Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1 - 19)




  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 issue.

  (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 date—this is a carefully constructed phrase—suggests 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.

Mr Chope

  4. On the terrestrially enhanced trunk radio system, that is the system being used by the police—otherwise known as the Airwave system—in 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 time.

  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.

Mr Cunningham

  10. Moving on to planning controls, you identified the lack of public consultation. Do you have something to say about that?
  (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.

Mr Cunningham

  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 opinion—sometimes this happens—to 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 an ombudsman.

  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.

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 3 April 2001