid-1990s. Only recently have the Government finally seen the beginnings of a self-sustaining market in one of those fuels—liquefied petroleum gas. The cost has been not so much deadweight expenditure as dead time in getting the overall regime right. That cost can be measured in human mortality, diminished quality of life and environmental damage.

I am not going to go into great detail about the widespread benefits of LPG emissions over petrol and diesel, which are well known to hon. Members. However, I shall mention more recent scientific analyses that further underscore the benefit of greener fuel. Recent research has shown that car users, far from being insulated from the emissions that they inflict on pedestrians and cyclists, are in fact exposed to levels of volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide that are between three and six times greater than those at urban background locations. We often see cyclists wearing masks to help protect them from pollution, but perhaps drivers should wear masks. It is very much in the interests of drivers, particularly those whose occupations involve driving, to get their act cleaned up.

We know that the health gains from reducing particulate levels are greater than those of reducing any other pollutant. Recent evidence suggests that there may not be a safe threshold for the health effects of particulates at all. Evidence is strengthening that the larger particles—PM10s—may not be the measurement most representative of that part of the total particle mixture responsible for harmful effects on health. The toxicity may lie in a finer fraction of particles, PM25s. Road transport is the largest single source of national emissions of PM25s. Recent tests have shown that LPG emits approximately 99 per cent. fewer ultra-fine particles than ultra-low sulphur diesel.

I met my hon. Friend the Minister during the summer to address some of those matters, and inter alia, we discussed my belief that the London Mayor risked damaging or reducing the air quality benefits resulting from congestion charging by refusing to discount the great majority of LPG vehicles. I take the point about the difficulty of monitoring and assessing whether a vehicle is running on LPG. I am a great supporter of congestion charging and I live in hope that my local authority, Reading borough council, will introduce it one day. So far, it seems disinclined to do so.

My hon. Friend the Minister may ask why we should continue to give incentives for LPG use when it appears to be on the brink of a self-sustaining market and other, even cleaner technologies may be out there that need more help. I would argue that LPG technology is here, it works and it is practical. Some 4 million vehicles run on it worldwide and it powers some 50,000 vehicles in the UK, although that is not enough.

Consideration has been given to increasing support for CNG—compressed natural gas—which has a similar emissions profile to that of LPG, but there are only about 500 natural gas vehicles in the UK and not enough refuelling points. However, the number of refuelling points is increasing, as hon. Members have already pointed out. The problem with CNG relates to the "C"—compressing the gas means that the fuel tanks have to be heavy, and the refuelling infrastructure is much more costly and takes up more land space. Back in the early 1990s, my local bus company, Reading Buses, was a pioneer of using biofuels for its fleet of buses, and I invite my hon. Friend to visit Reading to see some of the initiatives that the company has taken.

Everyone has been talking about hydrogen lately, and my hon. Friend Joan Ruddock mentioned hydrogen fuel cells. It would be wonderful if the great dream of hydrogen cars could become a practical reality. However, there is a grand total of one taxi propelled by a fuel cell in the UK and there is no commercially available production of vehicles powered by hydrogen. The prospect of developing commercial production of vehicles powered by hydrogen is said to be promising in the not too distant future. In 1874, Jules Verne predicted the derivation of energy from water via hydrogen and 100 years later, in March 1974, "Road and Track" magazine predicted a future for hydrogen-powered cars. The phrase "hydrogen economy" was coined by General Motors four decades ago. Some 40 years on, the managing director of Toyota, Hiroyuki Watanabe, said on 10 April this year that fuel cells are

"making progress, but still unlikely in any numbers before 2020".

So there may be still two decades to go before the promise of 1874 can be realised. Far be it from me to be labelled a cynical politician—I am sure that the House contains no such creature—but could it be that hollow promises of the cleaner fuel to come in the near future are being used to buy more time for powerful interests behind conventional fuels? I hope not.

So, let us continue to invest in success.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

I wish to emphasise that people who believe—as I do—that the hydrogen fuel cell is the future accept that a transitional period will be needed, during which time products such as LPG will have their place.

Photo of Ms Jane Griffiths Ms Jane Griffiths Labour, Reading East

My hon. Friend makes an important point and I hope that the House will return to that issue in the not too distant future. We must not repeat the mistake that was made by a previous Government of giving incentives for a shift to LPG only suddenly to remove them and kill off what could have been a self-sustaining market for that green fuel two decades ago. The Energy Savings Trust made the point on its website:

"Research also considered the importance of a number of market factors in influencing decisions to switch to clean fuels . . . The strongest concern was a lack of confidence in the Government maintaining the fuel duty differential".

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give the market and fleet buyers the continuing confidence they need.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Vice-Chair, Conservative Party 12:34 pm, 19th October 2001

I declare an interest as a director of a family business involved in property building and road haulage. By definition, it might be assumed that as someone with an interest in road haulage I would have no interest in clean fuels, but I may wish to touch on the vexed issue of congestion charging and so I make that declaration. Due to a lack of foresight, I have no excuse for leaving the House before the end of the debate and so I look forward to the Minister's reply.

I am fortunate to represent the constituency of Poole which, apart from being a beautiful place, sits on top of the Wyche Farm oilfield, which is the biggest onshore oilfield in this country. It produces gas that could be used for LPG production. As a nation, we produce a surplus of LPG and three quarters of it is exported. We should do far more to use our indigenous resources for our own benefit.

Jane Griffiths mentioned that 4 million vehicles worldwide used LPG, but the figure may be as high as 5 million vehicles in 30 countries. LPG is widely used all over the world. The most recent figures from the Library from 1999 showed that Italy had 1.4 million vehicles that used LPG; the Netherlands, 360,000; Australia, 500,000; north America, 400,000; and Argentina, 400,000. Even New Zealand had 25,000. At that point in 1999, the UK had some 9,000 vehicles that used LPG. The Minister said the other day that we now have 25,540 vehicles running on LPG or CNG, excluding Northern Ireland. We are making progress, but we have a long way to go, especially when the number of registered vehicles has reached 29,174,788. More needs to be done.

