Housing and Regeneration Bill

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New Clause 16

Duty in relation to electromagnetic fields
‘In exercising its powers, the HCA must ensure that it does not expose any person to any risk to their health arising from exposure to electric and magnetic fields with a frequency of between 30-300 Hertz.’.—[Mr. Hurd.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
2.15 pm
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I am conscious of the fact that my name sits in splendid isolation above new clause 16. I hope in the next few minutes to galvanise some support across the Committee for the need to press the Government to reach a judgment and possibly a decision on a possible risk attached to the Bill’s objective, which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire correctly described as a step change in the output of housing in this country. It poses a fundamental question of values for the Government about the degree to which we are prepared to take risks with public health in meeting that objective. The purpose of the clause is straight forward; to impose a duty on the Homes and Communities Agency to consider the risks to health arising from what are known as extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields when carrying out its functions, particularly in respect of the location and development of housing. I do not know how many scientists or engineers are on the Committee, but I needed some help in defining electromagnetic fields. In the cross-party inquiry into childhood leukaemia and extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields published in July 2007 on which I had the pleasure of serving they are
“electric fields and magnetic fields are created by the generation and transmission of electricity. The term EMF is used to describe the mixture of these fields to which people are exposed. Major sources of EMF in our environment include High-Voltage Overhead Transmission Lines”
“electricity sub-stations”.
The thorny problem facing us and the Government arises from growing evidence of an association—I use that word very carefully for the Minister—between an increased risk of childhood leukaemia and the location of homes and, while we are about it, schools. The Committee should be aware that childhood leukaemia is now the most common childhood cancer, accounting for a third of all childhood cancer cases. Around 500 children are diagnosed every year and, although survival rates have improved, the incidence has been increasing; indeed, it doubled between the 1970s and the 1990s. So, it is a big deal. As we pointed out in the inquiry, there maybe many factors causing childhood leukaemia, we do not know enough. The inquiry chairman, the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), who, as the House is aware, is a practising GP, states:
“Current scientific thinking is that childhood leukaemia is likely to have more than one cause and there may be many factors in the development of the disease.”
As I will point out, there is growing evidence for an association and therefore, we should be very careful about the risks associated with pylons. I will set out the key milestones in the accumulation of evidence. In 2004 the Health Protection Agency recommended that the Government
“consider the need for further precautionary measures to reduce public exposure to EMF”.
In 2005, the groundbreaking Draper report, of which the Minister will be aware, funded by the Department of Health found that children living within 200 m of high-voltage power lines from birth, had a 69 per cent. increased risk of developing leukaemia in childhood. That is a very big number. In response to the Health Protection Agency, the Department of Health set up the Stakeholder Advisory Group on Extremely Low Frequency Electromagnetic Fields—SAGE—in 2005 to make recommendations to Government on practical precautionary measures to reduce public EMF exposure from sources such as high-voltage power lines. It published its first interim assessment in April 2007. It identified a ban on building new homes and schools within specified distances of power lines as the
“best available option for obtaining significant exposure”
from power lines. SAGE was followed by the cross-party inquiry, on which I served, into childhood leukaemia and the association with extremely low-frequency EMF—defined as electromagnetic fields with a frequency of between 30 and 300 Hz, which is the rate specified in the clause that I have moved today. The inquiry also recommended a moratorium on building new homes and schools within specified distances of these transmission lines. In 2007 the Government referred the SAGE report back to the Health Protection Agency for guidance. The HPA has issued guidance on the report and our inquiry, stating that there are a number of epidemiological studies showing an association between living close to high-voltage power lines and a small excess of childhood leukaemia. The Health Protection Agency recommended that the attention of local authority planning departments and the electricity companies be drawn to the evidence for a possible small increase in childhood leukaemia that may result from siting new buildings very close to power lines.
There is a steady development of evidence and recommendations have been put before the Government, which they are now mulling over. The Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Dawn Primarolo), who deals with public health, is on the record as saying that her Department will consider the advice in consultation with other Departments, the devolved Administrations and the HPA.
The Minister here today, in response to Children with Leukaemia, wrote saying,
“This issue obviously needs serious thought and we will be in touch with you once we have shaped our thinking in the light of all the advice that has now emerged.”
I am aware that this is a highly complicated and thorny issue with implications for some of the policy responses to the recommendations, not least in terms of the implications for land values. I am aware of that because we addressed those matters in our inquiry.
The Bill provides an opportunity for adopting in a robust and real way the precautionary principle. If the Minister has any doubt about the popular support for that, I refer him to a series of early-day motions tabled in this Parliament: early-day motion 403, which refers to concern about the increase of leukaemia related to proximity to power lines, was signed by 233 Members of Parliament and early-day motion 1784 was signed by 146 MPs.
We spent some time in our inquiry gauging public opinion on this matter, with the help of the Children with Leukaemia charity. A survey from Opinion Leader research showed that three out of five people surveyed were concerned about the effects of electromagnetic fields on health and three out of four people surveyed thought that preventive action should be taken to protect children from EMF exposure.
