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Mr. Green: The hon. Gentleman said that there was no evidence that the use of footpaths would have any effect on crime. Perhaps he will he explain to the Minister the purpose of schedule 7, entitled

There is clearly a real issue here, which the hon. Gentleman's Government recognise.

Mr. Thomas: With respect, I suggest that increasing access will help crime prevention, because there will be more people in the countryside to prevent the crime that Opposition Members fear and hype up to such an extent.

I was talking about the Country Landowners Association's rather desperate efforts to promote voluntary access. The inclusion of land for fox hunting and strawberry-gathering in its register did not help its case at all; but perhaps most telling is the fact that

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traditional supporters of the voluntary approach, the Peak national park authority and the Countryside Commission, backed legislation when consulted in 1998.

Extending the right of access will present exciting new opportunities to walkers. It will help to improve fitness and health, and it will inevitably benefit the rural economy. I encourage my right hon. Friend the Minister, and those who will serve on the Standing Committee, to consider again the issue of access to woodland. Surely, if the Woodland Trust, with its 16,500 hectares of woodland, can deliver access without concern, we should give serious consideration to the issue, and also to the issue of access to river banks.

I welcome parts II and III, and suggestions made to me about the possibility of a statutory duty on local authorities to maintain local wildlife site systems. I look forward to further clarification of the issue of areas of outstanding natural beauty.

An unintended function of this excellent Bill will be to throw into stark relief the problems that remain in regard to access to water. As a canoeist, I must point out that, although 10,400-odd miles of rivers are suitable for canoeists, only 2.8 per cent. of that--376 miles--is accessible. As the agreements do not cover 365 days a year, the figure is actually less than 1 per cent. I canoe on the River Dart, and some 12,000 canoeists annually take advantage of the access agreements there. Not one complaint has been received about the impact of canoeists on wildlife. Canoes cause no erosion, no noise and no pollution, and leave no trace of their passing--not even footprints. I simply ask, is there a more sustainable form of transport?

This is an excellent Bill, and I warmly welcome it.

8.18 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): I oppose the right to roam part of the Bill in principle, for two overriding reasons. First, it is an infringement by the state of the fundamental rights of ownership, and, as such, is illiberal and dangerous. Secondly, nothing in my experience of nearly 17 years as a Member of Parliament leads me to believe that a right to roam is necessary. Countryside access exists: it is a reality which my constituents, for example, enjoy, as do visitors to the borough of Basingstoke and Deane. The north of Hampshire, like the rest of the country, is criss-crossed with paths. I do not accept that the case for a right to roam has been made.

Because time is short, I will concentrate on just one aspect of the Bill: the reclassification of RUPPs. I have raised my concerns with successive Governments, not least in two Adjournment debates. The basic problem, as I see it, is that the reclassification process under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 has failed to provide protection, and has proved to be a legal minefield. I greatly fear that, despite its best intentions, the Bill in its present form will not resolve matters.

As hon. Members know, vast tracts of the country's green lanes are extensively damaged through misuse by modern motorised vehicles. Without doubt, some of the damage is caused by agricultural vehicles, but much of it is caused by 4x4s and other recreational vehicles. The root cause of much of the misuse by vehicles of green lanes remains the reclassification process under the 1981 Act.

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The problem is inadequately addressed in the Bill. It is a tragedy that the Government have retreated on what is an important and environmentally sensitive issue.

I understand that the aim of part II is to remove the burden on local authorities of reclassifying each road that is used as a public path individually. I applaud that objective. It is right. The requirement for individual reclassification has created a backlog of cases. It has given rise to some extraordinary inconsistencies and created some bizarre rulings, so the move away from individual reclassification is the right way to approach the matter.

In so far as it goes, I welcome the new category of right of way: the restricted byway. It is right that there should be byways that allow access only on foot, horse and by non-mechanically propelled vehicles, but the Bill fails badly when it comes to RUPPs and existing vehicle rights.

As hon. Members know, the Bill provides that, where vehicle rights exist on a RUPP, there will be an option for reclassification as a byway open to all traffic, but that is a modification of the proposal in the consultation paper. That suggested reclassification of all RUPPs as bridleways, not restricted byways--as I mistakenly said in an intervention to the Minister. That would have excluded all types of vehicles. It is regrettable that the Government have not stood their ground on that issue. Hon. Members should be in no doubt that the Government's approach will leave the difficult issue of vehicle rights unresolved. They will still have to be proved on a case-by-case basis.

The Bill does not tackle the problem of enforcing existing driving regulations. As the Minister may be aware, magistrates have been declining to convict motorists who drive on bridleways where the defence is offered that there is doubt as to whether the rights are limited to bridleway rights, even though the way is shown on the definitive map as a bridleway. I understand that that is a reflection of the criminal test, the "beyond reasonable doubt" requirement, being influenced by civil matters--establishing rights "on the balance of probability"--and is thwarting the operation of the law. Magistrates are increasingly taking the view that they have to assess the probability factor of rights existing, not to make an absolute judgment. That is the core of the problem under the 1981 Act.

