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House of Commons

Friday 19 October 2001

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Speaker's Statement

10.33 am

Mr. Speaker: I have a statement to make. Hon. Members will wish to know that the sitting of the House was delayed for an hour this morning on security advice while a suspect package received in the Members' Post Office was investigated. I understand that it is now safe for the Chamber to be used, although the Members Lobby must remain temporarily closed. Access to the Chamber will be by way of the doors behind the Chair. Of course I regret the inconvenience, but I am sure that Members will co-operate in their own and in the House's interests. As soon as things can be returned to normal, they will be.

Points of Order

10.34 am

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you had any information as to whether the Government intend to come to the House today to make a statement about the staggering job losses announced at Rolls-Royce? It appears that some 3,800 people in the United Kingdom are to be thrown on to the dole queue. Surely a Minister should come to the House today to make a statement about that matter.

Mr. Speaker: I regret any job losses in any constituency. I have an affinity with Rolls-Royce. I once worked there and enjoyed the many years that I was employed there. I have received no information, but I am sure that information will come some time next week.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Has the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs asked to make a statement to the House this morning over the shambles of the four-year tests on sheep's brains that turned out to be cow's brains? As the defender of our rights, can you look into the fact that, although there were questions to her Department yesterday, that very important information was announced on its website at 10.30 pm?

Yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that there was a danger of contamination of the sample through bovine material. Instead of bovine answers such as that, should we not have a proper statement to the House about something that has gone very wrong? Whatever the respective merits of cow's brains and sheep's brains, clearly they are both bigger than Ministers' brains.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman and his Front-Bench colleagues can call for statements. I am sure that his concerns will be put on the record.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you at all concerned by the

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fact that more than £200,000 of public money has been wasted over four years, and that that information was not even put out through a written parliamentary answer, but effectively buried on a website? Is that not an injustice to you and to the House?

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman is seeking to draw the Chair into the argument. It is not a matter for the Chair.


Adoption and Children Bill

Mr. Secretary Milburn, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Blunkett, Mr. Secretary Murphy, Mrs. Secretary Liddell, Jacqui Smith and Ms Rosie Winterton, presented a Bill to restate and amend the law relating to adoption; to make further amendments of the law relating to children; to amend section 93 of the Local Government Act 2000; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 29 October, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed [Bill 34].

19 Oct 2001 : Column 1361

Clean Fuels

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Stringer.]

10.37 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. David Jamieson): I am pleased to open this clean fuels debate, because it is an area of Government policy that helps us to meet many of the targets that we have set ourselves for improving the lives of ordinary people.

Vehicles are critical to modern life, but have a major impact on our environment. In recent years, they have become much cleaner and safer, but those improvements need to go much further as we understand more about how vehicles affect the environment, including their impact on air quality, noise and the global problem of climate change.

I want to explain how the Government are supporting the wider use of cleaner fuels and vehicles both now and in the longer term to deliver more sustainable transport, but I shall start by explaining the Government's commitment to our environment, which sets the context for the debate. After all, cleaner fuels are not an end in themselves. They are needed to help us to meet our climate change, air quality and other environmental objectives.

Climate change is arguably the greatest environmental threat facing the planet. In the United Kingdom, road transport is the third largest source of emissions of carbon dioxide—the main greenhouse gas—causing about 22 per cent. of UK emissions. Measures to reduce CO 2 emissions from transport will clearly play a central role in helping us to meet our climate change objectives.

Conventional petrol and diesel vehicles are becoming more fuel efficient and thus emitting less CO 2 thanks to on-going efforts by vehicle manufacturers, backed by a voluntary agreement negotiated in Europe. Indeed, by 2008, the average new car sold in Europe should be 25 per cent. more fuel efficient than the average in 1995. However, more significant greenhouse gas reductions will be needed, given the prospective increase in road traffic both here and abroad. Cleaner fuels and new technologies will have a critical role in delivering those further reductions.

The Government are committed to improving the quality of the air that we all breathe, whether we are residents, pedestrians, cyclists or motorists. In support of that commitment, we have set tough air quality objectives to be met throughout the country over the next few years. Our air quality strategy, published in January 2000, identifies the major sources of air pollution in the United Kingdom and sets out a framework of action for delivering cleaner air. We propose to strengthen those objectives by setting even higher long-term objectives for particles and other key air pollutants.

As road transport is one of the major sources of air pollution, especially in urban areas, any attempt to improve air quality must consider measures to reduce pollution from transport. Road transport is also one of the major sources of two of the pollutants of most concern in the United Kingdom—particulates and oxides of nitrogen. Recent studies suggest that the impact of particulates on

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long-term health may be greater than we originally thought. That adds greater urgency to our efforts to reduce vehicle emissions.

Much is already being done. New petrol and diesel vehicles are becoming much cleaner, thanks to tougher European emission standards and cleaner fuels. For example, all petrol cars have been fitted with catalytic converters, which dramatically reduce emissions, for a number of years now. As a result of those and the other measures that we have taken, total emissions from transport are steadily declining, despite increases in road traffic.

