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Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the Prime Minister's announcement today about an inquiry into the events surrounding the resignation of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), and the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury

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(Mr. Lidington) about whether questions tabled subsequent or previous to that may be sub judice, would you, Mr. Speaker, give a ruling as to whether questions asked by Members about the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), relating to his conduct and any relation that he might have had with Hinduja brothers will come under the same rules as those relating to the inquiry and to the right hon. Member for Hartlepool?

Mr. Speaker: I have already given a ruling but, perhaps to clarify the situation, I would say that it is not the type of inquiry that would be covered by the sub judice rules. However, the contents of any ministerial reply have nothing to do with the Speaker.

Mr. Soames: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Does that mean that the Table Office will accept any parliamentary question relating to the conduct of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East, in relation to that event?

Mr. Speaker: The Table Office will accept any question that is in order. If the hon. Gentleman is refused, I am sure that he will come back to me.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I understand it, the fact that an inquiry is taking place does not raise any procedural difficulty in respect of the tabling of questions. Will you confirm that that is correct?

Mr. Speaker: Absolutely no problem is raised as far as procedure is concerned.

NORTHERN IRELAND GRAND COMMITTEE

Motion made,



1. The matter of human rights and equality in Northern Ireland, being a matter relating exclusively to Northern Ireland, be referred to the Northern Ireland Grand Committee;
2. The Committee shall meet at Westminster on Thursday 8th February at 2.30 p.m.; and
3. At that meeting--
(a) the Committee shall take questions for oral answer; and shall then consider the matter of human rights and equality in Northern Ireland, referred to it under paragraph (1) above;
(b) the Chairman shall interrupt proceedings at 5 p.m.; and
(c) at the conclusion of those proceedings a Motion for the adjournment of the Committee may be moved by a Minister of the Crown pursuant to Standing Order No. 116(5) (Northern Ireland Grand Committee (sittings).--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

Hon. Members: Object.

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DELEGATED LEGISLATION

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Social Security


Mr. Speaker: I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 31 January, pursuant to Order [7 November 2000].

SITTINGS IN WESTMINSTER HALL

Motion made,


Hon. Members: Object.

SELECT COMMITTEES (JOINT MEETINGS)

Motion made,



Line 37, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 46, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 48, at the end insert the words:--
'(4A) notwithstanding paragraphs (2) and (4) above, where more than two committees or sub-committees appointed under this order meet concurrently in accordance with paragraph (4)(e) above, the quorum of each such committee or sub-committee shall be two.'-- [Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

Hon. Members: Object.

BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE

Motion made,



(i) put the Question on the Motion in the name of Mr. Secretary Straw relating to Police Grant Reports (England and Wales) not later than Seven o'clock; and
(ii) put the Questions on the Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary Prescott relating to Local Government (Finance) not later than Ten o'clock.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

Hon. Members: Object.

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Mobile Phone Masts

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

10.31 pm

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam): I am grateful--[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. It is out of order that those who are leaving the Chamber should walk in front of the hon. Member who has the Floor.

Mr. Burstow: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise an important matter in the House tonight. My interest in the subject of mobile phone masts stems first and foremost from cases drawn to my attention via my constituency mailbag. Last year, my local council, the London borough of Sutton, received 22 prior notification submissions from telecommunications companies. Although not all of them proved controversial locally, several have caused considerable concern among many of my constituents.

Most recently, residents of the Belmont area of my constituency were alarmed by a mast proposal that fell outside the borough boundary and within the Banstead and Reigate district council area. Although remote from residents in that council's area, the mast would have been close to residents in my constituency. As a consequence of the lack of confidence felt by many residents about the possible effects on health of such masts, great concern arose. I am pleased to say that, owing to a combination of effective lobbying by residents on issues affecting the amenity of the locality and other planning matters, and the diligence of my colleague Councillor Tony Wallace, that proposal was ultimately rejected by the relevant planning authority.

That application and concerns that have arisen from earlier cases led me to seek tonight's debate. While preparing my speech, I became aware that several other hon. Members have already raised these issues, but there are some relevant matters on which I should like the Minister to expand. In particular, I hope that he will be able to tell me what progress has been made in acting on the recommendations of the independent expert group on mobile phones, chaired by Sir William Stewart. In the last Session, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) tabled two early-day motions calling for the urgent implementation of the Stewart report's proposals. It would be helpful if the Minister spelled out the Government's response to that report and the timetable that is being followed for the delivery of the recommendations.

