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Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman asks whether we shall have a Bill before the next election. He knows that the Government--all Governments--make decisions about the next round of legislation year by year. My Department and I will certainly be bidding for such a Bill as quickly as possible. The hon. Gentleman knows that, as of this moment, I cannot guarantee it, but I certainly hope and expect that we shall have a Bill before the next election.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point on the question of safe and accessible rights as well as legal rights. I am very keen that, under Agenda 2000 proposals and the development of agri-environment schemes, especially countryside stewardship, which is the most important, and countryside access and environmentally sensitive area schemes, there will be voluntary expansion beyond the statutory rights that I have announced. There are already something like 500 km of extra footpaths and about 14,000 hectares of open-area access on that basis--a small but valuable addition.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The statement is a lot better than many people expected. I feel kind of warm towards new Labour at the moment. We share a common objective: a statutory right to roam--that is what the Minister has enunciated--over 4 million acres of open countryside. That is the shared objective. Where there are reservations, they must be about the means of delivery.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) mentioned the bureaucratic solution of local access forums. How will the lines on the map be drawn? Who will be invited to the local access forums? How will disagreements be mediated within them?

What is the timetable? My support is conditional on this matter being resolved in the next year or two, not allowed to fester, as the Minister said, dragging on interminably. The people of this country want action, and they want it now.

My right hon. Friend talked about a suitable legislative opportunity. It may have escaped his notice that my Right to Roam Bill is coming up for Second Reading on 26 March, and it may well be that we should talk about it.

Mr. Meacher: We shall do more than talk about it; I am sure that we shall vigorously debate it on the date that

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my hon. Friend mentioned. The Government and my hon. Friend share a common objective--that there should be a statutory right of access. However, we believe that Government legislation is needed to achieve our objectives, which go wider than those of my hon. Friend's Bill. The Government's is a package measure; it also includes full protection of wildlife, effective management of land and livestock, local access forums, improved rights of way, changes to occupier's liability and reasonable and balanced rights to temporary closure. That is a very comprehensive package, but I still believe that my hon. Friend and I can meet, and I am sure that we can achieve a large measure of agreement.

My hon. Friend mentioned timing. I do not want this matter to fester. I do not want the arrangements to be bureaucratic or time wasting. The only factor that prevents early or immediate implementation is the requirement for mapping. My wish is that that should be done as fast as possible, but my hon. Friend must recognise that there are limits to the speed at which it can be done properly, bearing in mind that rights of appeal may well be exercised.

Local access forums are not a bureaucratic insertion into the process. We believe that they enable us to maximise local flexible resolution of the specific problems that exist, given the very different landscapes and very different types of land use in different parts of the country. If we tried to resolve those problems on a single centralised basis, we would run into far more problems. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to accept that local access forums are the best way to achieve a pragmatic consensus and early implementation of the right.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Does the Minister accept that the countryside is not a commodity? Does he further accept that the countryside is extremely fragile and, in places like the Yorkshire dales and the Three Peaks in my constituency, under immense pressure? Will he ensure that his legislation respects that and seeks to maintain the countryside for enjoyment, not to destroy it by having too many people? That is a real problem for those who understand the countryside.

Does the Minister understand that the abuse of green lanes by four-wheel drive vehicles is a serious problem which must be addressed? Will he ensure that his local forums, on which much will hinge, are genuinely local, and that local agents of national organisations will not do the negotiating?

Finally, I assume that this will be an English Bill, as it will come in a long time after devolution.

Mr. Meacher: Of course I realise that the countryside is fragile in many ways and in many locations. Local access forums would be expected to take that fragility into account. If there is too much pressure on particular points, agreement will need to be reached to find alternatives, but it will have to be demonstrated that there is a real need for people to move away from one particular part because of excessive pressures. The extension of a statutory right and the spreading of the load is precisely the way to ensure that there is less pressure on areas which hitherto may have taken excessive pressures.

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I do not agree with the right hon. Gentleman's reference to too many people. Once again, that is the exclusivity on which the Tory party so easily falls back. We live in crowded islands--there are 60 million of us in these islands, but it is not a matter of there being too many people. All of us have an entitlement. That is what the Labour party stands for and that is what we are implementing.

There is no access and there are no rights for four-wheel drive or other motorised vehicles. We are talking about access on foot for open-air recreation--for example, picnicking, bird watching or photography. We are not talking about access or rights for four-wheel drives. Those chosen for the local access forums will be local people and not simply representatives of national organisations. They will be people who know and love their local area.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. I am especially pleased that we can look forward, before the introduction and implementation of a statutory right, to local access forums having their say. That will be critical. The process should be about consensus, co-operation and negotiation. I have confidence that the local access forums will succeed. I implore my right hon. Friend not to forget other users of the countryside. For example, do not forget about horse riders and cyclists. There are millions of users. I am aware that eight accidents occur every day that involve horse riders, but we need greater access.

Several hon. Members rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. This is the time to question the Minister, not to make comments. Some of us are more experienced than others, but let us have brisk questions.

Mr. Meacher: My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden), like my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), has sought to make a positive contribution to this open debate. I hope that he will be pleased that the matters that he raised in his Bill on permanency of access, improved rights of way and changes to occupiers' liability have all been taken on board by the Government. We hope to secure these rights and changes in our legislation.

I repeat what my hon. Friend has said: this is a package for consensus and co-operation, within a statutory framework, which honours our manifesto commitment. That is why we are looking for co-operation. Of course we want to see improved access for horse riders and cyclists but I repeat that what I am announcing today is specifically for those who walk on foot and wish to enjoy open-air recreation. Horse riders and cyclists will have their day, but that will be separate from what I am announcing today.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): What benefit or enjoyment can be obtained from a right of access that cannot be obtained from a comprehensive network of footpaths?

Mr. Meacher: The problem with the comprehensive network of footpaths is that it is not as comprehensive as the hon. Gentleman makes it out to be. The latest survey, which was carried out in 1994, revealed that 74 per cent.

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of ways were free from obstruction, which means that 26 per cent., more than 25,000 miles, are still subject to obstruction. The key point that the hon. Gentleman is not taking on board is that we are not talking about linear access. I am talking not about confining people to paths or ways but about giving them free right to roam across open country. We believe that open-area access is extremely important. Unless there are justifications for confining people to linear access, we continue to press for open-area access.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement, and particularly on his good judgment in appointing Pamela Warhurst as deputy chair of the Countryside Agency? The appointment will bring balance, and Pamela Warhurst will bring with her a wealth of experience.

Will my right hon. Friend consider introducing stronger penalties for people who take four-wheel drive vehicles into the countryside and churn up valuable land, with no regard for people who want access by walking into the countryside?

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