Why is progress slow? It is not because of price. LPG is taxed at 6p a litre compared with 45p for petrol. It is substantially cheaper and motorists can make massive savings. However, there are other considerations, such as mileage, the cost of conversion and the resale value of the vehicle. It is true that a stable financial regime is necessary. The Minister said, rightly, that people are conservative in their buying habits and can be suspicious of something that looks like a good deal, because if it becomes popular the Government will make it less of a good deal. That lies behind the discussion today of the Government's guarantee to keep the tax level until 2004. That is a good start. Together with the hon. Members for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) and for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), I met Treasury officials to argue that the Government should publicise the financial benefits more widely and give longer guarantees so that people would have the confidence to make the change to LPG vehicles.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Given that the break-even time following conversion to LPG is about 18 months of typical usage, there is an incentive for someone buying a car today to buy an LPG vehicle. Even if the incentive lasts only until 2004, one would still be quids in.

Photo of Robert Syms Robert Syms Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Depending on the mileage done and several other factors, the hon. Gentleman is right.

The Energy Saving Trust and its PowerShift project has been a great enabler for people making the change, and the project has worked well. Some 12 to 18 months ago, there was a grants backlog because several fleets were applying for them. Because vehicles have to run on petrol and gas and because the grants were delayed, some fleets incurred higher costs than they would have done had they used diesel. That has now been sorted out, but money for conversion should be made available rapidly so that people are not penalised for choosing dual running.

Car manufacturers have also made some efforts. Vauxhall ran some advertisements and has ensured that much of its range is capable of dual running. Ford has also made a large commitment.

There is also an awareness of the health benefits among the general public. LPG spews out 98 per cent. less carbon monoxide, 81 per cent. fewer hydrocarbons, and 85 per cent. fewer nitrous oxides than petrol. Cars produce a great deal of pollution. Apart from benzene and carbon monoxide, they also produce PM10s and PM25s. We all need to do a lot more on this issue. There has been a great growth in asthma and other associated diseases, particularly in our cities. If the public were convinced of the benefits, they would go for the change for that reason alone.

My main conclusion as to why we have not done so well is that people are unaware of the benefits. The Government ought to get some of the oil companies to give a lot more publicity to the benefits of LPG and alternative fuels. What we are talking about today is one of the best kept secrets. If we try to tell people about the benefits of LPG, they tend not to believe us. They think, "If it is that good, why doesn't everybody use it?" Publicity has to be the key in this matter.

The repay period that has been mentioned is critical, as it depends on whether one can access a supply of the gas. If one cannot, one would find oneself running a car more often on petrol. There have been—and occasionally still are—planning problems. The Minister's predecessor, Keith Hill, issued some revised guidance to local authorities for PPG13, because some of them were having difficulty determining quickly the appropriate sites.

I am pleased that the oil companies have undertaken to put in more refuelling sites, but there are practical problems. Because the sites have to be above ground and because the petrol stations of certain oil companies are small, there can be size constraints. A number of sites will be needed to supply the fuel, and the additional guidance has helped. However, this remains a matter of public education.

There is also the problem of approved installers. The Minister raised the question of how to differentiate between bona fide people who do excellent work and those who work under railway arches. Perhaps representatives of the industry ought to get together to devise some sort of qualification in the form of an NVQ or certificate to ensure that the work is done to the right standard. The cowboys who get this wrong can create very dangerous vehicles indeed. If the industry is to be respectable, the people who carry out such work under railway arches and who do not do it well have to be put out of business. The Minister and his civil servants must focus on that.

There is a lot of progress to be made. As oil companies put in more refuelling sites, and as more people buying cars see people they know using these vehicles, there will be a great advantage. So far, because of supply problems, the main uptake has been in the public sector—for example, in local councils. Wandsworth council was one of the first to use LPG in its vehicles. The advantage for such a local authority, with a defined area, is that it can have a refuelling pump in its depot. Many authorities that people would conclude are good authorities are doing this. A number of police authorities have also done it, and are finding that they can generate savings that can be used for other important matters.

The whole approach to this issue must be based on education about the cost savings, and about the fact that there are now more places to fill up. As that gets through to people, we shall start to catch up with some of those countries on the continent with more LPG users.

I want to touch on congestion charging. As vice-chairman of the Conservative party, I can make no commitments from the Front Bench on behalf of my party. However, if congestion charging is implemented for the reasons that the Government have given, it would not be unreasonable to regard vehicles running on alternative fuels as prime candidates for consideration for exemption. I know that the whole issue of exemption from congestion charging is a fraught and difficult one that will take up considerable time, but it would give the wrong signal if we penalise people using vehicles that are less polluting, more economical and better for people and for the country.

LPG needs to be encouraged. There needs to be more education on the subject. If that were done, more people would take it up and we and our families and constituents would all benefit.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 12:45 pm, 19th October 2001

I want briefly to cover a number of issues. The perception of my constituents, as I mentioned in an earlier intervention, is that air quality is the most important matter affecting them, because of the nature of the constituency. I want to cover the role of certain companies, past and present, the role that the green movement plays in the debate, the need for monitoring and issues relating to future vehicles.

First, I should like to comment on some of the important points raised in all sincerity by hon. Members in all parts of the House. I listened with a certain amount of amusement to the introductory remarks from Mr. Moss about ultra-low sulphur petrol, and to his demands as to why the tax cut had not been introduced earlier. Only six months ago, the Opposition were screaming and shouting that that measure was all a con by the Chancellor because there was no such thing as ultra-low sulphur petrol available.

Mr. Syms made the point about oil companies and publicity; he is absolutely right. I have done some work with Shell and with Vauxhall that has resulted in the development of an LPG plant at a motorway service station right outside the Shell refinery, which has proved very successful. There is an important job of work to be done on that issue.

