Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. Let me come on finally to some questions about the costing or the cost benefit analysis, which is an absolutely critical factor. You seem to find great difficulty in working out how much value to set on human life and the possible extension of a human life. This is something which again quite clearly goes across many departments. Again, the road people are going to be looking at it in terms of road traffic deaths and there are all sorts of other areas in which this might become important. You indicated in paragraph 3.22 that the value of a premature death is somewhere between £2,600 and £1.4 million depending on the circumstances. I would have thought that you ought to be able to work out a value at least for each sort of age, sex, whether working or not, level of qualifications and so on, and you ought to have some idea about the spread of qualifications, age, sex and so on across the whole community and presumably you would have some idea about whether these early deaths were all in people of 80 plus or most of them at the age of 50 or whatever. I am surprised that you cannot get a better handle given that there must be some pretty good data from other departments as well as your own that no doubt, because of your good cross-departmental work, you have already looked at. I would have thought you could have got a much better handle on a decent figure.
  (Mr Williams) I think I mentioned earlier the research work that is currently going on from which we expect results towards the end of the year. Again, this is an inter-departmental project which brings together a lot of the leading economists in this field to do precisely that, to try to narrow that range to get a better handle on it. It is not putting value on a life, of course, it is valuing the reduction of risk of death, that is the way it is put. Yes, there are some indications from the health research as to the ages that might be more affected by pollution than others. To some extent that has gone down the road of suggesting the elderly are more affected although there is also the possibility that there may be groups in other ages who are more susceptible.

  81. In the future you will get that better?
  (Mr Williams) We are working on that. We are working on the ages that are likely to be affected and we are working on improving the economics to get better valuation.

  82. Can I just ask you finally then whether you are taking into account other cost benefits? For example, if you have cleaner air it may be less necessary for industrial processes to clean up the air before they use it, so there may be business costs involved in terms of quality and air and there will also be cleaning costs, people do not have to clean everything so much if the air itself is cleaner, and there may be opportunity costs in the sense if we are losing in this generation our clean air then future generations will have to do something about that and they will have much greater costs in the future. Are those sorts of costs taken into account?
  (Mr Williams) A lot of those sorts of things are taken into account, particularly things like cleaning costs and those sort of benefits. It is not obvious that there are necessarily major benefits to industry, for example, from using cleaner air although where that does occur then it is taken into account as far as we can, yes. All those other dimensions other than health are ones that are actively being researched and included where we do not have any information.

Mr Jenkins

  83. I wish you well in your project because as someone who comes down here, particularly in the summer, on a Monday, as I walk out of the underground station, if it is a calm day, I do not need one of your roadside monitors, I can feel it in the back of my throat, my eyes water and it will be a couple of days before I have got used to it and become immune to it. Of course, air pollution has dramatically improved. I read in history books that in the1950s we used to have newspapers running the totals of how many people died through the smog over the weekend and the numbers were 102, 104 people who died. One of the things that amazed me looking at the report with regard to particles was industry's contribution. I could understand it in the past when we had a lot of heavy industry but with light, modern industry I am quite amazed. One of the reasons I am amazed is because a few years ago I lived in an industrialised area and we used to have a factory at the bottom of the valley that was a secondary smelting plant and it used to send up stack particles that when they used to land on the windowsill burned through the paint and it was found that the ground was so contaminated they recommended people did not eat their vegetables. The firm had a solution to all this muck in the daytime which used to alarm people, they used to wait until it got dark and then send it up. When that was not satisfactory and an alkaline inspector came in to investigate they had another plan, they built a taller stack so it went over the top of us and it got disseminated across a larger area. In fact, it was not until a new company came in and they reworked their furnaces and stopped this poor production method that we got a cleaner plant. I, for one, am not bothered about the cost to industry because most reasonable firms, in fact, do employ the best practice to reduce emissions. It is the cowboys, the ones who do not care about the environment, that get away with it so they have a cost advantage over the better firms. The sooner we can get those in the frame in the better. I have got one local firm now that I have got a problem with but, when they pollute, by the time the officer gets up there from the local authority they have changed their method and the pollution, the smoke, the stink has gone. They tell me that as from April, I think it is, they no longer have the responsibility, it is passed over to the Environment Agency so we have to start again with a programme. It affects the quality of people's lives around it and that is the important thing. While you are looking at the technical stuff, and it is very, very technical looking at particle traps, Mr Rendel mentioned the aeroplanes, the jet engines, I would love to see the design for a particle trap on a jet engine because these, as kerosene burners, are probably the most polluting engines of any form of transport and they burn thousands of gallons of kerosene as they take off and land at our airports but, of course, it is up there, it is spread out even more and people do not notice it. That is the sort of problem we have got to face. Although it is cleaner and it looks cleaner, we are not sure of the damage of the hidden agenda. When I go and spend most of my life in smoke filled rooms I say I do not trust any air I cannot see because I know what it is there. If it is a health consideration, do you intend to work closer with the Health Department and their committees to ensure that we can push this as two departments rather than one through Government?
  (Mr Bender) We do work very closely with them. For example, some of their research projects on the longer term health effects are drawn up very much in close consultation with us. They have an advisory committee, COMEAP, the Committee on Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, whose role is to look at just that, the medical effects, the health effects. The committee that my Department oversees looks at the measuring and monitoring of air quality and they do work closely together. There is joint working between the committees, some shared membership, and the departments work closely together. I hope I can assure you on that point. Indeed, at top level there are regular meetings between the Chief Medical Officer and his team and various parts of my Department.

