We'll all have smart meters by 2020

What's a smart meter?

Ambitious plans set out by the government aims to fit every UK home with a new smart meter by 2020.

However, despite the popular adoption of smart meters – Japan, China, US, Australia, Canada and the rest of EU have some type of smart meter strategy – some strongly believe UK residents should exercise their right to refuse a smart meter or risk detrimental health benefits and their privacy being infringed.

Smart meters run wirelessly using mobile phone-type signals and other wireless technologies to send accurate and more regular meter readings to your utility company.

The aim is to do away with estimated bills and the need for physical meter readings, while providing customers with energy usage information via an In-Home Display (IHD), which can be utilised to increase energy efficiency.

 Dr Elizabeth Evans, campaigner and co-founder of Stop Smart Meters UK, believes the radiofrequency (RF) radiation omitted is harmful. She says: "This extra burden of RF radiation, on top of the wireless devices already present in a person’s home may be catastrophic to health."

As well as potentially causing cancer (Dr Evans says the World Health Organisation has listed RF radiation as a possible carcinogenic) and DNA damage in the long term, the campaign claims over exposure to the type of radiation omitted by smart meters can cause headaches, insomnia, sleep disorders, depression and arrhythmias, among other things.

Dr Evans refers to a survey of health effects reported by smart meter customers from the US, a Swedish neuroscientist who that mice continually exposed to WIFI are sterile by the fifth generation and a dramatic rise in frontal and temporal brain tumours of over 50 per cent from 1999-2009 in the UK as some of the evidence of the detrimental health effects caused by smart meters. 

Official information from Public Health England's (PHE) dispute this and say there is no convincing evidence to suggest exposure to the radio waves produced by smart meters poses any health risk and that “Using mobile phones leads to greater exposures than other radio devices in widespread use by the general public, including smart meters.”

Offering another opinion, David J. Brenner Higgins, a professor of radiation biophysics at the Center for Radiological Research Columbia University Medical Center in the US, says, while it's always hard to prove something is "safe", "wireless smart power meters result in significantly less radiofrequency radiation exposure than produced by cellphones, so it is very unlikely they would be associated with adverse health effects." This a view supported by the PHE.

If  a house hold is unconcerned by radiation from mobiles phones, the health risk factors from smart meters are unlikely to keep them up at night either, and according to many reliable sources, that’s just fine.

However, it seems fair to say we don’t yet know the full impact, if any, of the increased (and increasing) long term exposure of RF radiation may have 30 to 40 years down the line on public health, we can only go on the available information.  

Another issue regularly raised by smart meter critics is the fact that smart meters essentially put all our energy data on the internet, which has the potential to be hacked.

"There have been numerous occasions where wireless smart meters have been shown to be easily hacked; for example, a group of ethical hackers showed how easy it was to hack a Discovergy [German energy supplier] smart meter less than two years ago at a conference in Berlin," she adds.

The incident Dr Evans refers to is said to have occurred when the company allowed information gathered by its smart meters to travel over an insecure link to its servers.

Should we be concerned about would be hackers trying to tamper with our energy usage data and potentially increasing our bills or cutting us off, which if done en-masse could cause a national emergency? Not according to British Gas, who has already started fitting some smart meters.

They say: "Smart meters must meet a number of security standards specified by Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). DECC has brought in a number of security consultants to ensure data is protected and to allow draft license obligations to be prepared."

The company adds that data is stored in the meter using methods "widely used across a number of industries such as banking and telecommunications" and is sent using Advanced Encryption Standard, which is more complex than what is used for internet banking.

Only meter readings are available to a utility company, not information displayed on the IHD, and for half hourly readings, as opposed to daily or monthly, the customer needs to give permission, a spokesperson says.

Speaking to an IT security expert, David Emm of Kaspersky Lab, a worldwide IT security company, he warns:

"If someone is able to intercept such transmissions, they could gather personal information, interrupt the supply to the customer, or send false data - resulting in huge bills for those affected, or loss of revenue for suppliers.

"If the interruption of power could be done for large numbers of customers at once, this could result in an outage that, before the advent of smart meters, would have meant an attack on the power supplier's systems."

He adds that encryption of data being sent and received is the key to protecting privacy and would "greatly reduce the risk of attack".

Hacking of energy data from individual homes does seem to be a possibility, just as hacking any other computer run company is – just last week an attempt to hack a Santander bank computer was foiled with 12 arrested. It’s a constant hazard of our modern, increasingly digitalised society that for the most part is navigated relatively successfully.

It’s a question of the likelihood of this happening and trust that the relevant levels of encryption and security, as required by law, is employed and data, which will remain property of the customer, is securely stored. The DECC will not make all necessary smart meter security measures public for security reasons, which seems fair enough.

However, if anyone is worried about the potential for hacking or negative health effects there is always the option to say no to a smart meter.

In the meantime, further studies and looking to the US, which is years ahead in its smart meter roll out, will hopefully provide further clarity on these issues in the near future.

A new dawn? Photograph: Getty Images

Heidi Vella is a features writer for

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.