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11.39 pm

David Burnside (South Antrim): Like many hon. Members who have contributed to this summer Adjournment debate, I would have liked to take some time to promote the positive aspects of Ulster, Northern Ireland and tourism in the Province. I would not, like the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), promote holidays overseas. I would promote holidays in the United Kingdom in order to help the very depressed tourism industry following foot and mouth and the events of 11 September. If I made such a speech, it would probably be more like that of the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer), as Northern Ireland has had a very wet summer. In fact, we have not even had a summer.

I would like to be promoting tourism in my constituency, encouraging people to go to places such as Royal Portrush, which makes Muirfield look like a pitch and putt course when the wind is blowing heavily off the Atlantic, and to be promoting all the great attractions of Strangford and Northern Ireland generally, but I shall take this opportunity to raise the continuing problem that depresses us and makes those of us who represent

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Northern Ireland constituencies more serious than we want to be and not just concentrate on constituency matters.

We are suffering a serious lack of consent and confidence among the Unionist people in the Province on the big issue of the constitutional arrangements—the Good Friday or Belfast agreement. Nearly all of us in this House have differences of opinion, but we have a basis of respect for each other. Although we question each other and argue, respect is felt in this House across all the political parties, but there is no trust left in Northern Ireland for the word of this Government.

One sees from the press over the weekend what stage that lack of trust has reached. The president of Sinn Fein-IRA, Gerry Adams, declared over the weekend—this is rich: if it were not a farce, it would be a joke—in an interview on the 30th anniversary of the terrible atrocity of Bloody Friday:

He then added:

Is that the reality of the debate? The leader of the republican movement in Northern Ireland need only listen to the public response in the Province to such a statement. It is a con job and a farce.

Unfortunately, the Prime Minister said at Hillsborough a few weeks ago that he had complete faith and confidence in Sinn Fein's commitment to the peace process. The law-abiding people of the Province do not share that sentiment, and that lack of confidence crosses the Unionist community and a large section of the constitutional nationalist and Catholic community. There is no trust any longer.

Before the House rises for the recess on Wednesday, I hope that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will have an opportunity to outline how they define a breach of the IRA-republican ceasefire. I hope that they will consider the events in Colombia since 1998; after the Good Friday agreement was struck—the sequence is important—$2 million was earned in training terrorists, and that drug money was taken to the United States of America to fund Sinn Fein-IRA.

I hope that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will make public before the recess, first through this House, the fact that Sir John Chilcot's interim report, which has been on the right hon. Gentleman's desk for more than a week, outlines only one line of inquiry into the break-in at Castlereagh special branch: Robert "Bobby" Storey, a senior commander of the provisional IRA in the city of Belfast. Perhaps the Secretary of State wants his summer recess and does not want the pressure from this House.

Let us consider everything in the four years since the agreement, especially the treatment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. I find it rich to listen to English, Welsh, Scottish and Government Members talking about declining morale in the police and the need for more police on the beat when I see the finest police force in the United Kingdom decimated and humiliated.

All the evidence proves that the hopes and expectations of 1998 have been dashed. We need new hope and new support from democrats. We do not want to enter a spiral of depression where we constantly say that things can

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only get worse—they can get better. The democrats elected to this House from Northern Ireland—the Ulster Unionists, the Democratic Unionists and the constitutional nationalists, the Social and Democratic Labour party Members, who do not come to this place often—can come together and provide an alternative.

In the Liberal Front-Bench presidential address that we heard some time ago, we heard the usual claim that there is no alternative. There is an alternative to compromising the democratic process and to making it morally corrupt and dishonest to the people of Northern Ireland. We need something better.

There is another way forward. I have admired the Prime Minister's fight against international terrorism. The stand that he has taken has won support on both sides of the House. I ask him to remember the promises that he made—the promises that he has broken—and to come to the House and try to restore some confidence for the Unionists and law-abiding people in democratic processes.

It is no good supporting a flawed process that has failed, even though it received much support and consent from just over half the Unionist community and a large majority of the nationalist community. We are where we are. To keep pushing a failed and flawed process shows a lack of judgment on the part of the Prime Minister and the Government.

I ask the Prime Minister to renegotiate with the democratic parties in Northern Ireland to find something better. That means facing reality and marginalising Sinn Fein-IRA who have been exposed by their performance, by their continuation as a terrorist organisation, by their criminal activities in Northern Ireland and Colombia, by Castlereagh, by their crimes and shootings and by the lies, deceit and hypocrisy that come from the mouths of their spokesmen and women every day of the week.

Let us cut out the deceit and the lies and find a better way forward for a peace process for Northern Ireland. It is wanted by democrats and the majority of people, both Protestant and Catholic, and we are not getting it at present.

I am sorry that I had to raise this issue. All matters are important to our constituents; the smallest problems with hospitals or schools are every bit as important as the big constitutional issues in Ulster that I have been talking about. However, those issues affect the whole United Kingdom. The peace process is not working for the benefit of democracy in Northern Ireland.

