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Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Government have been defeated yet again in the other place on the principle of the closed list. This succession of defeats on a policy repeatedly attacked by the Government's own Back Benchers is an unprecedented humiliation for the Government. Will the Government now state their intentions? Will they reconsider, or do they propose to put on the statute book, using the Parliament Act, a measure that was not in their manifesto and that is an affront to democracy?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Beith: Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it not be possible for you to allow the Leader of the House to say whether the repeatedly expressed will of this House that there should be a proportional system will now be given effect by the Parliament Act?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a matter for this evening's business, and therefore it is not a matter for the Chair.


Order for Second Reading read.

Question, That the Bill be now read a Second time, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.

Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.



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    after the commencement of proceedings, whichever is the later, and such Questions shall include the Questions on any Amendments selected by her which may then be moved.--[Mr. Mike Hall.]


Old People's Homes (Essex)

10.27 pm

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): I wish to present a petition in the name of my constituent, Mary Blandon, and 600 other residents of Colchester and district opposing the sale of old people's homes by the Conservative-run Essex county council.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.


10.29 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): This petition is presented on behalf of the residents of Moreton, a small village in my constituency much used by television companies to show a rural idyll. It is threatened by a showman's permanent winter quarters, which would destroy the nature of the village. The petition is signed by 214 people out of a total population of 278; therefore, 77 per cent. of the population support the petition.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

Derbyshire Community Transports

10.30 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): I have pleasure in presenting a petition from the Forum of Derbyshire Community Transports, signed by 7,029 Derbyshire residents who use or support the "Community Transport" service in the county. It is also supported by Derbyshire Members of Parliament on a cross-party basis.

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The petitioners note that commercial passenger transport companies that operate scheduled services are entitled to a rebate of their fuel duty. The rebate is not paid to "Community Transport" services, which last year in Derbyshire made half a million journeys carrying 10,000 elderly or disabled residents with mobility difficulties who were physically unable to use scheduled bus services.

The petition is beautifully inscribed on hand-made locally produced paper. It concludes:

To lie upon the Table.

15 Dec 1998 : Column 878

Freight Vehicles (Fuel)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Mike Hall.]

10.31 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I am delighted to have been selected to introduce this debate.

Freight vehicles come in all shapes and sizes, but the bulk of them are large trucks carrying goods the length and breadth of the land. Such vehicles do not contribute as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as cars, but we know from the recent transport White Paper that they provide a substantial load--some 9 per cent. of total carbon dioxide emissions, against 14 per cent. of the total for cars. They are also far more responsible than car traffic for certain pollutants such as small particles emitted by diesel engines, the preferred power source for most freight vehicles.

The AA recently pointed out that the 500,000 freight vehicles on the road produce more PM10--particulate matter--fine-particle emissions than the 23 million cars that are also sliding about. We also know that they contribute to the increasing congestion on the roads, and to noise pollution, as they make their deliveries in towns. Increasingly tight emission standards--soon to be tightened further--have been laid down by the European Union for exhaust gases issuing from freight vehicles.

The White Paper and the recent Green Paper on climate change set out plans to switch transport by both cars and lorries to other modes. Plans exist substantially to increase the freight carried by rail. Even if all those plans succeeded, however, only a small percentage of road transport would be shifted. At most, a switch to rail and other modes would level out road-hauled freight in the foreseeable future.

As it is likely that the articulated truck will be with us for a long time, we should consider means by which we can make it cleaner and quieter. We need to look at three elements of emissions: carbon dioxide emissions, emissions of noxious gases such as nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and sulphur dioxide, and the deposit of particulates. Progress is being made with levels of all those emissions, in terms of cleaner engines; but the continued use of petrol or diesel as a fuel means that they will continue to be pumped out in substantial quantities.

What fuels might we look at? A number are potentially on offer, but only two present themselves immediately as realistic alternatives to petrol or diesel. First, we can modify diesel itself. Ultra-low-sulphur diesel will eliminate many particulate emissions, but the process of sulphur removal itself means, according to one petroleum company, that for every tonne of sulphur removed by the processing, 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide are discharged into the atmosphere. Biodiesel looks attractive and has the advantage of being CO 2 neutral--it derives from crops that fix the CO 2 in the first place--but the amount grown per gallon of biodiesel makes it difficult to conceive of serious production in the United Kingdom. There are similar problems with methanol or ethanol, which can also be CO 2 neutral, in terms of crop production compared with the amount of fuel produced. For that reason and others, it is very expensive to produce.

The two candidates most likely to be of practical use currently are LPG--liquefied petroleum gas--and CNG--compressed natural gas. LPG has the advantage of

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liquefying at normal temperatures and can be carried in a relatively compact tank. For natural gas to liquefy, a deep-freeze tank is needed; otherwise, the cylinders that contain it are somewhat bulky, and that can limit the range of a vehicle using the gas. LPG is a by-product of the petroleum cracking process, while natural gas is not and it has the advantage of being freely available--literally, via the mains. Natural gas is also essentially methane which can be derived from recycling processes such as organic waste digestion or it can be collected from the organic breakdown of landfill.

