Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Yes?
  (Mr Williams) No. As pollution levels have gone down, therefore, the corresponding burden on human health and on the environment in general has also gone down proportionately.

  21. So what costs have come down? Air pollution is a lot better than it was, say, 25 years ago, so what is the main serious problem now in terms of air pollution?
  (Mr Bender) Again, Mr Williams may want to add to what I say, but we have a better understanding of some of the longer-term health effects and we are doing further research on some of those, such as ozone, as Mr Williams said earlier, so these are areas of concern which the Government feels it right to address.

  22. Which is the most important?
  (Mr Bender) Particles, nitrogen dioxide, ozone.

  23. In paragraph 2.15 it seems to indicate that particles is probably the worst problem at the moment. How dangerous are particles in the atmosphere?
  (Mr Williams) The best estimates we can give you are on that same page in Figure 10 where the best estimate, so far anyway, in terms of short-term effects—that means effects that are suffered on a day-to-day basis from particles—is that you have roughly 8,000 deaths brought forward and roughly 10,000 extra hospital admissions.

  24. So it appears that the main problem at the moment is particles in the atmosphere. Do we know why they kill people?
  (Mr Williams) No and that is one of the big areas of on-going research that is engaging probably some of the best minds in this field worldwide not just in the UK. There are several hypotheses and I could lecture for an hour.

  25. Please do not! Ten seconds will be enough!
  (Mr Williams) Suffice it to say, it is being very actively researched.

  26. I read a little bit about this and it seems that the smaller the particle is the more dangerous it is because it gets blocked in the lungs. Is there any way of getting these smallest particles out of the atmosphere?
  (Mr Williams) Yes, there are techniques to do that but their application—again it is back to this question of proportionality—could potentially be very costly and until such time as we know which precise ranges of particle is the damaging ones it would not make sense to spend huge amounts of money in controlling them.

  27. I think you have just mentioned and it says in the Report on the page opposite that there are 24,000 deaths a year in the UK due to air pollution from particles. I read that there were, in fact, 64,000 deaths a year in the UK attributed to it. So there is a little bit of a difference in statistics there.
  (Mr Williams) It would not have come from our Department or the Department of Health.

  28. It certainly did not. So the article that I read, could that be accurate, the 64,000 deaths a year?
  (Mr Williams) I doubt it. Our best estimates are the ones on Figure 10 there. There is an extra dimension to this which we addressed in the consultation document which we put out on particles last September and that is the numbers here do not take into account the long-term exposure to particles, the effects that you get over a period of a year or more, and there the effects are expressed in a different way. I will not go into the technical details of why you cannot just count the number of deaths, it is another way of expressing it, but overall those long-term effects (the medical evidence suggests anyway) are a much bigger problem than the ones put down here.

  29. What I am leading up to is the fact that it appears that over the last 25 years there has been huge progress and the biggest problem now, as far as I can see, is from particles, so why is it that you have not given that a high priority?
  (Mr Bender) I am not sure I would accept that the Government has not given it a high priority. The September consultation focused particularly on some of the latest evidence on the health effects of particles and was consulting, therefore, among other things, on possible new objectives for particles.

  30. That is not what the Report says, with respect. If you look at page 32, 3.41, it says that "the Department therefore set a less demanding objective for the time being by adopting the European Union limit value". What I am saying is everything else seems to have gone very well indeed. We are a lot better than we were 25 years ago, air is much clearer to breath, there is not so much danger, but the biggest danger seems to be particles and that is the one you are not concentrating on. It seems to be a bit daft to me.
  (Mr Bender) Can I be a bit clearer than I was in my last answer. Having read the emerging Report and in the light of the further research going on, the Government published in September a further consultation which included in it possible new objectives for particles and we are now receiving the responses to those consultations and putting recommendations to Ministers in the nearish future.

  31. I get very cynical about all these things. I suppose 20 years ago I would not have been. The police are more left wing than I am these days in my constituency, which must say something! I get the impression that if you leave things alone and let technology and weather and things like that take their natural course, we might not have to spend so much money on this sort of thing, that it would improve anyway.
  (Mr Bender) I do not know that I would like to recommend to Ministers a laissez faire policy like that. The improvements we have seen have been at a time of increasing traffic growth, and there are still pockets of problems in the country in urban areas. The health effects of these pollutants are better understood, and so it remains a Government priority to address air quality and to continue to seek improvements.

  32. I read an article in a magazine or a book where it said that in a study of three US cities it was found that the mandated pollution control had an effect but the effect of regulatory control generally had been over-shadowed by economic changes, weather and other factors.
  (Mr Williams) You made the point earlier about letting technology take its course and one of the major reasons for the improvement in air quality in the UK and the EU over the last ten years has been the introduction of new technology on cars, and that did not occur on its own, that occurred through Europe-wide regulation and that, I think, has been far and away a bigger effect than any year-to-year change in the weather or economic fluctuations.

  33. I will move off that particular topic. It was a very interesting article I read and I wondered how much truth there was in it. Can you turn to page 21 of the Report. We are told in paragraph 2.11 that air quality standards are based on scientific evidence available at that particular time and seven years ago eight standards were agreed and now seven of those standards have been retained which cover eight pollutants, and yet the European Directive on air quality covers 12 pollutants. Why is theirs more rigorous than ours?
  (Mr Williams) It is not necessarily more rigorous nor does it necessarily mean that the pollutants the EU is dealing with are not being controlled in this country. The reason there are 12 mentioned in the European legislation is that they were put in with the agreement of all Member States in what is called a Framework Directive. The pollutants that occur there that do not occur in this strategy are chiefly some metals.

