Environment Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 6th September 2021.
Moved by Baroness Hayman of Ullock
4: Clause 2, page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (2) and insert—“(2) The PM2.5 air quality target must—(a) be less than or equal to 10µg/m3, (b) so far as practicable, follow World Health Organization guidelines, and(c) have an attainment deadline on or before
My Lords, I rise to move Amendment 4 and speak to Amendment 12. Both are in my name and the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Walmsley, Lady Finlay of Llandaff and Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, and I thank them for their support.
Amendment 4 would ensure that the new legal target for fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, commits the Government to reducing this pollutant to within the existing World Health Organization guidelines by 2030 at the latest. Amendment 12 would ensure that the importance of protecting health is reflected in the target review process set out in the Bill. But before I get into the detail of why these amendments are so important, I express my thanks both to the Minister and to the Defra officials for their time in meeting with me and others during the Recess and for the detailed information provided on their work in this area.
In his response to our amendment on air quality in Committee, the Minister said that
“the Government recognise the importance of reducing concentrations of PM2.5 and the impact this has on our health.”—[
Air pollution is also recognised by the UK Government to be the single largest environmental risk to public health that we have.
In Committee, noble Lords drew the Minister’s attention to the role that air pollution played in the death of nine year-old Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. I was privileged recently to meet her mother, Rosamund, who shared with us her frustration at the Government’s lack of urgency in tackling damaging toxic air, despite recognising the serious health implications for people and communities. The motivation driving her campaign is simple: to make sure that what happened to her daughter does not happen to other people’s children. Amendment 54, in the name of my noble friend Lord Kennedy of Southwark, seeks to enshrine in law the recommendations of the coroner’s prevention of future deaths report into Ella’s death, and we strongly support it.
Sadly, air pollution accounts for eight to 12 deaths every year in London alone, and it is 13 to 15 year-olds who are most at risk. Until our air is clean, our children will continue to die. The Government must grasp the urgency of this. The UK currently complies with the less ambitious existing legal limit of PM2.5, which is double the WHO guideline. Reductions in this pollutant have stagnated in recent years, so setting a more ambitious target in the Bill would drive action to better protect people’s health. The Minister assured the Committee that the Government’s target on PM2.5 would be ambitious, and he acknowledged the gravity and urgency of the situation. However, we then heard that until the Government completed the ongoing work and consulted the public again about the kind of restrictions that would be needed to be placed upon us, particularly in large cities, it would not be appropriate to write that limit into law.
We understand that reducing PM2.5 to meet the WHO recommendations is not easy—there are uncertainties about the future and the impact of climate change, and there are natural ways in which these particulates are produced so we can never bring the limit down to zero. However, we are deeply concerned that the Government are still researching, modelling, discussing what to do and looking at further consultations two years after the publication of the clean air strategy and after the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, which provides independent advice to the Government, said that reducing concentrations below the WHO air quality guidelines would benefit public health.
We have SIs promised for October next year but no indication as to exactly what the targets will be. It worries me that the Government’s unwillingness to accept this target and put it in the Bill might reflect their concern that the target is simply not achievable. The Minister has previously informed your Lordships’ House that
“at this stage the full mix of policies and measures required to meet the current WHO guideline level of 10 micrograms per cubic metre is not yet fully understood”,—[
Further independent analysis by King’s College London commissioned by the Greater London Authority, which I referred to in our previous debate, has subsequently shown that, with additional action, achieving the WHO guideline of PM2.5 is feasible by 2030 in our most polluted city in this country. Surely that should remove the main barrier to achieving this goal. The Minister also referred to the Mayor of London study, confirming that officials were going through it and taking it into account. Does his department now agree with its findings, and what action is being taken as a result of it?
Today we have seen the publication of a report, funded by the Greater London Authority and carried out by researchers at Imperial College London, that provides a comprehensive overview of the most credible evidence of the links between air pollution and Covid-19. We already know that air pollution has harmful effects on the lungs, but until now it has been most associated with non-infectious or non-communicable diseases that cannot be directly transmitted between people—for example, the links between air pollution and cancer, stroke and asthma are all well established. Covid-19, however, is an infectious lung disease, and questions have begun to be asked about whether air pollution played a role in the spread of this devastating disease.