Both gases are undoubtedly much cleaner than petrol in all respects and emit virtually no particles, unlike diesel. They emit roughly the same CO 2 as diesel. Although they are not by any means the perfect fuel substitute for petrol or diesel and are mineral fuels, their widespread use in cars and trucks would undoubtedly make a substantial contribution towards the targets that the Government are seeking from our use of vehicles in the United Kingdom. Conversions of petrol engines are relatively cheap, but conversions of diesel engines are substantially more expensive.

The problem for the debate and for the scenario is that virtually no large vehicles in the UK run on either LPG or CNG. Altogether 1.1 million vehicles do so in Italy, as do 400,000 in Holland. The buses in Vienna have run on natural gas for 40 years. In the UK, the estimated total of LPG vehicles--mostly cars--is below 8,000. The number of LPG or CNG freight or large passenger vehicles is so low that they can be identified and marvelled at almost individually. There are 10 in my constituency in the shape of natural gas buses which run quietly and smoothly, emit no exhaust fumes and are very popular with passengers. Safeway runs a small fleet of CNG trucks in London, as does Marks and Spencer. There is a relatively small number of other such vehicles, but that is about it.

There is progress, but it is painfully slow. Powershift, supported by the Energy Saving Trust, has supported the Safeway and Marks and Spencer initiative, and aims to convert 1,000 vehicles, mostly cars, to alternative fuels in 1,000 days. It is exceeding that target. I recently opened a fleet of police cars converted to LPG for the Hampshire constabulary. As I said on the day, I hope that the local criminal fraternity will show equal public awareness by converting a similar number of getaway cars to natural gas. However, there is no disguising the fact that the UK lags behind other countries and that in respect of freight vehicles we hardly register.

To understand why that is so, I spent a day with Boots the Chemists, looking at the national distribution procedures in Nottingham. I also spent time at B and Q headquarters near Southampton, finding out about its distribution procedures. I have spoken to a number of companies and trade federations with an interest in the matter.

I believe that some larger companies at least would like to introduce alternative fuels to their fleets for environmental reasons and because they realise that regulation will move them in that direction. They feel constrained, for example, by curfews on deliveries in towns. Quieter vehicles may help. They certainly worry about meeting new EU emission standards with their current fleets. So why do they not convert? I believe that there are four main reasons.

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First, companies are concerned about the instability of the market in the United Kingdom. They are not sure whether there is or will be an industry standard and that, if they invest in new vehicles, those vehicles will have any resale value. They need some view of a long-term future for one or more alternative fuels in the United Kingdom. To put it crudely, the market will be mature when Dodgy Transport Ltd. buys a CNG truck from a company that has, in turn, bought it from Boots when that company has had its use from it.

Secondly, companies see little or no incentive to switch. They are uncertain about the Government's pricing policies on fuels. They know that there is a fuel escalator, but wonder whether their chosen alternative fuel will escalate too and, if so, over what period.

Thirdly, companies see little or no evidence that the infrastructure that will genuinely allow them to run their vehicles over long distances and use them flexibly is coming into existence. The Safeway and Marks and Spencer CNG fleets run, in effect, as rail routes to and from given destinations with fuelling taking place in one location--their home depots.

Boots uses its transport flexibly. It attempts to maintain a high load level by undertaking triangular journeys. After delivering goods, its trucks pick up supplies for the central distribution depot. Other companies, such as B and Q and Tesco, attempt to back-fill--they pick up recyclable waste on the way back to their depots after delivering. They have regional distribution depots, which could be shared by trucks needing to refuel. Companies may even be able to pool the cost of LPG or CNG fuelling plants, although they do not yet seem to be doing so.

Fourthly, companies see no evidence that manufacturers are providing the engines they would need. Perkins Diesel has recently announced that it is withdrawing its alternative fuel production plant from the UK. Despite obtaining a grant from Powershift, Safeway had to source its engines in Canada. The manufacturers are reluctant to produce, because they are uncertain about the extent to which their products would be sold.

There seems to be a logjam, despite the fact that many people agree that progress is vital. The immediate, oft-touted and easy solution, it is claimed, is for the Government to reduce duty on LPG and CNG. The decision to freeze duty on natural gas and LPG in the 1998 Budget was welcome, but many people now believe that an important incentive could be a reduction in the price of road gas, which would have an effect similar to that of the price differential that converted the UK motorist to lead-free petrol. Such a step is necessary, but not sufficient. We need a declared policy of long-term stability to allow investment planning and a programme to create a refuelling infrastructure that gives confidence to that planning.

I believe that many interest groups are waiting for a lead. That lead could come from the Government, who could at least broker the first moves to generate momentum. More than one of the individuals to whom I spoke during my recent inquiries asked: "Why doesn't someone get all the players together to discuss what might be done? Why don't the fuel suppliers, the major truck fleet operators and the manufacturers all sit around a table and talk about the moves that would get the industry going? Why don't you convene something?"

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My contribution, I hope, will be to raise the subject in this Adjournment debate. I recognise the work of the cleaner vehicles task force, but I am not sure whether it addresses the logjam that I have described. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister whether the Government could convene such a round table. I believe that the places around the table would quickly be filled; the results could, in a very few years, be considerable.

I offer that suggestion for what it is worth. I do not expect my hon. Friend--who always seems to have the misfortune to have to reply to Adjournment debates that I initiate--to respond immediately, but I hope that she can give me some encouragement on what I consider to be an important issue for the Government's pollution targets and the general well-being of our country.

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