Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20 - 35)



  20. You are saying that before any planning permissions are granted it would be incumbent upon the planning committee or whatever to take into consideration and possibly act on the advice of the health authority and the specialist in that field?
  (Sir William Stewart) I think it would be a consideration.

Ms Perham

  21. Sir William, perhaps I can take you back to the point about the ombudsman. Would that be something separate for the process of it going to appeal, having a planning inspector appointed and it being referred to the Secretary of State possibly? Would that be completely separate from what exists now and would it just be for this particular issue?
  (Sir William Stewart) We were of the view that mobile telecommunication is such a widespread part of UK life at the present time and that disputes would arise so an ombudsman should be available to adjudicate in cases of conflict.

  22. The Chairman touched on schools at the beginning, but you did mention particular concerns in relation to schools. In your summary at paragraph 6.63 you talk about the vulnerability of children especially as they are likely to be exposed at an early age. Should not base stations be excluded from a far wider range of institutions than just schools? There is one in my constituency which is next to a pub, a row of shops and two streets away there are young children in houses. In densely populated areas there are lots of children in a concentrated area. Should not masts be situated away from large centres of population, away from homes and parks? Children are everywhere.
  (Sir William Stewart) The issue is of applying a precautionary approach which allows mobile telecommunications still to operate generally. The reason that we mentioned schools is because in younger children, skulls and nervous systems are not fully developed and they are likely to be exposed for longer. The interesting point is that we should get away from schools, in a sense, to the issue that we highlighted in our report, that there should be a random audit available to ensure that masts anywhere meet the standard guidelines that are set down. You can pull a lorry off the road to test to see whether it meets the guidelines, and equally we recommended that we should look at random audit of masts to see whether they meet the standards set down. If they did not meet the standards they should be shut down. That is what we suggested. Because of the sensitivity of schoolchildren, we felt that masts near schools should be among the first to be audited. In terms of emissions, base stations emit very much less radiation than mobile phones. I want to emphasise something else that we considered. First, the BSE inquiry impacted upon us. Never again will any scientific committee say that there is no risk. Secondly, looking at the ionising radiation saga over the past 50 years one sees that the acceptable levels for ionising radiation were reduced three times and years later they were reduced another three times and I believe that they have been reduced another three times. Are we at the same stage today as we were with ionising radiation 40 or 50 years ago? I suspect that we are not at the same stage, because, unlike ionising radiation, there is no real evidence that non-ionising radiation can break DNA. That is a hugely important issue.

  23. I do not know that providing a random audit will reassure people who are concerned about base stations near schools. In the report you said that a macrocell base station on the roof of a school would cause less exposure to pupils. You also suggested an obligation to tell schools where the beam of greatest intensity falls on their grounds and that the agreement of the school and parents should be required, but the Government did not go that far. Do you still think that that should be taken up?
  (Sir William Stewart) We have not met subsequently, but it is my view that it should have been done.

  24. What about churches because they are used for childcare, or hospitals? Do you think that there should be national guidelines criteria for site selection?
  (Sir William Stewart) My point is that I do not care much whether it is a church or a football stadium, so long as they meet the guidelines. Those are the guidelines that have been nationally accepted at the present time. We should adhere to those until evidence becomes available that they should be higher or lower.

  25. If they had to go through the full planning permission for application for erecting a mast that would be established in the planning process, would it?
  (Sir William Stewart) I think that the industry has to provide a series of answers to a series of questions. What they provide at the present time and what the answers are varies in different parts of the country and in a sense from industry to industry. We are simply suggesting that there should be a standard and that that should be followed whether near a church or near a school.

Mr Chope

  26. As far as schools are concerned, you say that under the precautionary principle that there should be an audit. At a school in my constituency, one of the mobile phone company representatives came around with me and we carried out an audit. We found that all parts of the school were well within the guidelines. It was something like 1 per cent of what the maximum was under the guidelines. We found the most dangerous place in the school was quite close to the school computers and the television set. The danger there seemed to be 10 or 15-fold higher than it was anywhere in the school playing fields and that was because of the radiation coming from the PC and the television. Are we alarming people unnecessarily in talking about having schools near masts when there are all sorts of other exposures to radiation that may be more damaging?
  (Sir William Stewart) Yes. It is an extremely difficult thing on which to get a balance. The argument that has been put to us, not in relation to computer screens, but in relation to microwave ovens, is that you have a choice about using a microwave oven and you have a choice about using a computer but you do not have a choice on whether a base station is stuck outside your house or not.

  27. With respect, in a school you do not have a choice about using a computer. Computer rooms are set aside and children are forced to sit in front of the computers. Do you think that parents should have the right to withdraw their children from computer rooms?
  (Sir William Stewart) I shall not get involved with computers. I am talking about mobile phones and masts and I shall stick to that.


  28. Do you have worries about the existing sites? You are tending to talk about future permissions. Do you think that there is a case, rather than random selection, of requiring there to be a clear indication on a site of what the radiation is? Most of us as Members of Parliament are presented with fait accomplis in the sense that the mast is usually up or is in the process of being constructed and, very often, as a mast has planning permission, it cannot be stopped, or there has been a small mast before but they have planning permission for a larger one.
  (Sir William Stewart) That is one of the reasons why we suggested that the emissions from the base stations should be clearly stated. One would expect those emissions to be well below normal levels. If that is the case, I think that is an important point, otherwise why set standards? Also we said that there should be a random audit because we know that base stations powers can be increased. We wanted to ensure that it was possible to check.