The House may have to meet during the long recess. We are coming to a crunch so I hope that the House will meet again. This subject may be depressing but it will not go away. The Prime Minister must take hold of what he has let go in Northern Ireland—the trust and consent of democratic people.

11.48 pm

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): Before the House rises for the summer, I want to raise two issues. The first relates to the possible effects of recent changes to regulations governing local authority property searches. The second—to row in behind my parliamentary neighbours, my hon. Friends the Members for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and for Southend, West (Mr. Amess)—is the siting of mobile telephone masts.

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On 1 July this year, new regulations came into force governing property searches for house purchases. People already have the statutory right to paid access for such information under legislation such as the Local Land Charges Act 1975 and the Town and Country Planning Acts. A number of people pay solicitors or private search companies that specialise in such work to carry out property search inquiries on their behalf when buying a house. The new regulations require additional information to be made available as part of that process, particularly on the so-called CON 29 form, which is integral to the procedure. A number of local authorities, however, appear to be using the regulations as an excuse to restrict private search companies' access to their records, while offering to facilitate the work themselves for a fee.

That change threatens the livelihood of a number of successful personal search businesses which specialise in undertaking detailed property searches on behalf of prospective purchasers and now risk being shut out by the local authorities which hold the records. The Government have acknowledged that the issue is genuine, and set up a working group some months ago to draw up guidelines under which local authorities and personal search companies could agree a level playing field in light of the new regulations. Lengthy discussions, however, have still not produced a final set of workable guidelines on which both sides can agree, although the regulations are already in operation. As I understand it, that impasse has led to the prospect of legal action between personal search companies and local authorities.

If a suitable compromise cannot be reached, the matter may have to be referred to the Office of Fair Trading for an independent review and assessment of whether the local authorities are behaving anti-competitively in seeking to prevent small businesses, which are effectively competing for that work, from accessing records which are intended to be publicly available by law. That is an important matter, not only because it affects the livelihood of a number of successful small businesses across the country but because it threatens to delay the process of house purchase for purchasers and ultimately vendors too. I therefore urge Ministers to take the issue seriously and see what can be done in the near future to alleviate the problem and prevent the situation from deteriorating any further.

The siting of mobile telephone masts is of increasing concern in my constituency, as it is in many others. I have one particular case in Hockley, where local residents are very much opposed to a proposal to erect and operate a new mast in the middle of a residential area. Many Members will have experience of dealing with the problems generated by applications from mobile phone companies on the siting of telephone masts and will know of complaints and petitions from local residents strongly opposed to such proposals. They will also know that those protests are conducted against the backdrop of a set of planning rules which are heavily weighted in favour of the applicants. Masts under 15 m in height are classified as permitted development and local authorities have limited powers to object to applications, a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford. They can concentrate only on aspects such as aesthetic qualities, visual amenity and environmental grounds. They are effectively prevented by planning policy guidance note 8—PPG8—from objecting to the siting of masts on health grounds, even though the vast majority of concerns relate to precisely that issue.

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Most of us are not qualified scientists, and I certainly do not feel qualified to proffer a definitive opinion on the health implications of such masts. However, because of the uncertainty surrounding the situation, the Government commissioned an eminent scientist, Professor Stewart, to look into the issue in great detail. He concluded that the evidence was not decisive either way and, as a result, recommended the use of the precautionary principle in the siting of such masts. In particular, he recommended that they should be situated away from schools and other places where young people, who may be more susceptible to the signals emitted by masts, might gather.

Crucially, however, the law has not kept pace with the implications of the Stewart report, and does not allow local authorities to adopt a precautionary approach of their own, effectively leaving them with Hobson's choice—sticking up for their residents and rejecting the application, knowing that it is highly likely that under the current guidelines, the mobile telephone companies will ultimately win on appeal, including the award of costs against the local authority, or giving in, very much against the wishes of the people who elected their councillors to represent them.

The roll-out of so-called third generation or 3G technology will only worsen the situation, with a requirement for yet more masts in residential areas. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that because the Government have accepted some £22 billion in payments from the third generation licence operators, they are particularly reluctant to change the law. However, I believe that the law does need to be changed to allow the precautionary principle recommended by the Government's own appointed expert to be taken into account, and to permit local authorities to take potential health effects fully into consideration when deciding on mobile phone mast applications. That is necessary not just to allay public fears, but to seek to restore integrity to the planning process, which is hopelessly lopsided when it tries to determine these issues.

I end by echoing the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) in support of the hospice movement, including Little Haven, which is in his constituency. It is a children's hospice, for which I had the privilege of opening a shop in Rayleigh just a few weeks ago. Hospices deserve much greater Government assistance for the very important work that they do. I add my support to the call tonight for them to receive more funding.

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