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House of Commons

Monday 20 June 1994

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- -- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Airport Privatisation --

1. Mr. Anthony Coombs : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport whether it is his policy to encourage local authorities to privatise their airports.

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. John MacGregor) : Yes, it is our policy to encourage local authorities to privatise their airports. East Midlands was sold last summer. The BAA has operated private sector airports very successfully in Scotland and the south-east since 1987.

Mr. Coombs : Given the enormous success of the privatised British Airports Authority in running Heathrow and Gatwick, will my right hon. Friend encourage the privatisation of Birmingham airport, especially as it will need to attract additional private capital for the £400 million investment programme that it is planning for the next 10 years ?

Mr. MacGregor : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for pointing out the success of the privatisation of the British Airports Authority. It has led- -this is very relevant to his question--to a substantial increase in capital investment in

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all its airports and to a great improvement in its services. It is much more enterprising and is now selling its services to countries overseas, which demonstrates the success of our policy.

I understand that Birmingham airport has substantial capital investment plans. It is right that those should be taken forward in partnership with the private sector and I welcome the fact that Birmingham intends to do so.

Mr. Bryan Davies : Will not my constituents, who last year received £800,000 for the local authority from Manchester airport's profits, lose while the Minister's friends in the City gain from that absurd policy ?

Mr. MacGregor : There is no reason why they should lose. The fact of the matter is that everyone has gained from the privatisation of the BAA. The passenger has gained very substantially. Instead of paying for capital expenditure from public resources, we now receive tax in return from the British Airports Authority. All round, it has been a very successful policy and I believe that it would apply just as well in Manchester.

Road Accidents --

2. Mr. Brandreth : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received concerning his proposals to reduce road accidents involving newly qualified drivers ; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. MacGregor : Since issuing the consultation document "New Driver Safety", we have received more than 500 representations supporting action in that area. Given that support, I am now taking forward four main proposals : retesting for serious traffic offenders among young drivers ; a separate theory test ; post-driver training linked to lower insurance premiums ; and road safety education at 16-plus.

Mr. Brandreth : Can my right hon. Friend confirm that we have the best record on traffic safety of almost anywhere in the world ? Since records began in 1926, the statistics are better than ever, despite a 14- fold increase in the number of vehicles. New drivers remain a critically

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important area, as about 20 per cent. of accidents are caused by about 10 per cent. of licence holders. Can he give us some idea of the date on which he will be introducing the important measures that he outlined, especially that relating to post-driver training and insurance premiums ?

Mr. MacGregor : I confirm that we have one of the best safety records in Europe and that the number of fatal accidents on the roads is lower than at any time than since accident statistics were first recorded in 1926. Given the huge increase in traffic, that is a substantial achievement. The greater proportion of accidents is among young drivers and new drivers generally. My hon. Friend is right to concentrate on that, as I have done. I hope to be able to introduce post-driver training linked to lower insurance premiums. Following my discussions with the major insurance societies during the past few months, I hope to be able to bring forward that scheme in the autumn.

Mr. Tony Banks : Although I welcome what the Minister said with regard to newly qualified drivers, will he tell the House what he is doing- -and of his concern--about the elderly driver ? Recently, there have been a number of accidents involving drivers aged 70 and over. Is not it about time that we set an upper limit, so that such people are retired from driving because, in certain cases, they are also a hazard on the roads ? [Interruption.]

Mr. MacGregor : I heard an intervention from the Opposition Benches which suggested that the hon. Gentleman might take a different view once he reaches the age of 70. There is a much higher proportion of accidents among new drivers and that is why it is right to have special measures in that direction. The hon. Gentleman will know that retesting, medical certificates and so on are required for older drivers of a certain age and it would not be right to put a ceiling on those. Some people are capable of driving successfully and safely well beyond the age of 70.

Mr. Peter Bottomley : May I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said and put it to him that it would be wise if the theory test were not too complicated ? It should test obvious rather than arcane things, as there are a few simple causes for most traffic crashes.

