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Joan Ruddock: I wish to emphasise that people who believe—as I do—that the hydrogen fuel cell is the future accept that a transitional period will be needed, during which time products such as LPG will have their place.

Jane Griffiths: My hon. Friend makes an important point and I hope that the House will return to that issue in the not too distant future. We must not repeat the mistake that was made by a previous Government of giving incentives for a shift to LPG only suddenly to remove them and kill off what could have been a self-sustaining market for that green fuel two decades ago. The Energy Savings Trust made the point on its website:

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give the market and fleet buyers the continuing confidence they need.

12.34 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I declare an interest as a director of a family business involved in property building and road haulage. By definition, it might be assumed that as someone with an interest in road haulage I would have no interest in clean fuels, but I may wish to touch on the vexed issue of congestion charging and so I make that declaration. Due to a lack of foresight, I have no excuse for leaving the House before the end of the debate and so I look forward to the Minister's reply.

I am fortunate to represent the constituency of Poole which, apart from being a beautiful place, sits on top of the Wyche Farm oilfield, which is the biggest onshore oilfield in this country. It produces gas that could be used for LPG production. As a nation, we produce a surplus of LPG and three quarters of it is exported. We should do far more to use our indigenous resources for our own benefit.

The hon. Member for Reading, East (Jane Griffiths) mentioned that 4 million vehicles worldwide used LPG, but the figure may be as high as 5 million vehicles in 30 countries. LPG is widely used all over the world. The most recent figures from the Library from 1999 showed that Italy had 1.4 million vehicles that used LPG; the Netherlands, 360,000; Australia, 500,000; north America, 400,000; and Argentina, 400,000. Even New Zealand had 25,000. At that point in 1999, the UK had some 9,000 vehicles that used LPG. The Minister said the other day that we now have 25,540 vehicles running on LPG or CNG, excluding Northern Ireland. We are making progress, but we have a long way to go, especially when the number of registered vehicles has reached 29,174,788. More needs to be done.

Why is progress slow? It is not because of price. LPG is taxed at 6p a litre compared with 45p for petrol. It is substantially cheaper and motorists can make massive savings. However, there are other considerations, such as mileage, the cost of conversion and the resale value of the vehicle. It is true that a stable financial regime is necessary. The Minister said, rightly, that people are conservative in their buying habits and can be suspicious of something that looks like a good deal, because if it becomes popular the Government will make it less of a

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good deal. That lies behind the discussion today of the Government's guarantee to keep the tax level until 2004. That is a good start. Together with the hon. Members for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) and for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), I met Treasury officials to argue that the Government should publicise the financial benefits more widely and give longer guarantees so that people would have the confidence to make the change to LPG vehicles.

Mr. Miller: Given that the break-even time following conversion to LPG is about 18 months of typical usage, there is an incentive for someone buying a car today to buy an LPG vehicle. Even if the incentive lasts only until 2004, one would still be quids in.

Mr. Syms: Depending on the mileage done and several other factors, the hon. Gentleman is right.

The Energy Saving Trust and its PowerShift project has been a great enabler for people making the change, and the project has worked well. Some 12 to 18 months ago, there was a grants backlog because several fleets were applying for them. Because vehicles have to run on petrol and gas and because the grants were delayed, some fleets incurred higher costs than they would have done had they used diesel. That has now been sorted out, but money for conversion should be made available rapidly so that people are not penalised for choosing dual running.

Car manufacturers have also made some efforts. Vauxhall ran some advertisements and has ensured that much of its range is capable of dual running. Ford has also made a large commitment.

There is also an awareness of the health benefits among the general public. LPG spews out 98 per cent. less carbon monoxide, 81 per cent. fewer hydrocarbons, and 85 per cent. fewer nitrous oxides than petrol. Cars produce a great deal of pollution. Apart from benzene and carbon monoxide, they also produce PM10s and PM25s. We all need to do a lot more on this issue. There has been a great growth in asthma and other associated diseases, particularly in our cities. If the public were convinced of the benefits, they would go for the change for that reason alone.

