Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Minister, Professor Donaldson and Dr Metters, you are all welcome. Thank you very much indeed, Minister, for coming along this afternoon and helping us in our inquiry. I think you probably know, but perhaps I can just tell you again, that we are doing quite a large inquiry into scientific advice to government, the quality of that advice, how government uses that advice, and the effect that this advice will have on government policy. We have decided to do it with a series of case studies. This is the second case study, the first one having been genetically modified food, which we have now completed. We shall publish our case studies, as we complete them, and then do an umbrella report at the end. So this is the second of our case studies into the possible health effects or safety of mobile phones. We would like to ask a few questions this afternoon about that but could I please, with your permission, ask your third witness if he would just introduce himself, because we did not know he was going to be a witness and it would help us, in our questioning, if we knew something about Dr Jeremy Metters.
  (Dr Metters) Thank you, Chairman. I am the Deputy Chief Medical Officer in the Department of Health, responsible for public health as opposed to National Health Service matters. I have been the Deputy for the last ten years. Among other things I have been involved in the regular reviews of the National Radiological Protection Board and other similar bodies in that decade.

  2. Thank you very much indeed. You are very welcome. Minister, could I, first of all, put my question to you. There has, as we all know, been a massive increase in the use of public phones in general and, indeed, in the use of mobile phones in this Committee. They do ring from time to time. I hope they will not this afternoon as it might well be distracting, as well as an unknown health hazard. Can you please tell us what impact there might be on health from the use of mobile phones, and do your deliberations concentrate entirely and exclusively on the phones themselves, or do you also look at the transmitters as well?
  (Ms Jowell) Thank you very much indeed, Chairman. I am delighted to have the opportunity to come and contribute to your inquiry this afternoon. The answer to your question about the health effects of mobile phones is that we study the research available very closely indeed, and aim to ensure that in the context of both an industry and use of mobile phones, which is expanding at a very rapid rate—there are now something like 14 million mobile phone users in this country—that we are in a position to track any health effects, beneficial or detrimental, arising from the use of mobile phones. As you will be aware—and I suspect that this is what has prompted your inquiry—there is a considerable amount of media interest, media concern, about the potential ill effects on health from mobile phones. As of now, there is no conclusive evidence which suggests that there are ill effects to health but I believe that an area like this—as in all areas of very rapidly-developing technologies—it is very important that we, as a Government, retain an open mind, work very hard to keep ahead of public anxiety, commission research and study the epidemiology, in order to assess whether or not there are risks: (a) about which the public should be informed; and (b) which would require government action. This would apply across a whole range of public health issues, mobile phones specifically, but also any of the impacts arising from the location of base stations, which are cropping up all over the country, to support the rapidly developing mobile phone usage.

  3. Thank you very much. Now, you tell us in your submission that your main source of advice is the Radiological Protection Board. Can you tell us whether you receive any advice from other authorities, either by them sending it uninvited, or by you writing and asking or commissioning advice from others.
  (Ms Jowell) You are absolutely correct that our principal source of independent and expert advice on matters to do with radiation and electro-magnetic fields and non-ionising radiation is the National Radiological Protection Board, which is a non-departmental public body. This operates at arm's length from Ministers but is accountable to Ministers. Little less than half its income comes in direct grant from the Department of Health. Therefore, they are our principal source of advice but there are other sources of advice in that this is an area of international concern, so to that extent the intelligence generated by research knows no national boundaries. We will be examining very closely the results of American studies and studies commissioned by the European Union. We are concerned to ensure that our advice to the public and our actions to protect and promote the public health are based on the best available research. Much of that advice—but by no means all that advice—will come from the NRPB. If I can add to that, as Ministers in government we are facing a very rapid change in public expectation, public anxiety, public susceptibility to media stories reporting particular pieces of research, which may be more or less accurately reported. I am very concerned that, as a Government, the public trust us, and that we are in a position to provide good and reliable information. Also, that we are able to provide timely information and advice, particularly in the context of mobile phones, while the NRPB (as you will no doubt hear) has a very clear interest and is conducting research into mobile phone usage, their work on electro-magnetic fields, of which mobile phone usage is a part, is at the moment heavily concentrating on the impact of power lines. Because I was keen that we respond to what had been quite a wave of public reporting of studies about the impact of the use of mobile phones, I met with the Chairman of the NRPB, Sir Walter Bodmer, at the accountability review. I commissioned from him, at that point, a position paper in relation to the state of research in relation to mobile phones. I also asked him to convene an independent group, which would review the current state of research, and provide us with advice on areas where there were gaps in research, so that we could directly or indirectly commission research in order to meet our aim of providing the best and most up-to-date health advice.