Mr. MacGregor : There has been a general welcome to the idea of having a theory test before new drivers go on to the practical test. We are developing the theory test now, working with the National Foundation for Education Research. The theory test certainly must be in place by 1996 and I will bear in mind what my hon. Friend has said.

Crossrail --

3. Mr. Jim Cunningham : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement regarding the future of crossrail.

The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris) : We continue to support the crossrail project. We were disappointed by the Private Bill Committee's decision not to find the preamble to the Crossrail Bill proved. We are considering, with the Bill's promoters--London Underground Ltd. and British Rail--how best to proceed.

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Mr. Cunningham : Will the Minister give the House an assurance that he will expedite this matter as soon as possible, bearing in mind the considerable anxieties outside the House regarding the matter and the economic potential of the scheme in terms of creating jobs ?

Mr. Norris : I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of the scheme and, as I said, it is for the promoters to find a way forward. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport have made clear their support for the scheme and we are studying how best to take it forward.

Mr. Lidington : Has my hon. Friend had time to study the representations from organisations representing business and commerce in London and the south-east, and the united view of local authorities across party-political lines, which remains firmly that crossrail is needed in the national interest and particularly in the interests of our capital city and the south-east ?

Mr. Norris : I have indeed, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the tremendous work that he has done in sponsoring the Bill in the House. We were disappointed that the Private Bill Committee did not find the preamble of the Bill proved and I know that that sense of disappointment was widely shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

It is a shame that, in examining how this condition might have been brought about, the role of the Liberal Democratic council in Tower Hamlets should have been so extraordinary. The Liberal Democrats' public national policy is to favour public transport and to be dreadfully anti-car, but it wants to make sure that those public transport schemes never come near a Liberal- controlled council.

Mr. Spearing : Will the Minister make a distinction between a link between crossrail and suburban, domestic services on Union Railways to Kent, and a link with a possible Stratford international station ? Would not the latter provide useful links to international rail services from central and west London and add to the already 150-odd stations which would be directly linked to Stratford by fast rail services ?

Mr. Norris : I know of the hon. Gentleman's great interest in the further development of Stratford. He rightly puts his finger on the considerable complexity which surrounds the linkage between crossrail, for example, and other rail systems such as a second rail link. In drawing attention to the difference between a straight link and the exchanges which might be possible in Stratford, the hon. Gentleman does the House a service. I cannot comment specifically on the proposals for intermediate stations or on the outline powers in relation to crossrail, because they are matters yet to be determined.

Mr. John Marshall : Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Crossrail Bill was scuppered by the votes of two Labour Members ? Does he accept that he would have the gratitude of all the people of London if he undid the consequences of that unholy alliance between the Liberal Democratic party in Tower Hamlets and Labour Members ?

Mr. Norris : The whole House is aware that the Private Bill Committee procedure has served the House for many years. Many hon. Members, including myself, who have

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considered private Bills have considered how to address the principles behind those Bills entirely objectively. I would not dream of suggesting that that was not the case on this occasion. That does not detract, however, from the general disappointment felt on both sides of the House at the decision on crossrail.

Mr. Raynsford : The Minister will be well aware, even though he did not tell the House about it, of the extent of support from Opposition Front -Bench spokesmen and the Labour party for the principle of crossrail. We believe that the Bill should be recommitted. Having said that, serious concerns remain about the funding of crossrail, particularly if substantial works are deemed necessary to establish links at both ends of the route and to meet environmental concerns. Will the Minister therefore give an undertaking, on behalf of his Treasury colleagues, that any such works deemed necessary should not be prejudiced or sacrificed for lack of public finance ?

Mr. Norris : We have always insisted, quite rightly, that the scheme should be taken forward in conjunction with the private sector and we anticipated substantial private sector investment. I believe that that is the proper way to proceed. There are great merits in that process, not least in terms of the value engineering that the private sector can bring to such large projects. The Government have made clear their commitment through the statement by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time a couple of weeks ago and the many statements made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and me. Any alteration to the scheme would obviously be a matter for the promoters, because they would have to determine how it should be funded and taken forward.