My main conclusion as to why we have not done so well is that people are unaware of the benefits. The Government ought to get some of the oil companies to give a lot more publicity to the benefits of LPG and alternative fuels. What we are talking about today is one of the best kept secrets. If we try to tell people about the benefits of LPG, they tend not to believe us. They think, "If it is that good, why doesn't everybody use it?" Publicity has to be the key in this matter.

The repay period that has been mentioned is critical, as it depends on whether one can access a supply of the gas. If one cannot, one would find oneself running a car more often on petrol. There have been—and occasionally still are—planning problems. The Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill), issued some revised guidance to local authorities for PPG13, because some of them were having difficulty determining quickly the appropriate sites.

I am pleased that the oil companies have undertaken to put in more refuelling sites, but there are practical problems. Because the sites have to be above ground and because the petrol stations of certain oil companies are small, there can be size constraints. A number of sites will

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be needed to supply the fuel, and the additional guidance has helped. However, this remains a matter of public education.

There is also the problem of approved installers. The Minister raised the question of how to differentiate between bona fide people who do excellent work and those who work under railway arches. Perhaps representatives of the industry ought to get together to devise some sort of qualification in the form of an NVQ or certificate to ensure that the work is done to the right standard. The cowboys who get this wrong can create very dangerous vehicles indeed. If the industry is to be respectable, the people who carry out such work under railway arches and who do not do it well have to be put out of business. The Minister and his civil servants must focus on that.

There is a lot of progress to be made. As oil companies put in more refuelling sites, and as more people buying cars see people they know using these vehicles, there will be a great advantage. So far, because of supply problems, the main uptake has been in the public sector—for example, in local councils. Wandsworth council was one of the first to use LPG in its vehicles. The advantage for such a local authority, with a defined area, is that it can have a refuelling pump in its depot. Many authorities that people would conclude are good authorities are doing this. A number of police authorities have also done it, and are finding that they can generate savings that can be used for other important matters.

The whole approach to this issue must be based on education about the cost savings, and about the fact that there are now more places to fill up. As that gets through to people, we shall start to catch up with some of those countries on the continent with more LPG users.

I want to touch on congestion charging. As vice-chairman of the Conservative party, I can make no commitments from the Front Bench on behalf of my party. However, if congestion charging is implemented for the reasons that the Government have given, it would not be unreasonable to regard vehicles running on alternative fuels as prime candidates for consideration for exemption. I know that the whole issue of exemption from congestion charging is a fraught and difficult one that will take up considerable time, but it would give the wrong signal if we penalise people using vehicles that are less polluting, more economical and better for people and for the country.

LPG needs to be encouraged. There needs to be more education on the subject. If that were done, more people would take it up and we and our families and constituents would all benefit.

12.45 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I want briefly to cover a number of issues. The perception of my constituents, as I mentioned in an earlier intervention, is that air quality is the most important matter affecting them, because of the nature of the constituency. I want to cover the role of certain companies, past and present, the role that the green movement plays in the debate, the need for monitoring and issues relating to future vehicles.

First, I should like to comment on some of the important points raised in all sincerity by hon. Members in all parts of the House. I listened with a certain amount

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of amusement to the introductory remarks from the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) about ultra-low sulphur petrol, and to his demands as to why the tax cut had not been introduced earlier. Only six months ago, the Opposition were screaming and shouting that that measure was all a con by the Chancellor because there was no such thing as ultra-low sulphur petrol available.

The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) made the point about oil companies and publicity; he is absolutely right. I have done some work with Shell and with Vauxhall that has resulted in the development of an LPG plant at a motorway service station right outside the Shell refinery, which has proved very successful. There is an important job of work to be done on that issue.

I shall comment briefly on the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). I accept that she makes her comments about nuclear power in all sincerity. However, she misses the point in terms of the pure mathematics of the issue. The notion that we have to close down all nuclear power stations as a result of 11 September is, frankly, untenable, in terms of the politics—we cannot give way to terrorism—and of energy demand. The world demand for power is increasing at a considerable rate. If we consider the economic growth of China, for example—a country with infinite reserves of brown coal—and convert it to energy usage over the next five to 10 years, any benefits from the Kyoto agreement could be wiped out by that one country alone. Therefore simply to say that one important part of the fuel equation can be written off straight away is, frankly, unrealistic. We have to spend a lot more time, effort and money researching the issues of long-term storage as a solution to that issue.

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