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Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the problem with local government is not the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering and the extensive use of private contractors, but

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the absolute failure of local government itself to monitor and assess what tendering companies are doing? Does he agree that the logical conclusion is to opt for compulsory private tendering, thereby allowing local government to focus on ensuring that the job is done efficiently, cheaply and properly? That way, people will, I hope, regain confidence in local government, and in the ability of councillors to do the job that we elect them to do.

Mr. Hurst: If the hon. Gentleman wishes to follow that course, it would be better to elect a clerk of works, rather than a councillor. A councillor's function is much broader than the monitoring of contracts, which is a job for professionals.

The decimation of local government continues apace, and extends to local authority housing. Many hon. Members doubtless represent towns with council estates that are an amazing credit to the councillors—some Labour, some Conservative, and perhaps even some Liberal Democrat—who oversaw their creation. We should consider the building style of the 1940s and 1950s, the spaciousness and sturdiness of the houses, the incorporation of village greens and greensward, and the concept that communities were created to be lived in as communities. One can still see such elements in council developments in small towns and villages throughout the land. In the 1960s and 1970s, decline set in as more and more was compressed into an ever smaller area—culminating, of course, in the ultimate folly of the tower block. We lost the concept of the community, and that loss has greatly harmed local government.

The end of council housing was probably foreshadowed by the right to buy. The right-to-buy legislation of the 1980s was entirely different from that pioneered by Sir Edward Heath, who wanted to put money from the sale of council houses towards building. We eventually reached the stage where there was no purpose beyond their being sold. As a result, local authorities' function was essentially reduced to that of a landlord's managing agent, managing properties and housing people as best they could in diminishing housing stock. Ultimately, the transfer of the entire housing stock to other bodies leaves local authorities with no function whatsoever in respect of housing its citizens, save making recommendations for housing lists that others will run.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) asked whether a unitary authority would deal with such matters better than a district or county council. The question of whether a mayoral or presidential local authority is preferable to the prime ministerial or cabinet form has been discussed. Some of those forms may have their attractions, but such discussions miss the central point that local government—be it Mayor Livingstone or a committee of a small district council—has lost responsibilities and the power to effect change.

Richard Younger-Ross: I fear that the situation is even worse than the hon. Gentleman suggests. There is a crisis not just with people voting in local elections, but with finding councillors to stand in some areas. In some parish and town councils in rural Devon, nearly half the councillors are unelected because not enough people contest the elections. Is there not a danger that, unless we can reinvigorate councils and, as he says, give power back to them, we will be fighting a losing battle?

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Legislation is being enacted that will impose on councillors a duty to disclose their interests and land far more onerous than that imposed on Members of this House. As a result, many councillors in my area are considering resigning. Will that not undermine local democracy?

Mr. Hurst: I agree that it will hardly help. As I have said, if one makes the job of councillors difficult, unattractive and lacking in power and responsibility, people will not be encouraged to come forward. All hon. Members, particularly those who represent rural districts, will have met the old timer—perhaps an agricultural labourer—who served as county councillor, district councillor, magistrate, lay preacher and union official, brought up a family, did not own a car and used to pedal from village to village. They may be mythical figures, but each of us has met people like that who had a commitment to their community and made a difference to it.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon): Are not new regulations for parish councillors less stringent than the existing guidance, so although parish councillors might not be aware of that guidance, the regulations could be seen as an improvement? They provide a realistic and practical way forward for parish councillors.

Mr. Hurst: I do not feel as strongly about that as I do about some of the other matters that I have mentioned today. When we talk about modifying this or that regulation, there is a danger that we will dance around the issue rather than looking at it. Today, I noticed on the calendar in my office a quotation from Mr. Attlee, if one is permitted to mention Mr. Attlee these days, in which he observed:

It seems to me that we do an awful lot of talking, and all of us, councillors and Members, have e-mails, computers and every other mechanical device to transmit information, knowledge and correspondence, but the danger is that we do less because there is less for us to do—we are permitted to do less.

I fear that if responsibility for education and social services is removed from local authorities, there will be very little left for them to do. The ultimate absurdity that I have come across in my county council of Essex—it may be taking place elsewhere—is that it proposes to undertake appraisals of councillors. I am sure that that is a best value method straight out of New York city, but it shows a fundamental misunderstanding of democracy. The only appraisal of councillors that matters is the appraisal at the ballot box.

