Emissions and Vehicle Type Approval — [Steve McCabe in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:53 pm on 20th April 2017.

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Photo of Michael Weir Michael Weir SNP Chief Whip 1:53 pm, 20th April 2017

It is a pleasure to appear under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe. I congratulate Mrs Ellman and her Committee on its excellent report. Her speech set out lucidly the problems that have been uncovered.

Clearly the actions of the company in this matter are utterly reprehensible and have seriously undermined confidence in a company that was previously a byword for reliability. In particular, the actions of Mr Willis before the Committee will have done nothing for Volkswagen’s future reputation in the UK and probably further afield. Nobody would argue with the Government’s response to the report when it states:

“The Government strongly agrees with the Committee that the actions of Volkswagen were completely unacceptable and is also concerned by Volkswagen’s more recent statements that underplay the severity of its cheating.”

Andrew Selous alluded to the fact that in Canada and the United States the company has come up with money and compensated consumers. He also mentioned the loss of tax revenue and perhaps vehicle excise duty, but I suggest that the impact on the public purse has been much wider. Because emissions have been much higher than we were led to believe, there will have been an impact on public health. Addressing that impact will have been funded by the taxpayer throughout the United Kingdom. Volkswagen’s actions have put people’s health in danger and caused greater Government expenditure, and the Government should take that into account in dealing with the matter. The same situation will apply in many countries throughout Europe that have a public health service.

The emissions scandal also feeds into the current debate about the future of diesel vehicles and their impact on air quality in our cities. Clearly, in order to have a rational debate on the matter, we need confidence in the data about the level, as well as the impact, of emissions. The actions of the company have destroyed much of the confidence about the levels of emissions that have actually been generated. Strangely enough, I received an email this week on that very subject from a constituent, Neil, who has a diesel vehicle:

“For the past two decades I have driven a diesel car, on the advice that this type of fuel was the best environmental choice. I am now in the position of being considered the demon of the roads owing to the pollution—particulates and nitrogen oxide—released by these cars. This is due to the car companies’
fraudulent use of pollution cheating systems…
I would like to be sure that I will not be the one who ends up footing the bill to change my polluting diesel. Are there any UK schemes being planned to help people like me, who are victims of this scam?”

Perhaps the Minister might care to elucidate. That email illustrates that ordinary people who have tried to do the right thing and get vehicles that are less polluting have ended up with vehicles that appear to be even greater polluters than the petrol cars they drove before. That undermines public confidence and our efforts to reduce our emissions and clean up our air. Volkswagen cannot escape responsibility for what it has done.

I note that the Government response to the report states:

“We found no evidence that other manufacturers we tested were using a cycle recognition device like Volkswagen.”

That may be so, but it has become apparent since the Volkswagen scandal broke that many manufacturers have been using devices to similarly reduce or hide the true emissions of their vehicles. For example, The Guardian reported last year on concerns about Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Mazda and Mitsubishi, and the American magazine Road and Track reported on concerns about some of the same companies, as well as Opel, several American manufacturers, Fiat, PSA and Renault. It also reported that a class action had been instigated in the US against Mercedes-Benz. The scandal may go much wider than just Volkswagen. We have no idea what impact it has had on consumers in the UK or on air quality in many of our major cities.

All of that shows that we face a very large-scale and widespread problem with the data claimed by motor manufacturers, as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside alluded to. Owners of diesel vehicles have been put in an impossible position. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s comments on whether the Department has looked at the wider issue and at manufacturers other than Volkswagen to ascertain the true extent of the problem. It seems to me that tackling Volkswagen is a start, but unless we get to the heart of the problem, find out how large it is and tackle it with all manufacturers, we will face an ongoing and serious problem for consumers and public health.

The Committee’s report and the hon. Lady’s speech have rightly drawn attention to the difference in the approach taken by Volkswagen in the US and Europe. Again, few would dispute recommendation 3:

“Volkswagen’s treatment of customers in Europe compared to its treatment of customers in the US is deeply unfair.”

The Competition and Markets Authority was alluded to, but the Government response makes the point that the CMA has no powers to intervene, as the vehicles concerned are mostly vehicles sold prior to the CMA getting appropriate powers. Given that all this apparently goes back to 2006, that is a heck of a number of vehicles on our roads that are affected.

The Government now talk of joint action with prosecutors across Europe. Can the Minister say whether that will continue? Obviously we are in the process of negotiating withdrawal from the European Union. Will that have an impact on any such action? I suspect that this is not going to be sorted in the next few months, so it may well have an impact in the future. Comment has also been made on the possibility of action under the Sale of Goods Act 1979.