I shall comment briefly on the speech by my hon. Friend Joan Ruddock. I accept that she makes her comments about nuclear power in all sincerity. However, she misses the point in terms of the pure mathematics of the issue. The notion that we have to close down all nuclear power stations as a result of 11 September is, frankly, untenable, in terms of the politics—we cannot give way to terrorism—and of energy demand. The world demand for power is increasing at a considerable rate. If we consider the economic growth of China, for example—a country with infinite reserves of brown coal—and convert it to energy usage over the next five to 10 years, any benefits from the Kyoto agreement could be wiped out by that one country alone. Therefore simply to say that one important part of the fuel equation can be written off straight away is, frankly, unrealistic. We have to spend a lot more time, effort and money researching the issues of long-term storage as a solution to that issue.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Would the hon. Gentleman nevertheless accept that one cannot pretend that nuclear fission is a clean source of power, although nuclear fusion could conceivably be a relatively clean source of power, assuming that we did the research into making it economically and physically viable?

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

It is possible that huge benefits will accrue from research, some of which would cost millions and millions of pounds to carry out, but I concede that there is no such thing as a clean fuel in the purest sense. Even the bicycle of my hon. Friend Jane Griffiths consumed a high amount of energy in its manufacture because of the energy implications of manufacturing aluminium. In debating energy, we must think about the whole life cycle of products.

In my constituency, where vehicles, fuels and fuel additives are manufactured, those are hot issues. One finds oneself regularly being attacked by Friends of the Earth, particularly in respect of Associated Octel, which is still the principal supplier to the world of tetraethyl lead, the antiknock compound for leaded petrol. It will continue to be a massive export earner for the UK over the next five to 10 years, until that product is phased out throughout the world. Friends of the Earth make the terrible mistake of assuming that emissions from that plant are all carcinogenic. One regularly sees the accusation that chloroethane, otherwise known as ethyl chloride, is carcinogenic.

I have spoken directly to the International Agency for Research on Cancer and I am assured that there is no evidence whatever of ethyl chloride being a human carcinogen. Friends of the Earth chose to draw its conclusions from the Californian P65 list, which does not have the same authority. We must avoid causing fear among people when we are dealing with those issues. Major considerations have to be made rationally and responsibly. I call on the green movement to work with the scientific community and agree a rational basis for the descriptors.

I commend to hon. Members the website Homecheck, an interesting, innovative website leading, I guess, to the notion of electronic conveyancing. It provides a huge amount of useful information about various aspects of safety and the environment around particular properties. It can be looked at by postcode. This morning, I chose to look at three postcodes entirely at random: SW1A 0AA, which is well known to hon. Members; the postcode of my constituency office; and the postcode of the constituency office of the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, my hon. Friend Mr. Jamieson.

Some interesting comparisons are shown as bar graphs. The data are supplied by a reputable source—AEA Technology; I think that colleagues on both sides of the House accept that that is a reputable source. The interesting thing is that in a constituency such as mine where there is huge concern about air quality, the level of nitrogen dioxide is about the same as in my hon. Friend's constituency: at a low to medium part of the scale. In central London, it goes off the end of the scale; it is at a very high level.

London's air quality is very worrying. NOx, SO 2 , benzene, butadiene, CO 2 , PM10 and lead are all at extremely worrying levels, but NOx and SOx levels in my hon. Friend's constituency are ahead of those in my constituency. That illustrates the fact that the urban density of the centre of Plymouth is more of a polluter because of traffic and energy use than because of some of the manufacturing plants. There are other issues surrounding manufacturing plants that we must not run away from, but it is worth looking at those data carefully.

I turn now to those other issues. There are fears among people who live close to some of the manufacturing plants and indeed among people living in dense urban areas. It would be helpful if standards were set for the way in which monitoring equipment is placed and located, so that there are consistent measurements throughout the country. Indeed, monitoring should be as publicly available as it is possible to make it. There is no reason, given some of the technology in use not a stone's throw from here for measuring levels in Parliament square, why the data should not be up on a screen immediately. In the overall scale of things, it would cost peanuts to make those data publicly available instantly, so that people could make judgments about some of the risks around them.

Much has been said about the potential use of electricity, gas and fuel cells in future vehicles. With electric vehicles there is the argument about shifting pollution from the point of use to the point of generation. Nevertheless, electricity provides a useful short-term solution for some of the major urban pollution problems, and it is indeed pleasing to see that some of our delivery vehicles are now using electricity.

The use of LPG, too, is expanding. There have been some teething troubles, such as the chicken-and-egg argument about whether we should build fuelling stations when there are not enough cars to use them. Why not? Perhaps the incentives are not right—but the equation is coming right now. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, there is now a real growth in refuelling points.

In the very small village of Feock in Cornwall—or within a mile or two of it—I spotted an LPG station. If LPG is reaching such remote spots perhaps we are reaching the threshold necessary to justify more investment by manufacturers.

The hon. Member for Poole rightly praised the work that Vauxhall is doing. There is not the same pessimism at Vauxhall as there is at Toyota, although we are still some way away from production line numbers of fuel cell vehicles. Hon. Members who are interested in sports may have noticed that the vehicle that led the marathon race in the Sydney Olympics was a GM Zafira people carrier, powered entirely by a fuel cell. The technology is there; the question is how to translate it into an economically viable unit for production purposes.

That raises some important points for Governments, and for Oppositions. It is important for the vehicle industry that we look a long way into the future—and in the far, far distant future, there may be a time when the Opposition become a Government again. [Interruption.] It is a long way away.

We need to look a long way ahead because of the economics of the vehicle industry. We need to establish standards of safety and appropriate type approvals for the design of fuel cells very soon, so that companies can invest and work out the economics of manufacture on the basis of what particular Governments will allow on their roads. I hope that that will be done, not just at a UK level but at a pan-European level, because by and large the vehicles that we drive are pan-European. Indeed, some components made at Ellesmere Port go far further afield than Europe; we even export engines to the United States, which is a credit to the industry there.

We need to co-operate closely with the fuel industry. Companies are repositioning themselves. BP has done so, and Shell now describes itself not as a fuel company but as an energy company. The fuel industry recognises that a change is taking place, and Governments and Oppositions are doing the same. Technology is advancing. There is no reason why, working in partnership, we should not be able to address some of the serious figures to which I referred earlier in a reasonable period of time. I do not think that Toyota's pessimism is warranted, although it would be without appropriate Government incentives and a long-term vision with which the industry can work.

