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Ella inquest should pave the way for a new Clean Air Act

Ella inquest should pave the way for a new Clean Air Act

The evidence of a link between air pollution and children having smaller lungs has been known for over a decade, writes Baroness Jones. | PA Images

3 min read

Ella’s mother's campaign to get air pollution recognised as the cause of her daughter’s death is a breakthrough, but it should not have taken 7 years. We need a new Clean Air Act with legal teeth to deliver the urgent action needed.

The death of Ella Kissi-Debrah has put a child’s face on a huge public health emergency. The struggle by her brave mother, Rosamund, to get air pollution recognised as the cause of her daughter’s death can pave the way for a new Clean Air Act that will end the hundreds of thousands of premature deaths.

For the last twenty years, we have had a conspiracy of silence by governments of all parties who have refused to take the actions needed to save lives and reduce the damage to people’s health.

The evidence of a link between air pollution and children having smaller lungs has been known for over a decade, as has the link with dementia and heart attacks. Governments and Local Authorities have failed to act on that evidence and have missed deadline after deadline for reducing pollution levels. Car companies tried to cheat their way out of their responsibility.

The desire of civil servants, politicians and vested interests to downplay the issue has led to the suppression of public information and that was flagged as one of the issues that contributed to Ella’s death. As someone who struggled to raise the issue in the media back in 2001, I became infuriated at reading the same cut and paste rebuttal from different DEFRA Ministers year after year. It was all fine. It was taken care of. It was a non-issue. That attitude and those self-satisfied, press statements led to the deaths of Ella and so many others.

We need to make clean air a human right, enforceable in the courts with a Citizens’ Commission

There used to be a rule in government that they would only issue one press release a year to warn the public that we had breached the legal limits, even though unhealthy and illegal air was a regular feature of urban life throughout the country. For many years even that annual warning disappeared. Instead of bad air days being a regular part of the weather forecast and reaching the hundreds of thousands of asthma suffers and others with respiratory problems, the Met Office told me it was DEFRA’s responsibility and there was a tweet and a text that a few thousand had signed up to.

I welcome the fact that things have got better, but the pace of change has been painfully slow. In recent years, Londoners have finally received air pollution warnings when things get bad, but that’s no use to you if you live in Leeds, or Manchester. The campaign for justice by Ella’s brave and remarkable mother is a breakthrough, but it should not have taken 7 years.

We need to make clean air a human right, enforceable in the courts with a Citizens’ Commission providing legal support for parents like Rosamund and others to take action against those responsible for bad air. If that puts government in the dock, then so be it. If that leads to mass legal action being threatened against vehicle manufacturers, then good, things will quickly change.

Until we get a new Clean Air Act that has legal teeth, then all these promises by government bodies, local authorities and car companies won’t result in urgent action. We could call it Ella’s Law.

 

Baroness Jones is a Green Party member of the House of Lords.

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