Emissions of particulates and nitrogen compounds—sometimes known as PM10 and NOx—from road transport have fallen by about 50 per cent. since 1990, despite continuing traffic growth. Emissions from all vehicle types are expected to fall by another 25 per cent. over the next five years as a result of more stringent European emissions standards. That is a significant achievement, for which vehicle manufacturers and fuel suppliers deserve much credit. It also shows the added value of action at a European level. On their own, individual countries have only limited influence on the international car market; but through collective action, the European Union has driven forward improvements to vehicles with major benefits for safety and the environment.

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): The Minister has cited a number of European statistics and projections. Will he put those into the UK context?

Mr. Jamieson: Many of the agreements that we have made in recent years, some by negotiation and some by directive, through our co-operation in the European Union, have effected considerable improvements in standards for emissions and fuel, and in car safety. They have been brought about through co-operation with our partners in Europe. Had we been trying to negotiate them singly, as 15 separate countries, it is unlikely that we would have been able to deliver.

Car manufacturers also welcome that structure, which brings them benefits, too. In the past when they were selling cars in the European Union, they may have been trying to meet 15 different standards, whereas now they can be confident that they can produce vehicles that sell throughout the Union. The EU regulatory process takes account of the industry's views, and means that it has to meet only one set of standards to gain access to all the markets in Europe.

However, even with the improvements in European vehicle and fuel standards, our air quality objectives for particulates and nitrogen oxides may not be met in some urban pollution hot spots. Further measures to reduce emissions from road transport may be needed in those areas.

The other major environmental impact of vehicles is noise. There is some good news on that as well, as vehicles and engines become quieter and new road surfaces help to reduce tyre noise.

I am also interested in the prospect of encouraging more delivery vehicles to switch to natural gas, which cuts engine noise substantially. Local authorities may consider allowing such vehicles to deliver at more sensitive times—at night or in the early morning—which in turn would reduce daytime congestion.

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The benefits for business and the environment, too, could be substantial. Using quieter lorries for night-time deliveries could enable companies to reduce their vehicle fleets by as much as 20 per cent. One company in north London is looking into precisely that, and says that if it could negotiate its way out of the curfew for using vehicles at night it could cut its fleet by one fifth, thus reducing congestion at the times when it normally delivers, as well as air pollution.

That is some of the environmental background. I shall now turn to what the Government are doing to promote cleaner fuels. We have encouraged cleaner forms of petrol and diesel. Leaded petrol was banned from general sale on 1 January 2000. Ultra-low sulphur diesel is now the standard form of diesel in the United Kingdom, thanks to the Government's fuel duty incentives. Sales of ultra-low sulphur petrol now make up almost 100 per cent. of total petrol sales. As I am about to explain, we are also encouraging alternatives to petrol and diesel, in particular gas fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas, which is known as LPG, compressed natural gas—CNG—and electric vehicles.

Compared with petrol, the best gas vehicles offer small reductions in emissions of oxides of nitrogen—NOx—and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions of 10 to 15 per cent. Gas vehicles also provide significant particulate and NOx emissions advantages over current diesel vehicles, as well as being much quieter. Gas will generally emit slightly more carbon dioxide than diesel vehicles, which are inherently fuel efficient.

Electric vehicles are zero-emission at the point of use, as well as being very quiet, making them ideal for use in urban areas where pollution problems are most acute. Although they have limited range and performance, they are well suited to applications such as urban delivery and courier work. I am sure that Members have noticed that some of the deliveries to this House are now made in electric vehicles.

Given these potential environmental benefits, the Government have introduced a range of incentives to encourage their wider use. Road fuel gases such as LPG and natural gas now enjoy a low duty rate of 9p per kilogram. That reflects the air quality benefits that gas vehicles can provide. The duty on road fuel gases will not be increased in real terms until 2004 at the earliest. Vehicles powered solely by electricity are exempt from vehicle excise duty—VED.

My Department's PowerShift programme provides grants towards the additional cost of buying gas and electric vehicles. I shall say a little more about PowerShift, as I announced some significant changes in the programme following a consultation exercise. The consultation set out a number of proposals about how PowerShift could be better targeted to maximise its environmental and health benefits. We received many useful suggestions, many of which have been incorporated into the programme.

On the LPG side of PowerShift, the most radical change that we have made to the programme is its extension to include older petrol vehicles up to five years old, whereas it previously applied only to vehicles up to one year old. There are potentially significant environmental benefits from converting older petrol vehicles to run on LPG. Compared with petrol, good LPG conversions can offer lower emissions of oxides of

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nitrogen and up to a 15 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide. A wide range of PowerShift approved conversions are available, covering most of the major makes and models of what are known as Euro 2 cars—generally cars up to about five years old.

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