We are rapidly moving in the right direction. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to continue with his campaign. When he was a Back Bencher he worked extremely hard on the issue of gas-powered vehicles. I remember speaking with him about it in 1992 when we were first elected to the House. Progress is being made; the previous Administration started to put some of the pieces in place, which have helped, but the market is changing as technology changes. We must be prepared to take a responsible, long-term view and meet the needs of society so that people can have the benefits of personal transport without the disadvantages associated with the worst aspects of early designs of the internal combustion engine.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh 1:01 pm, 19th October 2001

As a newly appointed member of the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, I am grateful for this opportunity to take an interest in the environmentally related issue of clean fuels. For the record, I declare an interest as a small shareholder in Centrica plc.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight on his second maiden speech in the House of Commons, as it were. He spoke very well and made a number of suggestions which I noticed other right hon. and hon. Members readily picked up on. The Minister also showed interest and I hope that he will actively follow up some of those points next week.

It is also a pleasure to see Lembit Öpik on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. He and I were together at university—although not in the biblical sense.

We all want a cleaner and greener environment. The debate centres around how best to achieve that, and a particular area surrounds vehicle emissions. What our vehicles pump out into our atmosphere affects all of us, whether motorists or not. To take just one example, some 75 per cent. of all carbon monoxide emissions in the United Kingdom come from petrol engines. However, we will not cut vehicle emissions by being anti-car and simply attempting to price motor vehicles off our roads by continually increasing the taxation on petrol. Many people rely on their cars to get to and from their place of work or to visit relatives. Punishing them for that reliance by imposing ever-higher petrol prices is a negative and regrettable approach. Moreover, we saw very clearly last year the reaction of the British people to ever-increasing fuel taxation. They will not put up with it any more, so we need to find other incentives instead.

We need a much more positive approach to persuade people to use more environmentally friendly fuels, not because they feel they have no choice, but because they want to. In short, we need to use an environmental carrot rather than a fiscal stick. A good example is liquefied petroleum gas, usually referred to as LPG. It can be stored under pressure as a liquid and then used to power motor vehicles. Most vehicles can be adapted to run on dual fuel, either LPG or petrol, with a changeover being made by the simple flick of a switch on the dashboard. This alternative fuel is purchased just like petrol, by simply filling up at the designated pumps.

LPG has a number of important environmental advantages, even over ultra-low sulphur, or ULS, petrol. It produces between 30 to 35 per cent. less carbon monoxide and 20 to 40 per cent. fewer hydrocarbons. It generates up to 80 per cent. less nitrogen oxide than ULS petrol and up to 90 per cent. less than ULS diesel. LPG also produces up to 90 per cent. fewer emissions of particulates than ULS diesel.

LPG also tends to be much cheaper than petrol. The price per litre, at around 40p, is roughly half that of petrol. The duty on the fuel is also appreciably lower than the duty on either petrol or diesel. In the Budget of March 2001, LPG duty was reduced by 3p a litre, and was effectively frozen in real terms until 2004, although legitimate concerns have been raised today about whether that commitment will continue thereafter.

On a mile-per-mile basis, most vehicles would save at least a third of their fuel costs by switching over from petrol. One obstacle to using LPG in the past has been the cost of vehicle conversion, which averages about £1,500 for a family car. However, that is changing, too. Many vehicle manufacturers are now providing new LPG-powered versions of their more popular models from the outset. In addition, the PowerShift initiative, which is encouraged by the Government via the Energy Saving Trust, is seeking to create a sustainable market in the United Kingdom for vehicles run on clean fuels. PowerShift grants can cover more than half the cost of converting vehicles under five years old. That targeted initiative should help to produce a useful increase in the 50,000 or so LPG-capable vehicles currently in the United Kingdom. If LPG continues to catch on, we may in time reach the current Dutch number of about 400,000 vehicles, or even the Italian figure of well in excess of 1 million.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

One of the dangers has been raised by the Minister. Motorists may take their car for conversion to a back-street so-called specialist, who may not do the job properly. Is there not another problem? If conversion of a car to run on LPG was not done properly and the person is involved in an accident, he may well find that the insurance company uses that as a reason for not honouring any claim. Is not the answer the introduction of a certification process whereby, once a vehicle is converted, the owner obtains a safety certificate, which can then be produced to the insurance company, and possibly to the licensing authority when the vehicle is retaxed? That would get round the problem.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

My right hon. Friend makes a potentially valuable point. It is always a good rule in life to read the small print of any insurance contract. I also thank my right hon. Friend; it is the first time since I was elected that anyone has intervened in a speech of mine, so I am grateful to have got that out of the way in such a gentle manner.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the matter is entirely under his own control.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

I thank you for your kind advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Our wish to move towards higher numbers of LPG-powered vehicles in the United Kingdom—it is obvious that we have some catching up to do—could represent another example of the Conservative party being ready to learn from the positive experience of our European partners.

Another drawback to converting to LPG has been the relatively small number of filling stations equipped with dedicated refuelling pumps. Understandably, people felt deterred from relying on LPG because they were anxious about finding sufficient outlets to purchase it from, even though most LPG cars also have a petrol system. However, a number of fuel companies are making LPG pumps available on their forecourts to remedy the deficiency. At the beginning of this month, some 900 service stations across the United Kingdom were so equipped, and that is increasing at a rate of almost one a day.

Moreover, that is no longer such a problem for my constituents because TotalFinaElf, supported by British Gas, has just opened a new, dedicated LPG pump at its service station at Stock road, West Hanningfield, in my constituency. That new facility will assist my constituents, and those from surrounding areas who also wish to do so, to take advantage of the benefits of LPG without having to travel far to fill up. I am delighted that TotalFinaElf is providing a cleaner road fuel in my constituency. Anything that sensibly contributes to improving air quality in Essex or the rest of the country is to be welcomed, and the company's action will certainly do so.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

May I say what a pleasure it is to debate against the hon. Gentleman, after 14 years of absence from Bristol university, but that it is a shame that he chose to sit so far across the Opposition Benches? He will be delighted to learn that, in Montgomeryshire, Steve Hughes's garage has led the way, but it has been difficult to get other rural garages to understand the economic benefits taking such action. Does he agree that perhaps one of our challenges is to sell the economic viability to rural outlets as well as to car users?

