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Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I bring to your attention the sub judice rule and its application to the Special Immigration Appeals Commission? Last month, I tried to table a question about Abu Hamza, and I was told by the Table Office that as a date had been set for his appeal to the SIAC, the case was now sub judice, and no parliamentary proceedings or debate could take place on his case. As the case was adjourned yesterday until January 2005, that effectively gags Parliament from discussing this case for almost a year. This case has generated huge interest among the public at large and in the media, and people will regard it as bizarre that we cannot discuss it in the House. Will you please review the operation of the rule in this case, to ensure that public concerns about Abu Hamza can be aired properly in the House?
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Earlier, in Advocate-General's questions, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. Reid) asked a question about the Fisheries Jurisdiction Bill, which is before the House awaiting a Second Reading under my name and the names of many other Members. In reply, the Advocate-General suggested that one of the Bill's many clauses might be misnumbered. If the Advocate-General and her staff are spending their time, and our money, analysing in fine detail a Bill that is yet to get its Second Reading, does that place any obligation on the Government, in terms of our procedures, to make sure that that Second Reading has time for debate, so that the rest of the House can debate it in detail and decide on it when it comes before us?
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 to require that the erection of a telecommunications mast can only take place under permitted development rights when it has been shown that the operator has complied with the Code of Practice of the operators of mobile telecommunications systems.
Let me say at the outset that mobile communications represent one of the greatest changes in life in this country over the past decade and a half, and have produced undoubted benefits across a range of community activities. None the less, the issues surrounding the erection of telephone masts remain contentious throughout the country. A simple glance at the Order Paper will reveal the efforts of Members in all parts of the Housethrough private Members' Bills, early-day motions or Adjournment debatesto air their views and their constituents' concerns. Indeed, last July I introduced an Adjournment debate on the subject.
Many health, planning and environmental considerations surround mobile phone masts. I propose to change none of those; what I seek to do is change the relationship between operators and the code of conduct into which they have freely entered. This is ideally suited to be a private Member's Bill, as it is simple, straightforward and easy to understand. I am not sure whether it is uncontentiousthat will depend on the House's viewbut I believe it can be shown to be so. In fact, if the House allows me to proceed, when the Bill is printed it is unlikely to be much longer than its long title. It requires only the simplest change in the law.
Let me give some of the background. In my constituency, an operator identified a site for a transmitter that clearly fell within what is shown in the code to be the red zone for public consultation, in that it was in the heart of a residential area and overlooked a school, with another school nearby. I have no criticism of the code, which I consider to be an excellent piece of work. All those involvedthe Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and all the operators who have subscribed to itdeserve congratulations. But although the code showed a need for the highest possible level of public consultation, none took place.
Following a public outcry at the siting of the mast, the operator identified a second site. It too was in the heart of a residential area, not far from the original site, and was even closer to another primary school. That put it firmly in the red zone in the traffic-light model outlined in the code. Again there was no public consultation whatever, and the operator was granted permission under permitted development rights because the local authority had no choice in the matter. That was a flagrant and, in truth, admitted breach of the code by the operator, and there was no redress or recourse for my constituents or the local authority. Both the residents' association and the London borough of Lewisham
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sought legal advice; both pieces of advice told them that nothing could be done, despite that flagrant breach of the code.
"To ask the Deputy Prime Minister, what sanctions can be imposed on a network operator who erects a transmitter in breach of the code of best practice on mobile phone network development to which they are a signatory."
"The Code of Best Practice is non-statutory and does not purport to give definitive interpretation of the legal planning requirements, which is ultimately a matter for the courts. Therefore, there are no sanctions that can be imposed on a network operator who erects a transmitter in breach of the Code."[Official Report, 10 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 996W.]
That is outrageous. Either the code means something, or it does not. My Bill would simplify the matter. It would allow local residents or local authorities to avoid the expensive process of going to court, even though that is not actually available to them under the present law. All the mobile phone operators are large companies with large legal budgets, so local residents would be placed at an immediate disadvantage if they had to go to court. I suggest that, when applying under permitted development rights for an additional or new transmitter, every mobile phone operator would have to certify that it had abided by the code. It would then be up to local residents, groups or objectors to go to the local planning authority to demonstrate that the operator had not done so. The local authority could then give a view as to whether it had. If it could be shown that the operator had not done so, the local authority could refuse permission. The new requirement would be simple, straightforward, inexpensive and easy for local people to take advantage of.
These are difficult issues for planning authorities. Some people believe that there are implications for health inherent in mobile phone masts, transmitters and base stations. I am not seeking to give local authorities any more power than they have at the moment. The science and health implications are best left to the Government; those are not matters that local planning authorities can deal with competently.
I have been approached by various operators since my motion to bring in the Bill appeared on the Order Paper. I am grateful for their engagement with methey generally take a different view from my own. I quote from a letter, for which I am grateful, from the government and public policy manager of Orange, Mr. Simon Grossman:
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"If compliance with the Code were to determine the form of regulation which applied, the Code itself would thereby amount to regulation. I am not aware of any precedent for this approach, in relation to any other code of best practice and I believe that there would be several practical difficulties in its implementation.
Furthermore, we believe that there are already adequate systems in place to ensure that the operators comply with the Code."
I can tell him, Orange and all the other phone operators: try telling that to the people of Lewisham, West. When they attempted to get the operator to abide by the code, they were told that there was absolutely no mechanism available to get it to take its responsibilities seriously. Either the operators mean what they say, or they do not. If they are already complying with the code, nothing at all will be lost by the measure that I am attempting to introduce. If, however, they are not complying with it, it gives local communities a right and opportunity that they do not currently possess.
"The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister code of best practice is not just a piece of paper; it requires everyone involved to take their responsibility seriously."[Official Report, 10 July 2003; Vol. 408, c. 1490.]
Unfortunately, all my subsequent inquiries, information and experience show that the public need the reassurance that the code embraces everyone. It is just a piece of paper as things stand, and can be freely ignored if it suits the operator. My Bill will redress that significant failing in favour of all our constituents and I hope for the support of the House in seeking to introduce it.
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