As the Stewart report noted, the current privileged development rights of the telecommunications industry leave residents' anxieties outside the equation for evaluating the proposals. The timetable for the current system of prior approval leaves little time in many cases to do much more than pay lip service to public consultation. That lack of consultation feeds a lack of confidence in the safety of masts.

I welcome the Government's consultation on requiring all new telecommunications masts to be subject to full planning application procedure. Such a requirement would mean that the process would be subject to much

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greater public scrutiny in future. When that consultation process ended, 301 responses had been received. My council wrote on 16 October, and I shall quote an extract from the letter:


I agree with those comments from the London borough of Sutton. Those anxieties have driven the questions that I tabled last year and my support for several early-day motions.

It would be useful to have the opportunity to review more of the responses to the Department's consultation. Unfortunately that has not been possible, despite an undertaking that was given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), in a written answer on 9 November to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey). He asked when the responses would be published. The reply assured him:


The responses were not in the Library yesterday, however. Inquiries by Library staff to the parliamentary Clerk to the Department revealed that the responses were still being considered, and that, consequently, the Department had not released them to the Library. Why could not hon. Members see the responses until the Department had finished analysing them?

Given the changes that the new generation of personal communication networks will effect, have the Government assessed the number of new masts that will be required? Personal communication networks have a lower range and more masts will be required to achieve the same coverage as existing technology provides. Telecommunications companies have statutory licences from the Government and they will therefore be able to install equipment on the public highway. That right already exists. People are worried that there will be a proliferation of the columns that contain the masts and aerials.

One representation to the Department, by Kent county council, estimated that 100,000 new masts would be required to provide the new licensing arrangements. It would be useful if the Minister could say whether that was a fair estimate. If it is not, what constitutes a reasonable estimate in the Department's view?

Such expansion requires more than piecemeal development control and case-by-case consideration. Will the Government therefore accept the proposal of the Council for the Protection of Rural England that network operators should be obliged to consult local planning authorities on their plans for the whole network as it affects a specific locality? That would minimise the environmental impact.

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Will the Government remove the permitted development rights for existing masts that have been approved under current prior approval arrangements? What monitoring arrangements are in place to ensure that the industry seriously considers the sharing of masts when possible and appropriate?

On planning guidance, can the Minister tell the House when it is intended to introduce the new planning requirements? When will they be in force?

Other questions are relevant to anxiety about the proliferation of masts. By dint of being statutory undertakers, telecommunications companies have the ability to exercise compulsory purchase order powers under an order by the Secretary of State. There is a possibility of CPOs being used to acquire land to allow such masts to be erected. If there is to be an increase in the number of bases required to secure the roll-out of the new licences and new technologies involved, what assessment has been made of the implications for a possible increase in the number of CPOs?

Finally, let me deal with an issue that is probably on the minds of many of my constituents and, I suspect, the minds of constituents of many other hon. Members. I refer to the debate about the public health effects of both ground stations and mobile phones. The Stewart report took the view that, according to the balance of the evidence, there was no general risk to the health of people near base stations; however, it accepted that there was evidence of subtle biological effects from radiation generated by such stations. Indeed, evidence collected for a report by the World Health Organisation suggests that low level doses have a cumulative effect on health.

As a result of the Stewart report, the Government have committed themselves to the precautionary approach recommended by the report, but that approach has tended to concentrate on phone use rather than bases. Of course it is welcome that more information and guidance is being provided, especially for children who may use mobile phones, but I understand that the leaflets that are meant to be provided with phones are not always provided by retailers when people buy them, and that there is thus no guarantee that the information is being conveyed.

In the United States, New Zealand and many European countries there are rules governing exclusion zones around base stations, which in some cases extend to 500 m. That was recommended by the Stewart report, but on my reading the Government have not acted on its recommendation to date. The Stewart report also recommended auditing:


Can the Minister say when the programme will begin, and how many bases will be visited each year? Such audits could play an important part in restoring confidence in the safety of the technology.

My constituents and my local authority want all mast applications to be properly considered through the planning process, so that there is proper public debate and scrutiny. They also want to know that the bases are being audited, and that the expansion of the network--which

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many of us will welcome, because it will provide access to the technology and allow better use of mobile phones and all the attendant communications aids--will not take place at the expense of the precautionary principle.


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