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Mobile Phone Masts

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

10 pm

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood): I am delighted, on this day of parliamentary tradition, to have the opportunity to hold this debate, which deals with a very modern industry. There is real concern among almost everyone in the towns and villages of my constituency about the safety of mobile phone masts, the planning strategies of the companies involved and the fact that they have not been consulted in any meaningful way. When people have been consulted, their concerns have been ignored.

A parallel can be drawn between my comments this evening about mobile phone technology and the industry that supports it, and the Gracious Speech. The Gracious Speech dealt with matters that affect the entire United Kingdom, and the responsibility that is shared between Scotland's devolved Parliament and this sovereign Parliament of the United Kingdom. That relationship affects the procedures by which mobile phone companies apply for the right to erect masts.

Matters relating to planning in Scotland are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but the health and safety issues that have been identified by independent research are wholly the responsibility of the Westminster Parliament. I hope that this debate will ensure that the phone masts issue will retain the high profile here that it enjoys in the Scottish Parliament. Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998 states that the House of Commons is where this debate should be held.

On this day of pomp and ceremony, it is important to place on record the fact that I am not against progress and communication. It would be churlish to suggest otherwise. Nearly 50 per cent. of the UK population has access to, or regularly uses, a mobile phone. I am one of those people. Worldwide, 700 million people use mobile phones, and that figure is expected to rise to more than 1 billion in two years. More than 100,000 people in the UK are employed in the industry, many of them in my constituency. Latest figures show that this modern technology brings about £5 billion of investment into this country.

Although there is a legitimate debate about the health and safety of mobile phone use, I want to discuss the regulation of mobile phone masts. People either purchase or rent mobile phones, so there is an element of choice in their exposure to the potential dangers of mobile phones. There is an element of choice, too, when it comes to deciding about capping the age for access to mobile phones. When parents decide to refuse their children access to mobile phones, or use of them, it is a matter of individual choice and family responsibility.

I argue that no such choice exists when it comes to planning regulations on mobile phone masts. People do not have a meaningful choice about whether such a mast is erected near homes, hospitals or schools. Age limits may be placed on the use of mobile phones in the future, but at present there are none. Children in local schools have no choice when it comes to the proximity of masts. Research published at the weekend in Scotland's Sunday

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Mail showed that a considerable number of local authorities in Scotland allow the erection of mobile phone masts very near schools.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not just the aesthetics of mobile phone masts that disturb people but the fact that they are not yet sure whether any serious health risks are associated with them? Does he also agree that while the jury is still out on that issue, we should be using the precautionary principle and making sure that such masts are not near centres of population or, in particular, where large numbers of young children are concentrated?

Mr. Murphy: I thank my hon. Friend for that comment, with which I absolutely agree. I listened with great interest to her seconding of the Gracious Speech this afternoon. She spoke about how she cares for her constituency and the way in which she wrestled that seat from the then Conservative Member of Parliament. I congratulated her on that, but I did not know three years ago that her predecessor would decamp from Aberdeen, South to Eastwood--[Interruption.] I do not know whether it is a trick; it is certainly a well-worn path for that individual. He contested Clydesdale in 1987, represented Aberdeen, South and will be contesting Eastwood. However, that is another matter, and people will judge for themselves.

My hon. Friend refers to health and safety. I am sure that her constituents are as concerned as my constituents and I are about the impact of mobile phone masts on health and safety. She will know, as will the Minister, of the independent expert group on mobile phones, chaired by Sir William Stewart. I would like to quote three extracts from the report's main conclusions on the possible effects of mobile phone technology on human health to amplify the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Miss Begg) identified. First, paragraph 1.18 on page 3 says:

The guidelines referred to are the established and accepted safe levels that have been considered in the past.

Paragraph 1.20 states:

On page 4, paragraph 1.29 says, worryingly:

Those three conclusions give me great cause for concern. They state clearly that there may be a health risk and that much more quality independent research must be carried out to ensure that that health risk is simply a question of public concern and a lack of scientific clarification.

