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Mr. Meacher: I very much agree. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman caught my words, but I did not say that a person could require that a restricted byway be reclassified as a BOAT. I simply said that he could apply for reclassification. He would have to provide good reasons--it would certainly not be automatic. I very much support what the hon. Gentleman says: there is a great deal of difference between the need for vehicular access further up the byway and charging up and down on motor bikes--all the difference in the world. That would be reflected in the manner in which such an application was taken.

We are also tackling the long-term problem of obstructions to public rights of way. There will be a new right for people to serve notice on local highway authorities to have certain obstructions removed from public rights of way. If the local highway authority ignores the notice, the person can apply to the magistrates court for an order requiring the authority to remove the obstruction. Where someone has been convicted of wilfully obstructing a highway, magistrates will be able to order him to remove the obstruction. That is very important because at present magistrates only have the power to fine offenders, which does not directly address the problem. We are addressing that longstanding problem.

In addition, landowners and occupiers will have a new right to apply to a council for orders diverting or extinguishing footpaths and bridleways on their land and to appeal against the decision if the council refuses. If the

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council ignores the application--there are many examples of that--after four months the applicant will be able to ask the Secretary of State to direct the council to make its decision.

During the passage of the Bill through Parliament, we intend to introduce proposals to encourage the completion of the record of historic rights of way within 25 years, subject to the provision of adequate resources to complete the task within that time scale. We will also introduce order-making powers for local authorities to divert rights of way where necessary to protect SSSIs, and a power enabling local authorities to make temporary diversions of rights of way for exceptional land management reasons.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): All those complex and constructive suggestions will depend on the expertise in the countryside agencies and in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Will my right hon. Friend give an undertaking that, before any alterations are made either in MAFF regional offices or in other agricultural civil servant posts, he will closely consult the people most concerned?

Mr. Meacher: Of course. The consultations on the operation of the Bill are interdepartmental. Liaison between DETR and MAFF is much closer than it has been in the past. The joint approach of the Departments on their corporate plans sets a new precedent. They have worked closely on the Bill, on the associated rural development regulation and the agri-environmental measures, and on changing the direction of the common agricultural policy, which is just as important as, if not more important than, the Bill. I certainly intend that joint approach to continue.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley): Under schedule 6 the landowner, the occupier or certain restricted groups can have changes made to rights of way, such as closure, diversion or creation. As far as I understand it, at present more groups can influence those issues. Will my right hon. Friend give us an assurance that they will not be restricted? If not, can schedule 6 be extended so that users as well as landowners can make applications?

Mr. Meacher: I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that, at present, members of the public can apply for the diversion or restriction of a right of way. It is for the council to decide whether to grant such an application. If the council grants it, there can be an appeal. Up till now that right has not extended to the landowner, and in our view it is right that it should do so. If an application is made, the council can be required to reach a decision and not sit on it indefinitely. We are taking a balanced approach between the two sides.

I assure you, Madam Speaker, that I shall be much shorter on part III and shall take fewer interventions. Part III represents a major contribution to delivering the Government's commitment to giving greater protection to wildlife. It strengthens significantly the powers to prevent damage to sites of special scientific interest, while creating the conditions in which those sites can be positively managed.

The Bill will substantially strengthen the powers of the conservation agencies. They will be able for the first time to refuse consent for damaging activities or to withdraw

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consents already given when damage is occurring, and to serve management notices requiring action to be taken to combat neglect. It is neglect rather than deliberate harm that does so much damage to SSSIs. The agencies will have new powers to enter land when that is necessary for the proper protection and management of sites, and to purchase land compulsorily if, in the last resort, that is the only way to secure the future of a site.

Increased powers require increased accountability. We have therefore balanced the new powers with a more structured approach to discussions about management, including the preparation of management schemes and new appeal procedures for owners and occupiers where rights are curtailed.

Nevertheless, when deliberate damage occurs--and it still does--it is right that penalties should reflect the site's importance. We will increase fines to up to £20,000 in the magistrates courts, and they will be unlimited in the Crown courts. There will be new court powers to order restoration of the damaged special interest when that is practicable, and there will be a new general offence applying to persons who are not owners and occupiers of the land. The Bill will also place specific duties on public bodies to further the conservation and enhancement of sites of special scientific interest, both in carrying out their operations and in exercising their decision-making functions.

