HC Deb 10 July 2003 vol 408 cc1485-92

Motion made, and Question proposed,That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Jim Murphy.]

7.6 pm

Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West)

I wondered for a moment whether the Members presenting the petitions were attempting to talk out the Adjournment debate. However, they made valid and valuable contributions to the work of this House.

I am deeply grateful to Mr. Speaker for allowing me this opportunity to express the concerns that a substantial number of my constituents have about this issue. I should also mention my constituency neighbours—my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) and for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice)—who are suffering similar problems and doing the best that they can on their constituents' behalf. However, I shall confine my remarks to the issues confronting my constituents as they relate to the Tetra mobile broadcasting system.

This is my first formal opportunity to welcome the Minister to her new post; I am sure that this is just the first of many journeys around Whitehall before she ends up at the Cabinet table. She will readily appreciate that this issue has a deeper resonance across the country because of the nature of the system in question. In fact, a Minister from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister or from the Department of Health could easily have responded to this debate, because this issue falls into the category of what we in this House have recently come to know as a cross-cutting issue. I am certain that, because of the nature of it, the Minister will be unable to answer all of the several questions that I shall ask, but I hope that she will answer what she can.

Mobile communications was just about the fastest growing sector of British industry in the past decade and a half. Oftel estimates that, from a figure of virtually zero 15 years ago, there are now 50 million mobile phone subscribers in this country. It is obvious that this is an irreversible trend in modern society. There are those who regard mobile communications as the greatest curse of our modern world; equally, many others find it difficult to imagine how we ever got on before we had them on their current scale of availability.

I do not want to talk about the general issue of public mobile phone networks, however, because the Tetra system—it was originally known as the terrestrial trunk radio system—is actually a private network, and it is the specific technology that it employs that is a matter of concern to my constituents and many others. It falls under the public safety radio communications project—now known, more easily, as Airwave. It is a £2.5 billion investment in providing a nationwide digital voice and data communication system for the police. It is a private, closed system, so it is not immediately comparable with the mobile phone networks that most of us use.

Let me say from the outset that I am strong supporter of what the Government have done, both in increasing spending and investment in the police so that their numbers have reached record levels, and the concomitant of giving the police the best equipment to help them in their valiant and valuable fight against crime in our community. No one in my constituency—or, I suspect, anywhere else in the country—would do anything needlessly to hinder their efforts on behalf of the community.

Experience with the contractor for the system—O2 Airwave—in my corner of south-east London has, however, been deeply troubling. In the Metropolitan police area alone, it requires 91 sites for transmitters: I am informed that 60 have been completed and that 28 are, as quaintly described, "in build", leaving only another three sites to find. I do not know whether the experience in my constituency is unusual or atypical. The figures that I have been given show that rapid progress appears to have been made elsewhere. In our part of the world, however, it has been a different story.

A site for the system was identified late last year on a building owned by Lewisham borough council. There is some dispute between the company and Lewisham borough council's planning department as to who said what to whom, and how much public consultation was engaged in. Suffice it to say, the site directly overlooked one primary school and another school was nearby. I shall not go into the dispute between Lewisham council and O2 Airwave, because I was not party to those discussions. However, it is self-evident that O2 Airwave did not follow the code of best practice on mobile phone network development, to which it is a signatory, to any degree at all. The company is not a member of the Mobile Operators Association—even though it is part of the greater O2 empire, it is not signed up to the 10 commitments of the MOA—but it is a signatory to the code of best practice.

If the code of best practice were followed—the traffic-light model is contained in the MOA's 10 commitments—the site would clearly have been revealed as a red zone and the company would have been required to engage in far greater community involvement and far more consultation than it actually achieved. The local community was alarmed at discovering the company's intentions. Following a fairly stormy public meeting and strong local opposition, the company decided to move to a nearby site. In fairness, that site is an existing transmission site for the Metropolitan police—it has been since the second world war—and falls under the permitted development provisions that the company believes apply to it. I am not saying whether that is right or wrong—it is for my learned colleagues to pick the bones out of that—but the second site was chosen not far from the first without consultation, without acknowledgement of the traffic-light model, and without any attempt to establish contact with the local community.

Lest I be accused of special pleading, let me say immediately that I live near the chosen site. However, I am not speaking on my own behalf, but on behalf of my constituents. On this occasion, they also happen to be my neighbours. At the first public meeting, O2 Airwave at least had the decency to apologise for its oversight, but made no attempt to clarify how it would deal with it. What is the point of the detailed code of conduct, to which it has freely put its name, if it takes not the slightest notice of it and simply maintains that it has a job to do and will get on with it, regardless of the views of the public in the area?