The report published today shows that the researchers have found, first, that exposure to air pollution before the pandemic increased the risk of severe outcomes if a person became infected with Covid-19. In other words, if you were living in an area of high pollution before the pandemic, you were more likely to end up in hospital or even die if you became infected. Secondly, exposure to air pollution may increase the likelihood of contracting Covid-19 if you are exposed to the virus. This is a new and evolving area of research because not everyone who is exposed may become infected. However, research is showing that people who are exposed to pollution may be more likely to become infected. Finally, there is pre-existing evidence that exposure to air pollution increases susceptibility to, and worsens the outcome from, a range of infectious lung diseases such as pneumonia and bronchitis.
Until now, the role that air pollution plays in increasing the risk of infectious respiratory diseases, including acute bronchitis in children and pneumonia, has been overlooked and underestimated. I ask the Minister if the Government accept these findings. Does he agree that this new evidence makes tackling air pollution even more urgent?
The WHO’s director of public health and environment, Dr Maria Neira, says that with the Environment Bill the Government need to
“raise the level of ambition”.
I wholeheartedly agree. This is a moment in time when the Government can be genuinely ambitious, not just talking about urgency but acting urgently. As the UK moves to a post-pandemic recovery and towards our net-zero carbon targets, action taken today to reduce air pollution will be crucial to ensuring a healthy, resilient nation, and put an end to even more families suffering as Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah’s family has done.
I know that the Minister understands this. I ask him to listen carefully to the debate today, to recognise the importance of urgent action—“urgent” means now, not next year—and to accept our amendments in good faith so that we can tackle the terrible effect of toxic air on our families and communities.
I am minded to test the opinion of the House on this issue but I will listen to the debate and look forward to hearing from the Minister.
My Lords, I have tabled Amendment 54 in this group. Like my noble friend Lady Hayman, I had the privilege of meeting Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah. I was at the meeting that she had with the Minister last week, and I thank him for being generous with his time. I am sure that, like my noble friend Lady Hayman, he could not help but be impressed by Rosamund’s humanity and commitment, and her determination to ensure that her daughter’s tragic death is not something that will happen to other families. That is why I have tabled this amendment, which I also tabled in Committee. I also very much support Amendments 4 and 12 in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayman.
In our meeting we were all in agreement—the Minister and Rosamund agreed about everything—until at the end there was the problem of the “but”. The Minister said, “Of course we will have to do some more consultation and look at this a bit further. We are with you, but”. Probably the only difference on both sides now is that “but”; apart from that, I think we are all in agreement. I hope that the Minister can go further than that today and give us some good news. If not, I know my noble friend Lady Hayman will test the opinion of the House on Amendment 4, and in those circumstances, I hope the House votes for it.
I want to talk about what happened to Ella. Rosamund and Ella lived near me in Lewisham. Ella died at the age of nine while suffering from one of the most serious cases of asthma ever recorded in the UK. Her chronic condition lasted 28 months. She suffered greatly, and fought to breathe right to the very end. On Ella’s final night in Lewisham, the borough recorded one of its worst spikes ever in air pollution. She had been hospitalised 28 times in 28 months, admitted to the ICU five times, and had fought back many times from the brink of death. Her condition meant that her lungs constantly filled up with mucus and made her feel that she was suffocating.
In December 2020 there was a landmark victory for Ella and her family. She became the first person in the UK—and the world—to have air pollution listed as a cause of death. The coroner, Philip Barlow, found that she had died of asthma that had been contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution, and the primary source of that was traffic emissions.
Eight years after Ella’s death, we have also learned that between 36,000 and 40,000 people in the UK die prematurely due to exposure to air pollution annually, and that all of us suffer from its negative health effects. Thousands are impacted every year and, across the UK, 22 to 24 young people die of asthma, eight to 12 of them in London. The UK has one of the highest death rates from asthma in Europe. In countries such as Finland no child dies from asthma. Toxic air impacts on the health of all of us, from cradle to grave. It is now a public health emergency, and Covid has highlighted the inequalities in health.
This is, in many respects, a very good Bill, but it completely fails to address the issue of air quality. That is why we are tabling these amendments. I hope that the Minister will respond positively and give us more than the “but” that we got at our meeting with him last week. If not, I hope, as I have said, that my noble friend will divide the House. I will support Amendment 4 tonight. I support all the amendments: Amendments 4 and 12 and Amendment 54, to which I am speaking now.
All we are asking is that the Government adopt the World Health Organization’s guidelines and targets. That is a pretty reasonable way forward: the World Health Organization’s particulate matter targets. I hope that the Minister can give us some good news in his response to the debate.
