Calling for a Clean Air Law

On 3 September, I proposed a motion in Parliament calling for a Clean Air Bill under the 10 Minute Rule. You can watch the video via the link above. A full transcript of my speech is below:

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am delighted to see so many colleagues attending to hear this ten-minute rule motion this afternoon. I always knew that clean air was a topic that would command widespread interest across the House.

The story of Ella Kissi-Debrah is a tragic one. Ella lived near Lewisham, just 80 feet from the north circular, one of south London’s most congested highways. As a south London MP, I can testify to the notorious congestion and pollution on that road. Ella tragically died of asthma and acute respiratory failure in 2013 after experiencing three years of seizures. Her mother Rosamund believes that pollution caused her daughter’s death. Earlier this year, the Attorney General and the High Court gave permission for a new inquest to formally investigate the link between pollution and Ella’s death. Of course we cannot generalise from one case, but the evidence suggests that Ella’s mum is right about the serious health risks of air pollution, especially nitrous oxides and particulate matter.

In 2016, a report by the Royal College of Physicians found that air pollution cuts short an estimated 40,000 lives a year in the UK, and that the young, the old and those with medical conditions are most at risk. Evidence to a joint Select Committee in 2018 said that air pollution was the second-largest cause of avoidable death after smoking. The Committee also found that health impacts ranged from causing premature births to respiratory and heart disease and dementia. My own twins were born very prematurely at 25 weeks and, reading that Select Committee report, I wondered whether air pollution in London had contributed to their extreme prematurity. The joint Select Committee’s report findings are corroborated by academic studies, including those published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Much progress has been made since 1970, and nitrous oxide and particulate pollution has reduced by about 70%, but the truth is that we must do much more. The Government’s clean air strategy, published in January this year, recognises that. In particular, it recognises the importance of the World Health Organisation limit of ​10 micrograms per cubic metre for PM 2.5 particulates, which is much lower than the EU limit of 25 micrograms per cubic metre, but it is an inescapable fact that pollution levels in the UK are too high. As a south London MP, I see that in my own constituency. The A23, which runs through Croydon and includes the Purley Way, is much too polluted, and I am sure many colleagues around the House, particularly those from urban areas, have similar problems in their own constituencies.

The Government’s clean air strategy has many commendable ideas to address this, including action to fund electric vehicle charging roll-out and measures to prohibit the most polluting wood-burning stoves. I see that the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) is in his place. However, the clean air strategy needs to be put on a statutory footing, and this Parliament needs to follow previous Parliaments in passing a Clean Air Act, as we did to great effect in 1956, 1968 and 1993.

We also need to go much further than the measures proposed in the clean air strategy. For example, we should be looking at vehicle idling where cars are left stationary with their engines running. The sight of cars parked with their engines running outside schools is a sight that every parent, including me, finds very worrying. Efforts to stop this on a voluntary basis have not worked, and I think that fines similar to parking tickets will be more effective at stopping this behaviour. Trees absorb huge amounts of pollution, so planting more trees in urban areas will help. Specifically, moss walls had been found to be particularly effective in absorbing airborne heavy metals, with each section absorbing emissions equivalent to 42 diesel cars per month.

Speaking of diesel cars, they play an especially damaging role in air pollution. Governments of both colours and the European Union encouraged diesel cars over the last 20 or 30 years because of their lower CO2 emissions, but they emit far more particulates and nitrous oxide emissions than petrol cars, which hugely damages air quality on the streets where those cars are driven. It is worrying that sales of new diesel cars went up from ​18% of new car sales in 2001 to a peak of 50% in 2015. This is especially problematic because the real-world emissions of diesel cars are six times higher than the emissions made in laboratory conditions. The Volkswagen scandal underscored the problems, when Volkswagen intentionally cheated the emissions testing regime. It is vital that we hold manufacturers such as Volkswagen to account for the damage they have done to our clean air.

Buses and taxis should be a particular focus, because they are often regulated or operated by local authorities. In London, only 155 buses out of 9,000 are fully electric, whereas in China, every single one of the 16,000 buses in the city of Shenzhen are electric. Even Santiago in Chile has more than twice the number of electric buses that London does. I would like to see all our buses and taxis electrically operated. If we do that, it will cut London’s transport emissions by 20%.

There is a great deal more that a Clean Air Act could do, and it is of vital importance to our nation’s health that we have such an Act. If by some great misfortune this private Member’s Bill does not reach the statute book in the three or four days between now and Prorogation—extraordinary though that sounds—I very much hope that a Clean Air Act will feature in a future Queen’s Speech.

There are many issues that divide this House. I expect that we will hear a great deal of discord and disagreement in the coming hours and days, in which I may well participate, but on this issue of clean air I hope that this House may speak as one. I commend the Bill to the House.