Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 149)



  140. So, in fairness, you have only had a few weeks. So we can expect to see an early burst of action from the Department now that all the information has flowed in?
  (Mr Bender) We are still considering the responses but there will be recommendations to Ministers soon.

  141. That is okay, I know the standard answers! Coming back to the point we raised before about deaths brought forward and the 24,000, as Mr Gibb established with you, this, in fact, is only a very small part of the health cost. Are you able to give either any absolute figure or any qualitative figure, approximate percentage, of the impact of the deaths in relation to the wider impact?
  (Mr Williams) You mean the wider impact of the pollution damage in its broader sense?

  142. Yes, damage to health?
  (Mr Williams) No. The main health impacts of particles are the two that are quantified here. There are other measures that have been looked at, things like use of asthma treatments, that might be associated and so on, but these are the two biggest.

  143. Getting back to the attempt at the cost benefit, I quite welcome what you are trying to do, I am not trying to knock what you are trying to do, I am trying to see how realistically near we are to getting anywhere. If you carry out a cost benefit assessment of whether it is worth taking action or not, someone would have to put some sort of price on them, if you excuse the phrase, but what about the exacerbated damage to health, the loss of quality of life of people suffering from severe bronchial illnesses and how on earth, statistically, are you going to be able to deal and quantify these in a cost benefit analysis?
  (Mr Williams) With difficulty. There are some numbers that have been produced in the scientific literature of association between particles and asthma relief use and also what are called in the jargon "restricted activity days" where people might feel discomfort so they do not go out or run around in they way they might otherwise have done. These are not felt by the Department of Health Committee that came up with the numbers here soundly enough based to put into a hard cost benefit calculation. Nonetheless, what we can do is recognise that there are associations and what that allows you to do when you are assessing the policy tie up is to guess that your damage costs are probably, if anything, under-estimates.

  144. Do you have any regional distribution pattern for the 24,000 deaths? I assume that it would be effectively a London, Birmingham, Manchester type of table, would it?
  (Mr Williams) Given that we do not know what the geographical spread of susceptibility is at the moment, the only answer to that is they go proportionately with the different levels of particles in the UK, so where you have got the highest levels you can predict the highest incidence of deaths brought forward.

  145. You say the highest levels. How would the three major connurbations compare with the rest of the country? If we were looking at the total of 24,000 for example, would you, on your spread relating it to particles, expect that to mean that 12,000 or 6,000 of the 24,000 would be in the three major connurbations or most of them would be in the three major conurbations?
  (Mr Williams) Most of them probably would. As a very rough back-of-the-evelope calculation we could take the population of Greater London of round about ten million in a national total of about 60 million as about a sixth so that, of that 24,000, 4,000 would be in London. That is a very crude calculation.

  146. That cannot be right because a lot of the people do not live in urban areas so it would be significantly higher than that because there are large areas of the country where pollution levels, from what you said a short while ago, will be significantly lower and, therefore, the number of people affected in London would be significantly higher, and the same in Manchester and the same in Birmingham. It follows logically, does it not? You cannot just say that it is 24,000 and it is concentrated particularly in urban areas and then say because one in six live in London only one-sixth of the effect would be in London. That is a self-contradictory statement.
  (Mr Williams) We could talk at length on this.

  147. We do not need to talk at length, it is statistically obvious I would have thought. This is the least complicated piece of statistics you have. It is bound to be far greater than one in six. We will leave that great mathematical puzzle. To a layman like myself—and you will gather that they do not come much more lay—if you take this unavoidable ozone problem we have (unavoidable because most of it is not generated from our own country) is there a cocktail effect between these pollutants? Obviously to have one pollutant is a problem; to have two pollutants might be a greater problem. Is there a mix of these pollutants that is particularly lethal and have you drawn up any grid of the country to show where the potent mixes are greatest? Coming back to ozone, which is outside our control, does that, mixed with any of the others, exacerbate it?
  (Mr Williams) That is a question that has been asked for a long time, certainly several times in the last ten years, and whenever expert assessments have been done they have always come up with the answer that it is too difficult to tell. Nobody has yet anywhere in the world, as far as I know, come up with any clear answer to that question. You feel intuitively that there ought to be. The nearest people have got is to do experiments like exposing people to, for example, nitrogen dioxide and it is shown that that enhances the response to allergens like pollen in people who are sensitive to those things.

  148. If you look at Table 12 on Page 27, it looks difficult enough statistically to draw any conclusion even from what is said there, but in the light of what you have just said about the mix being unquantifiable and unidentiable, it makes policy decisions even worse. Here what we have got is on the one hand you talk about a spread and you talk of a 40 per cent error but, in fact, it is an 80 per cent spread, is it not, it is plus or minus 40 per cent, which is 80 per cent? The best of them is lead which is plus or minus 14 per cent, so there is a spread of 28 per cent in the uncertainty area as far as the statistics are concerned. That is taking these as individual elements.
  (Mr Williams) Let me just backtrack. When I said we had no idea what the effect of mixtures was, the best we can say at present is the effects are additive of the individual components taken together. We do not know whether there are any synergies or value added. The other thing I should say in relation to what you said in terms of table 12 is when we talk about an uncertainty of plus or minus 40 per cent it does not mean that there is an equal probability of it being plus 40 per cent in the middle or minus 40 per cent, we assume some sort of statistical distribution on that, so the central estimate is the most likely.

  149. My time is more than up, I am afraid. Can I ask you, if you have such a thing, to submit—That is not meant in that sense but in the sense I understand the statistical problems that you face. Is it possible to submit to us something in map form or written form indicating the concentrations, as far as you are able to identify them, the regional or area concentrations of the various elements listed here?
  (Mr Bender) We will provide an explanation of the picture on the front cover. Can I also say, Chairman, we also undertook to provide the note Mr Gibb asked for but I have found a little more data. We spend £2.5 million a year, including the Local Government Finance Settlement, for local authorities to spend on air quality management duties and an additional £2.5 million to help with the purchase of the equipment. That is a first answer, £5 million in total for the expertise and equipment. I will provide the note I offered to you.[4]

  Mr Williams: Thank you. I expect Mr Gibb thanks you.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, Mr Williams and Mr Bender. There is nothing more important as far as public health is concerned than the protection of the environment. It is a very difficult subject because of the difficulties in working out cost benefit analysis, but you have made a very good fist of it. Thank you very much. Before the session closes may I just formally welcome the Public Accounts Committee of South Africa who have been attending very assiduously at the back of the room and we look forward to having a private word with you in a moment. Thank you.

4   Ev 18, Appendix 1. Back

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