I call on O2 Airwave to halt all the work that it is doing on its new site, until proper consultation and explanation has taken place with the local community, and in particular with the staff, pupils and parents of Horniman primary school, which is opposite the site. By its own ineptitude or an oversight—I do not wish to impute malice—O2Airwave has made a delicate and difficult situation much worse.

Some 200 people—from a small community, so they were representative—attended the public meeting when O2 Airwave announced its decision on the new site. The main concern was the health implications of Tetra. The arrogance and incompetence of O2 Airwave was irritating enough, but it was clear that my constituents and neighbours were most concerned about the unique technology used by Tetra, and their perception of it. They readily understood that it met the guidelines published by the National Radiological Protection Board and the fabulously named ICNIRP—or the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection—but they felt that those guidelines did not go far enough.

A few years ago, the then Minister with responsibility for public health—now Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport—commissioned a report on the concerns about radiation from mobile phones from an independent expert group. It was chaired by Professor Stewart, and the report is known as the Stewart report. However, that report principally addressed the issues of the thermal effects of mobile phone technology. I readily accept that the most dangerous part of the system is the handsets, and that they are a far greater risk than the transmitters. However, my constituents—and those who share their concerns about Tetra—worry about the biological effects. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can confirm that, with the time division multiplex access system that Tetra uses, only the handsets pulse at what Stewart perceived to be a dangerous frequency, not the base stations.

According to the Library, 176 Tetra systems are in use across the world in 46 countries. It is not new technology. Those who fear that they are being used as guinea pigs to determine the effects of the system are misled. However, public fears do exist. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for supplying a written answer in which she confirmed that 14 forces in the UK already have the system, and that the Metropolitan police will acquire the full system in October. The answer also directed me to the Home Office Tetra website, which I found helpful.

I have some questions that I hope that the Minister will address in her reply. I note that the Home Office commissioned the NRPB to report on the implications of using the Tetra system. The report was published in July 2001 and made eight recommendations for further testing and examination of the system. By my calculation, the first experiment has been completed, but I do not understand the chronology used in the section of the report headed "Current Status". The website states: The second experiment concerns the behaviour of calcium ions in heart cells…measurements will be completed in March. I am not sure which March that is. The site goes on: The third and fourth in vitro experiments, on brain slice electrophysiology and epileptiform activity respectively, are expected to be completed in summer. On the fifth experiment, the website states that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is also setting up a human volunteer study and that the work is expected to start in April. Will my hon. Friend the Minister say which March, summer and April are meant? When will the evaluation be made?

On the base station audit called for by the NRPB, the site said that tests had already been carried out in Lancashire and that 10 further measurements were planned before the end of March. I am not sure whether I was looking at an old site that had not been updated. Have the tests been carried out, or is the site talking about next year and not this year?

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give me whatever undertakings she can in respect of her Department's knowledge of future reports and developments, as more science becomes known. What troubles my constituents is the fact that this is a new technology that has burgeoned in a way that no one imagined when we set out on this path a decade and a half ago.

My constituents want to support the police and the systems that they need and rely on for the valuable work that they do on behalf of the community. However, I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will realise that there is a specific and considerable public concern about the system. I hope that she can provide the assurance that all our constituents want.

7.22 pm
The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing, and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising an important issue that is of concern to his constituents and to those of all hon. Members. Certainly, we have all received correspondence and representations from members of the public who share some of the concerns.

I should also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Jim Dowd) for his kind welcome to me in my new post. I am perhaps slightly better able to answer his questions than another Minister would be, as until six weeks ago I was Minister for public health, and responsible for some of these matters. I shall do my best to respond in detail.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West has outlined the basis of Tetra. I am delighted that he knows that it stands for terrestrial trunked radio. He described how the technology has been developed, and was right to say that it is not brand-new. It is in operation in various countries: Tetra systems are deployed for emergency services in Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Italy, the Netherlands and Norway. I am sure that the concerns that my hon. Friend set out are shared in those countries.

Tetra has some specific advantages over the old-fashioned police radio systems. It is a modern digital technology, which means that it offers much more accurate voice recognition. Gone are the days of hiss and crackle, when police had to turn their radios up to maximum volume to work out what messages were coming through. Tetra also allows for quite sophisticated encryption techniques, which stop people hacking into the police radio system and ensures that information is secure. It can also provide very high capacity when needed. Given the necessity to get all emergency services involved in the major incidents that take place these days, that high capacity is increasingly vital. I am sure that the public are very keen to support the police in tackling crime, making communities safer and responding very quickly to incidents as they occur.

However, people are also right to be concerned about their health and that of their families. This is complex and detailed new technology, so it is right for us to address as many of people's concerns as we can.

