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11.30 pm

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: With the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly to some of the points that have been made.

The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) was right to say that, despite some of the comments that have been made tonight, the Bill's Committee stage was fairly

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constructive. Plenty of time was available and the debates were not curtailed. We agreed to consider some of the issues that had been raised, and we can do that without delaying the Bill's passage through the House. By allowing it to reach the statute book, we will be able to provide the useful reliefs that are contained in it.

I told the hon. Gentleman that I would consider the issue of commencement, and he also said that he was concerned about the discretionary element of the Bill. It will introduce mandatory relief for small shops in rural villages, and I hope that he is not suggesting that he wants to remove local authorities' ability to provide discretionary relief over and above that provided for by the Bill.

Mr. Green indicated dissent.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman suggests that he does not want to do that.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions gave the hon. Gentleman clear definitions of hereditament, and I assure him that they are correct. He need have no worry about their application.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Cotter) and others have tried to suggest that the measures in the Bill are modest. I think that there is wide consensus in the House on the need to encourage, when appropriate, farms businesses to diversify into other sectors. There is a psychological barrier on agricultural businesses crossing the threshold that means that they are subject to rates for the first time. However, the estimates of the cost of the measures in the Bill to help farms to diversify are between £16 million and £96 million, depending on take-up. It is estimated that the measures apply to 3,000 food shops that are not in rural villages with a population of fewer than 3,000, so our proposals are not as modest as some Opposition Members would have us believe.

The hon. Member for Ashford said that, given the opportunity, the Conservatives would introduce comprehensive and radical measures to help small businesses. Although Liberal Democrat Members accused me of engaging in party political polemic when I made the point that talk is cheap, we have read the book about the 18 years that the Conservatives were in office. They will, therefore, have to explain why what they now say about assistance to small businesses is different from what they practised when they were in power. They also have to explain how they would square the circle. When we debate our proposals in the House, they say that they do not go far enough and that more should be spent on this or that sector. However, they are committed to a massive programme of cuts. Their proposals do not add up.

On the small businesses that are not covered by the measures in the Bill, the Green Paper on local government finance proposed rate relief for all small businesses. It is targeted at those with a rateable value of above £6,000, and a taper goes up to a rateable value of £8,000. The Government are committed to considering the issue and legislation will be forthcoming on another occasion.

On this occasion, however, we have the opportunity to pass two useful measures that will help our rural communities and will assist farming businesses to

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diversify into other sectors. I commend the Bill to the House, and I hope that it receives the support of hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.


Genetically Modified Crops

11.35 pm

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): It is my pleasure to submit to the House a petition from 7,059 residents of west Hertfordshire. The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

9 May 2001 : Column 240

Abuse of Planning Controls

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

11.36 pm

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle): I have applied for this Adjournment debate to draw the attention of the House to the alleged abuse of planning controls at Rother district council in my constituency. I wish to make it clear from the outset that the irregularities to which I shall refer do not arise from any obvious deficiency in planning legislation nor, so far as I can tell, are they the result of maladministration or neglect by council planning staff. The problems that I shall highlight are, allegedly, the result of collusion between so-called property developers and councillors, involving bribery and senior council members having undue influence over their colleagues. I shall argue that those matters should be thoroughly investigated.

This is not the first time in this Parliament that I have shared with the House the results of my research into controversial issues, on which it has become clear to me that answers, explanations and action are needed. I am pleased that, as a result of those earlier debates, positive steps were taken in each instance although, in some cases, more still needs to be done. I can at least claim with some confidence that the topics that I aired in that way were not trivial; I investigated them carefully before referring them to the House.

My most recent attempt to elicit open answers to several related questions was on 30 March, when I introduced the Second Reading of my Bill requiring freemasons elected to public office to register their interest. My speech that day was restricted to a mere 25 minutes or so because of a determined effort by some hon. Members to talk out the preceding business, for whatever motive. In the limited time available, I did not have an opportunity to speak about past links between various London criminals, including the Brinks-Mat bullion gang--Kenneth Noye and his solicitor are both freemasons--and freemasons in East Sussex. Those matters, made known to me by a retired head of the Metropolitan police crime squad, Mr. Brian Boyce, would, I believe, have illuminated my arguments in favour of masonic councillors registering their interests as freemasons.

There is a direct connection between my call for openness on masonic interests and the subject of this debate, as allegations of planning abuse and councillors' impropriety were first raised with me by an elderly freemason, Mr. Eric Johnson, who, for many years, was a distinguished councillor. He advised me that a few fellow freemasons, including one or two councillors, were complicit in a property scam to take advantage of a woman landowner, who is now about 80.

Mr. Johnson alleged that there had been embezzlement, tax fraud, planning abuse and bribery concerning the purchase and sale of land for development at artificial prices. He spoke of inducements paid to a councillor to influence the granting or withholding of planning consent, and allegations of covert payment to a representative of a building firm, Fairclough Homes, by means of which a pension fund of at least £80,000 had secretly been provided.

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I then spoke to the elderly landowner, Mrs. Pamela Ward-Jones, who reinforced the allegations. She referred me to her professional advisers, including a solicitor, Mr. Patrick Battersby, a banker, Mr. Graham Carn, and a distinguished chartered surveyor in East Sussex, Mr. Clifford Dann. All these people told me that they had carefully examined a number of property transactions involving on the one hand, Mrs. Ward-Jones, and on the other, a Mr. Ken Jolly and a Mr. Barry Eades.

