Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 23 JANUARY 2002
BENDER CB, MR
1. Welcome to the Public Accounts Committee
of the House of Commons. This afternoon we are very pleased to
welcome Mr Brian Bender, Permanent Secretary at the Department
for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is going to answer
our questions on the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report
on Improving Air Quality. Welcome to our deliberations, Mr Bender.
(Mr Bender) Thank you.
2. Could you introduce your colleague, please?
(Mr Bender) Yes. Can I introduce, please, Mr Martin
Williams who is Head of Technical Policy and the Acting Head of
Air and Environment Quality Division in the Department.
3. Thank you very much. Perhaps I will start
by asking a few general questions. In introducing this subject
I want to get a feel for how important it is. How do you disaggregate
the effects of bad air from other aspects of urban living? We
know that great advances have been made in the past, getting rid
of coal, coal fires, leaded petrol, hydrocarbons through catalysts,
but are we now on the margins? I am trying to get a feel for whether
this is just window dressing or is it going to make a real difference
to people's lives?
(Mr Bender) Mr Williams may want to supplement what
I say. We have made enormous advances in the last decade or so
in terms of pollution from vehicle emissions and from industry
in the sort of way you have described, but nonetheless the advice
of the Department of Health Committee on the Medical Effects of
Air Pollution does identify some potentially serious health effects
of long-term exposure to certain of the pollutants. For example,
in the September consultation exercise that we conducted we had
their advice and published it on health effects of long-term exposure
to particles. I think it is more than marginal but it is a long-term
process. I do not know whether Mr Williams will want to add anything
with his scientific background.
4. For instance, on this issue if we look at
figure ten on page 23 we see that the totalling up of people who
have died you reckon is about 24,000 of a population of, say,
30 million. I am trying to get a feel for having dealt with coal
fires and leaded petrol, what is the next big issue?
(Mr Bender) Can I just slightly gloss the last point
you made about the number of deaths. The 24,000 relates to the
number of people whose deaths have been brought forward as a result
of air pollution. The issues are around vehicle emission pollutants
principally, like nitrogen dioxide, like particles, and also ozone.
5. Can I now refer you to a central point which
leads straight into the report at paragraph three on page one.
You will see there it says: "Poor air quality can seriously
damage health but improving air quality can impose costs on both
consumers and industry." Can you give us a feel for how you
sought to reconcile this tension in developing your Strategy?
(Mr Bender) The first thing we need is evidence on
the health effects, which was the issue I was trying to respond
to in response to your first couple of questions, so what evidence
is there about the health effects of long-term exposure. What
we then try and do is calculate, as far as possible, the monetized,
the value, the costs of those effects and try to balance that
against the evident costs of measures to reduce the pollutants.
That cost benefit analysis is applied in the light of developing
science and in the light of our modelling and in the light of
a proportionate application of the precautionary principle.
6. What are you doing to ensure that other departments'
policies are being properly appraised in this respect?
(Mr Bender) It is an issue that we pursue across Government.
My Department has a Public Service Agreement target on air quality.
We then work with other Government departments, particularly the
Department of Trade and Industry and DTLR. For example, on today's
speculative story about runway capacity in the South East, as
the consultation document is prepared we will be working with
DTLR to ensure the environmental aspects and air pollution aspects
of those issues are properly addressed.
7. Can I look at some of the evidence now. If
you turn to page 21 and you look at paragraph 2.11 you will see
there "The Panel's advice on air quality standards was based
on the scientific evidence available at the time. However, this
evidence was not wholly conclusive ...." What are you doing
to remedy these shortcomings?
(Mr Bender) In general what we do is take the best
possible information we have at the time. We take the advice of
the Department of Health Committee, COMEAP, on the health effects.
There is a Department of Health research programme which we helped
draw up. Essentially this is a continuing process in an area of
developing science and of some uncertainty.
8. What sort of gaps do you think might remain,
particularly after you have done all the work with particles,
gaps in your knowledge and in the evidence?
(Mr Williams) There are ongoing problems with particles
themselves of course, Chairman, but the other big one that we
are addressing with the Department of Health and the committee,
COMEAP, is actively looking at now is the question of the existence
or otherwise of a threshold for adverse effects from ozone. That
is the main uncertainty that leads to the range in deaths brought
9. Can you explain that in language that we
can all understand?
(Mr Williams) For some pollutants you can reduce the
concentrations and exposures below a level at which they have
any adverse effect on humans. For some pollutants there is not
such a threshold, there are potentially adverse effects all the
way down to zero exposure. The question of whether it exists for
ozone is crucial in quantifying the disbenefits from ozone pollution
and that is a very live issue.
10. You mentioned ozone which is really beyond
our control, certainly beyond the control of local authorities.
Just how much real difference has been made to people's lives
in dealing with air quality from road traffic when you have got
something like ozone which is drifting over from the rest of the
world and from other parts of Europe? It goes back to my original
question that what we are talking about in this Report is on the
margins now, or is that an unfair criticism?
(Mr Williams) Yes, I think it probably is, Chairman.