Freight --

4. Mr. Hayes : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what steps he is taking to encourage freight to be moved by rail rather than by road.

The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. Roger Freeman) : We are encouraging rail freight in a number of ways. We have liberalised access to the rail network ; facilitated the restructuring of British Rail's freight businesses prior to sale ; improved the freight facilities grants scheme ; introduced a new track access grant for marginal freight flows ; and raised the maximum gross vehicle weight limit to 44 tonnes for combined road-rail transport.

Mr. Hayes : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the rail strike, in which workers are demanding 11 per cent. for nothing whatever in return, will tip freight back on to the roads, which will be to the detriment of the environment and, of course, the long-suffering public ?

Mr. Freeman : I hope that everyone accepts that significant pay increases cannot be afforded without compensating improvements in productivity. If inflationary pay settlements are awarded, costs and prices go up and that means freight is tipped back on to the roads.

Ms Jowell : Will the Minister urgently tell the director of Railtrack to undertake a study of alternative routes for freight other than through the centre of London ? Does he accept that misery is caused to thousands of Londoners,

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including my constituents, as a result of increased freight traffic ? Does he also accept that 75 per cent. of freight traffic is intended for destinations outside London ? Will he draw to Mr. Horton's attention the successful all-party lobby of Parliament today organised by the London Channel Tunnel Group as evidence of the extent of concern felt across London ?

Mr. Freeman : The answer to the first part of the hon. Lady's question is yes--we have instructed Railtrack to consider an alternative west-about route through Redhill and it will consider the costs involved.

I understand the concerns of those who live by the west London line because of increased noise, particularly caused by the movement of freight at night. That traffic will be modest to begin with, but I will visit the line together with local Members of Parliament, Labour and Conservative, on 13 July.

Mr. Dunn : The Minister will be aware that those of my constituents who use the A20 and the A2 want a better balance between rail and road for the dispatch of freight to and from the Kent coast to London. As long as there is uncertainty about the movement of freight, caused by regular railway strikes called by the RMT union, will not the effect be to keep freight on the road, ultimately damaging the environment of north-west Kent ?

Mr. Freeman : I am grateful to my hon. Friend because, if one compares the rail freight and road haulage industries, he must be right. Every time a strike interrupts the supply of passenger or freight services, custom is lost. This strike, therefore, should be condemned by everyone with a real interest in supporting the rail industry.

Mr. Skinner : Is the Minister aware that the Government have a cheek to attack railway people who go on strike for more pay, especially when the Government do not have the guts to introduce a pay policy and instead use a policy based on the dole queue ? They have someone permanently present at those talks when they are supposed to be outside. In any case, if the boss of Railtrack can get £120,000 for three days a week, why should the Government condemn workers who are trying to get a living wage ?

Mr. Freeman : As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has made plain on a number of occasions over the past two years, there is widespread support in the country for the notion that one cannot afford to make inflationary pay increases of that significant size without compensatory improvements in productivity. We have been through this matter before. The days of something for nothing are finished.

Rail Services (Competition) --

5. Mr. Hawksley : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the effect of competition on rail services.

Mr. MacGregor : Evidence from previous transport privatisations shows that the introduction of competition encourages the development of better-quality services. I am confident that customers--passengers and freight--will benefit from more services of higher quality, improved efficiency and better value for money.

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Mr. Hawksley : I thank my right hon. Friend for that encouraging answer. What effect will the industrial action by signalmen, who are asking for 11 per cent. without increased productivity and are supported by the Opposition, have on competition in the future ?

