Mobile MPs: the health debate
What do members of parliament think about the UK's precautionary approach to mobile phones and masts?
The spiked/O2 debate on mobile phones and health has attracted a diverse range of opinions on one of the most perplexing controversies of our time. The high-profile fear that mobile phones or masts might damage our health exists alongside a growing body of scientific evidence that fails to find any adverse health effects from mobile phones or masts. Despite the extent to which mobile telephony has become central to life and business in our burgeoning ‘information society’, the UK authorities continue to advise a ‘precautionary approach’ to the public’s use of mobile phones, particularly in relation to children.
As our debate shows, the outcome of this ambivalence towards mobile phones has been considerable public confusion. For much of the public, and particularly younger people, mobile phones have become a part of everyday life, whose obvious benefits outweigh any possible health risk. But a vocal minority remains deeply concerned about the present and future effects of mobile phone technology upon our health and wellbeing, and worried about the continuing rollout of mobile technology.
So what do politicians make of this issue? In a preliminary survey, spiked interviewed six members of parliament (MPs) about their own views on the safety of mobile phones and masts and the concerns raised by their constituents, and their opinions about the precautionary approach adopted by the authorities following the Stewart Report of 2000. We also asked how they felt about claims that the official message – ‘it’s safe to use your phone, but be careful anyway’ – has been confusing.
Their responses indicated that MPs, like the public at large, have differing views on whether mobile phones pose a risk to health. Where there is consensus, however, it is that the precautionary approach is the sensible way to go.
When asked ‘Do you think that radiation from mobile phones or from mobile phone masts poses a risk to health?’, Norman Baker, Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes and senior spokesman on environment and rural affairs, replied ‘in terms of mobile phones, yes. In terms of masts, no’.
This is an important distinction. While the most vocal campaigns focus on mobile phone masts, much of the research has focused on determining whether there is a risk from handsets. At a time when individuals are increasingly attached to their mobile phones and aware of their personal benefits, it is perhaps not surprising that the reaction against handsets is more muted than the reaction to having a mast in one’s backyard. Indeed, when it comes to the concerns raised by Baker’s constituents, he explains: ‘They frequently raise concerns about masts, which I don’t think are well grounded. They never really raise risks about phones, which I think are well grounded.’
Andrew Stunell, Liberal Democrat MP for Hazel Grove and member of the Modernisation Committee, is less equivocal on whether mobile phones and masts cause a health risk. ‘Yes’, he says. ‘I think the Stewart Committee has indicated that there are some risks associated particularly with the use of phones, and perhaps to a more limited extent masts.’ In fact, what the Stewart Committee found was that any link between mobile phones and health risks was ‘unproven’: an argument echoed by Ian Gibson, Labour MP for Norwich North and chair of the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.
When we asked Peter Bottomley, Conservative MP for Worthing West and vice-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mobile Communications, whether radiation from mobile phones or from mobile phone masts poses a risk to health, he replied simply ‘no’. Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Mobile Communications, said ‘I don’t know’. Nor does Andrew Mitchell, Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield and shadow international development secretary: ‘I don’t know the answer to that, because I rely upon the opinion of experts’, he replied. ‘It’s not really a matter for me as an MP, but my view on all these things is that we should adopt the precautionary principle about them.’
It seems that MPs themselves have differing views on whether mobile phones or masts pose a risk to our health. To what extent have their constituents raised concerns about this issue?
‘No one has rung me up to say they’re worried about using their phone’, says Peter Bottomley. ‘A number have got objections to mobile masts, some on amenity grounds and some on health grounds.’ Bottomley, like Norman Baker, is a little perplexed by this spread of concerns: ‘As I understand it, radiation from masts – unless you’re actually dancing with it – is far lower than radiation from the phone you actually use. And as I said, no constituents have rung me with concerns about using their own mobile phone.’
Other MPs’ constituents have been more vociferous. Ian Gibson’s constituents raise concerns about health risks from mobile phones and masts ‘incessantly’. ‘There’s about six different groups around phone masts’, he says. ‘They win some, they lose some, and so on.’ Andrew Mitchell’s constituents have raised concerns ‘extensively’: ‘I raised the matter in the House of Commons because of the concern about health issues, and other issues too’, he says. Andrew Stunell’s constituents also raise concerns ‘to a very large extent. I’ve got a constituency with 65,000 electors, which is probably about 85,000 people. And I’d say that in the last four years, I’ve probably had seven or eight communities send me petitions and large numbers of letters, about their fears about mobile phone technology.’
