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3 Apr 2003 : Column 1106continued
On a point of information, the record of the House will show very clearly that, in the 199297 Parliament, whenever both Front-Bench and Back-Bench Labour Members mentioned the minimum wage, they referredthis was more than six years agoto a figure well in excess of £5 an hour. In fact, £5.75 was mentioned. It was on that basis that the Conservative party rightly warned against the impact in terms of job losses in certain sectors and about the differential effect on those who were higher up the scale.
I should like to make three points and I shall try to do so in slightly less time than the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North took to make his speech, as I know that many Conservative Members wish to make substantive contributions. First, it would be remiss of me not to share with the House the up-to-date news on the resurfacing of the noisiest road in the country, which is situated in the best county of Britainwe now know that officiallyDevon. I refer to the A30 from Honiton to Exeter. I hope that it was not an omen that I received the information on All Fools' day, but the Department said that the concrete-surfaced section in question would be resurfaced, although the time scale is somewhat loose. It will happen in either 200405 or 200607.
Significantly, the roads listed for resurfacing are those where either 100 or more properties per kilometre are affected or the noise level is so high in terms of national comparisons that it is 3 dB greater than predicted. Clearly, the road is being resurfaced not because of the number of properties affected, but because of the noise level. Only four properties per kilometre are deemed to be affected, so the road must be very noisy indeed.
I know that the Parliamentary Secretary, who represents Exeter, feels keenly about the road and will be delighted if I stop standing up and asking him to sort it out. On a more serious note, I say to him that, when the road was under construction, I received many representations from people who were very concerned about the surface that was being chosen and the effect of the noise on nearby residents. At the time, I exchanged a lot of correspondence with the contractors and the Government. The contractors were able to choose from a menu of different surfaces. Of course, the noise aspect was flagged up in the inspectors' report, as it had been the subject of a public inquiry.
I am now concerned about the fact that I had it in writing from the contractors that the concrete surface, which they euphemistically described as whisper concrete, would be no noisier than a blacktop or tarmac finish. If the evidence that we have seen this week about the decibel level of the road is correct, that information was wrong. The question that I now put to the Parliamentary Secretary, which I know that he will put
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The hon. Lady knows that I have supported her plea before. I have used the road and I continue to be amazed by local residents' patience. Does she accept that money is not the only factor, because if contractors are liable in the way that she suggests, surely we could speed up the process rather than having to wait until 2006?
Mrs. Browning: That is exactly why I am raising the matter. We now have details of the work on noise levels. The situation is clearly not only about the Treasury making money available to the Highways Agency. The Department for Transport has a duty because public money and a public contract were issued, although the finished product was in breach of written commitments. I hope that the Department will pursue the contractors about the written promises because we should not have to wait so long for the work to be done. If the Department could get some money back, the work might take place a little earlier, otherwise we will have to wait three or perhaps four years, at best, which is a long time for my constituents.
Rob Marris: Whisper concrete sounds a bit like a chocolate bar. Will the hon. Lady tell us when the contract was signed and when the road was laid, because if that was more than six years ago, the Government will not be able to sue for breach of contract because of provisions in the Limitation Act 1980?
Mrs. Browning: I think that it is less than six years since the work was completed, and the issue was flagged up at the time. I shall check on that because I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman's memory is better than mine. I register the point now, as I have before with Ministers responsible for transport.
The slow speed with which good and well-researched information about the safety of phone masts is identified is a matter of concern throughout the country and especially in parts of my constituency. I know that there is a separate debate about mobile phones themselves, but I wish to focus especially on the installation and use of masts. The Government often pray in aid the Stewart report, but much in that report and other European reports on the same subject suggests that we should err on the side of caution. It is all very well to do that, but that is done when there is insufficient properly researched information in the public domain. Such research has been based on the so-called heating effect of the emissions.
I remain very concerned, especially because of ongoing research that I have commissioned to examine differentials in not only European countries, but countries further afield. Many countries set limits on acceptable emissions that are lower than ours. Although we are told that we err on the side of caution, I am not convinced that we have got it right. A mast in Crediton, in my constituency, complies with UK emission levels but would not have been allowed in other countries. Such disparities may be based on conflicting scientific information, so it is incumbent on us to access the best worldwide scientific research to try to plug the gaps in our knowledge.
Thermal emissions and the heating effect are not the only aspects of the impact of phone masts that cause concern. The Exeter Express and Echothe Parliamentary Secretary will know it only too wellrecently printed an article about a Devon doctor, Dr. Blackwell, who speaks regularly about the subject. Dr. Blackwell said:
I am unhappy about the safety of mobile phone masts. I would not claim to be an expert on the technicalities, and I am sure that many hon. Members have more knowledge than I, but one of my constituents recently wrote to ask me:
I want to say only one thing about the war, because this is not the time for a detailed examination of the questions that must be answered when it is over. Before the war began, I asked the Secretary of State for Defence whether we had learned lessons from our experiences in Afghanistan. Our special forces went into Afghanistan to try to locate Osama bin Laden in the mountains along the border with Pakistan only to find that there was no one there. The map of where they were going had been printed in the British press the day before and I told the Secretary of State that it beggared belief that we were so daft as to allow that. Although he did not use the same language as me, he seemed to agree.