Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Welcome to the Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons. This afternoon we are very pleased to welcome Mr Brian Bender, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is going to answer our questions on the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report on Improving Air Quality. Welcome to our deliberations, Mr Bender.
  (Mr Bender) Thank you.

  2. Could you introduce your colleague, please?
  (Mr Bender) Yes. Can I introduce, please, Mr Martin Williams who is Head of Technical Policy and the Acting Head of Air and Environment Quality Division in the Department.

  3. Thank you very much. Perhaps I will start by asking a few general questions. In introducing this subject I want to get a feel for how important it is. How do you disaggregate the effects of bad air from other aspects of urban living? We know that great advances have been made in the past, getting rid of coal, coal fires, leaded petrol, hydrocarbons through catalysts, but are we now on the margins? I am trying to get a feel for whether this is just window dressing or is it going to make a real difference to people's lives?
  (Mr Bender) Mr Williams may want to supplement what I say. We have made enormous advances in the last decade or so in terms of pollution from vehicle emissions and from industry in the sort of way you have described, but nonetheless the advice of the Department of Health Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution does identify some potentially serious health effects of long-term exposure to certain of the pollutants. For example, in the September consultation exercise that we conducted we had their advice and published it on health effects of long-term exposure to particles. I think it is more than marginal but it is a long-term process. I do not know whether Mr Williams will want to add anything with his scientific background.

  4. For instance, on this issue if we look at figure ten on page 23 we see that the totalling up of people who have died you reckon is about 24,000 of a population of, say, 30 million. I am trying to get a feel for having dealt with coal fires and leaded petrol, what is the next big issue?
  (Mr Bender) Can I just slightly gloss the last point you made about the number of deaths. The 24,000 relates to the number of people whose deaths have been brought forward as a result of air pollution. The issues are around vehicle emission pollutants principally, like nitrogen dioxide, like particles, and also ozone.

  5. Can I now refer you to a central point which leads straight into the report at paragraph three on page one. You will see there it says: "Poor air quality can seriously damage health but improving air quality can impose costs on both consumers and industry." Can you give us a feel for how you sought to reconcile this tension in developing your Strategy?
  (Mr Bender) The first thing we need is evidence on the health effects, which was the issue I was trying to respond to in response to your first couple of questions, so what evidence is there about the health effects of long-term exposure. What we then try and do is calculate, as far as possible, the monetized, the value, the costs of those effects and try to balance that against the evident costs of measures to reduce the pollutants. That cost benefit analysis is applied in the light of developing science and in the light of our modelling and in the light of a proportionate application of the precautionary principle.

  6. What are you doing to ensure that other departments' policies are being properly appraised in this respect?
  (Mr Bender) It is an issue that we pursue across Government. My Department has a Public Service Agreement target on air quality. We then work with other Government departments, particularly the Department of Trade and Industry and DTLR. For example, on today's speculative story about runway capacity in the South East, as the consultation document is prepared we will be working with DTLR to ensure the environmental aspects and air pollution aspects of those issues are properly addressed.

  7. Can I look at some of the evidence now. If you turn to page 21 and you look at paragraph 2.11 you will see there "The Panel's advice on air quality standards was based on the scientific evidence available at the time. However, this evidence was not wholly conclusive ...." What are you doing to remedy these shortcomings?
  (Mr Bender) In general what we do is take the best possible information we have at the time. We take the advice of the Department of Health Committee, COMEAP, on the health effects. There is a Department of Health research programme which we helped draw up. Essentially this is a continuing process in an area of developing science and of some uncertainty.

  8. What sort of gaps do you think might remain, particularly after you have done all the work with particles, gaps in your knowledge and in the evidence?
  (Mr Williams) There are ongoing problems with particles themselves of course, Chairman, but the other big one that we are addressing with the Department of Health and the committee, COMEAP, is actively looking at now is the question of the existence or otherwise of a threshold for adverse effects from ozone. That is the main uncertainty that leads to the range in deaths brought forward.

  9. Can you explain that in language that we can all understand?
  (Mr Williams) For some pollutants you can reduce the concentrations and exposures below a level at which they have any adverse effect on humans. For some pollutants there is not such a threshold, there are potentially adverse effects all the way down to zero exposure. The question of whether it exists for ozone is crucial in quantifying the disbenefits from ozone pollution and that is a very live issue.

  10. You mentioned ozone which is really beyond our control, certainly beyond the control of local authorities. Just how much real difference has been made to people's lives in dealing with air quality from road traffic when you have got something like ozone which is drifting over from the rest of the world and from other parts of Europe? It goes back to my original question that what we are talking about in this Report is on the margins now, or is that an unfair criticism?
  (Mr Williams) Yes, I think it probably is, Chairman. It is a different problem that we are addressing now, different from the ones that we addressed in the 1950s with the smogs. The pollution, although in broad terms, looks less of an issue, it is true that concentrations are smaller, the point is they are different now from what they were before, there is a different mix of pollutants and ozone concentrations, for example, are probably higher now than they were maybe 100 years ago, so the issue is different. They require different measures to control them and they require different techniques to analyse their importance. That is one of the big advances in our knowledge in the last ten years that Brian Bender referred to a moment ago. On ozone particularly what we have to do is act in concert with our fellow EU Member States and also on a wider front within fora such as the United Nations where in the last two years we have concluded two international agreements that reduce emissions of the substances that produce ozone on a European scale. We are looking to see big improvements over the next ten years in those pollutants.

