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“Deception on a global scale”

Volkswagen’s false emissions readings have not been properly addressed by the government, according to Louise Ellman, chair of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee 2008–2017. 

By Louise eElman

In my nine years as chair of the Transport Select Committee, Volkswagen’s cheating of diesel emissions tests was perhaps the greatest scandal we encountered. Were it not for the dissolution of parliament prior to next month’s snap general election, it would remain at the top of our priority list. I recently wrote to both VW and the Department for Transport, continuing our relentless push for information and action, including seeking adequate recompense for affected UK VW owners who have so far been treated shabbily.

The emissions scandal was deception on a grand, global scale. It came to light in September 2015, discovered not by a regulator within any official system, but in a study commissioned by the NGO, International Council on Clean Transportation.  VW engineers had designed a “cheat device” to recognise when a vehicle was being tested for emissions and produce falsely low readings to fraudulently meet the required standards. We now know that the deception began in 2006. The cheating software had been installed in 11 million cars worldwide, including 8.5m in Europe and 1.2m in the UK.

We must not lose sight of why controlling diesel emissions is so important. The standards exist to protect our health. Each year in the UK alone, nitrous oxides in diesel emissions cause the deaths of around 29,000 people. Children in close proximity to the most polluted roads are at serious risk of long-term detrimental health effects, including reduced lung growth. Recent research found that 47,000 babies and children are being cared for in nurseries near roads where nitrous oxides exceed the legal limit. That is why I recently launched, jointly with the chairs of the Environment Audit, Environment.Food and Rural Affairs, and Health Select Committees, a broad inquiry into the government’s strategy to improve air quality.

The Transport Committee’s response to the emerging emissions scandal in 2015 was first to call VW’s UK managing director and the car industry body, the SMMT, to give oral evidence before us in October 2015. We called VW in again, followed by the then secretary of state, Sir Patrick McLoughlin, and officials from the Department for Transport and the Vehicle Certification Agency, in January 2016. What emerged was not only the shocking nature and scale of VW’s deceitful behaviour, but also wider concerns about the UK and EU vehicle approval and emissions-testing systems that had allowed the cheating to occur and go undetected for so long. We subsequently launched an in-depth inquiry, holding a further five evidence sessions in the Commons and entering into detailed, and prolonged, regular correspondence with VW, the department and the European Commission.

Our conclusions in July 2016 were clear. VW had acted with a cynical disregard for emissions testing. Its evidence to us – that it was sorry, while at the same time denying corporate wrongdoing and blaming rogue engineers – lacked credibility. It seemed intent only on limiting the damage to its reputation. The UK government had been far too slow to investigate and seek to prosecute. The emissions testing and vehicle approval systems were unfit for purpose – widely acknowledged, within and outside of the industry, to allow test results to under-report “real-world” vehicle emissions. Our recommendations sought to put these deficiencies right. Steps to strengthen systems, at UK and EU level, have subsequently been taken, including the establishment of a new Market Surveillance Unit to test vehicles and components to ensure consumers enjoy a product that meets the specifications they were sold.

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But what about punishment for VW’s wrongdoing and compensation for affected car owners? In the United States, in June 2016, VW reached a partial civil settlement, which included an agreement to buy back affected vehicles or repair them once a fix has been found. The US settlement also includes compensation to owners, which could end up costing the company some $15.3 billion. VW has pleaded guilty to three criminal felony counts in the US, and as a result will pay a $2.8bn fine. Six VW executives and staff have been charged for their role in the conspiracy. Some European countries have also been comparatively swift to take action: criminal investigations have been opened in France, Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland, for example.

There has been little progress in the UK, despite promises from the DfT in response to our report last year and in correspondence since. The department agreed with us that UK consumers had been treated poorly, stating that UK owners “should be compensated for the inconvenience, uncertainty and worry caused by Volkswagen’s cheating, as well as for any loss in the value of affected vehicles which may become apparent.” The reality is that to date these consumers have been offered nothing. Despite clear evidence of cheat devices in vehicles the Vehicle Certification Agency had approved in the UK, no criminal investigation has been launched and no prosecutions brought. The only legal proceeding here has been a class action seeking compensation, launched by 10,000 VW owners themselves.

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This is simply not good enough, and is why the Transport Committee continued to press VW and the government, right up to Parliament’s dissolution before the general election. In my letter of 24 April to Hans Dieter Pötsch, chairman of Volkswagen’s Supervisory Board, I pushed for full publication of the investigation report setting out the origins of the emissions scandal, produced for VW by legal firm Jones Day. On the same day I wrote to the DfT Minister, John Hayes, seeking clarification on key issues, including the sums so far recovered from VW to cover the department’s additional testing work as a result of the scandal; the steps the department was taking to secure redress for UK consumers; what attempts it had made to obtain the Jones Day report; and whether it now had the evidence required to begin any legal action in the UK. 

The general election must not mean the end of this saga. I urge the next Transport Committee to secure full disclosure from VW and push the department to act swiftly to investigate and, where appropriate, prosecute. It is equally important that the proposed joint Select Committee work on air quality is quickly reconvened in the new parliament. The VW emissions scandal is not only about consumer confidence, it also has serious implications for public health. It must be prioritised.