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Mobile Phone Masts

Volume 464: debated on Wednesday 10 October 2007

I suspect that I may start my peroration only to be cut off in the next couple of seconds—indeed, the Division bell is going now. I seek your guidance, Dr. McCrea.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

This debate is the first parliamentary opportunity to discuss the mobile telecommunications and health research programme report 2007, which was published on 12 September. I intend to touch very briefly on handsets—not in an attempt to catch out the Minister, but because they featured in the report. I think, therefore, that they are worth discussing today.

It is clearly true to say that mobile phones are very much part of our way of life. I have got one and I suspect that everyone else in the Chamber has as well, with one possible exception. In the UK, there are 70 million mobile phone subscriptions, compared with just 9 million 10 years ago. However, that rapid growth has been accompanied by growing concerns that exposure to radio waves from mobile phones and base stations poses a health risk. Concern about masts has been expressed by residents of the Ridge, in Woodcote, of Green Wrythe lane, in Carshalton, by those living next to the Oaks Park golf club, and by those living just about everywhere else in my constituency and, I suspect, in every other constituency where masts are being erected. Concerns about the health impact of handsets are more muted, possibly because people have a choice of whether they carry a mobile phone. Clearly, they do not have a choice about whether they live next to a mobile phone mast.

The balance of evidence from research to date suggests that no health impacts have been identified. However, gaps in scientific knowledge, particularly about the long-term health impacts of this very new technology have prompted calls for further studies to be conducted, which is happening in the UK and around the world. What are people’s health concerns about masts? The major concern is the possibility that radio waves cause cancer or a greater risk of cancer owing to the heating up of cells in the body. Some studies have shown that there is a greater risk of cancer-related conditions in those situated near telecommunications masts. However, many other studies have suggested that that is just a possibility. I think that people are concerned about the lack of clarity in those different messages.

One of my constituents, Mr. Simon Densley, is here today for the debate. He tracks very carefully the research on mobile phone masts and describes the health concerns in this way:

“They fall roughly into two categories: short and long term. Short term covers immediate and near immediate effects such as headaches, dizziness, extreme irritation, etc. These seem to currently only affect a small percentage of the population. There is research which offers an explanation for this. Also there is thought to be evidence that long term chronic exposure can increase electro-sensitivity over time and therefore the number of people susceptible to these short term effects.”

Later I shall move on to what the mobile telecommunications and health research programme report had to say about that. He also says:

“Long term problems cover anything that can be caused by a long term build up of cellular and neurological damage. Specific symptoms that have been noted in laboratory or epidemiological studies include depression, cancer, leukaemia and brain tumours.”

Mr. Densley’s concerns are echoed by a group of German doctors who launched the Freiburger appeal after noticing a correlation between higher incidents of depression, cancer, leukaemia, brain tumours, heart rhythm disorders, heart attacks and strokes among an increasingly younger population, brain-degenerative diseases and epilepsy, and exposure to pulsed high-frequency microwave radiation, as used by mobile phone masts, wi-fi, terrestrial trunked radio and several other new technologies. That appeal now has nearly 37,000 signatories, of whom—this is important—some 1,000 are medical doctors.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that where groups who live around a mobile phone mast, such as the Shooters Hill residents’ action group, have undertaken their own surveys of health they have shown up huge numbers of concerning brain tumours and other illnesses and afflictions that he has mentioned so far? Does he share my concern that when one checks to see whether that is just a statistical blip, the evidence is not taken at sufficiently detailed low-lying levels to say whether it is? All that can happen, therefore, is that residents can continue to have those concerns with nothing to allay them.

The hon. Gentleman makes a sound point and underlines the need for ongoing research and extensive monitoring. As I said, we are dealing with a new technology, and I do not think that anyone could say hand on heart with total certainty what the possible implications might be down the line a number of years from now.

Let me return to the subject of the Freiburger appeal. It is important to note the number of medical professionals who are signatories to that appeal. We are talking about neurophysicians and people in general medicine, paediatrics and so on. We are not talking about people who do not have a scientific view on those matters, but about people who have an active involvement in health and the possible impacts of telecommunications. Clearly, the medical establishment does not necessarily support the view put forward by the Freiburger appeal.

The World Health Organisation says that one of the main causes of people’s concern is due to newspaper reports that publish new and unconfirmed scientific results, and to people feeling a loss of control over their environment and what is put there. That is certainly something that appears in the appeal and addresses the point that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Flello) made about the extent to which local communities have any say on the location of masts.

The WHO goes on to dismiss anecdotal reports of cancer clusters around mobile phone base stations because, in its view, clusters are in any case unevenly distributed and with the number of masts located in the country statistically there would be clusters around mobile phone masts in the way in which there would be clusters around places with no masts. Clearly, medical opinion is not entirely united on mobile phone masts or on handsets and their impact.

On 12 September, the Mobile Operators Association welcomed the report published by the mobile telecommunications and health research programme. In its press release, the MOA said that

“the report concludes none of the research supported by the programme and published so far demonstrates that biological or adverse health effects are produced by radiofrequency exposure from mobile phones”.

