Examination of Witness (Questions 1 -
TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001
1. Good morning ladies and gentlemen and Sir
William. We are very grateful that you could make it today. We
are looking into the matter of mobile telephony from a different
standpoint from that that we have looked at before, as a facilitator
for internet communication and such like. That has been a concern
in the past. We have recognised, in discussions that we have had
with people in the industry, rather than in the medical community,
that we could look into this matter, albeit at the end of a Parliament.
So we are having this one-day hearing and getting information
from yourself and others with different interests. We thought
that we would start with the health dimension. We are conscious
that you and your colleagues in your inquiry produced a substantial
document. It may be almost insulting to ask you to give a precis
of your report. Perhaps you could explain to us the possible health
effects of base stations. It seems that people are happy to live
with the risk of using a mobile phone, but they are not quite
so happy to live with the risk of the base station. Perhaps you
could give us your views and those of your colleagues on that
(Sir William Stewart) Thank you, Chairman,
for inviting me. I have had no indication of the types of questions
that you want to ask me, so perhaps I am not as well prepared
as I could be. It is interesting that the Government decided to
set up an inquiry. Tessa Jowell was the Health Minister at that
time and she set it up because she was concerned about the number
of requests from constituents and the general public that she
was receiving about whether there was a health risk or not. I
chaired the inquiry. We considered the total effects of emissions
produced by masts and by the phones themselves. Clearly, there
are thermal effects, there is some evidence of non-thermal effects
and there are indirect effects caused by accidents and impacts
on well-being. To cut a long story short, emissions to the general
public from phones per se are higher than emissions to
the general public from masts by a substantial amount. Overall
the balance of evidence to datethis is a carefully constructed
phrasesuggests that exposure to RF emissions below the
national guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the
general population. However, we went on to say that there was
now scientific evidence that there may be biological effects occurring
at exposures below those guidelines. Biological effects do not
necessarily translate into health effects, but neither do they
necessarily not translate. It is simply not possible to say that
there are no potential effects on the human population. It is
difficult to talk about the population because populations vary.
Antibiotics do a wonderful job for the general population, but
there is a subgroup in the population that is allergic to antibiotics;
they cannot take them. There is a sub-group in the general population
who cannot eat nuts because they are allergic to them. That is
why we refer to the general population. The other point is that
we mentioned health effects and well-being effects. On the basis
of discussions such as those we came to advise on the need for
a precautionary approach. Referring back to your question, I believe
that masts generally cause a very small possible danger from RF
emissions to the general public compared with mobile phones. The
question is that there are some areas where it is worrying and
that is why we suggest that there should be exclusion zones around
masts. We suggested that there should be planning protocols and
so on. Basically, we decided that there was a need for a precautionary
approach. Clearly mobile phone technology is of enormous benefit
to the general population. It is of benefit in terms of communications
and it will not go away. However, there may be problems associated
with health effects. Rather than say, "Stop using mobile
telecommunications", the precautionary approach analyses
the various facets in the system, bit by bit, and suggests small
changes here and there which collectively all add up to something
that is quite significant and quite substantial, and yet allows
the benefits of mobile phones to continue. That is why the precautionary
approach was adopted and why we thought it was sensible that any
health effects were seriously taken into consideration.
2. I can see the application of the precautionary
principle here. Is there not, as a consequence of that in some
people's minds, a leap of imagination, to the point that the sites
are almost demonised? People get it into their minds that their
children's schools must not have a mast on the roof, for example.
(Sir William Stewart) I would not say that. I believe
that any parent is concerned about two things: first, they are
concerned about their offspring and they want to continue their
gene pool, if you like, as has been going on for the past 3,000
million to 4,000 million years and it will not change over the
length of this Parliament or the next; secondly, they want their
children to do well and they consider education to be important.
Any government or any political party that neglects health or
education will have a difficult time explaining that to the public.
I do not think it is a matter of demonising. I think it is a sensible
approach. If you talk about health you also talk about well-being.
When we went around the country, I was absolutely convinced that
the well-being of some members of the population had been adversely
affected by the erection of masts. We heard examples of masts
appearing overnight; we heard examples of how some masts were
going to be more than 15 metres high and then when they heard
that they would need planning permission for that height, they
reduced them to fourteen and a half metres. That cannot be right.
3. I understand what you are saying, but are
you also saying that if you do not like something near you there
is a risk that it is to the detriment of your health?
(Sir William Stewart) No. I believe there are two
points that affect the general population. One is that if you
have a choice, you should give people a choice. People can choose
whether to use a mobile phone or not and legislation should not
be introduced for that because it is not necessary. But if the
population has no choice and there is a perceived risk associated
with it, then one has to take a different approach to the issue.
That was one of the facets that we considered in relation to masts.
4. On the terrestrially enhanced trunk radio
system, that is the system being used by the policeotherwise
known as the Airwave systemin your report at paragraph
5.59 you say that you thought that as a precautionary measure
amplitude modulation around 16 Hertz should be avoided if possible
in future developments for signal coding. Would you accept that
that is the most critical area where there is the highest risk?
(Sir William Stewart) We thought that that was an
area that should be avoided if at all possible. Clearly, it has
not been avoided.
5. It has not been avoided because this is the
standard that is being adopted by the national police radio communications
system and it is causing a lot of concern among police officers
and communities that feel that they may have such police masts
imposed in their areas. Why have you not been able to persuade
the authorities to avoid that particular low frequency use and
why have you not been able to persuade them to adopt the more
standard mobile telephone technology?
(Sir William Stewart) We were asked to produce a report
fairly speedily. It was an approach in which we considered most
of the issues that were relevant at the time. We highlighted that
issue. However, we said that because it is a developing technology
that there had to be continual monitoring of what was going on
and that the whole area should be reviewed within three years,
or sooner if circumstances demanded. We took a broad-brush approach.