Mr. MacGregor : One must bear in mind the fact that the competition is road and air, so it is important that Railtrack and British Rail be thoroughly efficient and competitive. The demand for a no-strings increase of at least 11 per cent. in signalmen's basic pay is inflationary and will not help the competitive position of Railtrack or the railway services. On Monday, the Railtrack board offered a 2.5 per cent. annual pay increase, which is in line with many other pay offers in both the public and private sectors. It also offered, and is keen to have, talks on major reforms and restructuring of signalmen's terms and conditions. It is irresponsible and damaging to the railways for the unions to undertake a series of strikes on an 11 per cent., no-strings pay claim. It is important that the talks begin again and I am anxious that that should happen. The real question, however, is for the Opposition, who have been notable for their silence on this issue. Does the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) approve of the strike for an 11 per cent., no-strings pay increase ? Yes or no ?

Mr. Harvey : Does the Minister believe that potential bidders for the franchise to run trains on the south-west line have an accurate picture of what they are letting themselves in for, given the reliability figures compiled for the passengers charter ? Is not the Minister concerned that as important a flagship of Government policy as the citizens charter should compute inaccurate figures and measure wrong times ? Some of the punctual trains are recorded as having gone twice and some less punctual ones are recorded as never having arrived. Should not a search party be sent out for the passengers who are in official limbo and compensation be given to season ticket holders ?

Mr. MacGregor : I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that the figures be accurate. If they are not, we shall certainly look at the matter.

Sir Anthony Durant : Is my right hon. Friend aware that the commuters of Reading are completely fed up with the strike, as a result of which many are now climbing on buses that run from Reading to London, which is an efficient service at about two thirds the cost ? Does he agree that commuters will not return to the railways unless the railways wake up to the problem ?

Mr. MacGregor : My hon. Friend is right. That is the danger for jobs in the railway industry of a pay increase of at least 11 per cent. without any productivity improvements. However, I emphasise again that the chairman of Railtrack has said that he wants to achieve a settlement on the restructuring--which is separate from the immediate pay offer--which rewards the signalmen for their skills and gives them a modern employment package. That restructuring must offer value for money, for the reason that my hon. Friend gives, but it is quite separate from an 11 per cent. demand with no strings attached. That is why I call on the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras to condemn that demand and, above all, to condemn a strike that is damaging to the railways.

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Mr. Dobson : If, as the Secretary of State asserts, it would be inflationary to find the £5 million that it would cost to pay the 5.7 per cent. increase that was offered by Railtrack and later withdrawn, what does he think the £7 million that Railtrack has expended on refurbishing its offices is ? Is that inflationary or is it deflationary ?

Was the offer withdrawn because the newly appointed bosses of Railtrack are incompetent, stupid and act in bad faith, or was it because the Secretary of State intervened and prevented them from making the offer, despite the fact that his departmental press office was lying and saying that there had been no ministerial interference ?

Mr. MacGregor : I have made my position clear every time that I have been asked. I have frequent discussions with the board of Railtrack and members of the board of British Rail about public sector pay policy and I shall continue to do so. People would expect me to have a clear view about the Government's general position on public sector pay policy.

It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not establish the facts about Railtrack's premises. I understand that the actual cost of the premises is £1.8 million, which is a very modest arrangement for a very important body.

The whole House will have noticed that, once again, the hon. Gentleman has not made clear his position on the strike. Once again, if he is silent, he is condoning a pay increase with no strings attached of at least 11 per cent., causing great discomfort to passengers and potential damage to the railways--a pay increase that few other people in the country in the public or private sector are receiving. I take it that he will now take the opportunity to condemn that strike as irresponsible.

Road Traffic (Hastings and Rye) --

6. Mrs. Lait : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he last visited Hastings and Rye to assess its road traffic needs.

The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Robert Key) : On 19 May, I travelled along the A259/A27 south coast route from Dymchurch to Lewes, passing through Hastings and Rye, to see for myself the road for which we have 11 major schemes programmed.