  84. If you are looking at working closer with the Health Department and you are obviously passing this information on to the Transport Department, transport has made some tremendous improvements over the last decade, particularly in petrol engines, but I notice with the sale of diesel engines, oil burners, some of them do not have particle traps. I see that vehicles, particularly taxis that run around London constantly, churn out these particles. What evaluation has been made of things like the London taxis with regard to pollution in Central London?
  (Mr Williams) Like petrol engines, diesel vehicles are also subject to continually increasingly stringent emission performance targets. Some will require what are called after treatment devices, like particle traps, but even so, regardless of the technology, as it were, the emission performance of diesels has also improved markedly over the last decade and is likely to carry on improving as the new emission regulations begin to work into the fleet. Not only that but also measures to clean up diesel fuel have also been put in place in the last five years or more to the extent that now the whole of the UK market, for example, is ultra-low sulphur diesel, which is considerably cleaner in terms of particle emissions than the sort of fuel that you might have used ten years ago.

  85. There is no doubt that the improvements that were made were brought about at a European Union level in car manufacturing and diesel manufacturing, so how much influence do you put into the European level of setting standards?
  (Mr Williams) Quite a lot. Although, as Mr Bender said earlier, the responsibility for this lies primarily with our transport colleagues, we work very closely with them in providing the environmental case for these Regulations and the UK is very active in the EU. It has to be an EU activity of course for Single Market reasons. The manufacture and sale of motor vehicles in Europe is a Single Market issue. We have to make our weight felt there and I think we do that effectively.

  86. Although we are looking at the British scene, of course one of the things that has always amazed me is when we talk about the global effects and a climate tax, a few years ago we shut down some aluminium smelting plants in Canada and Britain, which were the cleanest in the world, and we bought in aluminium ingots from Russia which were the dirtiest, most polluting plants in the world and we were using these and keeping their plants going. I thought are they in a different world, do they have a different global climate to us, or are we, in fact, buying in pollution as well? What is our approach to buying in pollution?
  (Mr Bender) The Kyoto accord is a global agreement which I hope each country will soon ratify which will be doing its bit as far as contribution to climate change is concerned. We approach these things internationally, initially through the EU but also through the United Nations.

  87. But is it a recognised problem?
  (Mr Bender) I think the answer to that is up to a point, insofar as there is now an agreement amongst the countries that the Kyoto agreement does need to enter into force. That agreement was secured in Marrakesh in the autumn.

  88. Obviously not by America. If we go back to our local scene, which is one we have more control over, and we look at local authorities and the extreme difficulty of getting local authorities to adopt a consistent approach to monitoring and enforcement, what plans do you have for getting a more uniform approach across England?
  (Mr Bender) As I tried to say earlier, I think it is a combination of provision of guidance, help desks, consultation with us on their local plans, reviewing progress through our national monitoring network, through external, technical advice. It is basically a process of dialogue, guidance and influence.

  89. So what is the fall-back position that you have with regard to a local authority or area which is not meeting standards or that you do not feel has the expertise or will to improve its air quality? What powers do you have?
  (Mr Bender) Ultimately we have reserve powers under the 1995 Environmental Act but, as I said earlier, the Government would see those as a last resort. The aim would be to pick up areas and discuss and influence and change things that way rather than impose.

