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Point of Order

3.32 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will have noted that we got to only Question 2 in Northern Ireland Question Time because the questions, and Ministers' answers, were so long- winded. Can you do anything to ensure that your admonition to the House some weeks ago--that questions and answers should be short--is obeyed, especially by Front-Bench Members? Can you ensure also that Conservative Front-Bench Members do not ask repeat questions?

Mr. Speaker: I am conscious that we reached only Question 2 in Northern Ireland questions, and I will try to speed up the process next time.

28 Feb 2001 : Column 908

Siting of Telecommunications Masts

3.32 pm

Ms Debra Shipley (Stourbridge): I beg to move,

I congratulate the Government on their establishment of an independent expert group chaired by Sir William Stewart to look into aspects of the problem of telecommunication masts, and I welcome too the subsequent publication of the Stewart report in May last year. However, serious concerns about the siting of mobile phone masts have been raised in the Chamber on several occasions since then, usually as a direct response to concerns raised by worried constituents.

My Stourbridge constituents are extremely concerned about proposals made by Vodafone to site a new telephone mast near their homes and a short distance from a school and a nursery. Hundreds of my constituents have successfully petitioned Dudley council and, with my support, have vigorously opposed the company's application to build the mast. Dudley council, rightly in my view, turned the application down twice, but its decision was overturned on appeal under section 78 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

In his appeal decision, the inspector referred to the Stewart report, concluding that exposure to radio frequency radiation below guideline levels did not cause adverse health effects in the general population. Paragraph 1.18 states:

Paragraph 1.19 states:

Again, paragraph 6.44 says:

These points are, in my view, sufficient to raise serious and legitimate health concerns and they have been interpreted as such by an appeals inspector appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The inspector dismissed an appeal by Orange against the decision of the London borough of Harrow to refuse to grant approval for a mobile telecommunications mast. Orange, like Vodafone in my constituency of Stourbridge, had appealed under section 78 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. It is my understanding that the appeal decision in Harrow is the first of its kind to include health considerations as reasons for dismissal of an appeal.

Point 6 of the appeal decision cites guidance in the ministerial letter of 29 June 2000. It says that the Government's response to the Stewart report should be "accorded considerable weight". Point 7 of the appeal decision states that the independent expert group on mobile phones came to the view that there could be indirect adverse effects on well-being in some cases. I think that I have shown that the Stewart report has had very mixed outcomes on appeal decisions under section 78 of the 1990 Act.

28 Feb 2001 : Column 909

People who live near the proposed Vodafone mast site in my constituency were devastated to learn that their views and those of their democratically elected councillors and Member of Parliament could be thrown out by an appeals inspector. I have knocked on the doors of many of the houses near the proposed site. They are the homes of families with young children. Concerned parents have said to me that they do not want risks taken with their children's health. I agree with them wholeheartedly.

Right hon. and hon. Members have repeatedly criticised the lack of local consultation on mobile phone masts. In Stourbridge, the site is 150 m from a school and a day nursery. Yesterday, Vodafone faxed my office to say that it is organising radio frequency calculations and that, in line with the recommendation of the independent expert group, if the maximum radio wave intensity should fall on a school or school grounds, it will consult the school. Vodafone has waited a very long time to make such measurements. I suggest that it is only now, with the prospect of sustained and substantial bad publicity, that such moves are being made. The vast majority of parents of pupils in the school and the nursery do not want that mast sited near their children.

My constituents are not alone. Since my decision to present a Bill to the House on this issue, many colleagues have contacted me and offered support. In addition, I have received representations from across Britain. It is no exaggeration to say that thousands and thousands of people want much stronger legislation regarding mobile phone masts. I know of opposition to them in areas including Luton, Brighton, Forest of Dean, Conwy, Dartford, Hendon, Harrow and many more. Overwhelmingly, people want to know that they will be fully consulted, that their views will be listened to and that local decisions will be valued. They do not want local decisions that are supported by their democratically elected representatives to be overturned.

When the Minister for Public Health, responded to the recent debate on the Phillips inquiry into BSE, she acknowledged that the report stated that the other casualty of the BSE story had been the destruction of the credibility of pronouncements. My hon. Friend said:

She then specifically mentioned mobile phones. Public opinion about the possible health risks of mobile phones is such that there is urgent need for changes to planning legislation.

I have shown today that the Stewart report was used to dismiss an appeal on health grounds in one part of the country, but that such grounds were not used in my Stourbridge constituency. I have demonstrated that consultation is being driven by the fear of adverse publicity rather than by a genuine commitment to community consultation. I have shown that public opinion is overwhelmingly fearful for children's health; rightly so. In the view of expert opinion, the case for the safety of mobile phone masts in regard to children's health is at best unproven.

28 Feb 2001 : Column 910

I have made the case for an urgent change in legislation to allow for planning controls on mobile phone masts. I make that case on behalf of thousands of parents across Britain. I commend the Bill to the House.

3.40 pm

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): I was hoping to be able to support the Bill. I, too, have experience of local parents who are concerned about the siting of masts near schools and hospitals. I am also aware of aesthetic arguments against mobile phone masts. Indeed, the comments of the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) largely echo Conservative policy.

The Conservative party calls specifically for the refusal of permission for all new masts on land owned or occupied by councils. School governors are being asked to adopt council policy. Schools are to be urged to ask the Radiocommunications Agency to check emissions from existing masts on school sites. Councils are to be asked to oppose applications for masts on highway land. I can understand those arguments on aesthetic grounds.

I oppose the Bill, however, because the hon. Lady tried to imply that there is a real health danger from mobile phone masts. She referred to extracts from the Stewart report, especially on localised heating of tissues. If the hon. Lady had read the report--as I have--she would see that those points apply specifically to the use of a mobile phone where the antenna is close to the cranium, when there is indeed a possibility of localised heating. In such cases, a health problem may arise--but no one is sure about that.

This morning, I found out from the BBC engineering information department that the Crystal Palace television transmitter gives out 1,000 kW of power--1 MW or 1 million watts--on its analogue television transmissions. In addition, for each of its digital services, it gives off a further 10,000 watts.

Those frequencies are similar to those used by Vodafone and Orange, to which the hon. Lady referred. However, neither at Crystal Palace, where such transmissions have been going on for more than 50 years, nor, indeed, at Sutton Coldfield, which serves my area and where similar power transmissions are used--I repeat that the power is more than 1 million watts--is there any evidence of health problems. There is no clustering of leukaemia; nor are there other carcinogenic dysfunctions in the area.

Does the hon. Lady know the power of an average mobile phone mast? It is not 1 million watts or 1,000 watts--it is between 50 and 100 watts. That is the same power as an average light bulb. The hon. Lady has raised important and interesting points. Unfortunately, I fear that she may have increased the fears--unwitting, unrealised and perhaps unnecessary--of parents. For that reason only, I oppose the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Debra Shipley, Ms Margaret Moran, Mrs. Betty Williams, Barbara Follett, Mrs. Diana Organ, Jackie Ballard, Mr. Simon Burns, Mr. Alan Simpson, Dr. Howard Stoate, Mr. John Bercow, Mr. David Lepper and Mr. Andrew Dismore.

28 Feb 2001 : Column 911

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