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Bob Spink: My hon. Friend makes an extremely sound point. A lack of evidence that damage has been caused does not prove that there will be no damage in the future. Surely, we should adopt the precautionary principle especially as regards our children, who have a long time to live on this planet and who deserve care. After all, in the past there has been a lack of evidence in matters that turned out to be extremely dangerous and we got our fingers burned, so the precautionary principle is right.
We should be careful about children's exposure to hazardsespecially ionising radiationthat might not affect adults. We should always be extremely cautious about children's health. The situation of people who live in close proximity to the masts is different from that of people who are near them only occasionally.
We have a bizarre attitude to regulation in this country. All too often, we over-regulate on absurd matters while taking a cavalier approach to life and death issues. I am only too well aware that the lay public are fearful of science because they do not understand it. However, it is worrying to feel that the Government do not have the scientific facts on which to make informed decisions to give guidance to the general public and to planning authorities.
What health research are the Government relying on? There is an audita series of measurementsbut is there any research into the health effects? The audit is useful, but how do those figures relate to health research? The Government's claim that there is no evidence of risk from masts should not be based on a collection of figures but on proper research into what such figures mean for the health of individuals.
What have the Government done as regards the Stewart recommendations on research and on adopting new limits? There must be evidence from other countries to show why they have set permissible limits that are so much lower than those in the UK.
The Department of Health may be having difficulty in encapsulating all these points in a letter of reply to me. However, I should like an answer to my questions. Like many Members, I want to pursue the subject in debates, questions andI hopemeetings with Ministers and those who can give us the proper scientific evidence that will either reassure us or enable us quickly to come to a conclusion about what is and is not safe.
I commend the Express & Echo, an Exeter-based daily newspaper that circulates in five or six Devon constituencies, for not only taking up the problem but devoting resources to investigating it, especially in relation to my constituents in Crediton. I hope that the Minister will take the paper up on its offer to make available the detailed research carried out by Exeter university on its behalf.
I should like to bolt on to my speech a small matter that is of grave importance in rural communities. In a previous existencein the previous ParliamentI was the shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. The current Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions was then the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. He and I held many exchanges at the Dispatch Box about the Government's proposals for the future of the Post Officethe Royal Mail and the network of sub-post offices that are so much a part of our daily lives.
Many assurances were givensome of them are engrained in my memory. However, in recent weeks, all those assurances and reassurances have fallen like dust. For example, the right hon. Gentleman assured me that there would be every opportunity for people to get cash from their local rural post office. When I contended that there was no such thing as free banking, he argued me down by saying that the Government would provide
We were also given reassurances about the Royal Mail. Members may be surprised to hear meold Eurosceptic that I ampray in aid the European Commission. However, some time ago, when this matter was debated by the Commission, the importance of universal delivery in these islands was recognised by Commissionersalthough, interestingly, not by British Commissioners. The Commission noted that the costs should be contained and that the next-day, or second-class, delivery on which we all rely should be maintained, despite the European plan to liberalise mail and parcel services. Commissioners suggested that when licences for mail delivery were issued a levy should be made to subsidise the universal delivery of mail, so that we could continue to enjoy that service.
When I read the rather obscure minutes of that meeting, I could not believe that Ministers had rejected that proposal and were prepared to let universal delivery go hang: in other words, if we do not get our post the next day, so what; and if the price of stamps cannot be kept at a reasonable level, so what. I asked the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry whether he was prepared to consider a levy on licence holders to protect universal delivery. He sent me a one-word answer, which is on the record of the House: "No." The Government have allowed the Royal Mail and the sub-post office network to disintegrate and have made absolutely no effort to honour the pledges that the right hon. Gentleman made at that Dispatch Box in a former incarnation, just a couple of years ago.
I realise that the Parliamentary Secretary cannot be expected to give a detailed answer and I do not expect him to, but I want to place my remarks on the record of the House. Under the Conservatives, the sub-post office network was guaranteed, in perhaps a rather uncharacteristic, subsidised way. We are always being told by the Labour party that it was down to us, and it was indeed down to us, in that we recognised the importance to the community of the sub-post office network. We developed plans to continue to allow people to collect their benefits from sub-post offices and plans to give the sub-post offices the right to charge for such transactions. Those charges were intended to be an important part of the remuneration of sub-post offices, to help preserve that network, which for years has faced competition from the local supermarket and other extraneous factors. To see the Royal Mail and that network disappear, as it surely will, should not come as a surprise to any hon. Member, because Conservative Members warned two or three years ago that it might happen. I am sorry that those prophecies are now
Mr. Tyler: I am sure that the hon. Lady would not want to mislead the House but we all recall, I think, that the number of sub-post offices in the network fell dramatically during the period when her party was in governmentand even more dramatically after the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley),
Mrs. Browning: Having agreed with the hon. Gentleman earlier, I shall disagree with him emphatically on the point that he has just raised. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley), who served not only as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry but as Secretary of State for Social Security, recognised the importance of making changes in post officesmoving away from the old benefit book, which was so open to fraudbut also established, with public financial support, the importance of maintaining remuneration for sub-postmasters in return for giving people the opportunity to claim benefits across the counter at their local post office.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall is right to say, as I said, that sub-post offices had been closing for many years, but such closures were largely due to the fact that many sub-post offices were also the village shop. We all know that the shopping habits of people who live in villages have changed. The proliferation of out-of-town supermarkets and the fact that people are working in towns and shopping in their lunch break have all too often led to a decline in the shop section of sub-post offices. Post offices closed for many reasons, but certainly not as a result of the policies of the last Conservative Government.
When we left office in 1997, we left in place a proposal that would have brought sub-post offices into the world of modern technology. Computers would have been introduced with, ultimately, swipe cards to reduce fraud, to ensure the guaranteed income of sub-postmasters. Sub-post offices are, after all, privately run, independent businesses. Now many people cannot sell their business for love or money although they want to because they can see that, in a year or two, their income will be halved because of the Government's policies.
The Government should address the problem, because time is running out. I predict that before the end of this Parliament our mail delivery service will be in chaos, and that thousands more post offices will go out of business and disappear from the communities that they serve. That will be down to one thing, and one thing only: the mismanagement of the Post Office by the Government.