I urge the Minister to be bold. I know that he is a sensitive man: he and I carved exotic animals out of blocks of ice one afternoon recently. Sensitivity is not enough at this stage. In the face of growing evidence, we need to take this issue seriously. It is time for the Government to take a view and communicate it. The simple question is, do the Government acknowledge the risk and, if so, why should we take any?
Alistair Burt: I should like to put on the record the Conservative Front Bench’s support in respect of the issues so ably raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood. I pay tribute to him and to his colleagues from all parties for their work on this delicate subject.
It is an odd phenomenon. I suspect that quite a lot of MPs have had the odd occasion in their constituency when something has been raised with them that has led to queries about the safety of exposure to EMFs. That is demonstrated by the breadth of cross-party support for the early-day motions. In supporting my hon. Friend, I accept that there seems to be some substance to this matter, and that it is sensible to take action now to try to ensure that nothing new is done that would add to the number of children who have been affected. I appreciate that, again, we are getting into lists and picking out specific examples, but the Minister is interested in the matter and we want to see how far he could go.
I am interested in the block of ice business in which my hon. Friend and the Minister were involved. That seems like a modern management development tool that I have not yet cottoned on to—perhaps it is something that I can introduce in my new role to see how it helps my colleagues to develop. Perhaps the Minister could tell me more later. However, this is a serious amendment that deals with a serious subject for the families concerned. I hope that the Minister can respond in some way to the matters raised by my hon. Friend.
Lembit Öpik: It would not be reasonable to expect the Minister to become an expert on electromagnetic fields, given that his portfolio is housing. However, this is an interesting debate and I hope that I will remain in order, Mr. Gale, if I highlight a couple of thoughts. I have looked at this research myself. I come from a scientific background and my father was a physicist. There is no question but that when dealing with energy, there can be unintended consequences on health, as intimated by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood. It is perfectly plausible to draw an association between radiation and health, so it is reasonable to obtain the Minister’s perspective on how the Government perceive the precautionary principle in relation to radiation sources. We have probably all had some dialogue with individuals who are concerned about mobile phone masts. Indeed, I participated in a conference in this very room on that subject some time ago.
I have looked at a lot of the research on this matter, and I think that much of it is equivocal and circumstantial. One highly publicised research report seemed to be based on a very small sample, and I wondered whether the sample was sufficiently significant to provide reliable results. Nevertheless, if there is not sufficient evidence, it is incumbent on the Government to research the matter further. Will the Minister give us his views on something that I have long regarded as the most sensible way forward on this and other health-related housing and accommodation matters? If we tabulated health data on a geographical basis, we could see whether regular patterns are developing around the country, perhaps around certain industrial sectors or concentrations of radiation sources. That would greatly help us to build a more reliable understanding of the causal links between such relatively new technologies and the human body.
Obviously, there are risks to certain industries. If they were shown to be significant polluters of health, the consequences would be very expensive. Notwithstanding that, strides in technology have been so great that we have probably wandered into a technological environment in which there are unintended consequences on human health that we are only beginning to understand. Will the Minister consider the case for a geographical tabulation of illness around the country? If so, perhaps we can discuss this issue further.
Mr. Wright: I commend the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken to the new clause on the manner in which they did so. They spoke with sensitivity, which is to be expected from members of such a high-calibre Committee. I pay tribute particularly to the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood. I know that he is interested in this issue and that, as he said, he participated in the cross-party inquiry into childhood leukaemia and extremely low frequency electric and magnetic fields. I think he said that the inquiry reported last July and made a number of recommendations. I thank him and the other members of the inquiry team for their work, which has made an important contribution to the debate on exposure to electric and magnetic fields.
The frequencies to which the amendment relates are known as extremely low frequency electric and magnetic fields. For ease, I shall refer to them as ELFEMFs. The main sources of those fields are power lines, electricity substations, household wiring and electrical appliances around the home. Let me be blunt about my approach to the new clause. I do not believe that the proposed duty on the HCA is necessary or appropriate, as there are already guidelines on the exposure of people to ELFEMFs. The Government are considering the need for additional practical precautionary measures beyond the adoption of the guidelines. Any precautionary measures that are deemed necessary will be implemented at a national level. That is a crucial point. As such, a duty does not need to be placed on the HCA.
It might help hon. Members to understand the matter better if I set out the current framework for limiting exposure to ELFEMFs. Hon. Members may be aware that the Government take advice from the Health Protection Agency on limiting exposure to ELFEMFs. In 2004, following a comprehensive review of the available scientific evidence, to which the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood alluded, the then National Radiological Protection Board, which is now part of the Health Protection Agency, recommended the adoption of guidelines set out by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection.
