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6.43 pm

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): It is a great shame that the Government have decided to combine in the same Bill a considerable amount of legislation to protect the countryside and further protect sites of special scientific interest--legislation on which there is cross-party consensus, and with which the vast majority of the House will concur except on matters of detail--and measures dealing with the right of access, on which it is well known that there is huge disagreement on principle. It is an even greater shame that the Government have decided to do so at this late stage in the parliamentary timetable, when only a third or so of the parliamentary year remains for the Bill to complete its stages. As a result, there is a risk that the Government will lose the whole thing because of discussions on one aspect, or that, in order to keep to a timetable, they will be forced to introduce unfair guillotine motions and so risk damaging the good bits of the Bill by cutting short debate.

As I have said previously in the House, I oppose the idea of the right to roam or the right to access. I oppose it because, as is abundantly clear from many of the sedentary remarks made by Labour Members during the debate and from one or two speeches, it is based on what I believe to be that most ignoble of human traits--envy. It is an anti-landowner, anti-property and anti-privacy aspect of their Bill. [Interruption.] It is all very well for Labour Members to laugh; they were not sitting here listening to comments of the type that were made throughout the opening speeches, which showed an unwillingness to accept the rights and responsibilities that go with land ownership.

I believe that the Government would have achieved their objectives, which I wholly support, of allowing people to walk in the countryside, enjoy the countryside

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and, let us hope, learn a bit more about the countryside--especially agriculture--as they walk in the countryside, far more effectively and for far more people if they had chosen to develop a comprehensive network of footpaths. For the Minister for the Environment to use the argument that the voluntary approach has not been wholly successful as a reason for introducing the right to roam is of course--

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): It has been tried and does not work.

Mr. Paice: The fact is that, under the voluntary approach, there has been an increase in access to footpaths. It may not have been as big an increase as we might like, but it is a red herring for the Minister to use that as a justification, because I would be quite happy if there were some element of statutory--

Mr. David Taylor: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice: No; I will not.

I would be quite happy if there were some statutory basis for that comprehensive network of footpaths, but the Government have made no attempt to create it. As a result, for the vast majority of people in the south-east of England, including my constituents, the right of access provided by the Bill is relatively immaterial. Most would need to drive considerable distances to reach the open land to which the Bill applies, whereas a comprehensive network of footpaths would apply to them near their homes.

However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said, we must accept the parliamentary arithmetic. Therefore I want to make some constructive comments about the Bill and about measures that I hope that the Government will accept in Committee.

The Government have identified all the key issues of concern on the access issues, but I fear that they have fallen down on the solutions. I hope that that is because the Minister does not fully understand the implications of what he proposes. I fear that perhaps he does understand and has dismissed the concerns on several issues.

Such issues include the potential damage to heathland and moorland. They also include the inadequacy of 28 days' temporary closure, the impact of access on nesting and sporting activities, and the absurdity of ignoring that closure at weekends and on bank holidays--as though the birds would understand that. The issues surrounding temporary closure were raised by many of my hon. Friends. There are also problems relating to dogs on the lead.

There are problems of liability relating not to natural features, but to man-made features even if they were made millennia ago, which is quite possible on some of our moors. There are ancient man-made structures, very ancient mine workings or quarries. What about gates and those dry stone walls that we have heard so much about? What about ancient peat cuttings? All present hazards and yet they are not natural features.

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There is also the issue of the penalties in the Bill, which are simply to ban an individual for the rest of the day or to declare that they cease to have the rights under the Bill and therefore become a trespasser under common law. Wowee! The latter will not strike fear into the average walker, because we all know that the law of trespass is highly ineffective; whereas the landowner is, as my hon. Friends have said, at risk of incurring much greater cost and liability as a result of the Bill. As several hon. Members have said, there is no justification for the right of access during the night, for all the reasons that have been stated.

The proposals will require landowners to police the legislation. At present, people understand the position on access, but they are not necessarily able to recall, for every piece of land, all the constraints that will be put on them. Simply maintaining the status quo on liability or on trespass is not enough. That fails to take on the purpose of the Bill, which is to increase access and to encourage more people to walk in the countryside and to range over much greater areas of land. The dry stone wall that they could not go near on a footpath is one that they might be able to clamber over as part of the right to roam.

In the few minutes left to me, I wish to consider other aspects of the Bill. I welcome, as far as they go, the changes on public rights of way and road traffic. In particular, I welcome the constraints on the use of cross-country vehicles on green lanes. As the Minister knows, the British Horse Society is concerned about the implications of those proposals for horse users, and I hope that that issue will be addressed.

I also welcome the concept of restricted byways. However, as I said in an intervention on the Minister for the Environment and as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made clear, some people need to use vehicles--and perhaps agricultural vehicles--to access property along such byways, but they do not want the byways to become open to all traffic. The two options in the Bill are not enough and I hope that the Government will consider this issue.