If it had used an exact quote, it would have said:

“The six year research programme has found no association between short term mobile phone use and brain cancer.”

That is an area to which I shall refer again, because it is the significant gap in the research that has been conducted to date.

The MOA went on to state that it found the findings reassuring and consistent with the conclusion that there are no adverse health effects, but that there was a need in some areas for more research. It equally underlined the fact that in its view, and that of the report, there were areas where no more research needs to be carried out. When I get to the end of my speech, I shall ask the Minister to clarify whether there are any areas where, in her view, the science is now so well defined that there is no need for further research.

In my constituency, many of the concerns that have been raised have been raised by the parents of young children. In Saltcoats in my constituency, T-Mobile is attempting to erect a mobile phone mast adjacent to Caledonia primary school. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that any research should focus specifically on the effect on young children given the many examples throughout the country of mobile phone masts being erected adjacent to primary schools?

Absolutely. Of course, I shall be asking the Minister whether she would support a precautionary principle that would suggest that no mobile phone masts should be located next to schools or hospitals. I hope that T-Mobile will be receptive. I am pleased that there have recently been a couple of occasions in my constituency where mobile phone operators have appeared to be more willing to listen to representations and not to locate masts close to places where there have been high levels of concern. I hope that the hon. Lady will receive a positive response.

I want to quote Professor Lawrie Challis, who heads up the MTHR programme and acknowledges the need for more investigation. In an interview with The Times on 20 January of this year, in advance of the production of the report, he said:

“It’s encouraging because they found nothing for people who’ve used phones for less than ten years, but there is a hint of something for people using them more.”

Clearly, if the person who heads up the Government’s programme into the impact of mobile phone use and mobile phone masts is of the view that there is a “hint of something” in the effect on people who have been regular users for more than 10 years, we should definitely investigate that.

Sufficient funds are, I hope, available for the research. Nearly £9 million has been contributed to the programme by a variety of sources, including the industry and Government. Although I am absolutely certain that the programme is independent and that the firewall is doing its job so that no influence is being exerted by the operators, I still think that there will be a problem of perception for those who are worried about the technology about the independence of the reports.

Although the weight of the evidence so far suggests that there are no health implications, we need to acknowledge the body of evidence and the support coming from some medical professionals in favour of caution. The industry is responding to that to a certain extent, and it is providing commitments as to how it will address public concerns over whether it is funding reports and research into the subject. It is trying to ensure that emission levels from handsets are clearly indicated. However, on that point, Members might have seen a report published just a few days ago that highlighted the fact that people really have to look if they want to find which mobile has a high emission level and which does not. I purchased a mobile phone for a friend a couple of weeks ago, and I cannot say that anything in the documentation leapt out at me to say whether that mobile phone was high-emitting or not.

On the subject of the obligations of the mobile phone operators, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the five mobile phone companies that operate in the UK should now consider sharing mobile phone masts? That could be one of the major steps that could be taken to reduce the number of mobile phone masts erected. We should be actively considering that now, given the levels of public concern.

The hon. Lady makes a perfectly valid point. My understanding is that two of the operators are seeking to do exactly that, although there may be some competition issues about whether they are allowed to do it. I hope that, if not reducing emissions—I do not believe that it would necessarily do that—it would reduce the visual intrusiveness of a proliferation of masts. I hope that we can have some clarity from the Minister on whether those two operators, or indeed others, will be allowed to share masts. I hope that competition reasons will not get in the way of that happening.

The Government’s position is clearly set out in the Stewart report, which is what Members produce in evidence when they raise issues about mobile phone masts with Ministers. It highlighted some issues on the environmental impact of base stations and the need to discourage the use of mobile phones among young children.

I want to give the Minister a reasonable amount of time to respond to a couple of questions. In light of what the MTHR report said about the need for a substantial ongoing programme of long-term research into the impact of masts, will the Government support that research? How do they see that programme rolling forward, and who should be funding it? On a specific point, would the Government support more research into wi-fi, which has received a lot of coverage in recent months? There are concerns, and some schools have taken out their wi-fi because of health concerns. Do the Government believe that there is a need for more investigation?

Does the Minister agree with the view put forward by the MTHR and the MOA that there are some areas in which the science is now so well defined that there is no need for further research? If that is her view, perhaps she will set out in what areas she believes that to be the case. Given the uncertainty about the long-term health implications of mobile phone use and masts, would she support, as the hon. Lady suggested, the idea of a precautionary principle being adopted around schools and hospitals?

I do not consider myself a luddite in relation to mobile phones. There are genuine concerns about the long-term health impact of phones and masts, and they require the science to be kept under regular review. Detailed monitoring of those subject to the effects of mobile phone handsets and masts needs to be undertaken. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me and hundreds of my constituents, and constituents of other Members present, that there will be no no-go areas of research. We need certainty about the health impact of masts and handsets, which will be achieved only through constant monitoring of the science and regular and detailed health assessments.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) on securing the debate. I shall confine myself to health issues—I am sure that he will understand why.