It is a different problem that we are addressing now, different
from the ones that we addressed in the 1950s with the smogs. The
pollution, although in broad terms, looks less of an issue, it
is true that concentrations are smaller, the point is they are
different now from what they were before, there is a different
mix of pollutants and ozone concentrations, for example, are probably
higher now than they were maybe 100 years ago, so the issue is
different. They require different measures to control them and
they require different techniques to analyse their importance.
That is one of the big advances in our knowledge in the last ten
years that Brian Bender referred to a moment ago. On ozone particularly
what we have to do is act in concert with our fellow EU Member
States and also on a wider front within fora such as the United
Nations where in the last two years we have concluded two international
agreements that reduce emissions of the substances that produce
ozone on a European scale. We are looking to see big improvements
over the next ten years in those pollutants.
11. Let us go back in a bit more detail on the
forecasts. If you turn to page 27 and you look at figure 12 you
will see there that the forecasts of pollutant emissions are not
particularly reliable. Can you tell us what you are doing, given
the forecasts are not particularly reliable, and what work you
have done to assess how reliable your air quality forecasts are
likely to be?
(Mr Williams) There are two prongs to that, Chairman.
One is to improve the accuracy of the estimates themselves, and
we are constantly working through our research programme to get
better measurements of emissions and better forecasting tools
and techniques. The second prong is to accept that there will
always be some uncertainties in these things, it is inevitable,
it is a fact of life. The important thing is to incorporate a
reliable and sensible treatment of that uncertainty in the policy
making process, and that is something we have tried to do in this
Strategy and in its subsequent versions.
12. On a similar theme, you will see on that
same page if you look at paragraph 3.15: "However, the Department's
assessment of options, and the forecasts of air quality in the
published Strategy, considered only AEA Technology's best estimate'
of future air quality." What plans have you got to prepare
for uncertainties and to prepare for what the future may bring,
which is obviously very uncertain?
(Mr Williams) That paragraph referred to the version
of the Strategy that was published in 2000 which the Report primarily
dealt with. Since that time, of course, we went out to consultation
last year on a review of chiefly the particles objective and in
that version of the document what we have done is improve our
treatment of the uncertainties themselves and what we have tried
to do is bracket some kind of range of future forecasts taking
into account not only the uncertainties in the emissions that
you referred to in figure 12 but also the fact that the weather
might be different in future years. We have tried to bracket the
sort of ranges that one might expect there to produce ranges of
13. You can see where my question is leading.
If I now refer both of you to pages 14 and 15, I have asked a
couple of questions about the uncertainties in your forecast and
if you look at page 15 the cost to industry, taxpayers, can run
to hundreds of millions of pounds. Are you certain that whilst
you have made enormous strides in the past dealing with coal,
hydrocarbons, lead petrol, that you are stuck on a line of research
which is potentially costing the taxpayer and industry hundreds
of millions of pounds but may only yield marginal benefits?
(Mr Williams) The whole essence of the Strategy is
to ensure that any pursuit of the objectives is done through proportionate
14. Sorry, can you speak up a bit?
(Mr Williams) Yes. The whole essence of the Strategy
is to make sure that our policies are proportionate and that we
take full account of that balance between costs and benefits to
ensure that we do not get the burden on industry and other emitting
sources out of proportion to the benefits that might accrue. I
think that is one of the things that we have tried very hard to
do and to be very clear about. It is not always very easy and
there are uncertainties on both sides of the equation, but what
we tried to do in the Strategy that this Report addresses and
in the latest consultation that we put out in September was to
do exactly that and try to make sure that we are not straying
beyond the bounds of reasonableness and proportionality.
15. If you turn now to page 41, what worries
me about a lot of this is you are very much in the hands of local
authorities. What are you going to do if local authorities fail
to do what is expected of them? How can you compile your regulations
in a way that your stakeholders can understand? If you and colleagues
look at page 41, just look at some of the technical jargon that
is laid out on that page. Do you really think that the people
that you are reliant on for carrying out your strategy can cope
with this and have a worthwhile strategy based on this sort of
(Mr Bender) We have made significant progress in the
last few years. There was an initial deadline of the end of 1999
for local authorities to complete their assessment of air quality
and in recognition of the sort of point you have just made, Chairman,
that was extended. By early 2001 around 70 per cent of them had
completed that process and around 96 per cent now have, and we
have helped them in that with a lot of guidance, help desks, and
we are (and will be) consulted on all their action plans. So I
think this is a process of learning and a process of engagement
and partnership with them. Ultimately, the Government has reserve
powers under the 1995 Environment Act, but these are seen very
much as a last resort.
16. What will you do if they fail to do what
is expected of them?
(Mr Bender) They are a last resort. I would hope,
and I am sure the Government would hope, that that is a hypothetical
question and that through a process of persuasion, dialogue and
assistance that would not be necessary.
Chairman: Thank you very much. Mr Gerry Steinberg?
17. Is air pollution more or less of a problem
than 25 years ago?
(Mr Bender) Less of a problem. Earlier this year an
air quality indicator was published which showed that the long-term
trend over the last decade or so remains downwards.
18. Fine. So have air pollution costs dropped
in that time?
(Mr Bender) Air pollution costs? Do you mean the health
19. No, the costs generally that air population
might have overall on all sorts of aspects of life.
(Mr Williams) You mean damage costs?