I support Amendments 4 and 12, and I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, for the superb way in which she introduced this group and encapsulated the strength of feeling about the importance of these amendments.
I remind the House that air pollutants reach every organ of the body. They affect growing foetal tissue, not just adults. They affect organs as they develop in children and throughout people’s lives. Very small particles are a particular problem because they stay suspended in the air for prolonged periods and have a propensity to penetrate the deep parts of the lung. Ultrafine particles are especially problematic because in many respects they behave like a gas. As particles become smaller—into the nano scale—their surface area increases exponentially, so chemicals carried on their surface are released into cells and become bioavailable as toxins in the mitochondria within cells. The damage goes throughout the body.
The WHO guidelines are health-based and due to be revised downwards. They will not remain at their current level for many years: they will get tighter, because large epidemiological studies have shown that there are no safe levels of pollutant exposure. I remind the Government that as far back as 2001 their own advisory committee on air quality stated:
“Impact analysis of policies or specific developments, whether for industry, transport, housing etc, should take account of the interlinkages of emissions of air quality and climate change pollutants”.
That has still not occurred.
To increase the relevance of air pollution controls in environments where people live and move around requires greater input that takes into account real-life exposures in different settings, especially urban environments where people work and live close to busy roads and the foci of traffic congestion.
It has been shown in the bay area of California that there is a direct link between health impacts and the levels of pollutants in the air. There are enormous impacts, even from a single two-hour commute in a car. That has been shown to increase human stress metabolism, with very clear differences between people with normal lungs and those who are asthmatic. People with asthma are particularly vulnerable to air pollution.
I stress that point because, in addition to the growing evidence that air pollutant exposure increases susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 infection, as has already been said it enhances the severity of, and likelihood of death from, a lot of other lung diseases. It is all linked to the social determinants of health. Ella’s death illustrates the tragedy for many.
I remind the House again: the UK has the worst death rate for asthma in Europe and one of the highest incidences of asthma. I worry that short-term finance is driving resistance from the Government, because monitoring levels of these very small particles requires different equipment from that in use at the moment. To avoid doing this properly, however, is a real false economy. Quite apart from tragic deaths, there is the cost to the health service and social care. By installing equipment to measure particulates equal to or less than 10 micrograms per metre cubed, the Government will be prepared and able to set an example to other nations when the WHO guidelines change.
This amendment sets a quality target with a deadline far enough ahead to be achievable. Delay will simply mean that we will be playing catch-up, rather than providing the leadership that is desperately needed.
My Lords, I have been working on the issue of air pollution for more than two decades. I thank Simon Birkett of Clean Air in London and Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who are fantastic campaigners, and so tenacious. It moves me that I am able to present some of what they think and are fighting for. I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, on her excellent opening speech—it was far better than anything I can do, I am sure, though I will try.
Amendment 4, on which we may divide, is crucial: it could save your life. The other two amendments are great, because they will help with your health as you go through our filthy London streets, but Amendment 4 is basic. We have to reduce PM2.5. Exposure to these fine particles is the main cause of death for most people who die early from air pollution. These are tiny bits of soot and grit that are so small that they not only stick to the lungs but can pass through them. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, explained it much better. We must understand that this is incredibly difficult to control without targets.
Amendment 12 is also extremely important, because the World Health Organization is due to publish its updated air quality guidelines this month, possibly within days. I try never to use the words “air quality”, because we do not have air quality—we have air pollution. We have to remember that. It is filthy and harmful. Many countries around the world follow the previous World Health Organization guidance, which was issued 16 years ago, but we still have nothing. We have a public health crisis leading to tens of thousands of premature deaths and we have identified the main cause, but still we do nothing.
Incinerators can be built and ignore this pollutant. Heathrow can be expanded and ignore this pollutant. Local authorities and national government are making decisions that will potentially damage human health and increase these emissions, but we allow it because we ignore the scientific advice. That really should not be acceptable.
The interim advice from our own scientists, published two months ago, is that reducing concentrations below the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline would benefit public health; that is so obvious. It is what we should do, and I hope that Defra will eventually set world-beating targets—but that is certainly not what it has done for the past 20 years, and that is why this amendment is necessary. It would immediately introduce a minimum standard and start us down the path to a healthier environment.
