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6.2 pm

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green): I want to focus on the earthquake in Gujarat. I have met constituents of all faiths, races and backgrounds who have contributed in one way or another to the many victims and loved ones of that horrible earthquake, which took place on 26 January 2001.

Huge cracks in the salt flats of the Rann of Kutch--it is not always understood how such cracks come about--marked the epicentre of the quake. At that point, some six miles below the surface, a failure in the seismic fault triggered an earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale. It resulted in the death of many thousands of people; it has also meant the destruction of the livelihoods of far more people in India and elsewhere than can be imagined.

Many of our constituents who have close ties with India through friends and family jumped into action with money-raising and other activities. Quite a few immediately went to India to help. Most of our schools helped with fund-raising in imaginative ways; temples, mosques, churches and synagogues sprang into action. I am honoured to represent a constituency containing so many people who immediately went out of their way to help India in whatever manner they could think of, and I am sure that I am not the only Member present with such constituents.

This tragedy is no different from similar occurrences in Greece, Turkey, China, El Salvador and Iran, but the scale of death and destruction is almost inevitably greater in India. The earth shook 1,200 miles away from the epicentre, and the quake was felt as far away as Nepal. Gujarat is a state with 42 million people, and tens of thousands of British Indians have extended families in that part of the sub-continent.

Within two days, the Indian army had mobilised its biggest emergency operation since the massive quake in 1950. The United Kingdom sent a 70-strong team ready to search for survivors, and to help fight diseases, set up tent camps, provide food and blankets, and assist in hospitals. India was well prepared in many ways--or as well prepared as it could have been--because almost half of India is prone to earthquakes. The weakest links are, perhaps, the collapsed modern tower blocks, which point to the ignoring of building codes and a failure to observe safety measures.

I wrote to the Prime Minister and to Ministers who deal with immigration matters to ask our Government to review speedily and with compassion immigration procedures for dependants of British citizens affected by the horrors of the earthquake and its aftermath. The replies were entirely positive and sensitive; I thank the Prime Minister and his colleagues for that.

I also wrote to Ministers about the enormous work undertaken in India by the BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha who have provided food, medicine, clothing and many other necessities for the survivors of the earthquake.

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The distribution of relief material was the initial focus of BAPS; help was given to about 300 towns and villages by 6,500 volunteers, including doctors and many professionals. To give but one example, well over 1.5 million pouches of water have already been provided by BAPS. All the volunteers offer honorary service and the organisation has zero administration costs--remarkable in itself--so every pound donated goes directly and in full to the relief of the sufferers.

At present, rehabilitation of the homeless is the focus for BAPS; there is an imaginative low-cost, sponsor- a-home scheme and a hospital with modern facilities is being constructed in Bhuj.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West): My hon. Friend describes clearly what has been happening in his constituency. Equally, in my constituency, in the borough of Harrow, considerable efforts have been made by the Asian community and by churches and synagogues alike to raise funds to relieve the immediate suffering of those in the Gujarati earthquake. Does my hon. Friend share my view that we also need to consider how we rebuild the communities which have been hit by the earthquake? We must continue to exert pressure on our Government and on other Governments to ensure that, once the immediate publicity disappears, we retain the focus on rebuilding the state of Gujarat.

Dr. Vis: I thank my hon. Friend for those comments; I associate myself with every word of them.

I had planned to say a few more things, but as time is limited and other hon. Members want to speak, I shall point out only that if people want further information, they should please consult the Will my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office consider any further assistance that the Government could give to victims of the earthquake?

6.7 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I, too, shall be brief, so as to allow other hon. Members to speak. I want to raise three planning issues on which the Government need to step in, to take account of the frustrations experienced by many local authorities and the constituents of many hon. Members when dealing with such matters. We need Government action.

The first issue relates to planning for mobile phone masts and to points made earlier. I agreed entirely with the comments of the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns)--at least, until he started talking about by-election results. There are considerable concerns in my constituency. Objections to the siting of phone masts have been made by action groups such as the Byron avenue action group and by a large number of villagers in my own village of Bramdean. At present, the policy is a mess; up and down the country, the four main providers submit applications week by week and no strategic consideration has been made of how local authorities can handle them.

We have the bizarre situation that some masts, below a certain height, do not require full planning permission, so the system can almost be bypassed. Conflicting advice and messages are received on health. Sometimes the message from the Government is that local authorities should take a precautionary approach, but there are no

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provisions in planning law to enable them to enact such an approach so as formally to take account of health concerns. Throughout the country, test cases take conflicting views. With the development of new technology, we have the prospect that, within two or three years, houses will be built with small masts in their attics.

Will the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office reconsider the Government's proposed solution? They have suggested a voluntary code, but that is not the best way forward. In any case, the code needs strengthening. We need a system that encourages and makes much easier the shared use of sites. We must clarify what is meant by a precautionary approach for local authorities; that information needs to be built into the planning system. What do the Government mean by the "next stage" of health concerns? What will the Stewart committee investigate? When will it report? Finally, I hope that the voluntary code will exist for a trial period only and that if the industry fails to abide by it, the Government will consider tougher legislation.

My second issue concerns local authorities' general planning and enforcement powers. I am sure that many hon. Members have concerns about local authorities' inability to take action if a business has been set up, or if someone has built on a piece of green land. The law is very weak in that area. Some individuals challenge court rulings. Others drag such issues out for many years.

In Swanmore, a village in my constituency, a saga has been going on since 1985. There have been several city council rejections of an application to convert a poultry house to residential use. There have been county court rulings against that application, and twice the Secretary of State has rejected the application, but the developers are still there, many years afterwards.

I hope that the Government will review local authorities' powers, but I understand that they have no plans to do so. They believe that those powers are strong enough already. I consider that many hon. Members would regard that stance as weak. Local authorities' powers should be greatly strengthened, because individuals who simply ignore court orders are running rings around them.

My final point relates to the problems involved in compulsory purchase and planning. Greater clarity is needed from the Government. I have in my constituency a new town called Whiteley, a lovely town. A commitment was made to build a road into the town, called Whiteley way. Everyone made contributions to that end, and it was assumed that the land could be bought for agricultural prices--about £600,000. There was then a judgment, the Kent County Council v. Bachelor judgment, which said that the owner of a crucial piece of land that needed to be built on could hold it for a ransom fee. As a result, that land is not now valued at agricultural prices but is worth millions of pounds. That makes it virtually impossible for the local authority to proceed and build a necessary road, which was promised to people in the area.

The Government committed themselves to a review of compulsory purchase and the cost of compensation. I understand that that review recommended that new legislation be introduced very soon to clarify the issue. To date, nothing has happened. I hope that the Minister can respond on that point.

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I have been brief to allow others to contribute. I hope that if the Minister cannot refer to these issues in his winding-up speech, he will give me a commitment to allow me to come back to him on all of them.

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