Mrs. Lait : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and ask him whether he has seen the mischievous article in The Observer yesterday, which said that there might be some falling back in the plans for the A259 through my constituency. Is he aware of the worry that that will cause the nearly 13 per cent. of my constituents who are unemployed and can he assure me that the economic development of my constituency, which is so vital, will proceed speedily with the continuation of those road plans ?

Mr. Key : Yes, I thought that it was mischievous, too. My hon. Friend is right about the economic importance of transport in her area. Much of the A259 is picturesque, but primitive to say the least. Rye certainly needs its bypass, although the tunnel is expensive. The biggest problem is the Winchelsea to Icklesham section and I have asked the chief executive of the Highways Agency to reconsider the needs of the area. That landscape and heritage are not only spectacular but unique and I could not recommend to my right hon. Friend the construction of a new road in the Brede valley.

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Rail Privatisation --

7. Sir Fergus Montgomery : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the effect on passengers of the plans to privatise the railways.

Mr. MacGregor : Our proposals will result in better, more attractive services being offered to rail passengers through the introduction of private sector skills, innovation and responsiveness to passengers' requirements.

Sir Fergus Montgomery : Does my right hon. Friend agree that better services for rail passengers are what is required ? Does he also agree that the present strike is causing a great deal of inconvenience to rail passengers ? Is not he amazed that the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) still has not condemned the strikers ?

Mr. MacGregor : I agree with my hon. Friend about the effect on some passengers deciding not to use the railways and I want it to be entirely the other way round. I want to build up more opportunities for railwaymen with a great many more people using the railways. Let me try it another way. I have said that I think that a strike on the basis of a pay claim of at least 11 per cent. with no strings attached is irresponsible in present circumstances. I have also said that the restructuring talks offer big opportunities to sort out the pay, terms and conditions of signalmen in a modern employment package. Might I therefore ask the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras whether he agrees that it would be desirable for the strike not to take place in order that the restructuring talks, to ensure value for money in any arrangements, may now take place ? Perhaps he will make his position clear on that.

Mr. Dalyell : Has the Secretary of State been in one of the modern signal boxes ? If so, has not he observed the incredible technology and the responsibility that signalmen now have--just as much as air traffic controllers ? Has the right hon. Gentleman actually seen a signal box in operation ?

Mr. MacGregor : These matters have been spelt out to me, and I know exactly what the issues are. That is why Railtrack is seeking a modern employment package for signalmen, with up-to-date terms and conditions, and I agree with Railtrack. That is precisely the point ; separate discussions should continue on that, and the chairman of Railtrack has made it clear that he is keen to engage in such discussions. I support him, and hope that the strikes will be called off for that reason as well--to enable the talks to continue.

Mr. Michael Brown : If my right hon. Friend has difficulty in hearing me, it is because I have not used my voice in the Chamber for the past year.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the lesson that we learn from the experience of privatisation is that industrial disputes tend to be non- existent when we have privatised an industry ? Is not the lesson of the current dispute that the sooner we put Railtrack into private hands, the better ?

Mr. MacGregor : I assure my hon. Friend that I never have any difficulty in hearing him. I have had no difficulty in hearing him to great effect during the past year, and now the whole House can do so again.

We have made it clear that our aim is to privatise Railtrack in due course, at the appropriate time. The immediate need, however, is to ensure a modern

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employment package for signalmen that is self -financing, offers value for money and is separate from the pay offer. I think that that should be done in a sensible way, without the threat of unnecessary strikes that damage the railway industry and, therefore, those employed in it. I repeat for the umpteenth time my request for the Opposition to make their position clear ; and in doing so, I refer not only to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras but to the contenders for the party leadership, who have used fine phrases, but have run a mile from the first key issue that they faced.