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I should not wish to interfere with any press release that he may have drafted, but I have heard what he has said.

In conclusion, we need to reduce vehicle emissions on our roads, but we shall not achieve that aim by imposing punitive taxation on petrol. We must provide positive reasons for people to switch, over time, to more environmentally friendly fuels such as LPG. LPG is cleaner and cheaper than petrol. As the Minister has said, it is also safer. Moreover, it is now available at Stock road in my constituency, and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 1:11 pm, 19th October 2001

I shall open up the debate slightly to one or two general issues, as well as touching on issues that affect my own constituency in central London. So I should like to thank Joan Ruddock for broadening the debate earlier. I must confess that I disagree with virtually every word she said, especially in relation to nuclear energy, but she made a useful contribution none the less.

The Minister played very much a straight bat during a solid half-hour innings. I suspect that that puts him in the somewhat unusual position of being a safe pair of hands in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. There are not many of those around at the moment. I shall have to wait to hear what he has to say about my contribution in a few moments.

My hon. Friend Mr. Moss, who opened for the Opposition, used the words that were part and parcel of the Labour manifesto in 1997. The Labour party said that it would form "the greenest Government ever." One has to admire—dare I say?—the cynicism, or perhaps the hypocrisy, of the Prime Minister at the Rio conference a few months ago.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The hon. Gentleman must learn what is parliamentary language and what is not. I ask him to withdraw any such reference to the Prime Minister.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I shall indeed, but I was making the point that, at the Rio conference, shortly after the 1997 election, the Prime Minister proudly said that the one thing that he could say about the last Conservative Administration was that they had managed to achieve their goals in reducing CO 2 emissions. Of course, what he did not say was that that was almost totally because of the rationalisation of the coal industry, which he and his party had opposed at every opportunity in the preceding years. I accept that several issues are at stake there, and I am only sorry that Jon Trickett is not here because he mentioned that in his speech.

I suppose that throughout the political lives of many of the relatively younger Members—I hasten to add that I am not looking at the Minister in making that comment—environmental issues have been at the forefront. That goes back to the 1989 European elections, when the Green party suddenly came apparently from nowhere to gain 15 per cent. of the vote. Such issues have therefore become much more mainstream. I should like to think that parties on both sides of the House would agree that we are trying to move in the right direction.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I suggest that the Greens' success in 1989 was a direct result of the tragedy at Chernobyl. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a bit of a shame that our environmental concerns seem to be ratcheted up only by international environmental disasters?

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I accept that in part. Clearly, there are many psephological reasons behind the results of the 1989 European elections, and I am sure that MORI and others have their own theories, but there is something in what the hon. Gentleman says.

There is a concern that Government intervention will be the knee-jerk reaction to these concerns. Jane Griffiths, who is no longer present, referred to cynicism among politicians. It is certainly true that many, particularly on the Conservative Benches, have a somewhat sceptical attitude to environmental matters. I am old enough to remember that in the mid-1970s, when people were talking about world climate change problems, the concern was not that there was global warming, but that we were heading towards a new ice age. At that time, it was also said that fossil fuels would be running out by the late 1990s. There is a great danger that by spreading horror stories, perhaps for the right motives, and by crying wolf so often, many Green movements undermine their own case in the long term. We need a reasoned debate, and that does not necessarily mean that Government intervention in the first instance is the right response.

Many politicians have jumped on the environmental bandwagon with little, or unreliable, scientific evidence. I am increasingly concerned by the alarmist views that are all too often expressed in the environmental debate by unscrupulous lobbyists and scientists. However, I accept overall that there has been a favourable cultural shift in this debate.

I turn now to some of the issues that affect central London. Mr. Miller spoke about the SW1A 0AA area, which is of course in my constituency, where the figures for many environmental indicators are completely off the scale. The Minister talked about noise nuisance in urban hot spots, and made favourable points about night-time lorry movements. I would support any measures to reduce the appalling problems experienced by many central London residents. I am, however, a little alarmed by the prospect of too many pilot schemes and by the idea of relying on the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to implement measures. The GLA seems to give little thought to any strategy for progress in environmental matters.

Many people who have lived in London for years will think of the seminal year for the environment as being not 1989 but 1956, when the Clean Air Act was passed. I was struck, when out canvassing, by older voters' memories of London before that time, when smog meant that thousands of people would die of flu and other bronchial illnesses every year. We need to consider environmental matters in the round because there have been great improvements. We must not be complacent, but we should focus on achieving change through the use of clean fuels and, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford pointed out, of solar and wind power.

The way in which recycling has taken off in London has been a revelation. I am not sure what the situation is outside the capital. I am proud to have spent the past seven and a half years as a member of the local authority in the neighbouring Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which has a fantastic recycling record. That is also true of the City of Westminster council and of many Labour-run boroughs—I am not trying to make a political point. It is evident, when one walks in central London or the suburbs, that many people recycle newspapers and bottles. My only concern is that we may almost have reached saturation level. If one lives in a small flat in the middle of the city it can be difficult to recycle, unless one has umpteen bags hanging in one's kitchen all week. We should think about how we reach the next stage of encouraging personal recycling. Thankfully, the commercial environment already treats recycling as an increasingly important imperative.

Several hon. Members—in particular my hon. Friend Mr. Syms and my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight—referred to congestion charging. I cannot take responsibility for what my right hon. Friend said about traffic-calming measures, but I accept that they have some negative environmental effects in their attempts to reduce speed in built-up areas. We must consider the consequences of such policies.

I am worried about proposals for congestion charging. Whatever happens in London will be the starting point for similar charges in other parts of the country. The specifics are unfavourable, not least because the Mayor of London was elected on a clear mandate to improve public transport. It is clear that London Underground, which I discussed with the Minister in Westminster Hall two days ago, will need long-term investment for a decade or so. We cannot put all that burden on the buses. If we introduce the congestion charge as soon as proposed, it will not have a positive effect.

