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What does Tory opposition mean to the Dieselgate inquiry?

Submitted by on 14 Jul 2017 – 09:00

Voting to maintain vital safeguards for European neighbours after Brexit, Keith Taylor MEP expresses his thoughts on the future of Europe through the prism of air quality

The Dieselgate scandal was extensive in its reach with major car manufacturers implicated in a concerted, deliberate and criminal effort to commit ‘toxic emissions fraud.’ Manufacturers employed so-called ‘defeat devices’ to trick laboratory testing equipment into thinking their vehicles produced much lower levels of nitrogen oxide emissions.

In the wake of the scandal, Green MEPs demanded an inquiry on behalf of the European citizens who were made victims of Dieselgate; through their exposure to toxic fumes and the complete contempt for their health and consumer rights.

The committee’s final report finds both member states and the EU Commission guilty of maladministration and argues that they were not sufficiently impartial to avert the scandal.

It was, obviously, never going to be enough to merely hope our national governments and the European Commission would do better next time.

The European Parliament’s vote in April 2017 backs the findings of the report and supports its tough recommendations and is therefore both a vindication and an important step towards an EU-wide approach to ensuring that a similar scandal can never be allowed to happen again.

The introduction of an EU-level market surveillance for vehicles helps ensure that the law, which is unambiguous in its prohibition of ‘defeat devices’ and its requirement that emission limits be met on the road as well as in the laboratory, is enforced and is less likely to bend to commercial pressures.

Dieselgate was a problem of too little Europe – not too much! Greens lobbied for the surveillance agency to be independent of the Commission to provide the most robust protection against future scandals, but our proposal fell short of majority support.

It was UK Conservative MEPs that mounted the biggest opposition to not just the creation of an independent oversight body but to the Dieselgate report itself, which excoriates their friends in the car industry.

We should not be surprised. In fact, taken with the minister’s promise of a bonfire of regulations, Tory opposition to action on Dieselgate offers an alarming insight into what kind of (lack of) protections the British public can expect outside of the EU.

Despite publishing some of the details of the so-called Great Repeal Bill, the legislation intended to transfer EU laws onto the UK statute books post-Brexit, the government has failed to commit to maintaining vital EU air quality laws.

Indeed speaking to the UK House of Commons Environment Committee in January, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom indicated that about a third of the EU’s 800 laws on the environment might be too difficult to transpose.

The failure to commit to keeping air quality laws is symptomatic of a disturbing indifference to an air pollution crisis responsible for the preventable deaths of equivalent to 50,000 people in Britain every year.

Earlier this year, the European Commission was forced to send a final warning to the UK for failing to address repeated breaches of legal air pollution limits in 16 areas including, London, Birmingham and my constituency in the South East.

It couldn’t be clearer that Conservative Party politicians left to their own devices will, at best, ignore the air quality crisis and, at worst, advocate on behalf of those responsible for worsening it rather than its victims.

As a member of the European Union, Theresa May’s administration is being held to account for failing to do the bare minimum, as required by EU air quality laws the UK itself helped to set. The bare minimum.

Where embraced and enforced, EU air pollution limits are helping to prevent thousands of deaths every year and saving billions of pounds in direct health costs. The government even readily acknowledges that it is EU law that has been the main driver of any positive air quality action in the UK.

The Prime Minister’s pursuit of an extreme Brexit puts these air quality regulations at risk. Even if they are maintained, via the Great Repeal Bill, the Prime Minister plans to invoke the ancient, arbitrary powers of Britain’s most infamous despotic Tudor monarch, Henry VIII, to ensure she can repeal them later without parliamentary scrutiny.

The other question is what happens in the EU after Brexit. There the news may be somewhat better. The UK has repeatedly sought to block and undermine EU environmental legislation.

With our government and right-wing MEPs out of the picture, it’s all the more likely that EU air quality laws will be strengthened and enforced. It’s just too bad that UK citizens may no longer benefit.

That’s why I’m fighting for Britain to maintain the closest possible relationship with our European neighbours via membership of the Single Market so that we might maintain these vital safeguards.