  34. So it is not true to say that our strategy is incomplete?
  (Mr Williams) No, those metals are produced chiefly by industrial plant, which of course are controlled to rigorous standards by the Environment Agency anyway.

  35. Again continuing on this particular paragraph, reading it I noticed that it said that the Department was still considering a panel report from July 1999 on polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The point is that the Department is considering a report from July 1999. Apparently this is caused by cars and can cause cancer, so why has it taken so long to consider a report which was given to you in July 1999?
  (Mr Bender) The question of the time period I will ask Mr Williams to reply to, but further action has been taken since the National Audit Office Report was drafted because this area, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, was one of the issues on which the Government consulted in September, so things have now moved on a little. I do not know if there is more you want to say explaining the time.
  (Mr Williams) That consultation was to incorporate an objective for PAHs in the next strategy. The time occurred simply because the expert panel took that amount of time to produce its report in 1999. What we then do is go out to consultation on that report to make sure that it was robustly based in the science and so forth. That process was going on when the NAO produced its Report on the strategy and the final stage of that report from the consultation last September was to adopt the recommendations from the panel as a standard for the future strategy.

  36. But, unfortunately, if you read on, there was another example because again the panel is currently re-examining the standard for 1,3-butadiene. They had recommended in their 1994 report that it should be reviewed again within five years and it has still not been reviewed, and that again was in 1999 presumably. So if you read this section of the Report it seems to me that there appears to be a lack of urgency. There may well not be, they may have perfectly good reasons, but there does seem to be a lack of urgency, does there not?
  (Mr Bender) Again, the explanation on this particular area I will ask Mr Williams to respond to. I think the essential answer lies in the responses to the Chairman's first set of questions. These are complex issues, difficult science, and understanding the issues, getting the proportionality right rather than just moving rapidly, is what the issue is about.
  (Mr Williams) That process takes time because what we are very careful to do is not only give the panel sufficient time to get the science right but then to go out to public consultation to widen the request to make sure that the science is right and that consultation process inevitably takes a few months. What I would say is that process has now been gone through and the revised report on 1,3-butadiene will be published in the next month or two.

  Mr Steinberg: I have been told that I have got less than two minutes so I am not going to go down a new track.

  Mr Williams: That was three minutes ago.

Mr Steinberg

  37. No, it was not. One question as I end. This story was told to me by the leader of a very big local authority, who shall be nameless, who is a Member of this House. He was telling this story when I was telling him you were coming here today and he said "Take a pinch of salt with what they tell you because when I was leader of a certain large authority our officers were very green and they used to put the monitoring equipment right beside the roadway so all the readings were appalling." He said "In the authority which was down the road their officers used to put the monitoring equipment well away from roads" and the Department then classed his authority as a dirty authority and the authority which was a mile down the road as a very clean authority. How can we be sure that the actual figures that we are told are accurate?
  (Mr Williams) You can look on our Department's website. There are pictures of all the monitoring sites on the website that produces all the data up to two hours ago as soon as it is measured. It is all widely open to public scrutiny.

  Mr Steinberg: Very well, I will tell Stringer that. Thank you.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, Mr Steinberg. Mr Osborne.

Mr Osborne

  38. Thank you, Chairman. I am not a scientist, as I do not think many people on this Committee are, and it is clear that we all want to improve air quality, that is a given, but I have to say that I, like other Members of this Committee who have spoken already, reading this Report am extremely concerned that unreliable forecasts of future emissions are being used to produce unreliable estimates of future air quality from which are drawn arbitrary targets on the basis of unreliable assessments of the impact on human health. The whole thing is being done without any reliable estimate of the economic cost to society and the whole way of implementing this policy is completely unreliable since you are relying on voluntary co-operation of local authorities. Is that a bit unfair?
  (Mr Bender) Yes, just a bit. First of all, this is an area of complicated and developing science. I hope in response to the earlier questions we were explaining the actions that have been taken over a period to get a better understanding of the health effects of poor air quality. If the Committee will forgive me I will just blow my Department's trumpet for a moment. The Chief Scientific Adviser published at the end of last year a report on the operation of his Guidelines for the use of science in policy making and regarded this as a very good example. As far as the modelling is concerned, one of the points in the NAO Report that we have very much taken on board and took into account in the September exercise is that we published in our September consultation some of the variances and uncertainties in the models so that those who are interested in these things can see what those uncertainties are. The other thing we do as well as keeping the modelling very much under review and up to date is we play it back in time, so we test the modelling against historic data. I hope that goes some way to reassuring you.

  39. Am I right in saying that you start by trying to forecast future emissions and this depends on future economic growth, future use of cars and so on, new technological developments in industry, energy prices, since you have switched to gas fired power stations, all of which most people would agree are pretty unpredictable things. So you start with an unpredictable set of variances that you put into trying to establish future emissions.
  (Mr Bender) Do you want to try and do better than I did?
  (Mr Williams) I take issue with the use of the word "unpredictable". They are predictable to a certain degree of uncertainty, if that is not a contradiction in terms.

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