The Bill's provisions for the creation of stopping-up and diversionary powers move in the right direction. I particularly welcome schedule 7, which allows for stopping up where footpaths cross school grounds. In my constituency, a footpath crosses the campus of a large secondary school which was once two schools. The school had to spend a large sum of money to put up security fencing on both sides of the footpath to salve its own conscience and to do what it thought right to protect children. The proposals in the Bill would have prevented that.

Clause 56 refers to obstructions to the carriageway. I note that it does not include provisions for temporary buildings, and my constituency faces serious problems with travellers' caravans obstructing the byways. I hope that we can consider that issue.

There is a need to upgrade the protection of sites of special scientific interest. However, I emphasise that the damage that we all know is taking place is not, as Labour Members have implied, just the result of the activities of farm owners and landowners. Often, the damage is caused by developers, sometimes with the Government's compliance. For example, the Cardiff bay scheme, which

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was the result of a Government-sponsored Bill, and the Newbury bypass are among many developments to which the Government agreed, but which damaged SSSIs.

Missing in the provisions is a consideration of cost. Nothing in the Bill will enable landowners to be provided with the money to carry out the management notices that are submitted. I do not advocate that they should receive every penny for every minor improvement, but some management programmes are costly to develop and resources should be made available for them. As others have said, it goes without saying that, given the current state of agriculture, landowners cannot afford to undertake such developments.

6.53 pm

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): My speech will be largely congratulatory in tone. First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), on having secured a slot for the Bill in the legislative timetable. Over the past year or so, their approach has drawn together all the appropriate organisations with an interest in the related issues of access and protection. They have listened to the concerns and fears of those organisations, and this Bill is the result.

The approach of bringing people together is reflected in the national countryside access forum. In advance of the Bill, it brought landowners, farmers, ramblers and local authorities together to consider some of the detailed problems that might arise and the practicalities of putting the proposals into action. How different that is from the approach of Conservative Members. Divisiveness has characterised every one of their speeches. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) seemed to make the longest speech that I have heard in my three years in the House. He managed not only to patronise people whom he described as simple farmers, but to characterise ramblers as hooligans. Similarly, Nicholas van Hoogstraten, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) referred, and about whom I shall say more shortly, described ramblers as riff-raff. That divisive approach has been most regrettable.

However, I welcome the speeches of Opposition Members. If they are widely publicised, they will put new heart into Labour voters throughout the country. The Opposition criticise us often enough for not implementing our manifesto promises, so it is a bit rich for them to criticise us for implementing two of them--on wildlife protection and the right to roam.

I have congratulated Ministers, but I wish also to congratulate those Back Benchers who, in the life of this Parliament, have kept the issues of wildlife protection and access to the countryside high on the parliamentary agenda. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle for his Right to Roam Bill, of which I was pleased to be a sponsor. In this Parliament, there have been 22 debates in the House of Commons on wildlife protection; nine private Members' Bills including, in 1998, my own Wildlife Bill; 62 early-day motions on related issues, including my own--let me congratulate myself--which received the backing of 349 Members from all the parties in the House; and eight Select Committee reports on wildlife protection.

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I also congratulate the non-governmental organisations which have helped to keep these issues high on the political agenda. It would take me all my 10 minutes to list them all--I am sure that I would forget some even if I did--so I shall pay tribute to the Wildlife and Countryside Link, which has brought so many organisations together, and to the Ramblers Association. Those organisations have made careful and well-argued points, lobbied individual Members and Ministers and have kept the issue alive with members of the public. The campaign that they have waged is already seen, and will continue to be seen, as a model of its kind. Those organisations secured 250,000 petitions nationally on the issue of wildlife protection. People from town and country called for exactly the type of legislation that we have in the Bill. To be inclusive, I add that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake), who is not present at the moment, and I presented those signatures to No. 10 Downing street about a year ago.

The Bill is welcome and much needed. I first became aware of problems facing sites of special scientific interests three years ago, when a farmer ploughed up part of Offham down near Lewes, close to my constituency. When in opposition, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment went with me to that site and his intervention helped to secure action to prevent damage to it. That site, which is on the Clayton and Offham escarpment, is now subject to a long-term, managed restoration programme, and far too many sites have had to become subject to such programmes.

The need for protection has been well argued, but this Bill shifts the emphasis from preventing damage to positive management for important SSSIs. I welcome the proposals that allow for the formulation and, if necessary, the imposition of management plans; an increase in the penalties for damage to those sites; the power to order restoration of damaged sites; and an increase in the penalties for damage to sites other than SSSIs. I also welcome the proposals for greater access. It has always seemed to me that access goes hand in hand with environmental protection, rather than being at odds with it. Other hon. Members have mentioned measures that could have been included in the Bill, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will address those in his reply.

I come now to two issues of particular local concern. I represent a Sussex constituency that includes part of the south downs. I did not know until recently that, taking East and West Sussex together, Sussex is the second most wooded county in England. Unlike the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick), who welcomed the exclusion of woodland from the Bill, I ask the Minister to think again about that exclusion--otherwise, parts of the south downs that should be open to access will be excluded.

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