Wildlife crime is a growing problem, and we must and will act to deal with it. The Bill will introduce the option of prison sentences of up to six months for most offences under part I of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, as well as increasing fines for those offences to £5,000. It will also give extra powers to the police and my Department's wildlife inspectors to assist them in the fight against wildlife crime. We are bringing existing legislation up to date by providing stronger powers for enforcers to require tissue samples for DNA analysis. Taken together, the provisions will send a clear message to those who cynically exploit wildlife, or use it for their own personal but selfish enjoyment, that their activities will not be tolerated, and that they will be pursued and punished.

If we wanted proof that the Tory party is still rooted in the squirearchy of the 18th century, its reasoned amendment would provide it. The right of access is described as a "heavy-handed and unjustifiable" infringement of owners' rights, and the compensation as "negligible". In fact, the new right is very carefully limited, as I have made abundantly clear, and there is no significant loss to be compensated. Only an Opposition of this character would think that the environment will be devastated and the rural economy ruined by walking.

Access is claimed to be

In the tiny handful of cases in which conservation needs will require no access to be permitted, the Bill will enable complete closure of the land.

It is claimed that the improvement to rights of way are insufficient. I can only say that I have heard no sensible proposals for improvements today, or during the extensive consultation period, that are not provided for in the Bill.

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The Bill, it is noted, does not include measures relating to areas of outstanding natural beauty. I have already announced additional funding for AONBs, which are now being financed at twice the level that we inherited, and I promise to make a statement soon about further measures.

Finally, the amendment repeats the litany that the Bill does not deal with the so-called real rural problems. The Bill is, of course, only part of our overall policy: we are working on many other aspects, not least the forthcoming rural White Paper.

Unlike the Tories, we believe that the countryside should be an asset for everyone, not just those who happen to own substantial chunks of it. The Bill sets a new, historic foundation for the uniting of the interests of all parties--those who live and work on the land, those who want to enjoy access to some of our finest landscapes, and those who are anxious to strengthen the protection of our biodiversity and natural heritage. The Bill provides the framework for that essential co-operation, and I commend it to the House.

4.14 pm

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): I beg to move, To leave out from 'That' to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

The Bill is the product of nearly three years of debate and consultation. It is of intense interest and no little concern to the agricultural and conservationist community, coming at a time of crisis in the countryside that is unparalleled this century. It is a source of regret that the Deputy Prime Minister is not participating--I do not know whether he is back from Brazil yet--especially as the Minister for the Environment announced that the Bill was of historic importance.

A few weeks ago, the Deputy Prime Minister accused me of being the silent spokesman for the Opposition. He will doubtless come to regret that remark, but his absence today will be taken by the countryside community as an indication of his priorities and the importance that he attaches to the Bill. That must be particularly so, as environment is one of few briefs that he retains directly within his grasp, unlike transport and the regions. It is also a Bill over which he has no conflict of interest, in so far as the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has no particular interest in the countryside.

It is a source of regret that no Minister from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is present, reflecting perhaps the detrimental effect that the Bill will have on the agricultural community. However, we recognise that, for the Minister for the Environment, the Bill represents the conclusion of three years of hard

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work and a longstanding commitment to the countryside and environment. There is no doubting the sincerity of his intentions. I congratulate him on bringing the Bill this far.

We welcome many aspects of the Bill. The first is the protection for sites of special scientific interest. My predecessors as spokesmen are on record as saying that we would support the tightening of restrictions and protection for SSSIs. We will stand by that reassurance. Secondly, we welcome the wildlife protection measures and the greater penalties for wildlife crime, which are much needed. Thirdly, we welcome the provisions on the public rights of way. In some respects, we would like them to be strengthened, but in general we welcome their inclusion.

Despite those welcome elements, overall, it is disappointing legislation. Far from being historic and balanced, it is incomplete, puts forward measures on open access that are heavy-handed and includes aspects that will damage the interests of farmers and conservationists alike: the very people whom it is designed to protect.

The Bill represented a great opportunity to deliver a comprehensive new approach to the rural environment by, for example, introducing a comprehensive framework for protection, including that of areas of outstanding natural beauty. We wait to see what the Minister has to say on that subject, but we see no reason why those protections should not have been included in the Bill.

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