When I was on the London Assembly, Ken Livingstone, to his credit, did his bit; he introduced the congestion charge, which helped. I was a fierce critic of our current Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, when he was Mayor of London, because his solutions to the problem of air pollution in London, particularly in the lead-up to the Olympic Games, were to put plants along the main road towards the Olympic stadium and, secondly, to rely on the measurements from an EU monitoring station on one of the most polluted roads in London but set at 12 feet in the air so that it did not actually measure the air pollution on the ground.
I gather that the noble Lord wants to interrupt me, even though I am making a really important speech.
The noble Baroness is making a very important speech; I will just add to what she has said. In addition, the Mayor of London covered up the monitoring stations on the roads leading to the Olympics. Otherwise, the pollution would have been worse than it had been in Beijing four years previously.
But he did put potted plants there; let us give him some credit.
Amendment 54 is also incredibly important, because it would achieve three important outcomes. First of all, it would put health at the heart of government policy-making. I am an ex-Southwark councillor, like the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. On the old town hall, there was a translated Latin quotation:
“The health of the people is the highest law”.
That is what this Government absolutely ignore.
Secondly, Amendment 54 would ensure that air quality targets are based on WHO air quality guidelines and achieved as soon as possible. Thirdly, it would ensure that air pollution is properly monitored, particularly where it is a problem, and that people are warned about it.
Please understand that this is a public health crisis. I have tried to get the issue of air pollution into other Bills, but I was always put off and told that whatever Bill it was was not the right Bill to put air pollution in. When we are talking environment, this is the Bill to add air pollution as a serious issue.
My Lords, I declare an interest as I am still a vice-president of Environmental Protection UK, which for most of its lifetime was the National Society for Clean Air. In that capacity, I was a bit remiss in not putting down an amendment myself. I was originally fooled by the Government; it does not happen very often, but it did on this occasion. I thought that by having this as the second clause and PM2.5 right up front in the Bill, they had really seized the opportunity. I did not read it properly.
Clause 1 sets a particular status for long-term targets that then run through the rest of the Bill, but this clause says the target for PM2.5
“may, but need not, be a long-term target.”
Parliamentary draftsmen are usually comfortable putting “may”, because that gives them a certain amount of flexibility, but on this occasion they put “but need not” very clearly. That means that the target envisaged in this clause, as it stands, does not have all the overriding principles and follow-through in the rest of the Bill that a long-term target has. That is why the clause, as it stands, has to be amended.
I support all these amendments. I just want to say two or three other things that colleagues have not yet covered. Before I do so, I say to the House that, in the debates on air quality over the years, one supporter was the late Viscount Simon, a lifelong sufferer from asthma who normally took part and had a lot of insight; we will miss him.
I point out, first, that the WHO targets were set on the basis of health information from over a decade ago. Hopefully, the new ones will be updated. The limits that we have been working to on EU standards were largely set—and I speak as a pro-European—by what the German motor manufacturers would put up with. Even then, they fiddled the testing. So, what we put in as our targets here have to be robust, health based and universally recognised.
It is also important to mention something else. There is a bit of an assumption that, since traffic has been the biggest contributor to air pollution, this is being resolved as we move away from diesel cars. It is not. A lot of pollution from traffic comes from brakes and friction between tyres and the road. In any case, of course, traffic is significantly increasing. The problem will not automatically resolve itself. We need new measures, both for vehicles and for the way we manage traffic. Also, as I believe is covered more fully in a later amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Tope, there are a lot of non-traffic-related sources of PM2.5 and other forms of pollution. They have to be covered just as rigorously.
Thirdly, as my noble friend Lord Kennedy pointed out, the tragic death of Ella Kissi-Debrah happened because of where she lived: on the South Circular, an already heavily polluted road. I would ask local councils of all political complexions not to alter their traffic arrangements to divert the heaviest traffic to areas where the poorest live and where there are likely to be more pedestrians and more children. Moving air pollution around is not a solution. I hope that is recognised.
I support these amendments as they stand. I hope that the Government will be prepared to take at least some of them on board and we can start making a dent in what is a truly terrible aspect of urban life and the health of our people.
My Lords, I support Amendments 4 and 12 to which I have put my name. Before I come to that, I will say something about Amendment 54 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy. I particularly liked the last two provisions—subsections (2)(e) and (2)(f) of his proposed new clause —on the training of professionals and, especially, on public information. I strongly believe that, if the public had any idea of the fatal effects of PM2.5 and their effects on health, they would be much more likely to accept some of what might otherwise be quite unpopular actions that needed to be taken to reduce the concentration of those particles. I very much support that.