2.30 pm
Those guidelines, known as the ICNIRP guidelines, are based on the established health effects of exposure to ELFEMF, and set values for workers, building in a significant level of protection. The guidelines for public exposure to power frequency magnetic fields incorporate a further five-fold safety margin from those for workers in recognition of the fact that the general population includes individuals who may be more sensitive to adverse health effects than the working population. However, as the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood eloquently said, there are uncertainties associated with the health effects of exposure below the guidelines, and in view of those uncertainties, the HPA also recommended that the Government should consider the need for further precautionary measures in respect of exposure to ELFEMFs.
In response to that recommendation, the stakeholder advisory group on ELFEMFs—SAGE—was established. It brought together a range of stakeholders, including academics, electricity industry representatives and pressure groups, with a remit to identify and explore the implications for a precautionary approach, and to make practical recommendations for precautionary measures. SAGE reported in April 2007, and made a number of important recommendations on power lines, property, and wiring and electricity in homes.
Perhaps one of the most pertinent recommendations to the Government’s housing delivery agenda was the option that an effective way significantly to reduce exposure to ELFEMFs was to introduce a moratorium on the building of new homes and schools within at least 60 m of high-voltage overhead lines, and on the building of new high-voltage lines within 60 m of existing homes and schools. That is known as the corridor approach.
SAGE undertook a cost-benefit analysis of the proposal, and found that such an approach would not pass a cost-benefit test by conventional Treasury book rules. For that reason, SAGE could not recommend that approach, but presented it merely as an option for consideration. SAGE asked the Government to make a clear decision on whether to implement the option and, further to its report, a cross-party inquiry, of which the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood was a member, specifically recommended that that option should be implemented. On receipt of the SAGE report, the Government sought the advice of the HPA on the recommendations. In November 2007, the HPA responded to SAGE’s report. A key statement in that response was:
“HPA supports precautionary measures that have a convincing evidence base to show that they will be successful in reducing exposure, are effective in providing reassurance to the public, and where the overall benefits outweigh the fiscal and social costs”.
The HPA also noted that the corridor option considered by SAGE for separating new dwellings from high-voltage power lines and vice versa, is not supported by the cost-benefit analysis, even assuming a causal link between exposure to ELFEMFs and childhood leukaemia, so a decision to implement that precautionary option should, frankly, be weighed against other health benefits obtainable from the same resources. Nevertheless, HPA recommends that within the existing Government planning framework, the attention of local authority planning departments and the electricity companies should be drawn to the evidence for a possible small increase in childhood leukaemia that may result from siting new buildings very close to existing buildings.
The Committee will recognise that the issue of exposure to ELFEMFs, which we are considering, is vital. Hon. Members can be assured that we are carefully considering HPA’s advice on the recommendations in the SAGE report in conjunction with other Departments and the devolved Administrations.
Mr. Hurd: I thank the Minster for an extremely thorough response. Could I draw him a little on when he expects the Government to publish their response to the advice that they have received?
Mr. Wright: We expect to respond to the SAGE report, including setting out any practical precautionary measures which we think are justified.
I have ministerial responsibility for this and, as a father, I think it a vital and important issue. I want to do all I can to make sure that it is addressed and that sensible recommendations are implemented. I give the House, and in particular the hon. Gentleman, my reassurances—as set out in a letter to the Children with Leukaemia organisation on 7 January—that I will do my very best to make sure that this issue is addressed. I am consulting with Government Departments and ministerial colleagues to ensure that we consider this fully.
I do not want to provide a knee-jerk response. As the hon. Gentleman said, this is new and emerging data with regard to relatively new and emerging scientific evidence and industries. I want to mitigate as much as possible the risks and concerns about this.
I hope I have given a thorough response, Mr. Gale. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, who made his argument in the most articulate and sensitive manner.
Lembit Öpik: I do not seek to commit the Government through this Minister to my suggestions—I say that for the record—but I ask him to express his opinion whether there is merit in considering the formal tabulation of health data on a geographical basis, for the reasons that I gave before.
Mr. Wright: Let me put that direct question to ministerial colleagues, in particular Ministers from the Department of Health, in my discussions with them. I will certainly keep them informed.
I would be happy to meet the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood on a regular basis to keep him informed because I know that he sincerely holds these views. I want to keep him fully aware of what the Government are thinking on this. I am very keen to move forward in a sensitive manner and not to make a knee-jerk response. I hope he respects that.
I do not think it is appropriate to place a duty on the HCA since it will be subject to the same statutory controls, regulatory frameworks or guidance concerning ELFEMFs as any other body. On that basis, with the greatest sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman is saying, I hope that he will consider withdrawing this amendment.
Mr. Hurd: My intention in tabling this new clause was to throw a spotlight on the issue and to try to tease out of the Government a sense of how seriously they are taking it and what they are preparing to do.
We have heard a very sincere and personal response from the Minister. Like he, I am a father and my value system tells me that we should not be taking any risk in this situation. That is my interpretation of the precautionary principle. I am also extremely clear about the complications, costs and consequences of some of the precautionary measures that are being proposed.
I take at face value his personal commitment to moving this agenda forward within the Government. I also hear what he said about needing to address the matter through a national strategy. On the basis of what I have heard, I am prepared to accept the argument for withdrawing the new clause. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.
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