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8.11 pm

Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in the debate and raise several issues that directly affect my constituency on which I happen to have worked over the past year or so. I shall make suggestions to the Government in a spirit of helpfulness in respect of any omissions in what they have proposed or where additional points might be incorporated in their legislation.

I should like to start with current planning legislation. I would like the Government to deal with permitted development rights. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has undertaken a review of permitted development rights, and I understand that consultants were engaged and Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners Ltd. commissioned to produce a report, which was published on 10 September.

I tabled a parliamentary question about what would flow from the report and what progress the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was making. I hoped to hear that the parts of the report that affect my constituency—particularly part 17 rights in schedule 2 to the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995—had been dealt with and that some information would be provided to explain what would happen next. Unfortunately, my question was not reached last Wednesday, but I promptly—on the same afternoon—received a written response that stated that no decisions had been made about any changes to permitted development rights and that full public consultation would take place before any changes were made.

I fully understand the need for public consultation, but the report made it clear that 150 organisations and individuals had already been consulted. The proposals were excellent and many of them were wholly in line with what I have tried to achieve over the past year or so. There have been about 60 structured interviews as well as case studies. I repeat that I am absolutely in favour of public consultation, but I believe that the Government have an opportunity use their planning legislation to make the minor changes that part 17 requires in primary legislation in order to allow some of the changes that the Government's own consultants' report says are needed. It would not take a great deal to make progress on that.

My private Member's Bill fell, technically, last Friday, although it had really fallen before then. It was mainly concerned with the permitted development rights of rail undertakings, particularly those of Network Rail with respect to telecommunications masts. Network Rail has a perfect right to install such

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masts anywhere it wants on its own operational line up to 33m in height, although doing so will have caused considerable upset in some places. In my constituency a 20m high mast was put up 16m from the nearest house—not the garden—and having such a mast so near to one's house is obviously noticeable when people walk out into their back garden. People are left feeling helpless because they are incapable of doing anything about it.

Every possibility was explored. One suggestion made by the consultants was that article 4 directions, which local authorities are currently loth to engage in because of the costs, might not in fact entail costs to such authorities. It would be simple to put that right, and local authorities would have an opportunity to make a difference. I greatly commend the suggestions that were made in the report, which reflected on the private Member's Bill that we drafted and agreed that aspects of it would have been useful. Parts 11 and 17 of schedule 2 to the 1995 order—parts relevant to communications masts—should be amended in line with part 24, which would then bring all the Government's intentions with respect of visual amenities into play. At present, Network Rail does not have to comply with them.

I believe that the Government have an opportunity to make real progress on the problem without incurring extra expense. In so doing they could meet the needs not only of my constituents, but of others throughout the country who live alongside railway lines. I would be grateful if the Government gave serious consideration to that.

The second issue that I want to deal with is the change to charities legislation. I have taken part in consultations during the past year because my constituency has a particular charity issue, which has caused me and others—particularly the Charity Commission and a specific charity—great worry. The Cheadle Royal hospital is a charity in my constituency whose assets over the past few years have been used for a private hospital, a 57-acre business park and a grade separated roundabout.

I lived in the area for some years and was unaware that the charity had financed all those things. I tried to find out how much the charity had in its coffers, and it was much less than I had expected. I had expected a great deal more. After two years of work, I concluded that there is a heavy burden of responsibility on trustees who can become too few in number and can suffer from advancing years and find it increasingly difficult to cope with the large burden that the highly complex law surrounding charities places on them. It is clear that the Charity Commission finds it exceedingly difficult to cope. For example, in that case the charity and the hospital had originally been set up as the result of an Act dating back to 1844, but the Charity Commission was unaware of that Act, so it did not have a clear picture of what was required.

I found out about the case only when a statutory instrument under the negative procedure crossed my desk, simply because it contained the name Cheadle—and the only reason why I noticed that there was anything wrong was that there appeared to be a mistake in the drafting, which suggested that the hospital had had to be sold, whereas as far as I knew, it was still operating as a mental hospital. I subsequently found out that it had been subject to a management buy-out,

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which I had not known, and it was not well known in the community, either, although all the procedures had been carried out.