2.22 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I should declare an interest in that I have a contract with Vodafone for provision of a personal mobile phone, because I want to talk about mobile phone masts and the concerns that they cause in my constituency.

I shall come on to a particular case, but I am aware that people in many locations throughout the country are becoming so concerned about this rather grey area and the lack of scientific evidence to persuade them that masts are safe that some are even moving house to avoid living in

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close proximity to one. I notice that the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office is nodding. He has been extraordinarily helpful to me in earlier Adjournment debates, and I hope that he will be helpful again today. I wrote to the relevant Under-Secretary at the Department of Health on 14 February on behalf of my constituent, Mrs. Anne Cann of Crediton. Mrs. Cann has a six-year-old daughter who has been diagnosed with leukaemia, and the Canns live within 90 m of a mobile phone mast.

I raised the matter with the Under-Secretary following a report commissioned by my local daily newspaper, the Express & Echo. Despite sending a reminder to the Minister, I have still not received a response from the Department of Health. Will the Parliamentary Secretary ensure that I receive a substantive reply? In putting to the Under-Secretary the concerns of my constituent I also made available the information from the Express & Echo, and I offered to make available the detailed findings of research by Exeter university, commissioned by the newspaper and carried out in the Canns' home and the adjacent area.

Since I wrote to the Minister, we have identified four cancer sufferers living within 300 m of the mast. I am well aware from previous debates that one cannot snatch out of the air conclusions about cancer clusters. In the adult population in particular, one would expect to find people suffering from cancer in any community. However, my concern is that the Canns, to protect their daughter's health and to remain in the family home, have been forced to take measures to help to screen the house, and particularly the bedroom where their daughter Emma sleeps, from any harmful rays that may enter the property. The Parliamentary Secretary will be aware that families like the Canns live with not only the problem of having a child with a very serious illness but the constant anxiety that their home is not safe because of an external factor.

The research commissioned by the Echo was carried out by Dr. David Coley of the Exeter university centre for energy and the environment. The results show that the microwave emissions inside the Canns' home are more than twice the levels accepted in many other countries. Dr. Coley took measurements at nine locations in and around the property in George Hill, Crediton, and he recorded a figure of 6.5 volts per metre in the kitchen, in the garden in front of the daughter's bedroom window and just outside the property. That is more than the highest permitted limit in countries such as Russia, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, and it is more than 10 times the limit set in the Austrian city of Salzburg.

One of the problems that we face is that around the world there are differences in permitted levels of exposure. Most countries comply with the guidance of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, but Britain allows emissions of more than three times the Commission's recommended levels. Limits in other countries include 6 volts per metre in Poland, Russia and Italy, and half that amount in Genoa. In New Zealand the limit is 0.28 volts per metre, and in the USA it is 0.2 volts per metre for the average city dweller.

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Around the world, authorities have taken decisions that are diverse and, in many cases, the permitted levels are much lower than those decided, on scientific advice, by the UK Government. When Dr. Coley visited the Canns' property, he said it was 100 per cent. certain that the microwave field was produced by the mast. There was no extenuating factor. He said:

Since the Government came to office they have commissioned the Stewart report on the subject for their own guidance. It was written by an independent group of experts led by Sir William Stewart, the former chief scientific adviser to the Government and the current chairman of the Microbiological Research Authority. The report recommended that

At the beginning of my remarks, I declared my contract with Vodafone. I suspect that I am not unique in the House in having a mobile phone. More and more of us rely on our mobile phones, and we are all aware of what a great boon they are. However, there has to be some balancing of the convenience to the individual of having a good signal to be able to use the phone and the significant concern about masts.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned the precautionary principle. The Government should be looking seriously at adopting that principle, especially as regards the UK permitted levels. We are at odds with other countries and we need to know the scientific basis for their decisions. The Stewart report also notes that we need to take the precautionary principle into account.

When I asked Health Ministers to look into the evidence about the Cann household in Crediton, I put some other questions; for example, in the light of the recommendations of the Stewart report, why has so little research been undertaken into the health effects of mobile phone masts? There seems little tangible evidence on which to make decisions.

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