What puzzles me about this aspect of health and safety is the international differentials and the way in which various nations seem to apply similar findings. My hon. Friend the Minister may have her own experience

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and understanding of international comparisons. Some 39 states in the United States of America have halted the creation of new masts until further scientific evidence is available. It is my understanding that the Australian Government have prevented masts from being erected near schools, hospitals and residential areas and have created a 500 m exclusion zone around important areas where children and sick people live or work.

We have heard from the industry--most recently from senior executives at Orange--that there is no cause for concern, despite public disquiet, despite the fact that the jury is still out on health and safety aspects and despite the Stewart report's suggestion that, although there is no conclusive evidence, there is indeed a risk of a risk. On BSE and CJD, I heard assurances from a previous Government that beef was safe. All I ask is that we learn from the mistakes of the previous Conservative Government. We must not ignore the scientific evidence; we must act on it.

The great mistake of the BSE debacle and the tragic CJD deaths was that the scientific evidence seemed to be overlooked--deliberately or otherwise--and that we were given false reassurances. In the light of the Stewart report, if conclusive scientific evidence shows that there is a genuine threat to public health, a moratorium should be introduced on the erection of new masts and, as a matter of urgency, we should make safe all existing masts and base stations.

If the scientific jury remains unconvinced, will my hon. Friend the Minister consider introducing the types of restriction and protection areas that seem commonplace in other countries such as Australia, so that the public are reassured until conclusive scientific evidence is produced?

I want to give a voice to local communities who feel ignored. My local area is becoming increasingly populated with mobile phone masts, and there is limited meaningful public consultation. The 1996 code of conduct on best practice does not seem to be effective. I am not blaming the previous Government; in 1996, there was no reason for anyone to predict the enormous growth in the use of mobile phones and the number of masts.

In my experience, some of the mobile phone companies not only do not listen, but are shrouded in secrecy. My concern led me to write recently to all the major mobile phone companies throughout the UK about their plans for the next year to 18 months in my constituency. Most responded. To date, Cellnet still has not responded. However, perhaps the most annoying response of all was from Orange, which provided me with the information on one strict condition--one to which I have no intention of adhering. It was that I kept that information secret, kept my constituents in the dark and did not tell my friends and neighbours that the company intended to build a mobile phone mast in the proximity of my home. I was provided with information on the condition that, because it was in some way commercially confidential, I could not share it.

Orange plans seven separate developments, including five new masts in my constituency in the towns and villages of Thornliebank, Kirkhill, Barrhead, Newton Mearns and Busby. The residents of those towns and villages have a right to know what Orange refuses to tell them and what it will tell me only on the condition that I

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do not inform my constituents. That is shameful. I do not accept the argument about commercial confidentiality, particularly when there is an onus on the companies to share the masts. If they will not tell one another where they are building masts, I do not understand how they will create a network of shared masts.

How many mobile phone masts are there in this country? In a recent debate in the Scottish Parliament on the issue, the Environment Minister said that the Parliament was unable to monitor the situation. How many masts are there in the UK? What are the predictions or targets for the future? We are told that there will be 1 billion mobile phone users within two years--how many mobile phone masts will there be within that period?

Given those expectations, what proportion of those masts are shared? Each company can erect individual masts, which are dotted around constituencies, causing urban and rural blight and creating even greater public health and safety concerns, even though I understand that there is an onus on companies to share not only information but masts. What proportion of masts are shared at the moment, and what are the projected numbers of shared masts in the future? What action will be taken against companies that refuse point blank to share masts and give convenient excuses of commercial confidentiality for not doing so?

Will my hon. Friend ensure that a voice is given to local communities on these matters, so that they are aware of the plans, activities and intentions of companies such as Orange, which refuses to give information, and Cellnet, which refuses even to respond to my communications? As we all know, at least one of those companies makes money from the boast that it is good to talk. I want to ensure that future legislation meets the challenge, so that the companies also believe that it is important to listen.

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