It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr McCabe.
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Mrs Ellman, who has pursued this issue with characteristic vigour in her role as the Chair of the Transport Committee. It is absolutely right that we are having this debate on the back of the Committee’s report, because since the case broke back in September 2015 we have had Committee hearings, and the issue has been raised frequently at Transport questions; I am sure the Minister remembers those exchanges. Today, however, is a welcome opportunity to hear from the Government what they intend to do about it.
This issue is extremely important and we must ensure that our efforts to hold Volkswagen to account are not side-tracked, either by Brexit, which seems to be all-consuming for some parts of Government, or by the imminent general election. It is also important because the relationship between emissions and air quality is a fundamental issue—we discussed air quality in this Chamber only yesterday. It is increasingly clear to us that despite the Minister’s warm assurances that air quality overall is improving, parts of the country are suffering an air quality crisis, which in some places is literally choking some of our towns and cities. I have no doubt that Members from all parties are looking forward to the Government publishing their third attempt at an air quality strategy soon, particularly because a High Court judge described their last two efforts as “woefully inadequate.”
There are two distinct issues that we are discussing today that feed into the air quality crisis: first, the accuracy of emissions testing, and secondly, as we have heard, there is VW, which, despite the relative leniency of the EU testing regime, actively distorted its tests. I was greatly taken by the comments of Andrew Selous about how recompense could perhaps be made by one of these major companies so as to improve our air quality in the future.
It has been known for a while now that emissions tests are inaccurate. Given the challenges of technology and the importance of getting the variables as similar as possible for all tests, it should have been clear earlier that there was a yawning gap between the laboratory tests and the emissions produced in real driving conditions. Despite what the Government say, it is hard not to conclude that there has been significant dragging of heels in facing up to this matter.
I have been told that, prior to the VW case in July 2015, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was briefing Members of the European Parliament to oppose measures on real driving emissions testing, and it is still not clear to us whether the DFT was consulted on that issue. Perhaps we can be told whether it was consulted or not. It was only when the VW scandal became a concern for the wider public and attracted publicity that the Government were compelled to act and support the changes to the EU testing regime last year.
A highly critical European Parliament commission of inquiry concluded last month that EU member states, including the UK, strongly opposed the more ambitious proposal by the Commission for conformity factors for limits on oxides of nitrogen. The commission of inquiry also said that it remained “debatable” whether conformity factors in the new real driving emissions procedures were justifiable from a technical perspective, given that several independent tests on Euro 6 cars are already achievable under existing standards. The commission also recognised that there are standards in the world that are much stricter than those in Europe. We know that EU car manufacturers already place diesel cars on the US market that must comply with the NOx limits in the US, which are much lower than in the EU, so it can be done.
It is crucial the Government are not complacent about any of this. For the sake of public health, we cannot afford to have open-ended emissions breaches. As well as advocating for research into measuring capabilities, there must be a constant review of the regime to ensure that manufacturers do not find ways of avoiding limits through other means, and that is putting it kindly.
In the longer term, the Government must be a leader outside the EU and press for a whole new approach that focuses entirely on real-life driving scenarios. Will the Minister set out his plans for reviewing the mechanisms? Will he commit to bringing down the conformity factor as soon as possible? Will he set out his plans on type approval outside of the EU and tell us what they are? The Government said in response to the Transport Committee report that they are
“considering new research to develop ideas for real world testing of CO2” and other pollutants. Where has that research got to? Will he make clear his party’s commitments on air quality domestically? I have to say, I felt he did not set out the full detail in this Chamber yesterday. Will the strategy include investment in greener buses and public transport? Will it include a review of plug-in grants and excise duty rates for electric vehicles? Will it include measures to reduce other barriers to electric vehicle uptake? Will it include extending clean air zones to more local authorities?
Of course, the public outrage is around the VW scandal. What VW did undermined not only trust in VW, but public trust in the whole automotive industry. A year and a half on since the case, we have seen a settlement of almost $15 billion for mis-selling nearly 500,000 vehicles to US customers, but in the UK there have been neither financial nor legal penalties to VW for the deception of 1.2 million vehicle owners. The Transport Committee has rightly been damning of the Department for Transport’s ambivalence towards the legality of VW’s actions, despite the strong words in the media recognising that the Department took five months before seeking preliminary legal advice on a prosecution. I strongly endorse the demands made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, particularly on disclosing the data that seem to have been available in America, but not here. It is very important that we know.
The Government still have questions to answer, particularly on what they knew before 2015, what they have done besides the type-approval changes and what their plans are to actually hold VW’s feet to the fire, rather than just promising to do so. Before the scandal broke in the US, the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre raised concerns over the possible use of defeat devices back in 2013. Why was such an allegation not followed up? The Government have since established a market surveillance unit within the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, but the European Parliament report suggests that failure to organise a surveillance system beforehand constitutes a contravention of EU law and maladministration. Does the Minister therefore expect legal proceedings from the Commission to continue? How is the Department for Transport progressing with introducing requirements for manufacturers to disclose their emissions control strategies? Will that be affected by any interventions by the European Union?
Despite talk of steely fists and velvet gloves from the Minister in previous debates and monthly meetings with the Department, it seems that VW has not budged an inch in recompensing drivers in our country. Any technical changes that VW is voluntarily carrying out are supposedly to remove any doubt from customers’ minds and are promised not to affect vehicle performance, fuel consumption or driveability, but that is not the experience of some drivers, as we have heard. As my hon. Friend said, if nothing is wrong, why is VW doing that? What is the cost of letting VW sort out these problems in its own time? Can the Minister outline where we have got to with VW?
There are other concerns that the Government must address too. Despite years of false emissions data, written answers to shadow Transport Ministers suggest that the Treasury has found no miscalculation of VED rates. That point was raised by the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire. The Government are clearly out of pocket. Can the Minister confirm that that is the case and tell us what he is doing about it? What other avenues has he considered in seeking remuneration from VW? We know that he has been in touch with the criminal counsel, but he has so far chosen not to disclose advice in order to avoid undermining ongoing investigations. When was the last time he sought advice? Can he share with us any more on that? Finally, he visited Germany last month to discuss the matter with counterparts. What was the outcome of those talks?
In conclusion, we have a lot of questions, to which I hope we will get answers. The development of an accurate emissions testing regime is fundamental to improving air quality and public health and must be a priority for the Department. The Government must now give strong support to reducing conformity factors and strive for a better testing regime. They must also outline their plans on air quality and emissions reductions. On VW, it really is time for the Minister to assure not just this House, but vehicle owners and those suffering poor air quality that he has more than strong words to offer. We need action, and we need results. I trust he will not disappoint.