It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Chope. I thank Neil Parish for securing this important debate. Having read some of the minutes of his Committee, I can tell that he gives Ministers a hard time—he is exactly the kind of friend any ministerial team needs.
This is a very timely debate, although I have to say that I think it is the first debate in which we have heard only male voices in my short time in this place. I am not quite sure what that tells us, but clearly women and children are among the 40,000 people who, as the Royal College of Physicians tells us, suffer premature death in the UK every year because of these issues. To take one local example, Brixton Road in south London breached its annual air pollution limit for 2017 after just five days. The Government’s continued failure to address the problem meant that they were taken to the Supreme Court.
Labour recognises the need for action. In our view, clean air is a right, not a privilege. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Geraint Davies for the work he is doing on the Clean Air Bill and I note his powerful point about the role that manufacturers should be playing in sorting out some of the problems.
We heard a powerful speech from my right hon. Friend Mr Spellar, which was fitting, as he is a former esteemed Transport Minister. He made a wide-ranging set of points. I very much agree about the need to protect hard-working people who need their vehicles to get to work, and his strong plea for robust evidence in the debate.
There is no denying that diesel vehicles account for a large percentage of NOx emissions. A 2016 DEFRA report stated that road transport still accounted for 34% of UK nitrogen oxide emissions in 2015. The European Commission reported in 2016 that around four fifths of road traffic nitrogen oxide levels come from diesel-powered vehicles. Decisions have been taken in the past to incentivise the ownership of diesel-fuelled private cars, which reflected the urgent need at the time to act on the threat of CO2. That worked, because that is now down more than a third since 2000.
This is not just about private cars, as we have heard: buses, coaches, taxis and minicabs are all high-mileage vehicles that operate within our towns and cities. Just looking at diesel private cars in isolation is therefore not the complete answer to the problem we face. It has to be seen in the context of the move to a greener and more efficient public transport system across the UK, which means removing barriers to the uptake of electric vehicles and rethinking vehicle excise duty. Any diesel policy must take clear account of the impact it could have on CO2 emissions, and it must avoid severely penalising the almost 12 million diesel car owners who, as we have heard, bought their vehicles in good faith.
It is clear that scrappage schemes can work. Labour’s scheme, introduced in 2009, shows that they can impact consumer behaviour, but the circumstances now are different. It is not about stimulating the economy following a global downturn, but about taking the most air-polluting vehicles off our roads. Any scrappage scheme must be shown to achieve value for money, and it must be targeted at the right drivers.
A recent Royal Automobile Club Foundation report sounds a warning note about that. It suggests that the cost of implementing a scheme could be expensive and may not automatically achieve the expected benefits. Targeting older diesel vehicles in the bands known as Euro 1, 2, and 3 could take 400,000 cars off UK roads, costing the Government and industry a combined £800 million, but that would cut the total emissions of diesel cars by only 3.2%, and only if all those drivers elected for an electric vehicle replacement. The percentage drops to 1.3% if the drivers opted for the newer Euro 6 models. The findings show that creating a robust scrappage scheme is far from simple. It is not necessarily about how dirty a vehicle is or how many there are, but about how many miles they do and where they do them. My hon. Friend Graham Stringer made a very strong point when he suggested that any such scheme should focus on cities, and I think the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton agreed with that point.
Have the Government considered the RAC Foundation findings? Has the Minister considered the Mayor of London’s proposals for a targeted scheme that supports low-income families? Without targeting the right drivers operating in crisis areas, a scrappage scheme risks having a limited impact. It is therefore absolutely essential that the Government publish robust environmental evidence and a cost-benefit analysis for any proposal.
Scrappage schemes are only one of the measures need to be taken if we are really to tackle the air quality crisis effectively. Not only are we awaiting the Government’s third attempt at producing an air-quality plan following a judicial review, which should happen imminently, but I am afraid that they are more than 1.5 million vehicles short of their 1.6 million 2020 target for electric hybrid and alternative fuel vehicles. They are also going backwards on the 2020 renewable transport fuel targets. In our discussions on the Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, Labour pressed for strong action on reviewing the plug-in grant and charging point schemes, both of which were cut by the Government, for licensing and accreditation for technicians—both proposals were backed by the Institute of the Motor Industry—and for a clear review of vehicle excise duty, which was backed by the RAC Foundation, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and many other motor and active travel organisations.
As someone who has spent much of my time in Parliament talking about buses, I know that there are huge opportunities to improve the environmental performance of our bus fleets. As was pointed out, in some areas they are ageing and very polluting. It was disappointing that the Government did not take up some of the Opposition’s constructive proposals on the Bus Services Bill. I urge them to think about that further. There is an opportunity to create a greener bus network, so I ask the Minister to assure us that analysis will be done to look at how we can make better use of the Bus Services Bill to improve our fleet’s environmental performance.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee told us last year that only five of the 12 worst-polluted cities have been given the ability to charge to enter clean-air zones. Will the Government also look at extending the network of clean-air zones, which Labour committed to in 2015?
The Government have some serious questions to answer about air quality. We believe that to breathe clean air is a right, and the health, environmental and economic case for acting is overwhelming. Action on diesel is part of the solution, but measures must be cost-effective and targeted actively enough to affect the high-mileage vehicles that operate in our towns and cities. That means investing in greener buses and public transport, reviewing the plug-in grants and excise duty rates for electric vehicles, reducing other barriers to electric vehicle uptake and extending clean-air zones to more local authorities. One way of rising to these challenges is to back the London Mayor’s call for a new clean air Act that is fit for the 21st century. That would send a powerful message to everyone that clean air is not a privilege but a right. A YouGov survey shows that two thirds of the public support that.
As we eagerly await what must only be an exhaustive and robust air-quality strategy—at the third attempt—I hope the Minister considers his response. The truth is that we can no longer hold our breath while we wait.