Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2002
BENDER CB, MR
(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
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 effectsthat means effects
that are suffered on a day-to-day basis from particlesis
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
(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
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 applicationagain it is back to this question
of proportionalitycould 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
(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
(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.
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.
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
(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.