  29. You also recommended that a leaflet should be sent to every household. Are you happy with the Government's response to that?
  (Sir William Stewart) We recommended that every house should receive a leaflet. About a month ago I bought a new mobile phone. I went into the shop and asked whether they had anything on safety. The man said, "No, I do not think we have anything on safety". Then he said, "Hey, Jim, have we got anything on safety?" Jim said, "I think there is a packet of stuff in the back of the shop somewhere". He went into the back of the shop and came out saying, "Here is a leaflet, is that what you are looking for?" I said, "Yes". That is slightly different from a leaflet going to every household. We made a series of recommendations that there should be information available on the packaging. You have to go back to what we said. Our overall conclusion was that the balance of evidence suggests that there is no problem. What we are talking around here is a subset of that, in a sense. I appreciate that one does not want to scaremonger, but nevertheless I believe, in a situation where there is virtually a mobile phone in every household, that the public has a right to have the full information on what they are dealing with.

  30. To provide that information, I imagine that a database would be required. Have you any indication as to what extent the Government have taken up the idea of a national database on sites?
  (Sir William Stewart) I think that is going ahead.

Mr Chope

  31. Can you report to us in relation to the research programme on the effects on health of masts? What is happening? Are there any signposts as to when we shall receive more information to help us in this debate?
  (Sir William Stewart) As you know, the Government and the industry, on a 50:50 basis, have set up a research programme valued at £7 million to carry out a programme of research on areas that we highlighted in the report. That programme has been announced. There has been a workshop involving many people who are interested in this area, particularly scientists, because it is a scientific area. They have discussed various ways forward and a call has been made for proposals to be submitted. Those proposals will be evaluated by a team with members from the UK and from Europe, which I chair. We shall be making some grants this year.

  32. When will there be outputs from that research?
  (Sir William Stewart) It depends on the research. It is not like drawing a pint of beer. It will take time to set up the research programme and to get the programme under way. I say to you, do not ask for something too soon. My worry is that there are issues concerned with the relevance of some of the research programmes. A lot of research has been carried out that has been extrapolated to mobile phones and some has involved radiation frequencies nothing near the sort used in mobile phones. One has to ensure that the programme that is carried out has relevance to the mobile phone industry per se. Secondly, I am a believer that perhaps we should look for a set of volunteers who feel that they are adversely affected by mobile phones, by buzzing in the head or sore heads. We need to know the extent to which mobile phones are directly causing these effects. I would like to see a programme set up that included people who would be prepared to be volunteers. I have received letters from people who have said, "Every time I pick up a mobile phone I get a sore head. Could I be included in a test, if there is one?" That is an important point. We get back to the point of populations not being homogeneous. My general view—it is purely speculation—is that if mobile phones have an adverse effect they probably have an effect on a sub-group of the population.

  33. Will your research cover the anxiety and stress of this sub-group of the population who may suffer stress as a result of the fear itself and the anxiety that is encouraged by this sort of debate? Certain people get very worried and those worries may be rational or irrational, but they can still have an effect upon their health.
  (Sir William Stewart) We believe that well-being is an important issue and should be included. We are not going to dictate from the top down what the specific research programmes ought to be. We shall leave that to the community to take account of our report and to see how they propose to address some of the issues that we have raised.

  34. What about the recently publicised research into the electromagnetic fields near power lines? What is the significance of that?
  (Sir William Stewart) Again, I do not want to get into that. But it is an interesting point. For years, report after report has come out saying that power lines had no effect. Now we have a report that says that there is some evidence that power lines may cause certain types of leukaemia. For years people have been saying that they have no effect and now they are saying that they might.

  35. It does not seem as though you are including in any of this research the other part of the equation. There is a cost-benefit in all this. Have you worked out how many people's lives have been saved as a result of mobile communications technology, enabling them to reach hospital more quickly than they would have been able to otherwise? A few weeks ago there was a story in the press of a sailor in the South Seas who would certainly have been killed had it not been possible for her to communicate via her mobile phone with her boyfriend in Falmouth. Have you carried out a proper cost-benefit analysis? Although there is a downside to this technology, there is very much an upside as well. Do we not need to keep such matters in proportion?
  (Sir William Stewart) We have not carried out a cost-benefit analysis because we did not consider that to be part of our remit. As I said at the beginning, the benefits of mobile telephone communications to the nation as a whole are very substantial. How does one seek to allow that to continue as best as one can and complement that by minimising any risks? Rather than saying that people should stop using mobile phones, we have said that there should be a precautionary approach. Every little change can add up, allowing for a good mobile communications industry in this country and such changes may well improve it. One can see how motor car engines have improved as a result of rules and regulations coming in. Consider the petrol consumption that you got 20 years ago compared with what you get today. That is because the industry was asked to look at issues that were of concern to the public. Here again, we are asking an industry to look at issues that are of concern to the public. I am convinced that the industry will do that. We have a good mobile communications industry in this country.

  Chairman: On that note, Sir William, thank you very much for your evidence. If there is anything else we need to ask you we shall get in touch. Thank you very much for your time and trouble this morning.

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