My hon. Friend Mr. Francois rightly said that we need a carrot-and-stick approach. We cannot put a massive burden on to car owners, but we could encourage them to behave better. A key way to do that would be to reconsider the taxing regime of the better fuels. Deep cuts are needed; 3p, 5p or 6p a litre is not enough. We need to encourage the next generation of car owners to act appropriately.

Some Government members have formulated an anti-car policy under the guise of an environmental smokescreen, although the Minister would probably not agree. I am worried about the number of exemptions from congestion charging. I take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Poole said about that and am glad that he is not making the policy.

Although it is essential that we rely on individuals to take responsibility for their actions—one of my fundamental values—I am much encouraged by the cultural change in the approach to the environment. Many people think that it is important and that they must focus on it if they are to improve their lives and those of their children and grandchildren. The Government should make deep cuts in taxation and spend less time posturing on the allegedly high environmental standards that they have brought to bear.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight 1:23 pm, 19th October 2001

I am disappointed that we are not debating drugs. It is a discourtesy, not to us but to our constituents and those interest groups that have taken the trouble to brief us and ask us to attend a debate, that their plans and hopes can be dashed at short notice. I am sorry that the Home Office is too busy to discuss the important issue of drugs, especially when it has time to introduce Bills to permit sex discrimination that otherwise would be unlawful. However, that is not a criticism of the Minister.

I recognise the work that this Government and previous Governments have done on the fairly narrow interpretation of clean fuels. I am not as critical as Tom Brake. Had he seen "Yes Minister" he would know that a consultation that is due to be completed by the end of the summer is unlikely to be completed before Christmas, and that spring in Government terms means any time before the summer recess.

I would like to extend the debate a little further than the issue of road fuels, which is the one that has taken up most of the debate. I wish to consider other clean fuels, for which the Isle of Wight is one of the centres. It is the home of world yachting, and yachts are driven by the cleanest fuel of all. The Americas Cup jubilee, which we celebrated earlier this year, was the 150th anniversary of the oldest international sporting fixture in the world, and it created the memorable sight of the J-class yachts that were built in the 1920s and 1930s. They are still seaworthy and are entirely driven by clean fuel.

I hope that the Government will recognise the role of yachting in the economy—particularly on the south coast of England and on the island—and consider adventurously whether increasing sail-assisted shipping would assist the non-urgent transmission of goods from one part of the world to another.

I hope that the Government will also recognise the work that is being done on GBR Challenge, the entry to the next Americas Cup, which is to take place in Wellington, New Zealand in 2003. GBR Challenge is being built and developed in yards in Cowes in my constituency, taking advantage of another important characteristic of the island—the fact that it is a centre for advanced plastics technology.

Two companies, in particular—SP System and Aerolaminates—are involved in the development of plastics for the sails on wind farms. The island is rapidly becoming a centre for Britain's wind technology.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one way that the Government could show their genuine commitment to clean fuel and environmentalism is by supporting yachting and gliding which are celebrations of British sport at its best and clean in terms of their environmental impact?

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

As is hang gliding, with which Lembit Öpik has some acquaintance.

I was disappointed that the only Minister to attend the Americas Cup jubilee was the New Zealand Education Minister. Not only did no Minister from the Government attend, but it appeared that Ministers in the Foreign Office did not even know that the Minister from New Zealand was in the country at the time.

I hope that the Minister will consider appropriate measures to deal with the problems of visual and aural pollution caused by wind-farm technology. Offshore wind farming is acceptable even to the yachting community. It has a higher capital cost, but a much reduced running cost compared to onshore technology. That is because one needs three sails onshore to reduce aural pollution, but only two sails offshore. Offshore technology is much more efficient and has lower running costs. I hope that the Minister will say something about encouraging offshore wind farms in the future.

The island is also the Morris Minor capital of the world. I declare an interest as the owner of an MG that is neither classic nor vintage—it is just old. However, I was glad that my right hon. Friend Mr. Knight asked for an assurance from the Minister—I hope that it will be given—that there are no plans to drive old cars off the road. We owners are quite capable of doing that ourselves.

I also wish to mention an issue that the horticulture industry on the island has recently drawn to my attention. As I said in my maiden speech, the island is famed for its horticulture industry—we export garlic to France—but I now wish to refer particularly to the tomato industry in the Arreton valley. The joint directors of Wight Salads spoke to me recently about two problems. One is the granting of massive subsidies for greenhouse fuels in Spain, leading to unfair competition with businesses on the island that receive no such subsidies. I do not believe it can be environmentally efficient to encourage the use of more fuels in greenhouses.

Another problem is the collapse of a combined heat and power company that was in train to deliver combined heat and power—which, as Joan Ruddock said, is considerably more environmentally sustainable than other sources of power. The tomato growers on the Isle of Wight, and indeed horticulturists elsewhere in the country, were relying on that company to deliver inexpensive and environmentally friendly fuel. The administrator—Railtrack is not the only organisation to need administration—is holding out for what they believe to be an unrealistic price for the company's assets.

Communications with Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry have so far established no way of putting the scheme back on track. I hope that Ministers will regard combined heat and power as meriting at least as much urgent consideration as Railtrack. It is important to maintain the determination of horticulturists and others to use environmentally friendly fuel.

I hope that the Government will consider a number of other minor issues. It is essential that we improve public transport if we are to reduce the number of trips made by car. It is all very well talking about friendly fuel—fewer trips by car obviously mean even less pollution—but we must have the improvements in public transport in place first. We cannot drive the motorist off the roads by using a stick; we must encourage him off the roads by providing effective public transport.

In the context of Railtrack, let me say that I hope the Minister will keep an eye on the Island Line, which is the most efficient and punctual railway in the country. There are problems with the track bed all along the line from Ryde Pier Head to Shanklin. There were commitments from Railtrack to keep the track bed in decent condition, and we do not want them to be lost.

