Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. When you said 24,000 deaths we were assuming somebody being plucked at the prime of life, not just reducing their life by a few days after three score years and ten. You keep talking about proportionality and cost benefit analysis but at paragraph 3.38 of this Report that you have signed up to it says that cost benefit analysis was inconclusive and did not justify additional national action to improve air quality. We had the other questioning about the quality of the cost benefit analysis but how can you assess proportionality if you have absolutely no idea or inadequate cost benefit analysis?
  (Mr Bender) First of all, can I say that we are not only talking about deaths brought forward, there are hospital admissions, there is a greater propensity to have conditions like asthma from the air quality problems. Those are the sorts of issues that the policy is trying to address.

  121. How do you know that asthma is caused by air quality and not by things such as the way babies are reared in their early years? In the olden days babies were wrapped in swaddling clothes and put out into the garden, as I was as child. Or is it fitted carpets and central heating?
  (Mr Bender) I did not mean to imply that air quality causes asthma but the symptoms are more likely to be exacerbated if pollution levels are high.

  122. So we are talking about days and weeks again, not early deaths in the prime of life. Do you agree with the statement that we now have the cleanest air since 1585?
  (Mr Bender) Yes. What do you think as the expert?
  (Mr Williams) That statement was taken from a book called The Skeptical Environmentalist that addressed only smoke and sulphur dioxide and for those two pollutants that is probably true. However, since 1585 other pollutants have appeared from other sources that are common to the 20th Century and since, vehicle related pollutants, other industrial pollutants, and for those that is probably not necessarily the case at all.

  123. So have you read Bjorn Lomborg's book?
  (Mr Williams) I have read the bits where he draws that conclusion.

  124. Do you not think you should read the whole book given that he is the key proponent of the non-consensus view on environmentalism. This is a report about policy making, do you think as a policy maker you should have read the whole of his book?
  (Mr Williams) It deals with policy areas other than the ones that we are addressing here.

  125. He made the statement about clean air.
  (Mr Williams) Yes, and that is the bit I have read and I have also talked to the chap whose model he used in drawing those conclusions to see whether he did it properly.

  126. And did he?
  (Mr Williams) Yes, he did.


  127. Thank you very much. This line of questioning that Mr Gibb was pursuing on figure ten was interesting. We were talking about 24,000 deaths brought forward and you were saying they would have been brought forward by days or weeks. Have you any idea of the total numbers of years lost? If you have not, how do you work these figures out? It is not quite clear to me.
  (Mr Williams) Again, the answer to that is technical and I will summarise. It is very difficult to quantify it from the acute effects that are referred to in figure 12 in that table. It is rather easier to do it—by "it" what I mean is quantify the effect of life shortening—in terms of longer term exposure to particles that I talked about earlier. That was done since this report. It was summarised in the consultation that we put out last September. There the estimate, again, of this illustrative package that I was talking about is that overall if you run forward over 100 years then the added life years are something in the range of 250,000 to 500,000 life years across the UK population.

  Chairman: Thank you. Mr Alan Williams.

  Mr Williams: Chairman, you know what it is like to stand at the roadside waiting for a bus seeing it go straight past empty. I just had the same feeling as I watched my first question disappear out of sight.

  Chairman: I am sorry.

  Mr Williams: I do not mind at all, there is plenty to ask about.

  Chairman: Great minds think alike.

Mr Williams

  128. That is it. We will be going over much the same ground but from different perspectives. It says in paragraph 2.15, and I think Mr Steinberg referred you to it as well, that "the Department regards particles as probably the most serious pollutant, and the risk to health from their chronic effects may be significantly greater than from their acute effects". To the public what does that differentiation mean?
  (Mr Williams) It is not easy to get across to the public in the quantitative and very technical terms that the medical scientists analyse these things in terms of. I find that difficult myself. I try to give talks on this to non-specialist audiences and it is not easy.

  129. And you have got a non-specialist audience here today.
  (Mr Williams) Quite so. Essentially what it means, I think, certainly in policy terms, is that really the way to tackle these problems is to tackle the sources as well as shorter term mitigation. You can, for example, avoid peak periods of two or three day smogs, for example, by short-term traffic measures and so on. What that conclusion that you just mentioned means is not only do you have to do that but you also have to tackle the overall source of the pollution as well so that you get a longer term continued reduction in particle levels. That is the way I address the point.

  130. This is the most serious pollutant, and we can look across the page to table nine where we see that when it comes to the proportion of monitoring sites at which the levels of pollutants breached air quality standards, particles were 76 per cent of the monitoring sites and with the exception of nitrogen dioxide were about four times, more than four times greater than even ozone. This suggests that it should be a matter of major policy concern. Is it?
  (Mr Bender) It is the priority and that is why the September consultation made as one of its key proposals new objectives in the area of particles.

  131. If it is the priority concern, is England indolent or complacent in not expecting the local authorities to take action to help enforce the objectives or achieve the objectives, or are Wales and Scotland just precipitating and jumping in without due consideration?
  (Mr Bender) I am not sure I understand the question.

  132. One of them is wrong, is it not? Either Wales and Scotland are right in moving in quickly on the back of the report in setting new objectives or they have been precipitous, or England is sitting back when it should be taking action, but not both can be right. Which is the Department's preferred policy? Which is the better approach, the England approach or the Scotland/Wales approach, from the Department's point of view?
  (Mr Williams) Are you referring to the different levels of objectives in the countries?

  133. It says clearly in the Report that the two countries, Scotland and England, have taken action via their local authorities requiring them to help ensure that the objectives are met but the Department has decided not to do this in relation to England. The Department in a supplementary briefing states "The Department has not proposed that this is included for the time being in the regulations affecting English authorities". Why not?
  (Mr Williams) The answer I think I would give to that is I am not sure precisely where you are in the report.

  134. This is in the briefing that we have received from the C&AG, which you may or may not have, which is updating us on the situation since the Department produced its report in September of last year. It tells us that the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly propose that the new objectives are included in the Air Quality Management Regulations affecting local authorities but the Department does not propose to do that, or certainly not for the time being. Why not?
  (Mr Bender) The answer is that it is the Government's intention to put these objectives into regulations in England. It is more difficult, there are more problems to be resolved and that is why we are not there yet. It is not a question of one being wrong and the other being right. There are more intrinsic problems in England because of the levels of pollution and therefore it is taking longer.

  135. I am not sure I follow that. Are you saying that the nature of the pollution is in general mainly urban and it does not matter if it is Welsh urban, Scottish urban or English urban?
  (Mr Bender) It is the higher levels of pollution that are causing us to take more time to think about what we put in the Regulations.

  136. And how much longer are you going to take thinking?
  (Mr Bender) I cannot give you a timetable on that, Mr Williams.

  137. Have you started thinking? Are you well ahead in your thinking? Are you consulting? Which stage are you at?
  (Mr Bender) Forgive me, there was a consultation in September on particles, the Government has now received responses to that consultation. It is considering those responses and we will be putting recommendations to Ministers in the nearish future and that will, I assume, include this.

  138. When was the consultation?
  (Mr Bender) The consultation began in September.

  139. And finished?
  (Mr Williams) 12 December.

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