Carmakers who cheat emissions rules with illegal devices could face unlimited fines and criminal charges for deceiving environmental tests under new measures set to be introduced in the wake of the Volkswagen scandal.
The transport minister, Jesse Norman, launched a consultation on Friday to outline the crackdown, although any law will not be retrospective so could not be used to target Volkswagen.
“We continue to take the unacceptable actions of Volkswagen extremely seriously, and we are framing new measures to crack down on emissions cheats in future,” Norman said. “Those who cheat should be held to proper account in this country, legally and financially, for their actions.”
Downing Street said new powers would go above and beyond European requirements and the government would be able to prosecute any manufacturer who cheated on the required tests for vehicles. However, it is thought sentences will only include unlimited fines rather than prison sentences.
Crucially, the rules will extend to imported cars which Downing Street said was the key reason the UK was previously unable to impose fines on Volkswagen, which was ordered to pay $2.8bn in criminal penalties in the United States for cheating on emissions tests, revealed in 2015.
“At the moment, we are limited to taking action against a manufacturer who obtained or sought to obtain type approval in the UK. We intend to expand this so that we are able to take action against a manufacturer, importer or dealer who places a vehicle using a defeat device on the UK market,” a UK government official said.
VW, which is the world’s biggest carmaker, admitted that 11m diesel cars were programmed to turn on pollution controls during testing and off while on the road, where they exceeded air emissions limits many times over. The company is paying $1.5bn in a civil case brought by the government and spending $11bn to buy back cars and offer buyers compensation.
At the time of the scandal, the then-transport minister Patrick McLoughlin said the company “had behaved in an appalling way” and deserved to be severely punished.
“These devices were made illegal in 1998 and it’s fairly unbelievable that a company the size and reputation of Volkswagen has been doing something like this and finding ways round this legislation,” he told a select committee hearing. “I think they are going to suffer substantial damage as a result and they deserve to, quite frankly.”
About 1.2m of the Volkswagen cars were sold in Britain and the Department for Transport set up a £1.1m vehicle emissions testing programme, paid for by Volkswagen, to test a range of the most popular diesel vehicles in the UK in the wake of the scandal, but found no other manufacturer tested was using a similar strategy.
The beleaguered company came under fresh fire last month after it was revealed it helped to fund experiments in which monkeys and humans breathed in car fumes for hours at a time.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said there was an urgent need for the company to reveal the true extent of the experiments, commissioned by the European Research Group of Environment and Health in the Transport Sector (EUGT), which is funded by Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW.