Clean Fuels

I shall open up the debate slightly to one or two general issues, as well as touching on issues that affect my own constituency in central London. So I should like to thank the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) for broadening the debate earlier. I must confess that I disagree with virtually every word she said, especially in relation to nuclear energy, but she made a useful contribution none the less.

The Minister played very much a straight bat during a solid half-hour innings. I suspect that that puts him in the somewhat unusual position of being a safe pair of hands in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. There are not many of those around at the moment. I shall have to wait to hear what he has to say about my contribution in a few moments.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss), who opened for the Opposition, used the words that were part and parcel of the Labour manifesto in 1997. The Labour party said that it would form “the greenest Government ever.” One has to admire – dare I say? – the cynicism, or perhaps the hypocrisy, of the Prime Minister at the Rio conference a few months ago.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must learn what is parliamentary language and what is not. I ask him to withdraw any such reference to the Prime Minister.

Mr. Field: I shall indeed, but I was making the point that, at the Rio conference, shortly after the 1997 election, the Prime Minister proudly said that the one thing that he could say about the last Conservative Administration was that they had managed to achieve their goals in reducing CO 2 emissions. Of course, what he did not say was that that was almost totally because of the rationalisation of the coal industry, which he and his party had opposed at every opportunity in the preceding years. I accept that several issues are at stake there, and I am only sorry that the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) is not here because he mentioned that in his speech.
I suppose that throughout the political lives of many of the relatively younger Members – I hasten to add that I am not looking at the Minister in making that comment – environmental issues have been at the forefront. That goes back to the 1989 European elections, when the Green party suddenly came apparently from nowhere to gain 15 per cent. of the vote. Such issues have therefore become much more mainstream. I should like to think that parties on both sides of the House would agree that we are trying to move in the right direction.

Lembit Opik: I suggest that the Greens’ success in 1989 was a direct result of the tragedy at Chernobyl. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a bit of a shame that our environmental concerns seem to be ratcheted up only by international environmental disasters?

Mr. Field: I accept that in part. Clearly, there are many psephological reasons behind the results of the 1989 European elections, and I am sure that MORI and others have their own theories, but there is something in what the hon. Gentleman says.

There is a concern that Government intervention will be the knee-jerk reaction to these concerns. The hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths), who is no longer present, referred to cynicism among politicians. It is certainly true that many, particularly on the Conservative Benches, have a somewhat sceptical attitude to environmental matters. I am old enough to remember that in the mid-1970s, when people were talking about world climate change problems, the concern was not that there was global warming, but that we were heading towards a new ice age. At that time, it was also said that fossil fuels would be running out by the late 1990s. There is a great danger that by spreading horror stories, perhaps for the right motives, and by crying wolf so often, many Green movements undermine their own case in the long term. We need a reasoned debate, and that does not necessarily mean that Government intervention in the first instance is the right response.

Many politicians have jumped on the environmental bandwagon with little, or unreliable, scientific evidence. I am increasingly concerned by the alarmist views that are all too often expressed in the environmental debate by unscrupulous lobbyists and scientists. However, I accept overall that there has been a favourable cultural shift in this debate.

I turn now to some of the issues that affect central London. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) spoke about the SW1A 0AA area, which is of course in my constituency, where the figures for many environmental indicators are completely off the scale. The Minister talked about noise nuisance in urban hot spots, and made favourable points about night-time lorry movements. I would support any measures to reduce the appalling problems experienced by many central London residents. I am, however, a little alarmed by the prospect of too many pilot schemes and by the idea of relying on the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to implement measures. The GLA seems to give little thought to any strategy for progress in environmental matters.

Many people who have lived in London for years will think of the seminal year for the environment as being not 1989 but 1956, when the Clean Air Act was passed. I was struck, when out canvassing, by older voters’ memories of London before that time, when smog meant that thousands of people would die of flu and other bronchial illnesses every year. We need to consider environmental matters in the round because there have been great improvements. We must not be complacent, but we should focus on achieving change through the use of clean fuels and, as the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford pointed out, of solar and wind power.

The way in which recycling has taken off in London has been a revelation. I am not sure what the situation is outside the capital. I am proud to have spent the past seven and a half years as a member of the local authority in the neighbouring Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which has a fantastic recycling record. That is also true of the City of Westminster council and of many Labour-run boroughs – I am not trying to make a political point. It is evident, when one walks in central London or the suburbs, that many people recycle newspapers and bottles. My only concern is that we may almost have reached saturation level. If one lives in a small flat in the middle of the city it can be difficult to recycle, unless one has umpteen bags hanging in one’s kitchen all week. We should think about how we reach the next stage of encouraging personal recycling. Thankfully, the commercial environment already treats recycling as an increasingly important imperative.

Several hon. Members – in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) – referred to congestion charging. I cannot take responsibility for what my right hon. Friend said about traffic-calming measures, but I accept that they have some negative environmental effects in their attempts to reduce speed in built-up areas. We must consider the consequences of such policies.

I am worried about proposals for congestion charging. Whatever happens in London will be the starting point for similar charges in other parts of the country. The specifics are unfavourable, not least because the Mayor of London was elected on a clear mandate to improve public transport. It is clear that London Underground, which I discussed with the Minister in Westminster Hall two days ago, will need long-term investment for a decade or so. We cannot put all that burden on the buses. If we introduce the congestion charge as soon as proposed, it will not have a positive effect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) rightly said that we need a carrot-and-stick approach. We cannot put a massive burden on to car owners, but we could encourage them to behave better. A key way to do that would be to reconsider the taxing
regime of the better fuels. Deep cuts are needed; 3p, 5p or 6p a litre is not enough. We need to encourage the next generation of car owners to act appropriately.
Some Government members have formulated an anti-car policy under the guise of an environmental smokescreen, although the Minister would probably not agree. I am worried about the number of exemptions from congestion charging. I take on board what my hon. Friend the Member for Poole said about that and am glad that he is not making the policy.

Although it is essential that we rely on individuals to take responsibility for their actions – one of my fundamental values – I am much encouraged by the cultural change in the approach to the environment. Many people think that it is important and that they must focus on it if they are to improve their lives and those of their children and grandchildren. The Government should make deep cuts in taxation and spend less time posturing on the allegedly high environmental standards that they have brought to bear.