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Mr. Meacher: I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend, too. Although the matter is not specifically in the Bill, we can consider it in Committee. I accept that the landscape of many areas would be greatly improved if dry stone walls, particularly in the north, the dales and elsewhere, were restored. They are an essential part of the beauty of the countryside and have been neglected for too long.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) rose--

Mr. Meacher: If the hon. Gentleman wants me to give way on the same point, I shall move on because I am not devoting any more of my speech to dry stone walls. [Hon. Members: "Why not?"] This subject is very wide and I intend to cover all its main aspects.

I turn to one such main aspect: greater protection for commons. We are consulting on that issue, too, and we shall be considering responses before deciding whether legislation might be needed. Nor are we ignoring the concerns of those who live and work in our rural areas--indeed, far from it. Our rural White Paper, which is being developed in tandem with our urban White Paper, will be published later this year. It will set out the range of our vision for rural areas and how objectives will be delivered. The Bill is of course a key element in that vision, but it is only one part of our overall strategy.

What exactly will the Bill do?

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): Will the Minister give way on the point about common land?

Mr. Meacher: I shall be coming to the subject of common land, so I suggest that the hon. Gentleman restrain himself until I get there.

Part I will deliver permanent public access to the countryside on a scale never before seen. We will grant a right of access on foot to 4 million acres of mountain, moor, heath, down and registered common land--much of which will be opened to the public for the first time in centuries. That amounts to about one ninth of the total land of this country.

Mr. Fabricant: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have a strong impression that he will keep bouncing up and down every few sentences until I do so, and it is better to get his intervention over with quickly.

Mr. Fabricant: If nothing else, the Minister is always concerned about my welfare. He will know that

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considerable numbers of sheep graze on common land. Does he accept that people unwittingly damage sheep by allowing their dogs to roam free? What steps is he taking to ensure that there will not be increased savaging of sheep by dogs? Has he considered raising the penalties for that terrible crime?

Mr. Meacher: We are extremely aware of the problems that dogs can cause. That is why we are proposing that dogs will have to be on a lead whenever they are in the presence of livestock, and at all times on all land during the March to June lambing and nesting season. If that is still insufficient, there is flexibility for amendment of regulations to extend further restrictions on dogs.

The issue is primarily about access on foot. I am not against dogs, but I intend full protection of wildlife in the open countryside.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: This is the last time I shall give way before making some progress.

Mr. Brady: How close to livestock would a dog have to be in order to be considered in the presence of that livestock?

Mr. Meacher: I hope that the hon. Gentleman can exercise a little common sense. [Interruption.] Perhaps my hope is misplaced, however. It is perfectly clear that if one is approaching a field in which there are livestock, one's dog must be put on a lead. We are talking not about precise measurement, but about common sense. I am sure that if such arrangements do not work, the local access forum, on which landowners and farmers will be fully represented, will raise the issue. If further tighter restrictions are needed, I shall be perfectly happy to sanction them.

Through part I, we shall deliver for walkers and landowners alike greater certainty, clarity and permanence of access. We shall promote inclusiveness, not exclusiveness, by giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate our natural heritage. Together with our proposals for modernising the rights of way system, the Bill's provisions represent the most far-reaching--yet, I would insist, balanced--package of measures on recreational public access for decades.

Let me explode a few myths. Rights of access will not apply to developed land, cultivated land or gardens: there is no question of people being allowed to trample over fields of flax, or beds of begonias. Landowners will continue to be able to use and develop their land as they wish--the land remains theirs. Landowners will have the automatic right to close their land or otherwise restrict access for up to 28 days a year for any reason, although they do not have to give a reason; and they will be able to apply for further closures or restrictions for land management reasons.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): I understand that there are no rights of access allowed in respect of land that is farmed or gardened, but what about areas of, say, moorland, that are especially sensitive in terms of the

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wildlife they support--for example, bird breeding sites? Is there any statutory protection that will prevent people from roaming over such land and disturbing the wildlife at sensitive times of the year? The Bill, as drafted, appears to give no firm statutory protection to such areas.

Mr. Meacher: I disagree: the Bill makes it perfectly clear that closures can be imposed. It does not specify the length of such closures, but to protect wildlife, they might well be expected to last the three months from March to June inclusive. There are powers to close land, probably temporarily; however, if it is recommended by the conservation agencies, agreed by the local access forum and supported by the Countryside Agency, a closure could be made permanent. There is no question but that wildlife will be protected. My priority is, through the Bill, to extend rights of access on foot, provided that such access does not damage the interests of wildlife, which must prevail.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): The Minister is being most generous in giving way. I believe that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) is right. Clause 21 states that exemptions are not allowed on Saturday, Sunday, Christmas day or Good Friday, but how are we to tell that to a ground-nesting bird such as a merlin or curlew?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood. Clause 21 relates to a landowner's capacity to determine days on which there will be closures, and the weekend is excluded precisely because that is the time when most people are able to visit the countryside. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) was speaking of closing land that is otherwise open, the restrictions being imposed to protect wildlife. I insist that those powers are comprehensive and complete within the Bill.

The right of access will be limited. I repeat, access is on foot only, and it is subject to sensible restrictions to avoid damage or harm being done. If people engage in other, damaging activities or breach any of the restrictions, they will forfeit their right to be on the land. I have already explained the provisions relating to dogs.

Another issue of great concern to landowners is occupier's liability--indeed, it was one of the matters pressed most strongly by the Country Landowners Association. We have ensured that occupiers of access land will benefit from a reduction in liability. Their liability towards walkers will be removed in relation to the natural features of the landscape--in other words, if a walker sprains an ankle or breaks a leg, it will be his responsibility, not the landowner's. Landowners' liability will be reduced to that of trespassers in relation to man-made features and activities. That is important for the protection of the landowners' legitimate rights.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Would an old mine shaft that has been disused for a century and a half be considered natural or man-made?

Mr. Meacher: There is already legislation requiring the landowner to protect the top of the mine shaft by

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fencing it off or capping it, or both. It is essential that that be now done. In respect of mine shafts and also quarries, landowners owe a liability which they must meet.

Mr. Paice: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Meacher: I must make progress. [Interruption.] I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later; I see that that is well supported.

We intend that access rights should be managed overwhelmingly by voluntary agreement, through local access forums, which do not appear in the Bill. All the main parties, including of course landowners, will be represented on the local access forums.

I insist that, collectively, the provisions will amount to a substantial and commonsense restriction on the right of access to ensure a proper balance with the interests of landowners, whose interests deserve to be equally respected.

The speed with which people will benefit from the new right of access--that is, when it will come into operation--will rightly depend on how quickly access land is mapped by the Countryside Agencies in England and Wales. Mapping must be done carefully. The Bill provides for a comprehensive procedure but some land, especially registered common land and land above the 600 m contour, can be identified easily. Taking the provisions together, I expect substantial areas of access land to be available within the next two to three years.

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