Mark Menzies is MP for Fylde and a member of the Transport Select Committee.
We must learn the lessons from the emissions scandal and act to ensure that car owners are protected and people’s health is not put at risk in the future.
I recently had the opportunity to question Volkswagen’s UK Managing Director, Paul Willis, and asked him what he was going to do to ensure that his customers, and Volkswagen car dealers, would be fully compensated for the losses that they will suffer due to the company’s deceitful practices.
His answers were, unsurprisingly, non-committal, vague and wholly inadequate.
While promising to try to minimise the disruption caused to affected car owners, and agreeing to pay for the necessary alterations to these cars, Mr Willis failed to acknowledge that his customers should be paid additional compensation for Volkswagen having falsely marketed these diesel cars in the first place.
Volkswagen is under a legal obligation to do so, and it is in their customers’ and the company’s best interests to ensure that a comprehensive compensation package is proffered without delay.
Even if this happens however, there remains a far more serious case for Volkswagen to answer.
As determined as I am to obtain compensation for those individuals who have bought (or indeed unknowingly sold) the affected diesel cars, I am much more concerned about the wider long-term consequences of Volkswagen’s deception of the consumer, of the government, and most importantly of all, their complete disregard for public health.
By effectively fixing the emissions test results on its diesel engines, Volkswagen have been complicit – perhaps along with other car companies – in encouraging governments to back and consumers to purchase diesel vehicles.
Blame for this also lies with several generations of European decision makers, who have failed to introduce better regulation.
It has been clear to engineers that the current EU system for testing car emissions – the New European Driving Cycle, first formulated in the 1970s – has not been fit for purpose for several years, if not decades.
For consumers today, the environmental credentials of the car they purchase is often a crucial consideration. It therefore defies logic to think that the vast majority of consumers would want to buy a car that emits harmful pollutants that they were unaware of.
These increased and unchecked pollutants have a devastating effect on our hearts, lungs and, most shockingly of all, on our brains – especially in urban areas.
Studies by the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Barcelona have shown a direct correlation between the development of children’s brain functions and the level of emissions of harmful NOx and other particulates to which they are exposed.
Children who are exposed to high levels of NOx are more likely to suffer from learning difficulties, autism and attention deficit disorders.
Equally, greater exposure to harmful emissions has been shown to increase the chances of neuro degenerative problems in older people, such as dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The fact that diesel emissions are detrimental to our health hardly comes as a great surprise. It is the fact that we have been living in an environment in which these emissions are running rampant, far beyond the levels that car companies and vehicle emissions tests have led us to believe, that is shocking car buyers across the world.
This new information goes against the narrative which car manufacturers have been happy to perpetuate: that cars are becoming increasingly efficient and more environmentally friendly.
False emissions data, leading to a false perception that diesel cars are becoming greener, can only have hampered attempts to introduce genuinely sustainable urban transport solutions.
We are now falling behind where we should be, which means this massive public health issue will be with us for many years to come. This is clearly the most serious concern both long-term and in the immediate aftermath of Volkswagen’s malpractice.
In the face of this stark evidence about the effects of inhaling diesel fumes, it cannot be ‘business as usual’ for car manufacturers, all of whom have benefitted from ineffective testing regimes across the world. It is clear that that government, particularly EU environmental regulations must do a better job of protecting the consumer and the public.
This is corporate deceit on a scale that regulators and policy makers have not yet come to terms with. It is time that we all woke up to the huge potential side-effects of the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
Firstly, in the UK the treasury has lost a huge amount of revenue by subsidising diesel engines that should never have been subsidised, as well as losing out on the tax revenue that was rightly owed by owners of cars fitted with defeat devices.
These revenues must be recovered where possible – but certainly not from misled car buyers. It is obvious that Volkswagen should foot this bill. Legislation that forces authors of such corporate malpractice to automatically repay the Treasury should also be considered to make this process more straightforward in the future.
Secondly, we must pressure the EU to replace the current, obsolete emissions testing regime. and introduce the real driving emissions (RDE) test. We simply cannot wait any longer for the new regime to be introduced.
Finally, but by far the most important step, is that we must make up for lost time and speed up our response to the risk we now know that diesel cars pose to our health.
Of course existing diesel car owners, who bought their cars in good faith, should not pay for their perfectly reasonable choice to buy diesel at the time. This does not, however, detract from the clear and only option that faces us in the future.
The most heavily polluting cars have to be removed from our roads much sooner than is currently timetabled. Using revenues taken from Volkswagen to invest in cleaner forms of transport in our towns and cities would be a good start.
Beyond this, we must use the emissions scandal as a wakeup call: consumers and the public as a whole need to be far better protected against corporate greed.
For too long, car companies have been shielded by layers of bureaucracy; this has obscured the truth and allowed positive corporate myths about their environmental credentials to flourish in its place.
We can now see this more clearly than ever, but chasing Volkswagen for what it owes us will be far more difficult and complex than it should be.