I now come to Amendments 4 and 12. I have spent the last 18 months conducting my work in your Lordships’ House remotely via the wonders of modern technology, from rural Wales and, occasionally, Scotland. In those parts of the UK, air pollution, including from PM2.5 particulates, is low. Yesterday, I came back to London. As someone who suffers mildly from asthma, I noticed the difference immediately. I am now inclined to wear my mask outdoors on the street as well as indoors, not just to protect myself and others from Covid-19 but to avoid breathing in unfiltered London air.
The challenge of reducing the amount of PM2.5 in our air is a complex and difficult one, which the Government, assisted by dozens of scientists and economists, are already tackling to some extent. I do not underestimate the difficulty of reducing our national and local concentrations of these particles to below 10 micrograms per cubic metre. These materials are produced by many human activities, and some natural weather systems, which are beyond our control. Controlling some of them also requires international co-operation. But just because it is difficult does not mean that we should not set out to do it—and do so expeditiously.
The reason is, of course, that polluted air is the greatest danger to health of our time. PM2.5 causes damage to health from before birth, when it affects children’s brain and lung development, right up to old age, causing pulmonary and cardiac disease, liver damage, and damage to the brain—probably including dementia. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, has explained all that in great detail, so I need not go into any more detail. Everybody knows that polluted air can be fatal—sadly. That is why I support everything the Government are doing, including their dual target to reduce both national levels and population levels, particularly where pollution levels are high and health inequalities are greatest. To do that, they must support local authorities—but that is a debate for another time.
Our Amendments 4 and 12 do not impact on any of these activities or targets. The 10 micrograms in our amendment is not a target but a maximum—and if the WHO guidelines suggest a lower maximum, we should follow that. In other words, nobody will be happier than me if we can reduce it further. The Government tell us that they will announce their target and the date by which it should be achieved in October next year. Well, we all know how these things slip. Setting a target is one thing; achieving it in practice by a certain date is quite another. Our amendments simply hold the Government’s feet to the fire to achieve what Ministers themselves, including Mr Michael Gove, have said they want to achieve. This is for the sake of the health of the whole population, as there is no safe level of PM2.5, according to the WHO.
However, there are two other very important reasons why I want to see this target minimum level in primary legislation, and they concern wider climate-change policy. The Government have set the target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but as yet there is no detail as to how this will be achieved: no road map. There are many possible routes and combinations of policies and technologies that could lead us to achieving net zero. By setting in primary legislation the maximum PM2.5 emissions at 10 micrograms per cubic metre of air—or whatever the current WHO-recommended level is—we will influence the Government to choose those routes to achieving net zero which do not contribute to small particulates in the air.
Some people might think that surely all activities which reduce CO2 emissions must necessarily contribute to clean air—but this is not so. For example, the burning of biomass might emit less CO2 in the long run than burning fossil fuel, but this combustion emits small particulates—which is why wood burning stoves should be banned, at least in towns and cities where pollution is already high. There is more than one route to net zero, and we should choose the cleanest and healthiest. I accept that the Government will want to convince themselves of the feasibility of the target they set, but many scientists have advised us that the 10 micrograms maximum can be done by 2030, and I would like to see the Government set out seriously to do so.
My final reason is that the Government’s record on air quality has not been of the best. In one of its final judgments before the UK left the EU, the European Court of Justice—which was instrumental in enforcing environmental protection—judged that the UK had “systematically and persistently” broken legal limits on air pollution, which, as we know, hastens the death of 40,000 people per year. The replacement for this enforcement body is the OEP, which is introduced by this Bill, which is why the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and a cross-party group of Peers are trying to amend the Bill to ensure the new OEP is properly independent and has teeth. It is also why we who have put our names to this amendment seek to ensure that the Government are legally obliged to set and achieve ambitious targets for air quality.
My Lords, in the midst of all this great technical expertise, I would like to follow up one point that the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, touched on, which is how all this will be achieved. This amendment asks that a further metric be added to those already in the Bill. The Secretary of State is tasked with setting targets for the annual mean level in ambient air, and an amazing combination of statistics will be needed to get that.
Clause 17 asks the Secretary of State to prepare a policy statement, but who is actually going to produce all these measures? The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, hinted at what local authorities could do, but is the Government’s policy to pile all these tasks on to local government? Who will be blamed if the measures are not produced? Are the Government considering what the financial demands are likely to be? The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has given us some indication that they may be considerably more than is currently the case.