  90. You have got these powers and you have done a bit of monitoring for the last few years now. Do you have a league table of authorities with very good best practice?
  (Mr Williams) We have a very sophisticated set of data on air pollution levels in the different local authorities in the UK. We do not formalise the ranking of best practice in terms of their management of air quality in that sense. What we do do is have a process of continually evaluating their methods and assessements and techniques and ways of going about it. We do not formally rank that or quantify it in any way. What we do have a very clear handle on is the level of air pollution in each of the areas in the country so we know what the progress is like. As Mr Bender has said, we have a very close and very regular dialogue with all the local authorities to ensure that they know where to come.

  91. I understand that different authorities have got different levels of problems and I understand that they work at different rates, but I would still like to have confidence that an authority that was letting down its particular area, was not implementing strategies, did not have an effective plan or department to look after it, was in some way monitored and brought to task.
  (Mr Bender) Let me give you an example where there are local authorities still to complete their assessment of air quality. We have been in touch persistently with them. We have agreed work programmes with them. When they have produced their air quality management areas, we will be assessing those and where we see there are difficulties we will be having discussions with them about it. It will not just be the Department, we will be getting external expert advice on it. It will be a process of close, continuing monitoring and dialogue with them.

  92. The worst problems I would anticipate being in London, and judging from this Report—and this might be totally inaccurate, I might be misreading this—I get the impression that you do not consider that you can tackle the problems in London in the next few years, you can allow London more latitude, you can allow London lower levels, and the health of a Londoner in that respect is not as important to you as the health of people in a rural area or up country? Am I wrong or right in that assessment?
  (Mr Williams) You are wrong in that value judgment at the end of the statement there in terms of valuing the health of one part of the country against another. What we have done, and I guess you are referring to consultation last September where we were proposing a different objective for London particles to the rest of England—the thinking that leads to that of course is this proportionality issue we were talking about earlier. We recognise that it will be much more difficult to achieve the levels of particles in London that one could achieve in the rest of England, for example, so we are back to the proportionality issue. Bearing in mind the uncertainties and cost benefits, we judged that it made sense, initially anyway, to propose a slightly less stringent objective for London. That is not to say that over time we would not expect London to achieve the sort of levels that the rest of the country would as well, but we have to recognise that it might take a bit longer.

  93. I see from the Report on page 16 that you have got four different bodies to monitor air quality. What is the benefit of having four different bodies?
  (Mr Williams) In a nutshell, to ensure robust data and good practice. We employ some of the companies to police the others in what we call quality assurance/quality control activity. All these contracts are multiple tendered, they are put out to competition, so there is every incentive for the operating contractor to adopt as good practice as it possibly can, knowing there is another competitor breathing down his neck looking at his methods, and through this we achieve sound robust data.

  94. I would have thought it would have been better to have one authority body that passed information back and forward within that body and you would have economies of scale in this problem. Competition in this regard can work against you because competitors do not tend to share best practice amongst each other.
  (Mr Williams) We make sure they do. We are in control of the contracts, we let the contracts, and we ensure that they do.

  95. It will be a first.
  (Mr Williams) I think we have achieved it.

  Mr Jenkins: Thank you, Chairman.

  Chairman: Mr Gibb?

Mr Gibb

  96. You said that particles are the most serious of these pollutants. What kind of vehicles in an applicable town or city would be the vehicles emiting the most serious particles?
  (Mr Williams) Let me just be a bit more precise there. We do not know, as I said earlier, which are the more damaging parts of the particles so in that sense I cannot answer you. If what you mean is which vehicles emit most particles, then the answer at the moment is probably diesels on a vehicle-by-vehicle basis. Petrol engine vehicles emit, per vehicle, much smaller amounts of particles but there are considerably more petrol vehicles than diesel so, on balance, they are not quite as blame-free on that basis as in a vehicle-by-vehicle sense.

  97. Take the modern, brand new Mondeo and the 20-year old double-decker bus, what is the proportion of emissions?
  (Mr Williams) A bus will emit considerably more than a passenger car.

  98. How much more?
  (Mr Williams) I could not say.

  99. A factor of ten?
  (Mr Williams) Probably near enough a factor of five to ten, I would imagine.[1]

1   Note by witness: Up to as much as twenty to fifty times. Back

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