  4. I think, in that comprehensive reply, you pre-empted my next question. I was going to say to you: what do you do to check on the quality and depth of the advice you are getting from the National Radiological Protection Board, and do you discuss that advice with your scientific advisers, but I think in the answer you have just answered that. Because we only have three quarters of an hour, may I take it that you do discuss this with your scientific advisers, and that you are always aware of the need to check the advice you receive.
  (Ms Jowell) I think that is essential. I would underline the point that this is an area of enormous public, clinical, and research interest. It is our job to make sure that we keep abreast of all developments wherever they are generated. Professor Donaldson may like to add a word or two to that, as Chief Medical Officer, because obviously he is a major source of advice.

  5. I would particularly welcome his comment on the quality and depth of the advice they are getting, and the discussions that he will have with his Minister on it.
  (Professor Donaldson) The quality and depth of advice varies from field to field, but in this particular field I am confident that the body providing the advice would generally give advice of high quality. In a complex field like this, it is necessary to formulate specific questions. Otherwise, you cannot be sure that the whole scientific territory has been covered. Hence, we did move from the more general look at electro-magnetic fields to asking a specific question in relation to mobile phones. My normal practice would be, as Chief Medical Officer, to inform myself in a field of study, where a new hazard had been speculated. I would, myself, do a lot of scientific reading. I would talk to my own advisers. I might also contact somebody who was known to be eminent in the field and have a meeting or have a telephone conversation with them. Then, when the definitive report arrived from the body concerned, I would often ask others to have a look of it before formulating my advice to Ministers. So there would be a stage between receipt of the scientific report from an expert body, where I would review the situation myself, already having prepared my mind on the subject, and then I would have a discussion with Ministers. I would alert them to any areas of doubt, or any areas where I felt that the conclusions were too tenuous for the evidence; and particularly discuss with them what advice might need to be given to the public.

Mr Taylor

  6. We saw, when we were looking at genetically modified foods, that poor or inadequate research can often be used nevertheless to excite irrational public responses. In areas such as the mobile telecommunications, how much are you making sure that if stories emerge, there is no difference in the reaction between other government departments and the Department for Health because obviously there are several different interests.
  (Ms Jowell) There is obviously close co-operation and co-ordination across government in order to ensure that government speaks with one voice on this. Indeed, when I announced the review of the present state of research in relation to mobile phones, that review was strongly supported by the relevant DTI Minister. Clearly there are important industry concerns here as well. You touched on an extremely important issue which we are grappling with at the moment. This is that there are times when the public reporting of research is of research which does not really pass muster in terms of its integrity and credibility. We are looking at ways in which we can provide the public, and indeed provide the media, with some sort of benchmark that they ought to look out for in relation to judging the quality and integrity of research. A sort of a kite mark. Has it been peer reviewed? What about the credibility of the methodology and so forth? This is with only one concern that the public can make informed, and draw reasonable, conclusions; well informed conclusions from the research. Both in this area, in the area of mobile phones, and also in relation to genetically modified food, this has been a problem. As I say, it is a problem that we are doing our very best, in the public interest, to grapple with.

