HC Deb 06 December 2000 vol 359 cc113-20

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 modem 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 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: There is now scientific evidence, however, which suggests that there may be biological effects occurring at exposures below these guidelines. The guidelines referred to are the established and accepted safe levels that have been considered in the past.

Paragraph 1.20 states: we recommend that a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies be adopted until much more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available. On page 4, paragraph 1.29 says, worryingly: We recommend that a register of occupationally exposed workers be established and that cancer risks and mortality be examined to determine whether there are any harmful effects. If any adverse effects of exposure to RF radiation are identified then the Health and Safety Executive should establish a system of health surveillance. 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 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 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.

10.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) on securing the debate and giving the House the opportunity to discuss this important matter. He is right to point out that it concerns many people. I hope that he acknowledges that the Government have recognised that concern and are trying to respond to it.

My hon. Friend notes that the industry is modern; it is economically important and has undergone remarkable expansion over the past 15 years. It is a vital part of our economy and represents about 3 per cent. of gross domestic product. Network operators employ about 213,000 people in the UK and there are about 30 million mobile phone subscribers. The industry is significant. As my hon. Friend anticipates, that growth is expected to continue with the introduction of the third generation of mobile telecoms systems.

The Government want to encourage and facilitate the roll-out of a modern, national telecoms network. We want to ensure that the public are able to enjoy the benefits, both to business and through increased job opportunities. It has also been liberating for many people to own and carry mobile phones. That is an important social issue.

None the less, the drive to develop the telecoms network, with its attendant base stations, must clearly be balanced with the Government's commitment to the achievement of environmental and health and safety objectives. We attach great importance to keeping to a minimum the environmental intrusion caused by the network. The land-use planning system provides a tool for striking that necessary balance.

As my hon. Friend points out, planning controls for telecommunications development are devolved matters for Scotland, so I am unable to comment on that matter, but it might be helpful if I briefly set out some of the planning arrangements in England. I shall touch on some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend proposed that we should consider separately mobile phones and masts, because as people choose to carry a mobile phone they can make a conscious choice based on information about the possible risks. I am sure that he will also recognise that if more people want to use mobile phones, we have a problem. However, we cannot separate the debate about masts because we need them to support the expansion of the use of mobile phones.

In England, the general planning arrangements are that the larger telecoms developments—masts more than 15 m high—will require an application for planning permission, but relatively minor development is permitted by the general permitted development order, the GPDO. That gives a range of permitted development rights for operators who are licensed under the Telecommunications Act 1984. It allows operators to carry out specified development without the need to submit an application for planning permission to the local planning authority, except in certain environmentally sensitive areas.

In England, the GPDO approach has safeguards—the main one being provided through the prior approval procedure. That mechanism is not available under the planning regime in Scotland, so that points to one of the differences between the two regimes. The prior approval procedure in England gives the local planning authority an opportunity to consider the siting and appearance of telecommunications masts. Authorities have different periods in which to consider whether they want to object to a proposal, depending on whether the application is for a ground-based mast or one on a building or structure.

My hon. Friend asked about the number of masts. I understand that there are about 9,000 mobile phone transmitter masts in the United Kingdom. Lattice masts and poles are used—the latter, of which there are about 2,000, are similar to a lamp post and are being used increasingly in preference to lattices as they are less intrusive environmentally.

I cannot tell my hon. Friend how many more masts might be required following the third generation auction of licences. That is an operational matter for the industry. Clearly, operators are fully aware of the importance that we attach to keeping the number of masts to the absolute practical minimum. One way in which that can be achieved, as my hon. Friend suggested—it is an issue of concern expressed by many Members of Parliament, members of the public and local authorities—is the extent to which we promote, and the industry uses, mast and site sharing to contain the number of masts needed.

I recognise that mast sharing is not the optimum environmental solution in every case. A couple of slim and unobtrusive masts might be better than a larger cluttered mast, at least on environmental grounds. However, we are strongly advising the industry that consideration of sharing needs to be the starting point when it is deciding whether further masts are needed. Indeed, conditions attached to the individual operating licences granted by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry include a requirement to investigate mast sharing before putting up a new mast.