My Lords, I think the later contributions have shown that it is vital, in this connection, for the Government to focus on changing the materials that produce this. It is one thing to say, for example, that we want to go to zero carbon by a certain date. Well, surely we should have that kind of system applied to the way this development arises. Nobody wants to kill people, yet there is a substantial amount of this trouble arising in our country, and the remedy must be focused on getting rid of the particulates as far as possible. That is a very high aim, which is not always made prominent in the literature and the policies.
I would like to thank all noble Lords for another important debate and to reassure the House that the Government view this matter as one of the utmost seriousness. As I have set out in previous debates that we have had on this issue, we are committed, through this Bill, to set at least two air quality targets. They will complement each other to fundamentally reduce air pollution in the worst areas, while driving continuous progress to benefit the health of all citizens across England.
Turning first to Amendment 4, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, I would like to thank her for the time she has given me over the past few weeks, discussing this and other issues. I know she has also met with my officials and Professor Alastair Lewis, chair of the Air Quality Expert Group, to better understand all the other work we are doing on PM2.5. I thank her for her time in all those meetings.
I will start by reiterating the assurance provided in Committee, first, that the Government want stretching and ambitious targets, like everyone who has spoken in the House today, and, secondly, that the Government are following a robust and evidence-based process to set those air quality targets, which will focus on delivering the greatest possible public health benefits.
The Government are committed to working with internationally renowned experts to deliver evidence to inform air quality targets. We regularly engage with independent expert groups, such as the Air Quality Expert Group and the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, to ensure the process is informed by their advice and reflects the latest evidence, which includes WHO air quality guidelines.
In July, advice from the Air Quality Expert Group and the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants was published. This showed that both groups support the proposal to set a concentration target and an exposure reduction target for PM2.5, though both acknowledged the difficulty in setting targets in this area. The Air Quality Expert Group highlighted the substantial challenges associated with modelling future PM2.5 concentrations, a point made by the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, including the many uncertainties and significant unknowns. For example, as our climate changes, the potential to reduce PM2.5 concentration also changes, because climate and weather strongly influence pollution levels. We may experience more rain and wind, which disperse pollutants and clean the air, or conversely more heatwaves, which lock in and exacerbate pollution. Some sources of pollution, such as shipping in the English Channel, require work with international partners to reduce emissions. This point was also made earlier.
As we take action to reach net zero, policies such as active travel will have co-benefits, but others may create tensions, as we see with anaerobic digestion and biomass burning. Many of these issues are not easily resolved or modelled, and this demonstrates why we should not be pre-empting or short-cutting the evidence required to underpin long-term target-setting decisions. While it is absolutely necessary to continue to achieve reductions in key pollutants in the air we breathe, the inherent complexity and diverse range of sources of PM2.5—both natural and manmade—means that significant reductions are much more difficult to achieve in practice.
Before setting these targets, it is vital to ensure that both the Government and the public understand the kinds of actions needed and the restrictions which may be required for them to be achieved. This is why we will be consulting on proposed targets and actions required, which may include significant changes to how we heat our homes and travel within towns and cities, early in 2022.
I will briefly respond to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, about the timetable slipping. On the assumption that the Bill becomes law in its current form, or even in an amended form, allowing the timelines to slip would be a breach in law. We would be breaking the law and that is not something the Government could do, so we will not see this timeline slipping.
We are still working to understand the full mix of policies and measures that would be required to meet the WHO guideline of 10 micrograms per cubic metre, but we know that a range of restrictions on activities are likely to be needed in urban areas to meet any ambitious target. Meeting 10 micrograms would likely require policies, as I said in previous debates, including
“reducing traffic kilometres across our cities by as much as 50%” and
“a total ban on solid fuel burning”.
As I said in Committee, I do not think it is
“right for us to set a target … that would impact millions of people and thousands of businesses”—[
To date, this debate has focused primarily on the concentration target but, again, I remind noble Lords that we are setting two targets that will work side by side. To respond to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, we have to set a long-term target under Clause 1 and the PM2.5 target under Clause 2. It is not a choice we have; it is inherent in the Bill. This dual-target approach is strongly supported by experts.
In addition to the concentration target, we are developing a new type of target that focuses on reducing people’s exposure to pollution. The population exposure reduction target will be a more important driver for achieving health benefits, both at national and local level. Experts tell us, and a number of speakers today have made plain, that there are no safe limits for PM2.5.
