The Tories were today accused of allowing children and pregnant women to be poisoned by toxic fumes by refusing to publish a long-awaited plan to improve air quality.
Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom this afternoon told MPs her proposals for tackling nitrogen dioxide levels would not released until after the election – despite the Government being ordered by the High Court to publish it by 4pm this afternoon.
Leadsom claimed the plan has been written, but was being held back as it would breach rules on Government activity – known as purdah – in the run up to the local and general election.
The High Court ruled in November the Government’s plan for tackling air pollution – which is believed to be responsible for 40,000 unexplained deaths a year – was so bad it was actually illegal.
Despite being ordered to draft a new plan five months ago, the Government left it until last Friday to lodge a request for an extension until June 30 with the High Court.
Speaking in the Commons this afternoon in response to an urgent question from Labour, Leadsom said: “In accordance with the guidance covering both the local and general elections, the propriety and ethics team in the Cabinet Office have told us it would not be appropriate to launch the consultation and launch the air quality plan during this time.”
Labour MP Barry Sheerman was furious with the delay, and said: “Children are being poisoned now…pregnant women are being poisoned now, pedestrians and cyclists are being poisoned and she is bringing some obscure mention about purdah to stop us doing something about it.”
Fellow Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart was equally angry, and said: “At the present rate there will be seven more dead people in [my constituency of] Slough by the date that she publishes this air quality plan.
“The whole point of purdah is that you shouldn’t make announcements unless they are significant in terms of urgent health issues.
“Isn’t this an urgent health issue? And what is she going to say to the families of those seven people who will die before she even publishes?”
Before Leadsom could answer, Environment Minister Therese Coffey shouted in response: “You’re embarrassing yourself now, dear.”
Leadsom agreed that poor air quality “is a public health issue” and added: “We will ensure a short delay to the timetable will not result in a delay in the implementation of the plan.”
Environmental law group ClientEarth, who took the Government to the High Court in December, today said it was considering its next move in response to the delay.
Chief Executive James Thornton said: “This is a question of public health and not of politics and for that reason we believe that the plans should be put in place without delay.
“Whichever party ends up in power after the June the 8th will need this Air Quality Plan to begin finally to tackle our illegal levels of pollution and prevent further illness and early deaths from poisonous toxins in the air we breathe. The government has had five months to draft this plan and it should be published.”
Research published by Greenpeace earlier this month revealed more than 2,000 schools and nurseries are near roads with damaging levels of diesel fumes.
The upper legal limit for nitrogen dioxide is 40 micrograms per cubic metre, but a nursery in Tower Hamlets, East London, had a reading of 118.19mcg/m3 – almost three times the limit.