Mobile phone technology has raised health worries about masts and base stations in some people’s minds. It is clearly important to understand those worries, answer them on the basis of evidence and ensure that the appropriate protections are in place. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that the best precautionary principle is for Ministers to be advised of the scientific evidence that exists at the time.

The hon. Gentleman is right that, recognising public concern, the Government set up an independent expert group on mobile phones and health in 1999 to review the health effects of mobile phone technology. He referred to it himself. It was chaired by Sir William Stewart, who now chairs the Health Protection Agency, and the report known as the Stewart report was published in May 2000. It was based on a thorough review of published scientific evidence on health effects, and Government policy on mobile phones is based on the Stewart report recommendations. The headline conclusion of his report was:

“The balance of evidence to date suggests that exposures to mobile phone radiation below national guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population.”

On base stations in particular, he concluded that, looking at the balance of evidence, there was no general risk to the health of people living near base stations, on the basis that exposures were expected to be very small.

The report referred to the national guidelines in place at the time, but Stewart nevertheless recommended that, as a precautionary measure, those guidelines be replaced with more restrictive international guidelines. That has been done. He went on to make another precautionary recommendation in recognition of the incomplete scientific knowledge and significant public concern. It was interesting to learn from the Stewart report that the levels of radio frequency exposure from masts, where people thought they were likely to be high, was substantially less than those from mobile phone handsets held near the head. That led the chief medical officers to issue advice about handsets, which was published in leaflets and is well known.

The Government’s overall response to the Stewart report was to accept its advice on following the precautionary approach. At every point, the Government recognise concerns and follow the scientific evidence. Because of the public concerns, we continue to do that even when the scientific evidence does not point towards harm. On Stewart’s recommendations, we moved to the stricter International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection guidelines. By 2001 the industry, Government Departments and their advisers were all working to the international exposure guidelines. The Stewart report also felt that more consultation at the planning stage was called for, and a revision of the planning policy guidance note was therefore introduced by the then Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2001, strengthening public consultation and referring specifically, for example, to school governors being informed.

Stewart also recommended an audit of base station radio wave exposure. The first audit was in 2001 and further audits have been carried out every year since. The measurements carried out each year by Ofcom have shown that base station exposures are well below the international guidelines, in many cases tens of thousands or more times below. We continually seek the means to improve ways to communicate with people who are concerned about the perceived health risks associated with masts.

Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister can shed some light on this. My understanding is that the international guidelines to which she refers are heating guidelines, so for a person living close to a phone mast it is a heating issue rather than about any other biological effect that the radio waves generate.

With respect to my hon. Friend, I am sure that he will appreciate that Ministers cannot pick and choose when to follow scientific evidence. Particularly when there is public concern in some areas, they need constantly to ensure that, as Stewart recommended, the available scientific evidence is always taken into account. I shall come on to that point.

The Minister has mentioned the scientific evidence; I referred to what Dr. Challis had said about the need to consider the long-term implications. Although compliance with tougher guidelines is welcome, if the longer-term implications reveal that those guidelines were set at too high a level, do we not still have a significant health issue to address?

I shall turn to the evidence, and in particular to the way in which the Government are advised. At any point with regard to health, whether an individual consultant recommends a particular drug when National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has evaluated it and said that the quality and impact is not as such, or evidence comes forward that needs to be considered, the approach is to embrace it.

An important development, following the Stewart report, was the establishment of a new research programme: the mobile telecommunications and health research programme. The hon. Gentleman referred to it himself, and I have with me its report, which was published on 12 September, just one month ago. It is a report from 23 completed projects, and therefore a report on the very latest research findings from a very high-quality research programme. None of the research published by the MTHR programme showed that radio frequency emissions from mobile phones affected people’s health, at least in the short term. The hon. Gentleman referred to that point, and I am looking at the conclusions now.

One study specifically analysed whether short-term exposure to radio frequencies from base stations could have an effect on people’s health, and although some people attribute their ill health symptoms to phone masts, the MTHR peer-reviewed study did not find any convincing evidence that their symptoms were caused by exposure to signals from mobile phones or masts.

Although there is no scientifically proven risk to health from base stations, the Government take very seriously the continuing public concern about the possible health effects from mobile phone masts. Indeed, the report touches on that point. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the Government will continue, with the precautionary principle to which he referred, to respond to the public’s concerns and to support high-quality scientific studies that seek to address the very problems that my hon. Friends and the hon. Gentleman have identified in the debate. Ministers from the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform regularly meet representatives of mobile phone operators to discuss the matter, and we shall meet again shortly.

In conclusion, the only sensible and—if I could use the word in response to the hon. Gentleman—precautionary way in which the Government should proceed on the matter is to follow the scientific evidence recommended by people who are properly qualified to assess it. That is what we have in the 2007 report. Some issues have been identified for further research, and they will be taken forward. I hope that we can continue to address people’s concerns by providing the evidence that answers their concerns, at all times advised by the scientific evidence.