The long-term exposure reduction target will drive a process of continuous improvement to reduce people’s exposure across the whole country, even in locations where the concentration target has been achieved. It will inform how local interventions need to be targeted, particularly where the most people are exposed to elevated levels of pollution. The concentration target that we have spent much time debating serves to provide a general minimum standard and will focus on reducing levels where concentrations are highest, but it is not by any stretch the whole story.
As I have repeatedly set out in debate, in letters to the House and in meetings over the past year, we are working at pace on this. But it would not be right for us in this House to set a target without understanding the measures needed to meet it and bringing the public on board. The Government are therefore not able to accept this amendment.
Amendment 12 was also tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. I assure her that, as air is part of the definition of the natural environment, it already falls within the scope of the significant improvement test. In future EIP reviews, we expect new evidence—including updated WHO guidelines, emerging scientific evidence and the like—to be relevant to an assessment of whether further measures are needed to meet interim and long-term targets. The intent of the noble Baroness’s amendment is therefore already delivered by the Bill as drafted and I ask her not to press it.
On Amendment 54, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, I thank him for meeting me and Rosamund Kissi-Debrah the week before last. I can say only that if I was not already convinced of the urgency of the case, I certainly would have been by that conversation. Rosamund is an extraordinary campaigner and speaks with huge authority; of course, what happened to Ella is heartbreaking on every level.
In setting these air quality targets, it is as crucial to have a scientifically reliable understanding of the pollution sources and their dispersion as it is to have in place sufficient means to monitor progress and assess compliance. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, that the Government are working extensively with experts to seek advice on this and that the details of the targets, including monitoring requirements, will be set out in secondary legislation following a public consultation.
Making sure that information about air pollution is publicly available is clearly important; we already have legal obligations to do so. We do this through a range of channels, in particular the UK-AIR website, which carries an air quality five-day forecast and live information about pollution levels around the country. We are committed to improving the accessibility and usefulness of that information to a wider range of users, and we will undertake a thorough and comprehensive review of the UK-AIR website and the daily air quality index to ensure that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
In addition, the Government are funding work with health professionals in a number of therapeutic areas to develop advice for patients about air pollution. They are also looking at working with relevant health charities in longer-term campaigns aimed specifically at the most vulnerable groups.
The amendments tabled by my noble colleagues are hugely important contributions to this debate. I think we all agree that air pollution, particularly fine particulate matter, needs to be reduced urgently to protect the nation’s health. We know that, in setting both the concentration target and the population exposure reduction target, we need to be ambitious. Indeed, we are determined to be ambitious; that is a view shared right across government.
However, we also have to be realistic in how we set that ambition and consider the practical challenges and costs before enshrining new targets in legislation. It is so important to bring society with us and therefore consult properly and meaningfully on the measures that we are likely to need to implement to achieve those significant reductions in air pollutant levels in the future; that is something we will have to do.
I hope that I have managed to reassure at least some noble Lords of the seriousness with which we take this issue, and I beg them not to press their amendments.
Before my noble friend sits down, could he confirm that I understood him aright that the current situation, where we do not know the origin of 80% of the particulate matter, is not satisfactory and that the Government will fund more and better research so that we have a grip on where this is coming from?
That is a really important point. In this debate and previous debates, I have said that our knowledge base is not complete, and it needs to be much more complete. It may not ever be totally complete, but the Government—particularly Defra, working with the Department for Transport and Public Health England—are researching the issue exhaustively, with a view to informing the targets that we are obliged to set in the short term.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I will be very brief because I know that we are all looking forward to a break. I will not go into any detail about individual contributions, but I thank everyone who has spoken in support of my amendments—it is very much appreciated, and it has demonstrated that there is a lot of very strong feeling in the House about the concerns that we have raised.
I come to the points that the Minister made. Having met Defra officials on a number of occasions, I do not doubt at all that they are working extremely hard on this issue—for example, the planned exposure targets are extremely important—but that does not alter my frustration, and that of many others, that the urgent action that we need now is simply not happening and is being put off yet again. We have heard time and again that this is a health emergency, and I do not believe that the Government are treating it as an emergency. If that was the case, these amendments would be accepted, in my opinion.
We believe that our amendment is critical to drive the progress that we need. We also believe that a lot of existing evidence and information is already available in order for the Government to start taking action. On that basis, I would like to test the opinion of the House on my Amendment 4.
Ayes 181, Noes 159.