Thu, Apr 27, 2017 - Page 9 News List

British government criticized as air quality plan is postponed

By Matthew Taylor  /  The Guardian

The British government has been accused of “running scared” of diesel drivers and attempting to bully judges over its last-minute bid to delay the publication of its clean air plan.

Politicians and environmental groups said ministers were “hiding behind the election” to justify delaying publication of the government’s long-awaited proposals instead of tackling the nation’s air pollution crisis.

Health experts said the lack of government action had potentially put thousands of lives at risk.

“It is frankly outrageous that the government thinks it can continue to bury its head in the sand about the serious health impacts of air quality in London and across the country,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said. “The prime minister has once again missed this golden opportunity to show real leadership in tackling and improving the air we breathe, which should have been done well before the pre-election period.”

The government had been under a court direction to produce tougher draft measures to tackle illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution — largely caused by diesel traffic — by 4pm on Monday. The original plans had been dismissed by judges as so poor as to be unlawful.

However, after the announcement by British Prime Minister Theresa May of a general election on June 8, ministers lodged a lengthy application to the court late on Friday last week. It asked judges to allow them to breach the Monday deadline to “comply with pre-election propriety rules.”

British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Andrea Leadsom was summoned to parliament on Monday to answer urgent questions.

Cabinet Office guidance says that purdah rules can be lifted in exceptional circumstances, including for consultations on safeguarding public health.

During the debate, Leadsom was asked if she considered toxic air to be an “emergency” — as it was blamed for up to 40,000 early deaths every year.

In reply she only acknowledged that it was a “very significant and urgent concern,” refusing to use the word “emergency.”

She said she was “personally deeply committed to the importance of ensuring clean air,” but had been told by officials in the Cabinet Office that it would breach purdah rules to publish the plans in the run-up to the election.

The government has applied to publish draft plans on June 30, followed by the full policy in September, she said.

Leadsom, who also said that it was the second application to delay publication that her department had submitted to the courts, insisted the move would not postpone the roll out of the proposals.

Labour shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman said the government’s actions were unacceptable.

“The situation has gone from bad to worse on this government’s watch and has now escalated into what the DEFRA committee calls an public health emergency,” she said, referring to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.

“It is unacceptable to hide behind the election to delay publishing her plans. Cabinet Office rules are clear that purdah is not an excuse to delay acting in vital public health matters,” she added.

“The government is trying to bully judges into backing off. Ministers should not be playing games with people’s health, especially children’s,” Mary Creagh, Labour chair of the House of Commons’ environment audit committee, said in a statement.

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