Mr. Dobson : Will the Secretary of State confirm that British Rail's signalling staff do extremely responsible jobs that are immensely important to everyone ? Will he confirm that their representatives have been conducting negotiations about an improvement in their pay to reflect the improvement in productivity that has been taking place for several years ? Will he confirm that the week before last those representatives believed that they had reached an interim agreement involving payment of 5.7 per cent. on account, and that that would be confirmed last week ? Will he confirm that officials from his Department then summoned three members of the board of Railtrack and told them that it was not on, and that the boss of Railtrack had to be dragged back from his holiday--as did the chief negotiator, who had been holidaying in the West Indies ? Finally, does the Secretary of State recognise that it takes two sides to have an industrial dispute ? Will he condemn Railtrack for its incompetence and stupidity--or will he condemn himself for intervening ?

Mr. MacGregor : The Railtrack board made its offer last Monday afternoon. It was for a pay increase of 2.5 per cent.--exactly the same as the offer to British Rail, very similar to many other current public sector offers and, indeed, in excess of some private sector offers. The board also said that it was keen to undertake the restructuring talks as part of a separate exercise. The chairman of Railtrack has repeated that, and I strongly support him.

I repeat that it would be greatly in the interests of our reaching a sensible conclusion to this matter if the hon. Gentleman would condemn a strike based on an 11 per cent., no-strings-attached demand. We have all noticed that, despite many attempts to get him to do that, he has so far refused.

Sir David Madel : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if a further rail dispute is to be avoided, it will take all the skill of the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, this evening and beyond it, to reach a solution ? Does he further agree that, once the talks are under way, the threat of industrial action should be suspended and that management must show great patience in its talks with ACAS to try to work out a solution and to avoid another dispute ?

Mr. MacGregor : I certainly hope that the talks can take place without further strike action, which would be unjustified and would be of no benefit to the railway system. However, the details of the negotiations on restructuring are a matter for the Railtrack board.

Diesel Cars --

9. Mr. Alan W. Williams : To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what percentage of new cars sold used diesel fuel in each year since 1990.

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Mr. Key : Six per cent., 9 per cent., 12 per cent. and 18 per cent. in 1993.

Mr. Williams : Despite the rapid rise in the popularity of diesel cars, the Minister is aware that a report earlier this year by the quality of urban air review group highlighted environmental problems with diesel cars, especially particulates--tiny soot particles--that are associated with lung cancer. What are the Government doing to persuade the motor industry to clean up emissions from diesel cars ?

Mr. Key : Particulate emissions could prove a serious problem. However, on current levels of diesel penetration we expect particulate levels to decline. If diesel's share continues to increase rapidly, or if the Department of Health's Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants demonstrates that there is a need for further reductions in particulates, the Government may need to consider a range of measures to reduce levels.

Of course, further action on vehicles would need European Union agreement. The United Kingdom has supported European measures to cut emissions, which have been falling rapidly. Limits on particulates will be halved by 1996 and discussions have begun on further tightening. However, it is important to remember that diesels consume 23 per cent. less fuel, use less energy and produce 15 per cent. less carbon dioxide.

Mr. Matthew Banks : My right hon. Friend has drawn attention to diesel fuel. Can he confirm that, owing to price differentials, unleaded petrol accounts for 50 per cent. of the market ?

Mr. Key : I can so confirm, and it is a major advance brought about by this Government. Indeed, it has been a more rapid advance than in other Community countries. It is important to remember that catalytic converters have had a dramatic impact on the levels of emissions from those cars fitted with them.

Ms Walley : Given the growth in traffic, is not it time that the Government paid more attention to the report from the Department of the Environment's quality of urban air review group ? Should not there be some real action and should not we go back to the real reason why we have such problems--the fact that the current growth of traffic is unsustainable ?

Mr. Key : The forecast growth of traffic will not have the impact suggested by the hon. Lady. The rapid decline in emissions more than makes up for growth.

Mr. Mans : Does my hon. Friend agree that, over the past five years, the Government have made considerable strides in improving emissions from cars ? Does he further agree that one of the problems is that many older cars that could be transferred to unleaded petrol are not being transferred ? A further problem is that many diesel-engined cars are still dirty and more tests are required to ensure that they are cleaned up.

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