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Column 1132The House will appreciate that I have only recently acquired a direct interest in the project. I have found it somewhat ironic, given that the project was first applied for some three and a half years ago, that objectors to it have complained that my Department has been over-hasty in arranging inquiries and hearings.
Minimum periods of notice are laid down in statutory regulations. Wherever possible, and indeed in almost all cases, my Department has given the parties concerned longer notice than required by regulations. It is also true that those concerned have generally been aware from a date much earlier than receipt of the notice that a particular inquiry or hearing would be held following objections by the relevant local planning authority or relevant individuals. Therefore, as the House will understand, I reject completely any suggestion that individual parties have not had sufficient time to prepare their case for a particular inquiry or hearing.
I also understand that some objectors to the project have found it difficult to accept the appointment of Mr. Alan Walker as one of the inspectors at the public inquiry taking place at Northallerton. My hon. Friend did not refer to the matter, but it is right to put it on the record. The difficulty in acceptance of Mr. Walker is apparently because he was one of the inspectors who held wayleave hearings at the end of 1994.
I do not accept that Mr. Walker's role as an inspector is in any way compromised by his involvement in those hearings, even in so far as those hearings and the current inquiry raise common issues. The wayleave hearings dealt with site-specific interests relating to the granting of rights across specific pieces of land, rather than to all the planning issues associated with consent applications. Mr. Walker made it clear at the wayleave hearings that he would not be making any recommendations to my right hon. Friend on the generic issues considered at the 1992 public inquiry.
My hon. Friend touched on health issues only briefly--en passant, if Hansard can put "en passant". I do not know whether we are allowed to use little French phrases. I should like to make a comment on health. A large majority of those who have made representations to my right hon. Friend, either in correspondence or through the inquiries and hearings, have expressed anxiety about adverse health effects. In particular, an increased health risk has been perceived by the public as a result of studies published in other countries which suggest a possible association between electromagnetic fields and cancer. My right hon. Friend can take into account only the most current and authoritative evidence available to him when he makes a decision, including advice from the Department of Health and the National Radiological Protection Board. That applies in the case of any overhead line decision and such decisions are being taken every day. The NRPB's current advice is that it has considered all the available information and has concluded that it does not establish that exposure to electromagnetic fields is a cause of cancer, although it provides some evidence to suggest that the possibility exists, which justifies moving forward with research.
The significance of an epidemiological study depends, among other things, on the strength of the association, the presence of dose-relationship, supporting experimental evidence and a credible biological explanation. Those tests for causality are not satisfied
Column 1133for a link between electromagnetic fields and cancer and the NRPB does not therefore recommend the adoption of quantitative restrictions on human exposure to electromagnetic fields. Should, of course, the NRPB's advice change before my right hon. Friend reaches any decision on this project, he will take that new advice into account.
As I have said, my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade has yet to receive and consider a number of reports by independent inspectors on different aspects of the project. He is also obliged to consider any new relevant evidence which he receives before he makes his decisions. If he takes into consideration any such new evidence or new matter of fact which disposes him to disagree with the
Column 1134recommendations made by any of the inspectors, he must, under the relevant procedure, give the parties involved an opportunity to ask for the reopening of that inquiry.
I assure my hon. Friend and the House that no decisions on the various individual applications until my right hon. Friend will be taken before he is satisfied that he has all the information before him to enable him to take that decision. Furthermore, as the House will realise, my right hon. Friend cannot take a decision that will in any way restrict his discretion in relation to any other decision.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Ten o'clock.
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