We did not focus particularly on the issue, but we pointed out
that that was a hazard.
6. That is a hazard, and the Government are
investing £2.5 billion on introducing a system that will
adopt that frequency which you have identified in your report
as being the most hazardous frequency.
(Sir William Stewart) That is a question for the Government
and not for me.
7. You accept that that is what has happened?
(Sir William Stewart) I do not know. I do not want
to get into that. I know that we identified an area that we thought
was of particular concern and that area is being used at the present
8. Turning away from that, you have said that
the UK should adopt the ICNIRP exposure guidelines as recommended
by our own Science and Technology Committee and the European Union.
If those are indeed all right and all base stations comply with
them, why was it felt necessary to recommend that planning authorities
should be able to get information on signal frequencies and characteristics
and to have an exclusion zone as you described earlier? That gives
the impression that you are not really confident that the ICNIRP
exposure limits are safe.
(Sir William Stewart) There are two issues. One is
that the ICNIRP guidelines refer, in particular, to the heating
effects. The question is that there is some evidence that there
are non-thermal effects and because of that, advocated a precautionary
approach. This is new technology. It has expanded more quickly
than any other technology in recent times. The question is: are
we confident that everything that is going on at the present time
is safe? The evidence that we have elucidated suggests that there
is sufficient concern to adopt this precautionary approach.
9. You think that there is sufficient concern
to adopt the precautionary approach in relation to ordinary mobile
phone technology and you would say even more strongly that that
should apply to the issue of the police airwave system?
(Sir William Stewart) I am pretty sure that it will
become a major facet of any future investigation. As far as our
report was concerned, the timing was not right.
10. Moving on to planning controls, you identified
the lack of public consultation. Do you have something to say
(Sir William Stewart) Firstly, by and large, I believe
that the industry carries out a reasonably good job in the UK.
There are few exceptions, but there are exceptions. There is some
variability within the industry. Secondly, there is some variability
within local authorities. Thirdly, we suggested that a set of
protocols should be set in place that everyone should follow and
they could be the guidelines that could be adopted and applied
locally. That is the way that we believe that things should go.
That set of protocols should be developed between Government,
the public and the industry. They should be set down; we should
agree what they are and we should use them at a local level.
11. To follow that through, how does subjecting
all base stations to planning controls fit in with the precautionary
approach? It has to be one thing or the other, does it not?
(Sir William Stewart) I am not sure what you mean.
12. One of the issues that your report raises
is that base stations should be subject to planning controls.
Having said that, how can you take that flexible or precautionary
approach within planning controls?
(Sir William Stewart) At the various stages in the
protocol you would have to sit down and say, "Is this a problem
with this particular base station, yes or no?" If the answer
was "Yes", you may use that as evidence to turn down
a plan. A set of protocols is not that you must do A, B, C, and
D. You must consider A and decide on the merits of that whether
or not it is a benefit or a disbenefit etc.
13. Would that have an effect on the output
of the base stations? Is that part of the intention?
(Sir William Stewart) We said in one of our paragraphs
that the output from a station should be as low as is possible
to allow the base station to operate effectively. We are asking
for that to be considered.
14. Did you consider ways of giving the public
a greater say? As you probably know, most planning committees
have elected members. Did you have any ideas about going broader
than that, given the public concern?
(Sir William Stewart) Let me make the general point
about what we did in relation to public consultation. Our report
took public interests into consideration more than virtually any
other report that has been around for a long time. We got some
Brownie points in that regard. I am totally convinced that the
general public must be able to make an impact as well. I shall
find the passage. It says: "We perceive a lack of clear protocols
to be followed in the public interest prior to base stations being
built and operated and note that there is significant variability
in the extent to which mobile phone operators consult the public
on the siting of base stations". We also say: "We recommend
that ... a template of protocols be developed, in concert with
industry and consumers" and that that should take full account
of public input.
15. Sir William, is it not the case that you
did not have any dealings with any town planners or the planning
institutes when you were taking your evidence? You took evidence
purely on medical matters. Am I right in thinking that you did
not make connections with any of the planning institutes?
(Sir William Stewart) I am not sure whether we spoke
to any of them or whether some of them were not in the audience
and asked questions. I cannot remember. Basically, we were concerned
solely, as the report says, with health. We stuck to health. We
had a big job to do in that regard. Detailed planning was not
for us. Our job was to suggest that the protocols should be set
in place by others.
16. When you say that you looked at the health
aspects and that you did not take into account the planning aspects,
are you saying that your brief was too narrow?
(Sir William Stewart) The DTI or DETR did not ask
us to carry out the report; it was the Department of Health. We
stuck to the brief that that department gave us.
17. Can you see that there could be potential
conflict here? A planning authority may decide against public
opinionsometimes this happensto let a site go ahead
for a base station only to find that that goes to an appeal where
an inspector may make a different decision.
(Sir William Stewart) That is why we suggested that
a set of protocols should be set in place. Each of those should
be considered on the advice that it was possible to get. At each
stage in the setting down of the protocols it would be decided
whether that was acceptable or not.
18. Was that why you recommended an ombudsman?
(Sir William Stewart) We recommended an ombudsman
in case there were disputes, but the Government chose not to appoint
19. You also suggested the involvement of health
authorities. How would they be involved in this planning process?
(Sir William Stewart) Health boards should be aware
that there is a potential problem associated with mobile phones,
whether it is real or not. At present they are involved because
they put notices up, for example, in hospitals saying that mobile
phones must be switched off. I think it would be sensible for
the health boards to be asked for a view, and they should have
the information available on potential health effects. They should
input their twopence worth into the discussion about the protocols.