I understand from reliable professional sources that Mr. Eades is a fugitive from this country, following disputes with the Inland Revenue and also, apparently, with dubious sources of property finance in south London. Mr. Johnson advised me--and other Bexhill residents confirmed--that Jolly and Eades are both freemasons. So was a local councillor alleged in statements given to Mrs. Ward-Jones's solicitors by other constituents to have been paid by Jolly to influence planning decisions. I shall not name this councillor in the House because he would not be able to answer for himself, as he died abroad, I am sorry to say, not long after my inquiries into these matters were made known to the local authority chief executive, the Serious Fraud Office and the Inland Revenue.

Mr. Battersby told me that his client, Mrs. Ward-Jones, claims that Jolly and Eades tried to bankrupt her by procuring that her bank manager refused her credit when she could show adequate means of raising finance. He added the suggestion that Jolly and Eades acted with other parties through whom improper dealings were procured through contacts that they made as freemasons, but he rightly insisted that there was no suggestion that any masonic lodge itself was involved in impropriety. The allegation was merely that individuals involved in the alleged wrongdoing had been drawn together by their common membership of freemasonry.

Among the property sites in which Jolly and Eades became involved improperly, according to Mrs. Ward- Jones, were Willow Way, Top Acre and Curles Farm, but the most controversial planning history seems to relate to land off Spindlewood drive, Cooden, and at Old Harrier kennels, Maple walk, Cooden. That included some eight acres of land that Mrs. Ward-Jones had provisionally agreed to sell to Bovis Homes for development.

Although the land was not earmarked in a rather outdated local development plan, it was at first approved by council members, and then, after local elections, the approval was reversed, against the recommendation of planning officers. Mrs. Ward-Jones appealed against refusal. Some months later, her appeal was dismissed on the grounds that a much-delayed deposit draft local plan was not in place, and it was therefore not technically possible to earmark fresh areas for development beyond the limits of the old plan.

According to Mr. Clifford Dann, the significance of the Maple walk and Spindlewood drive sites was that when Mrs. Ward-Jones appealed against refusal, a local firm, Freshfield Properties Ltd., acting in concert with Mr. Jolly's company, Buxton Homes, wrote to her suggesting that the elected members of the council who had just refused her permission could be persuaded to do an immediate volte-face.

Mr. Peter Gooch of Freshfield Properties wrote:

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Mr. Gooch went on:

from Mrs. Ward-Jones--

On a plan attached to the letter was a note to the effect that the plan would be submitted to the council on the advice of the late councillor who died abroad earlier this year. Mr. Dann asked how it could possibly be in Mrs. Ward-Jones's best interests to sell the land to Mr. Gooch and Mr. Jolly, and challenged them to explain why they believed members of the council would so swiftly contradict the beliefs that had resulted in the recent refusals. No answer was given, and the offer was not taken up by Mrs. Ward-Jones.

As I have already said, I referred these matters to the Serious Fraud Office and the Inland Revenue. The latter has yet to respond to me, but Ms Helen Garlick, a senior advisory lawyer at the SFO, has done so. She said that the SFO tends to deal with cases involving at least £1 million. She doubted whether witnesses could now be found who would be capable of giving admissible evidence of corrupt conduct in a criminal trial. In her opinion, the case was more suitable for determination in a civil court.

Civil proceedings are a matter for Mrs. Ward-Jones and her solicitor to decide on. For the Minister and for the elected members of Rother district council, there is much to review and to investigate further.

The council's planning committee has been chaired since the last election by Councillor Brian Kentfield, a past master of a masonic lodge in Battle and a close colleague of the recently deceased councillor who was the subject of many of the allegations to which I have alluded. If integrity is to be seen to be preserved, it is for Councillor Kentfield to take the initiative and to seek an independent review by someone completely free of connections with freemasonry. Other members of the planning committee have spoken freely of heavy-handed lobbying by senior colleagues over planning decisions put before them. For the sake of Mrs. Ward-Jones, and for the council's good name, these matters should be examined impartially and without further delay.

When Mr. Johnson first drew my attention to these allegations of planning abuse, and the collusion against Mrs. Ward-Jones by what he regarded as a few unscrupulous fellow freemasons, I wrote to Councillor Kentfield and to the local Conservative association, many of whose most senior officers are also councillors, but no explanations were forthcoming. There was only a veil of undisguised animosity at the notion that a wider audience within the party, let alone the public at large, should be made aware of what a few masonic members were doing.

The role of the recently deceased councillor in the local party has now been filled by that councillor's solicitor, who is himself a senior freemason. However, the grand master of Sussex freemasons has written to me assuring me that he will investigate any allegations of wrongdoing among his members. I take him at his word, which I trust he will honour.

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It is time that the stables were mucked out. It is time for openness and accountability in the public interest. After 18 years in the House, and particularly in light of the recent withdrawal of the Opposition Whip with all the absurdity and hypocrisy that that has implied, I trust that it can be said that I have been my own man and that I have spoken out in what I believe to be the interests of my constituents whenever I have judged it necessary. I hope that in doing so, I have fulfilled my duty in this place.

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