Phil Willis’ constituents have raised their fears over mobile phone masts ‘very significantly’. He continues: ‘I have a relatively intelligent electorate, concerned about the arrogant way in which a number of mobile phone companies set about installing masts with a minimum of local consultation – despite the “10 commitments” of the mobile phone companies, and despite the pleas of government for greater pre-application consultation.’
Whatever their own views on the safety of mobile phones and the concerns raised by their constituents, the small group of MPs whom we interviewed agreed with the conclusion drawn by the Stewart Committee in 2000: that even where there is no conclusive evidence of health risks from mobile phones, a precautionary approach should be adopted towards them. ‘It’s very difficult to prove a negative, so it’s a question of balance – which is why the Stewart Report says, for example, that it’s a slightly different line with children than with adults’, says Norman Baker. ‘That sort of balance is a sensible approach to take.’
‘I think all one can do is abide by the view of the experts, so that’s what I’d back’, says Andrew Mitchell. ‘I wouldn’t seek to interpose my view as an MP, a layman, above the view of the experts. So I would rely upon the experts for what we should do.’ ‘If there was a clear risk, it wouldn’t be a precautionary approach, would it? It would be risk avoidance’, explains Andrew Stunell. Peter Bottomley agrees with the Stewart Committee’s approach ‘within reason’.
Ian Gibson agrees with the Stewart Committee’s conclusion ‘absolutely’: ‘I think the government’s going to come out with something on that eventually – in other words, that health is something in terms of planning that should be taken into consideration. There’s enough indication that radiation does cause biological effects – that was the point, without being able to say there was no effect whatsoever. There was some biological effect, but there’s no effect on people’s health as such.’
All of the MPs whom we interviewed thought that the precautionary approach proposed by the Stewart Committee and adopted by the authorities was the right one. But how do they respond to claims that the subsequent public health message – that there is no evidence of harm from mobile phones or masts, but we should take care when using them anyway – has been confusing?
Norman Baker argues that the official attempts to inform the public about the health issues associated with mobile phones were confusing ‘certainly in the initial stages’, and that there has been ‘a lack of anticipation from the industry of the need to deal with what are predictable public concerns, and a lack of leadership from government. Now, it’s become slightly embedded and difficult to deal with’. Andrew Mitchell also agrees that the messages have been confusing, ‘which is why I’ve consistently pressed the government to carry out more research and more tests on this’. ‘I don’t think they’ve been confusing, I just don’t think they’ve addressed people’s concerns’, says Andrew Stunell.
For Ian Gibson, the confusion about mobile phones and health comes primarily from mobile operators: ‘It’s deliberately so by the companies’, he says. ‘The government hasn’t helped, and it’s in liaison with the companies. It’s part of a smokescreen that’s set up.’ Phil Willis, on the other hand, seems more concerned about the lack of government leadership on this question: ‘In the absence of a strong government campaign actually to make clear what the science is, where research is being carried out and what sensible precautions people can take – particularly with young children and the use of mobile phones – then it’s inevitable that some of the more exaggerated claims about health risks from mobile phones and masts will in fact take precedence.’
As the debate currently raging on spiked shows, from the public to policymakers there is still much to be discussed in the debate about mobile phones and health. The issue at stake goes far deeper than what the science to date can or cannot tell us about the health effects of mobile technology, raising questions such as: How useful is the precautionary principle as a way of managing the introduction of new technologies? How responsible is it of the government to refuse to take a firm line on issues of significant public concern? What approach should companies be taking, in the face of a combination of public hostility to masts, public demand for better mobile services, and increasing regulation? And how do we reconcile individuals’ desire to make use of new technologies such as the mobile phone with communities’ reluctance to allow the development of new infrastructure?
To discuss this and more, join the spiked/O2 debate on Mobile Phones and Health here.
Interviews by Sandy Starr.