I have outlined the existing regulatory arrangements and policy guidance to my hon. Friend. We recently conducted a consultation exercise on possible changes to planning arrangements for telecommunications masts in the UK.

The present system of prior approval is a major advantage for mobile phone operators. It gives them some certainty about the time scale within which either a decision will be made or an objection lodged. If an authority does not make a decision within the appropriate deadline, operators have an automatic right to install. The main criticism of the present system, in particular in the light of some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised, is its perceived complexity and an alleged lack of adequate consultation procedures—the voice for local communities to which he referred.

Under the prior approval procedures there is concern that there is insufficient time for a local planning authority to consult adequately all the people who are likely to be affected by a development.

As my hon. Friend made absolutely clear, the concerns about lack of consultation are related not only to anxiety about the environmental and visual aspects of mast development but to public concern about whether telecom masts have adverse health effects. Last year, in response to public concern about the possible health effects of mobile phone technology, the Government asked the National Radiological Protection Board—the Government's statutory advisers on such matters—to set up the independent expert group on mobile phones, chaired by Sir William Stewart. As my hon. Friend said, the group considered concerns about health effects from the use of mobile phones, base stations and transmitters. It reported earlier this year.

On masts, the group concluded that the balance of evidence to date does not suggest that emissions from mobile phones and base stations put the health of the UK population at risk. However, it also said that it is not possible to say that exposure to radio frequency radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is completely without adverse health effects. It therefore recommended the adoption of a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies, comprising a series of specific measures, until more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available.

On mobile phone base stations, the group's report concluded that the balance of evidence indicates that there is no general risk to the health of people living near to base stations on the basis that exposures are expected to be small fractions of the guidelines. However, there can be indirect adverse effects on their well-being in some cases. Those were the group's conclusions about the evidence available on the consequences for health.

In their response to the report, which was also published in May, the Government stated that they accepted the precautionary approach advised by the group on the basis of the specific recommendations in the group's report and our response to them.

The group's report suggests that public consultation on planning under the prior approval arrangements is not working satisfactorily. It also suggests that the lack of public consultation is a major cause of grievance to people who suffer a loss of amenity and so on when base stations are erected. For those reasons, the group recommended that changes to the planning arrangements were necessary. In the Government's response, we said that we were minded to introduce a requirement for planning applications for all new telecommunication masts, but that we would first consult widely on the principle of moving to full planning applications and the precise scope of any new arrangements.

My hon. Friend referred to concerns about siting mobile phone masts on or near schools. It is important to note that the Stewart report does not recommend that the erection of masts on or near schools should be prohibited, nor does it recommend that existing masts should be removed. However, it does recommend that the beam of greatest intensity should not fall on any part of a school's grounds or buildings without agreement from the school or parents.

The Department for Education and Employment has issued advice to local education authorities and schools about base stations in and around school premises and about the use of mobile phones by children. Where parents or schools wish to know whether the beam of intensity falls on school grounds or buildings, the school can contact the base station's operator. They have agreed to provide schools with information on the level of intensity of radio frequency radiation. That information will include an explanation of the way in which the intensity of the radiation falls off with distance from the antenna. If the school or parents have a major concern, they can ask the network operator to adjust the antenna, so that the way in which the intensity of the radiation falls off changes in a way that they find more satisfactory.

The Stewart group does not recommend a moratorium on the construction of mobile phone masts, and we have no plans to introduce one. The report makes some specific recommendations on a precautionary approach, which the Government have accepted. My hon. Friend asked whether we will keep up to date with national and international research. As part of our response to the group's report, the Government agreed that further research is urgently needed into the potential health effects of mobile communications equipment. We are not simply responding to what the Stewart group has said so far; we are commissioning a comprehensive programme of research, costing several million pounds, which will look for further information. So we are actively seeking—

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.