I also hope that the Government will consider a reduction of building in the countryside. It is wholly inconsistent to call for house building all over the south-east, and then complain when people try to travel into London or other big cities by car to get to work. That is particularly true on the island, where there are plans for 8,000 new houses, half of them on greenfield sites.

It is not as though we have such an excess of jobs and such a demand for labour that we need people to come to the island to occupy those 8,000 new houses. In fact, we are one of the top 10 unemployment black spots in the south-east. Things are improving, but we do not need all those additional houses.

I welcome the Minister's commitment to considering a scheme for "green waves" of traffic lights, mentioned by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. When I travelled to Switzerland at the age of 10, 37 years ago, the system was already in place on the approach to Aachen. It seems to have taken us a very long time to learn from our European competitors, and I hope we can do something about it. I think particularly of the West Quay road in Southampton, where there are more traffic lights than there were at the time of the 1997 election. They seem to be staggered so that one reaches them all when they are red.

Aircraft fuels have not been mentioned yet, and I hope the Minister will mention them when he winds up. We need to do much more to reduce environmental pollution from aeroplanes, and aircraft fuels are one of the main sources of greenhouse gases. What plans have the Government to reduce the use of aeroplanes?

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions 1:34 pm, 19th October 2001

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I will reply to the debate.

This has been an interesting debate. We have covered many important environmental issues relating to clean fuels and demonstrated our shared concern for the environment and the air that we breathe. We all recognise that the vehicles and fuels that we use can play an important role in environmental improvement. I shall try to respond to as many of the points raised as I can, but such is the number of questions asked that I might not be able to answer them all.

I got the impression that the Opposition spokesman, Mr. Moss, who was unable to remain for the rest of the debate, had not listened to the discussion that had occurred before he spoke, because I had already referred in my opening speech to many of the issues that he raised. He said that he wanted a different debate—he wanted to debate Railtrack or some other transport matter. I wonder why the Opposition did not choose to debate one of those topics on Tuesday; instead, I believe that they have decided to talk about the personalities in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. I am flattered that they want to discuss my merits as a Minister at that Department, but I too would have preferred a discussion about some other transport issue. However, the subjects of debate on Opposition days are a matter for the Opposition, not the Government. Today's debate was in the Government's gift. We chose the subject and the speeches today prove that it is a valuable debate to have.

The hon. Gentleman raised an important point relating to the threat of terrorist action. As a former Northern Ireland Minister, he will understand why we do not discuss such matters in full, but I can assure him and the House that all precautionary steps have been taken in respect of the subjects that he raised.

The hon. Gentleman asked about discussions with the motor industry on cleaner fuels, especially the take-up of LPG. Those discussions are taking place. I understood him to accuse us at one point of being tardy in giving tax incentives for ultra-low sulphur fuel, having waited until this year to do so. That point was taken up by my hon. Friend Mr. Miller. I recall that just over a year ago we were criticised for proposing to give the incentive at a time when the fuel did not exist. I do not understand how one can give incentives for something that does not exist, but there we are—the fuel exists now, so perhaps we can expect guidance from the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire.

The hon. Gentleman and others asked about vehicle excise duty reflecting more than carbon dioxide emissions. The difficulty facing us is the need to make sure that VED concessions are clearly related to something that people understand, so that they understand why the concessions have been given. That is why we have chosen to pursue that course—that and the fact that carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas.

The hon. Gentleman asked about bus pollution and correctly identified buses as a significant contributor to air pollution in some areas. He and Mr. Field will be pleased to learn that London now has 800 more buses with particulate traps, which will contribute to reductions in PM10s.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire suggested that the Government were anti-car. What is better for the motorist than reducing congestion? It is pro-car and pro-motorist of us to work to reduce congestion. In the context of my Department, what could be more pro-motorist than offering concessions so that we have cheaper clean fuel and a cleaner environment? It is pro-motorist to enable people to drive along greener roads. I reject the proposition that the Government are anti-motorist. We are pro-motorist, but we are pro-clean travel as well. We want a cleaner environment.

My hon. Friend Joan Ruddock has an impeccable record on green matters and raised some wider energy concerns, particularly security of supply and of the supply chain. She made some interesting points. A number of hon. Members referred to hydrogen, which is produced, essentially, in two ways; by electrolysis, and from materials that contain hydrogen, such as natural gas. The difficulty is that if we use electrolysis to produce hydrogen, we must produce the electricity cleanly so that the life cycle of the fuel is clean. Much of what we do depends on finding ways of producing the electricity sustainably and cleanly.

Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford

I asked some specific questions aimed at encouraging the development of solar photovoltaics, which would be the renewable source used for electrolysis as part of the virtuous circle.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

My hon. Friend will recognise that many of those matters are beyond the scope of my brief. I will be happy to make sure that she gets a full written response if that is appropriate. For me to try to gloss over those matters today would not do justice to some important questions.

Tom Brake also questioned why we were having this debate when there were more pressing issues. Again, I say to him—in his absence, as he is not here—that he may want to take those matters up for a Liberal Democrat Opposition day. He posed many questions, yet found great difficulty in articulating Liberal Democrat policy in reply to the one question that was posed to him. I look forward to an on-going debate with him on these matters.

The hon. Gentleman said that I had said that our policy needs to be more hydrogen-based. I did not, nor did I wish to suggest it. The Government want to go for the low carbon use option. The policy will not necessarily be hydrogen-based, although it may well be. We have not backed any winner at the moment. He asked also about the green fuel challenge. Nine bids have been received so far; we are looking at the cost benefits of the proposals and the level of incentives that may be required.

My hon. Friend Jon Trickett, as always, spoke with great knowledge and passion about the wider use of fuels. He referred to the current energy review, which may bring him some comfort. His was a well-considered speech and many of the comments—although beyond the scope of my brief—will have been well noted in the House today.

Mr. Knight made a second maiden speech; hon. Members who come back here are familiarly known as retreads. He talked about his classic cars and, rather than clean fuels, he talked about dirty fuels for a moment, mentioning leaded fuels. The current EU directive allows 0.5 per cent. of total fuel sales to be leaded fuels that are suitable for classic cars and do not cause the valve seat recession that is the concern of the older cars with the softer blocks. The amount of leaded petrol being sold is very much lower than the level in the directive. We will carry on with our discussions in Europe, but the amount sold is so small that it does not form part of the debate on cleaner fuels. That may give him some comfort. The only question may be whether the oil companies feel it is sustainable for them to carry on producing it.