I am delighted that Airwave is now available to 15 forces, which is one more than when I answered my hon. Friend's question last time. The system will be rolled out across the country by mid-2005.

Police officers are pretty keen on the system. They feel that it has given them a greater ability to do their job. I am told that they no longer get into black holes where they cannot communicate, so their personal safety is increased as they can call for help on the ground. Also, for the first time, police helicopters can communicate directly with the police attending an incident, so the police are pleased about that.

On the health concerns, my hon. Friend is right to say that as the technology has developed there have been concerns not only about Airwave but about mobile phones in general. That is why the Stewart report was commissioned. It was a detailed and comprehensive examination of all the existing health evidence and it was published in 2000. That report primarily focused on general mobile phone technology; it was not aimed in particular at Airwave or Tetra. It identified the latter as just one form of technology that it was considering.

In particular, the report looked into work on pulsing signals, which is one of the key arms of concern. It noted that some researchers had found that biological effects could arise from pulsing signals even at weak powers. The experiments were carried out in the 1970s and it has since been virtually impossible to replicate them. The report was based on the precautionary principle of trying to deal with every eventuality. Whether or not they had any scientific basis, it decided to take account of some of the tests that had been carried out. The report concluded that the existing research was inconclusive and that no obvious health effects had been suggested. However, it recommended that as a precautionary measure, and those are the important words, modulation, the pulsing sensation at around 16 Hz—signal patterns that repeat them selves at a pulsing rate of 16 times a second—should be avoided if possible for future systems.

My hon. Friend is right to say that it is the handsets that pulse and not the masts. The masts do not pulse, and independent evidence has confirmed that to be the case. Many communities have perhaps become seized of inaccurate information, which has led them to be concerned on a false scientific basis. I can offer that reassurance to people everywhere that the pulsing identified in the Stewart report comes from the handsets, not the masts. We need to be clear about that.

On the Home Office response to the Stewart report—these were important issues for us—we took advice from the National Radiological Protection Board on the health implications of the Tetra technology. As my hon. Friend said, the advisory group on non-ionising radiation, AGNIR, published a report in July 2001, which said: Although areas of uncertainty remain about the biological effects of low level…radiation in general, including modulated signals, current evidence suggests that it is unlikely that the special features of the signals from TETRA mobile terminals and repeaters pose a hazard to health". The report was reassuring, but it is right that we recognise that further research needs to be undertaken because this is a developing and emerging technology.

That report suggested further research and we have set up a comprehensive research programme to take those recommendations forward. We have commissioned studies to be undertaken by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. My hon. Friend referred to those reports. I can confirm that those experiments and studies show that Tetra has no effect on the calcium exchanges in brain and heart cells. That was the main concern of the Stewart report. I should not be delighted that the website is out of date, but I am delighted to be able to say that all the dates to which my hon. Friend referred were this year, and the studies have come up with that evidence.

The Stewart report also recommended that all mobile phone masts should be included in a database so that we know where they are and can see how they are spread across the country. The Sitefinder database has now been established. The first upload of Airwave base stations on to the database takes place next week, so we are keeping good track of them.

We have also set up a national health monitoring study of police Airwave users. Obviously, the Police Federation was concerned on behalf of its members. Although it welcomes the practical improvements, it also wants to ensure that there are no health risks. We have awarded a £5 million contract to Imperial college. A study of 10,000 police Airwave users will be undertaken to monitor their health in the next 15 years. That is a good long-term research study to find out what the implications are. Therefore, we are taking proper precautions to ensure that the impact is not untoward.

I shall comment on the Lewisham situation, as I am aware of the concern that has been caused to local people because of the lack of consultation. I understand that my officials are meeting the chief executive of O2 Airwave next Monday. I will ensure that the matter is raised and will emphasise the company's responsibility to consult local people.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister code of best practice is not just a piece of paper; it requires everyone involved to take their responsibility seriously. Where there is good community consultation, people understand the issues and reach a proper view, so it is important that such matters are open and transparent, and discussed in a mature and adult way. Local people need access to the best scientific information for reassurance for them and their families.

The code of practice states that companies should be especially careful about siting masts in the vicinity of schools and hospitals. The situation in Lewisham fell firmly into that category and we shall ensure that the company is fully reminded of its responsibilities.

My hon. Friend indicated the importance of all Departments working together to ensure that we take effective action. I am delighted to confirm that we shall continue to take an active interest in the health implications of the Tetra system, but I emphasise that

the introduction of that new technology will help us to tackle crime more effectively and to build confidence that our communities are safer places to live, work and bring up families. We shall, however, always be conscious of the health implications. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised the matter. We shall continue to focus our efforts on it.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eight o'clock.