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Environment Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:25 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Geraint Davies Geraint Davies Labour, Swansea West 4:25 pm, 26th February 2020

Precisely. COP26 is an opportunity for the United Kingdom to show that we will act collectively, take leadership and bring the world together, but the example we are setting is one where we have 62,000 people dying prematurely from air pollution at a cost of £20 billion. Air pollution causes heart failure and lung disease, and possibly lower IQ in children. Unborn babies have PM2.5 microparticles in their blood stream. That is why we want the World Health Organisation standards mentioned by the hon. Member for West Dorset for 10 micrograms per cubic metre by 2030, with a staging post of 12 by 2025, in the Bill and enforced through fines. Otherwise, it simply will not happen.

We know what the manufacturers will do, with their weasel words; we know about the Volkswagen scandal. The latest scandal is the fact that diesel filters themselves store up particulates, crush them into more harmful microparticulates and spew them out every 300 miles, causing much worse pollution and public health problems. That is not actually measured in the emissions testing regime, because the manufacturers have been behind the door, lobbying away. We cannot trust them, and we want to bring forward the year when new diesel and fossil fuel cars become illegal to 2030. As has been mentioned, we need a fiscal strategy to deliver that.

The other change I really want to push for is the inclusion of indoor air pollution in the Bill. No one in their right mind would believe that we could have an Environment Bill that is just about the outdoor environment, when 90% of our time and 95% of our children’s time is spent indoors. What is happening to those children indoors? I recommend that Members read report on indoor air quality published on 28 January by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which shows that there is an abundance of harmful chemicals indoors, including in products used for cleaning, construction materials and volatile organic compounds. These chemicals come in the form of formaldehydes, cosmetics, candles, cooking products and all sorts of stuff, and they have a cocktail impact, causing inflammatory respiratory problems. We are all locked in small flats with double glazing, which makes the effect worse, and that is also the case in schools and hospitals. The Bill should cover indoor environments—minimally schools and hospitals—to protect our children, but it simply does not.

Fire retardants are a specific problem. I understand that the average house in Britain now contains 45 kg of fire retardants, including in sofa and mattress foams. We have much more of these materials than the EU or the US. Why? Because we require a flame test, rather than just a smoulder test. When fires happen, people die from the toxicity of fumes given off by the fire retardants. This toxicity is worse than in concentration camps in the second world war because of the combination of hydrogen cyanide—the chemical that was used in concentration camps, in Zyklon B—and carbon monoxide, which makes it 35 times worse. When there is a fire, those so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons burn off, firefighters cannot see through the smoke, and people basically choke and die within a few breaths. It is outrageous that that should be allowed. New Zealand has removed those chemicals, and has shown that doing so does not result in more deaths from fires.

Through this Bill, we need to continue with the regulation concerning the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, or REACH. In a nutshell, REACH means that manufacturers that produce a chemical are required to show that that chemical is safe. In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has to prove that a manufacturer’s chemical is hazardous, which is why asbestos is used in brake pads in the United States. Once we go into a trade deal, the big problem with this Bill is that it leaves the door open for Donald Trump and his mates to water down our environmental standards—we have all heard about chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef, but this also applies to chemicals—so that they can sell all sorts of stuff that will be a risk to our public health. We need to tighten up this legislation, have a precautionary principle and ensure that we deliver on REACH.

Members will know that plastics cause the deaths of 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals a year, and that there will be as much plastic as fish in the sea by 2050. We need a fiscal strategy to address that; we need to tax plastics. The last Chancellor but one said that there was going to be a plastics tax. Where is it? Are the Government calling for it? Let’s have it.

On trade, we need to watch out for investor-state dispute settlements. Companies will come along and agree a trade system, and if we start passing new environmental laws, they will sue us under the investor-state dispute settlement system. It is important that we have our legislation in place at this point—before we agree those trade deals—rather than doing so after the trade deals, otherwise we will face all sorts of sanctions. I agree with the Chair of the DEFRA Committee on the integrated approach that needs to be taken with the three Bills to combat flooding through land use management and so on. Particularly as I am from Swansea, I am concerned about tourism in the economy, and want to ensure that the blue flag beach registration is kept up so that people have confidence that when they go bathing everything is clean.

Our environment is not just a namby-pamby thing about saying, “Let’s look after the environment.” It is obviously for our children and our children’s children, but it is also for our economy. We want to be able to boast, “We set the standards and the markets follow. People want to come here because we have a glorious enhanced environment.” In the current state of play, this Bill will not deliver the goods. I very much hope that Ministers will be open to the amendments that my right hon. Friends and I will want to put in to make it better and fit for purpose.