  11. Let us go back in a bit more detail on the forecasts. If you turn to page 27 and you look at figure 12 you will see there that the forecasts of pollutant emissions are not particularly reliable. Can you tell us what you are doing, given the forecasts are not particularly reliable, and what work you have done to assess how reliable your air quality forecasts are likely to be?
  (Mr Williams) There are two prongs to that, Chairman. One is to improve the accuracy of the estimates themselves, and we are constantly working through our research programme to get better measurements of emissions and better forecasting tools and techniques. The second prong is to accept that there will always be some uncertainties in these things, it is inevitable, it is a fact of life. The important thing is to incorporate a reliable and sensible treatment of that uncertainty in the policy making process, and that is something we have tried to do in this Strategy and in its subsequent versions.

  12. On a similar theme, you will see on that same page if you look at paragraph 3.15: "However, the Department's assessment of options, and the forecasts of air quality in the published Strategy, considered only AEA Technology's best estimate' of future air quality." What plans have you got to prepare for uncertainties and to prepare for what the future may bring, which is obviously very uncertain?
  (Mr Williams) That paragraph referred to the version of the Strategy that was published in 2000 which the Report primarily dealt with. Since that time, of course, we went out to consultation last year on a review of chiefly the particles objective and in that version of the document what we have done is improve our treatment of the uncertainties themselves and what we have tried to do is bracket some kind of range of future forecasts taking into account not only the uncertainties in the emissions that you referred to in figure 12 but also the fact that the weather might be different in future years. We have tried to bracket the sort of ranges that one might expect there to produce ranges of forecasts.

  13. You can see where my question is leading. If I now refer both of you to pages 14 and 15, I have asked a couple of questions about the uncertainties in your forecast and if you look at page 15 the cost to industry, taxpayers, can run to hundreds of millions of pounds. Are you certain that whilst you have made enormous strides in the past dealing with coal, hydrocarbons, lead petrol, that you are stuck on a line of research which is potentially costing the taxpayer and industry hundreds of millions of pounds but may only yield marginal benefits?
  (Mr Williams) The whole essence of the Strategy is to ensure that any pursuit of the objectives is done through proportionate means.

  14. Sorry, can you speak up a bit?
  (Mr Williams) Yes. The whole essence of the Strategy is to make sure that our policies are proportionate and that we take full account of that balance between costs and benefits to ensure that we do not get the burden on industry and other emitting sources out of proportion to the benefits that might accrue. I think that is one of the things that we have tried very hard to do and to be very clear about. It is not always very easy and there are uncertainties on both sides of the equation, but what we tried to do in the Strategy that this Report addresses and in the latest consultation that we put out in September was to do exactly that and try to make sure that we are not straying beyond the bounds of reasonableness and proportionality.

  15. If you turn now to page 41, what worries me about a lot of this is you are very much in the hands of local authorities. What are you going to do if local authorities fail to do what is expected of them? How can you compile your regulations in a way that your stakeholders can understand? If you and colleagues look at page 41, just look at some of the technical jargon that is laid out on that page. Do you really think that the people that you are reliant on for carrying out your strategy can cope with this and have a worthwhile strategy based on this sort of information?
  (Mr Bender) We have made significant progress in the last few years. There was an initial deadline of the end of 1999 for local authorities to complete their assessment of air quality and in recognition of the sort of point you have just made, Chairman, that was extended. By early 2001 around 70 per cent of them had completed that process and around 96 per cent now have, and we have helped them in that with a lot of guidance, help desks, and we are (and will be) consulted on all their action plans. So I think this is a process of learning and a process of engagement and partnership with them. Ultimately, the Government has reserve powers under the 1995 Environment Act, but these are seen very much as a last resort.

  16. What will you do if they fail to do what is expected of them?
  (Mr Bender) They are a last resort. I would hope, and I am sure the Government would hope, that that is a hypothetical question and that through a process of persuasion, dialogue and assistance that would not be necessary.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Mr Gerry Steinberg?

Mr Steinberg

  17. Is air pollution more or less of a problem than 25 years ago?
  (Mr Bender) Less of a problem. Earlier this year an air quality indicator was published which showed that the long-term trend over the last decade or so remains downwards.

  18. Fine. So have air pollution costs dropped in that time?
  (Mr Bender) Air pollution costs? Do you mean the health costs?

  19. No, the costs generally that air population might have overall on all sorts of aspects of life.
  (Mr Williams) You mean damage costs?

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