  7. As a former Minister for Science, I have to add that not only inadequate research can create a problem. Sometimes when there is excellent research, such as the cloning of Dolly the sheep, different government departments have not pre-coordinated the ways in which they can respond. That tends to lead to no response at all. I just want to be assured that, although at the moment you think this is a very low-risk area, nevertheless the channels of communication with other departments and with the industry and with other interested parties are already open.
  (Ms Jowell) Those channels are, I can confirm that.
  (Professor Donaldson) I would like to make two points in response to what you said, Mr Taylor. The first is that I am the Government's adviser on public matters generally, not just to the Department of Health, so if at any time I felt that another government department was placing too much reliance on matters other than the concern for the public health—I have not encountered that so far, although I have only been in post since October - then I would have the right to advise the Prime Minister directly, if necessary, that I had a concern about public health, which I believed was not being taken seriously enough. I would exercise that right because my principal concern is to the public health. The second comment is in relation to your points about the public and of what they are informed. If I may say so, you have chosen two case studies in a particular area of science, which are particularly difficult. They have to do with the relationship between a claimed association and a proven cause. It is a particularly difficult area of science. It falls within my own field of epidemiology and it is one that I think is particularly misunderstood by the public. Anybody can make a claim that a particular hazard or presumed hazard causes something, but for that association to be established as causal requires epidemiological evidence, on the whole, not laboratory evidence, which requires studying disease patterns in populations over a long period of time. That evidence is very, very difficult to obtain. Hence, it is very difficult, at any one time, to make these black and white statements about safe or not safe. Dealing with uncertainty in this field of epidemiology I have found to be a difficulty, since coming into post, as far as communication with the public is concerned.

  8. Professor Donaldson, I welcome that argument. I faced this as Minister of Science and Technology. Sadly, the answer that you have just given does not trip easily off the pages of the Daily Mail or other papers, which do not seek to look at the matters very deeply. Can you tell us a little bit about the Non-Ionising Radiation Group of Officials. You talked about the electro-magnetic field inquiry. Could you just give us a quick insight into what this Group is doing.
  (Professor Donaldson) Could I ask you to clarify.

  9. There is a group, which has been set up under the National Radiation Protection Group, the Non-Ionising Radiation Group of Officials. The Committee would like to know what its objectives are.
  (Professor Donaldson) It is a Committee with which Sir Richard Doll, the eminent epidemiologist who discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer, is involved. It has been looking at non-ionising radiation generally. The purpose of the Minister's initiative to set up the separate working party to look at mobile phones, which is a separate strand of work. Both of them will be reporting separately.
  (Dr Metters) May I just add that the Advisory Group of Non-Ionising Radiation, this came in late compared with when the National Radiological Protection Board was set up. The focus was always on the ionising radiations because their harmful effects were recognised at an early stage. Then attention gradually shifted to: what about all the other radiation effects? It was set up in 1990: this question of power lines, this question of ultra-sound, this question of mobile phones now. In all of this one is looking to prove the negative but, as you will readily appreciate, the proof of the negative is almost impossible. You simply have to say that there is no evidence. That is never convincing. One can go on looking for evidence, which is where we are perhaps in this country well placed. This is because of the National Health Service and the way in which statistics are collected on diseases as they occur, where we have infinitely better arrangements than some other countries where mobile phones are in far greater use than they are here.

  10. I am grateful again for that clarification. The difference between X-rays and microwaves is not widely understood. This is another problem when one is trying to explain this.
  (Dr Metters) All radiation, as such, is believed to be harmful.

  11. But can you please confirm, for the benefit of the Committee, the difference between the two. Would you like to do that?
  (Dr Metters) The ionising radiations are known to be cancer causing. There is absolutely firm evidence of that now. One of our concerns must be to ensure that there is no evidence of a similar effect from non-ionising radiations.
  (Professor Donaldson) May I also clarify that. It is an important point, as far as public understanding is concerned, that all these forms of radiation are part of an electro-magnetic spectrum. The cut-off point is between those parts which are capable of breaking down chemical bonds in living tissue, which are the ionising forms of radiation which X-rays fall into, whereas the form of radiation we are talking about, radio waves, is not capable of breaking down chemical bonds in human tissues. Its effect on the human body is through heat and not through changes in DNA and things of that sort.

  12. Have you had any discussions with your opposite number at the Department of Trade and Industry about whether there are any health aspects to regulation?
  (Ms Jowell) That is really implicit in the decision supported by Trade and Industry to establish the expert group to review the evidence. Depending on the conclusions of that group's consideration of the issues, we would certainly look to that. I hope that we can also assume that the industry is as concerned as we are to protect the health of its users. We would certainly want to enter early discussion with them if there was any possible indication that further regulation was necessary.