The business park will generate substantial funds, and if we are to be certain that such matters are transparent, there must be something in the charity law covering the funds generated by charities that ensures that it is easy for everybody, including the Charity Commission, to understand exactly what is going on. Without a great deal of digging, it would have been very difficult to find out what was happening in the charity that I have described. There may be other charities in a similar position, and charity law must reflect the reality, and the very large sums involved. In that particular case, millions of pounds, not just a few thousand, have resulted from what started as public subscription in the 1750s and carried on with public donations thereafter.

As for the changes to the law on disability discrimination, I welcome the fact that the Government intend to examine the definition of discrimination—at least, I hope they do. A great many people with disabilities are not covered by the legislation now, so neither their disability nor the discrimination against it is recognised. I can think of three groups with which I have worked in my constituency over the past year that fall into that category.

First, there is the Restricted Growth Association. We had an Adjournment debate here a couple of weeks ago, and a very large lobby: 200 people filled a Committee Room and made it clear that they wanted their disability to be recognised. Because their condition cannot be regarded as an illness, those people cannot get the discrimination against them recognised as it should be.

Similarly, people with some forms of autism—high-performing autistics with Asperger's syndrome, for example—do not have their disability recognised. Whatever the wording of the legislation, it needs to recognise that there are people being discriminated against who do not fall within the existing disability discrimination legislation.

Thirdly, people with some mental health conditions may not qualify under the current Act. Whatever else the new legislation does, I hope that the draft Bill will extend the definition to allow many more people to be recognised as suffering discrimination.

I am pleased to hear that the Government intend to bring HIV and cancer within the definition. A constituent with breast cancer recently came to see me, and although she has had to give up her job because of her chemotherapy, is moving on to radiotherapy and is clearly not well enough to cope, she cannot have disability living allowance because her prognosis is good. The fact that she is ill and needs help now cannot be taken into account, and that situation must be cleared up.

The Government have said in two different ways that they intend to reduce congestion—a subject linked to the quality of day-to-day life, which they have also said that they want to improve. In my area, one in three people say consistently in different surveys that reducing congestion would improve the quality of their lives, and that they regard it as a top priority. Some of the recommendations of the south-east Manchester multi-modal study have already been incorporated in my area, and we are seeing some improvements, but that does not

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alter the fact that the road network must be completed. I am happy to say that we are making dramatic progress on the planning for that.

Improving traffic flows and managing roadworks are extremely important in suburban areas, such as mine, which suffer from constant traffic. We need good management. At present, an experimental scheme is operating whereby all the traffic lights are controlled from central Manchester—I am not sure how. From time to time, one gets stuck in traffic queues that are considerably longer than they used to be, but things are improving, and I am happy to give credit where it is due. Some of those initiatives will improve people's quality of life.

I was sorry that there was no mention of public health in the Gracious Speech, as it has much to do with quality of life. The things that enhance public health also enhance quality of life. There is scope for measures on the environment, on housing and, especially, on local government. The Liberal Democrats have made it clear that we want health impact assessments of national legislation and of local government policies and priorities. To those Members who may ask why, I offer two examples: school meals and junk food machines. Indeed, my first question in this place, two and a bit years ago, was about what the Government intended to do about the sale of junk food in schools. I was told that it was a matter for school governors. However, over the past two years, everybody has begun to realise that health is much too important to be left to individual school governors and governing bodies. There has been an explosion in the number of obese children, which indicates that there is a problem. That is a quality of life issue; it affects the day-to-day life of young people as well as of everybody else.

Another worry relates to the fact that at one time, schools were at the centre of their community and most children went to a local school; they were not taken by car to another school somewhere else. The Government are considering pilot schemes for school transport, possibly using yellow buses, but that misses the point; it would be much better if far more children walked to their local school and for the local school to be the centre of the community.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) and others talked about our treatment of ex-servicemen and women. I am especially concerned about ex-servicemen, now in their 80s, who played a large part in the second world war, such as members of the Arctic convoy and the Calais diversionary force, about which I tabled an early-day motion in the last Session. I am disappointed that we cannot find a quicker way of obtaining recognition for those groups; it took several years for the Suez medal to come through. It is important that those people should receive the recognition to which they are entitled while they are still alive.

I was heartened by the Prime Minister's response at Questions a few weeks ago when he said that the Government keep that matter constantly under review. I hope that they will give it a high priority because so many of those service people feel unrecognised for the very real part that they played during the second world war.

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