Photo of Greg Knight Greg Knight Conservative, East Yorkshire

Whether the oil companies continue to produce it is a totally different issue. I asked the Minister to confirm that there were no Government plans to stop this very small usage by classic and vintage car owners. I hope that he can confirm that he has no plans to alter the status quo in this regard.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have no plans to alter the status quo. I, too, am a lover of classic cars and often go to rallies. I have owned classic cars, although I do not at the moment. I understand his interest and the huge interest around the country in classic cars, which are an important part of our industrial heritage.

The right hon. Gentleman asked how many Government cars used LPG. He requested precise figures. I shall drop him a line, but I can assure him that, since the time of the previous Government, the Government car service has gradually moved to having more LPG cars. Indeed, the car that I drive is powered by LPG. He also asked about local authority objections to refuelling points, which is an important point. We are informed that the problem is less serious now. Following PPG13, we are encouraging local authorities to take a much more positive view of planning applications, notwithstanding the fact that they have to take into account planning and safety concerns that may be specific to a particular site. Nevertheless, we are asking them to use that planning guidance to take a more positive view of applications.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the matter of road humps and traffic calming. Road safety is one of my responsibilities. The safety record on the roads in this country is good in comparison with that of other EU countries, but it is not good in relation to the death and injury of children on our roads every year. Some traffic calming measures, although inconvenient, save lives. He needs to discuss with his local authority the safety contribution of such measures and whether there are other less inconvenient ways that still make that contribution. A blanket measure ending the use of road humps because they are inconvenient or cause noise is inappropriate; we must consider their important contribution to safety.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

As a member of the MG Owners' Club—rubber bumper, a nice runner and a long MOT—I know that almost all classic cars can be converted to run on unleaded fuel, although some purists may not wish to do that. However, in the long term, they may have to.

Photo of Mr David Jamieson Mr David Jamieson Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

I am a lapsed member of the MG Owners' Club, and it is true that those cars can be converted to run on unleaded fuel. The hon. Gentleman is right; many will run on gaseous fuels as well. Older Members of Parliament, none of whom are here today, may remember vehicles with large bags of gas on the roof being used during the war; I certainly do not. However, they were inefficient.

My hon. Friend Jane Griffiths, as always, demonstrated her concern about reducing car use and made useful and helpful supportive points. I noted carefully her comments about PM10s and the even smaller PM25 particles. She mentioned the importance of the "C" in CNG, which refers to compression. However, one advantage our country has is that we have the best piped natural gas supply network. If gas is supplied through pipes, it is not transported by road, as most other fuels, except electricity, are. It is therefore less polluting and less likely to be disrupted. She invited me to Reading; I can think of no greater pleasure than to accompany her to her constituency to see the things that she wanted to show me.

Mr. Syms demonstrated his customary good sense in our debate. I have come to appreciate his helpful and useful comments, and hope that my praise does not impede his long overdue elevation to the Front Bench. He raised some important points about publicising the benefits of LPG. I have undertaken several events to try to garner some publicity, but in recent weeks we have been somewhat overtaken by other issues. I shall certainly have further discussions with the oil industry to see how we can arouse more public interest. When we announced the changes to the PowerShift programme, we approached some of the car magazines to ask them to publish articles giving some publicity to the issue and we are mindful of the need for further publicity.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the quality of car conversions, which is essential. One of the elements of the PowerShift programme that we have reinforced is the requirement that the grant goes only to high-quality conversions that deliver the emission improvements and the necessary safety levels.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston is always knowledgeable on such matters and he made a detailed contribution. I remember our discussions in 1992 and 1993 about CNG; even then, we were clearly preparing for government. We are probably indebted to those discussions for much of what we have been able to achieve and many of the matters raised today.

Mr. Francois suggested that we should have an environmental carrot instead of a fiscal stick. We have provided a fiscal carrot to achieve our environmental ambitions, and that is probably the best approach.

I was perturbed by some of the points made by the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and I hope that he has not done me too much damage by describing me as a safe pair of hands at this Department. I hope that he will repeat that remark on Tuesday night, because if he does not I shall make sure that someone else does. He also suggested that I was a relatively young Member of Parliament. He may be, but I am at least young at heart.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the urban hot spots, which are important to us. Westminster was one of the first areas to introduce a refuse collection vehicle powered by natural gas, which is substantially quieter. I do not know whether that makes the men who operate it any quieter at 4 am, but it contributes to lessening the noise and pollution in the streets of his constituency.

I also noted the hon. Gentleman's points about curfews on heavy vehicles. If some of them can be made to run more quietly in city streets at night while causing less pollution, that could be a sensible approach to lifting the curfews. We are looking at packages of measures to combat engine noise and other intrusive noises, especially noises from depots, shutters and car radios. The package will contain measures for cleaner fuel, but several other issues will have to be addressed if—and I stress the word "if"—the curfew is to be breached.

Mr. Turner mentioned wind power and we were sailing for a while. I flew over part of his constituency recently—I did not quite cross it, which was why I did not inform him—and it is possible that wind power could contribute to hydrogen production, giving a complete cycle for cleaner fuel. I hope that he did not mean me when he talked of something being neither classic nor vintage, just old. He also raised other issues that may be beyond the scope of my Department, but they have been noted.

Cleaner fuels are not the solution to all our transport problems. Congestion will not go away because vehicles are cleaner. It is important to consider cleaner fuels as only a contribution, albeit an important one, to the development of a more sustainable transport system.

This has been a thought-provoking debate, and I hope that I have been able to confirm the Government's continuing commitment to encouraging the use of cleaner fuels. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to debate this issue, and I thank all those who have contributed to this important and valuable debate.

Photo of Jim Fitzpatrick Jim Fitzpatrick Assistant Whip (HM Treasury)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.