Dr Turner

  13. Minister, perhaps you could give us more detail on what the special group on mobile phones will do, and why you considered it a matter of such urgency that it could not wait until the existing Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation dealt with it in a year's time, as it was anticipated it would do.
  (Ms Jowell) Very simply, it was my judgment that there is a high level of public interest in this issue. This is an area where, as I said earlier, we have seen an explosion in the use and ownership of mobile phones. It was the most popular Christmas present last year, was it not? What I felt it was important to avoid was a succession of media reports from a range of sources which were untested. Also, in an area where the growth in use has been very rapid and, as Professor Donaldson made clear, it has not been possible to put in place the epidemiological studies that would give us the kind of results which meant that we could at present advise the public on the evidence of any risk, I felt it was important that we did not delay, that we responded, and that we began by asking an expert group to take stock of the evidence and then also identify areas in which further research was needed. I have great pleasure in informing the Committee that Sir William Stewart, the very distinguished former Chief Scientist, will act as Chair of the expert group.

  14. Mobile phone usage has increased massively. Research is clearly going to continue for some years, especially if we are going to get any reliable epidemiological information. That will take many years. So do you think there is a case, Minister, for having a permanent working party or advisory body to advise on these issues, because it is going to be with us for some years to come?
  (Ms Jowell) We certainly want to keep the developing technology and the potential health impact of the developing technology under review. Frankly, I would be seeking advice through the group that I have identified for as long as is necessary. I would certainly have an open mind about whether or not we need to establish that kind of highly specialist expert advice on a medium to longer-term footing. I should also add for clarification that the NRPB is an expert body, with some of the most eminent people in the field. The physicists, people who are leaders in this field, the Vice Chairman of the International Committee on Non-Ionising Radiation is a member of the staff of NRPB, so they are renowned experts. The group on mobile phones will certainly draw on the expertise of independent specialists, but I intend it also to have strong representation of the consumer and public interest.

  15. Thank you. That leads neatly on to my next question on one of the issues which has arisen, as you are probably well aware, in the genetically modified food debate, over the membership of advisory bodies. This has been the involvement of members from within industrial interests. Their independence has been questioned. Do you think this arises with this advisory group?
  (Ms Jowell) I think it is important to remember that in relation to the advisory group, it is my view that we should not have representatives of industry on the advisory group, but that the advisory group should certainly consult with industry. It is in the process of being set up. It will want to establish its way of working. I hope that this will be a broadly inclusive way of working, which will seek advice and views from all those with an interest. That certainly will include industry.

  16. Finally, may I ask you how you will find your consumer representatives for this group, and what will be their role in a group primarily consisting of experts.
  (Ms Jowell) The membership is currently in the process of being established. I see that as a task for the Chairman of the expert group in discussion with Sir Walter Bodmer, who is the Chairman of the NRPB. They will make their recommendations to me. We are becoming increasingly used to drawing from a pool of people who are used to representing the public interest and have a track record as champions of consumer interest. So I do not expect that we will have a problem in doing that.

  17. The Chief Scientist has recommended that experts from other countries should be involved. Will you be doing this?
  (Ms Jowell) Again, I would have an open mind on that. If there is expertise collectively or specifically from other countries that we should have, then I hope very much that we can do that. Our non-departmental public bodies are beginning to include representation of experts from other countries, which is something I very much welcome.
  (Dr Metters) Just to add that, increasingly in these expert advisory groups members from Europe and even from America, they are being invited because of their specialist knowledge. Clearly, if there is someone who is a well renowned expert, then it is important to involve them.

Dr Jones

  18. Could I ask some questions about research into this area. First of all, could you tell us how much the Department of Health spends on research, how you decide your research priorities, and from whom you take advice.
  (Ms Jowell) Specifically in this area?

  19. In mobile phones, yes.
  (Ms Jowell) I am just referring to Dr Metters for the figure.
  (Dr Metters) I do not have the figure immediately available but there is a prior question to the amount and that is: what are the research issues that need to be addressed? Because until you have the issues, it is very difficult to know what the amount should be. Part of the role of the new group is to see whether the existing research adequately covers all the major issues and, if not, what further work needs to be done. So it would be a question of what in addition to the existing work the United Kingdom is doing, the European Union is doing, what is going on in other parts of the world, now what needs to be done to answer the questions that the group identified for themselves.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 30 July 1999