As I read it, the Bill does not change the situation. Clauses 44(4) and 44(5) restate, rather than resolve, the "no other rights problem." I fear that the Bill fails to recognise the weakness in the Road Traffic Act 1988 and the discrepancy between that Act and the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Our ancient green lanes are a rich part of our environmental and natural heritage. Under existing legislation, we are not looking after them properly. Unfortunately, the Bill does not completely redress the position. The ambiguity of the Stevens judgment remains. The difficult issue of vehicle rights is unresolved. As the Bill stands, they must still be resolved on an individual basis. Those are matters that must be revisited in Committee.

The Bill does not address an issue of which I have only recently become aware; perhaps it is a new development. It involves common land. The situation has arisen in my constituency. I have heard about it in newspapers

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elsewhere. Common owners are adopting the custom of charging residents for access to their homes if driveways pass over common ground.

I know of three or four instances of that arising within recent months. I hope that the Minister will be open to amendments in Committee that will allow the matter to be explored to establish precisely what rights residents adjacent to common land have to free-of-charge driving along driveways over common land.

8.25 pm

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): Like all Labour Members and, indeed, many more individuals and groups outside this place, I was enormously relieved and delighted to hear in the Queen's Speech that the legislation would be introduced in the current Session, 50 years after the first major wildlife Act--the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act--which was introduced by a previous excellent Labour Government in 1949. I was equally pleased when the Bill was published earlier this month.

I pay tribute, as so many other Members have, to all the people who have worked so hard to bring the Bill to its present form. They include non-governmental organisations, which, coming from different perspectives and having different ideas, have worked together through the Wildlife and Countryside Link, representatives of which are here; the Government agencies; the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which has more or less succeeded in translating the recommendations of such organisations and groups into workable legislation; the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister for the Environment, whose personal commitment has given vital impetus to the whole process; and last but not least, the many Back Benchers on--despite the tone of the debate--both sides of the House who have campaigned to such effect.

I personally have been most concerned with the aspects in part III--wildlife protection and conservation--but I am equally glad to welcome the mostly complementary proposals in part I, which I have seen described as the culmination of 150 years of attempts to legislate effectively to provide widespread permanent access to the countryside.

I understand that the Bill is by and large consistent with the advice of the many agencies concerned and that it will ensure that all people have the right to enjoy and, thus, to learn better to conserve and to appreciate the countryside. However, access should be sensitive to certain times of the year: for example, the breeding and nesting period for birds. Additionally, care must be taken to protect the wider public interest concerning water quality. No one would want that compromised by unrestricted access.

Part II on rights of way should ensure much needed rationalisation and modernisation of the law and form an essential accompaniment to the provision of greater access. There may be a need for considerable clarification of some of the provisions in that part. It seems essential, for example, that there should be no arbitrary time limit to completing the legal record of rights of way. Rather, a prescribed number of steps should be taken in every case. Funding will be key if local authorities are to fulfil their duties and the legitimate interests of landowners must be respected.

Part III on nature conservation and wildlife protection proposes fundamental changes to the way in which SSSIs are protected and managed. They have been described as

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the crown jewels of our wildlife heritage. They must be protected from damage, whether wilful or, more frequently, due to neglect. That part is urgently needed.

As we have heard in debates of all types in both Houses, almost one SSSI a day is lost or damaged. On the Government's own figures, up to 45 per cent. are reported as in an "unfavourable" condition. The Bill will provide conservation agencies with new powers to prevent damaging activities in SSSIs.

The Bill also makes much stronger provision to halt--with higher penalties and custodial sentences--the increase in wildlife crime that we have heard described in this debate. I very much welcome the introduction of those increased penalties and custodial sentences. Very importantly, the Bill will also make it an offence "recklessly" to disturb a nest site or shelter. However, it is very difficult to prove an intent to damage or disturb. Overall, the legislation should ensure a better balance--a word that has been used often in today's debate--between the rights and responsibilities of people enjoying the countryside and the greater protection and conservation of the countryside.

Nevertheless, nothing is perfect, and the Bill has omitted some provisions that I believe should be considered in our subsequent consideration of the Bill. In some cases, the omissions serve mainly to highlight the need for further legislation, or even for non-legislative action. As hon. Members know, much could be done in this place to address those issues in other ways and on other occasions. I hope that it will be possible to amend the Bill to address those issues without impeding its successful passage.

Areas of outstanding natural beauty are the first issue. Many hon. Members have spoken today about AONBs, which comprise 15 per cent. of our land. In the 1949 Act, it was intended that AONBs would receive treatment equal to that provided for national parks. However, legal protection for AONBs has not been developed, and no one has the legal duty to protect and look after them. Consequently, there is no effective long-term planning for those areas and there is no sound basis for local managerial partnerships between agencies, landowners and communities. The Bill could be the only opportunity for some time to give AONBs the protection that they so urgently need. Such provision would certainly complement the Bill's provision for wildlife protection and improved access.

Habitat beyond SSSIs is the second issue. It is another issue about which hon. Members have expressed their concern today. I believe that very simple changes to the Bill could give essential protection to very important species of plant and animal life that are being threatened by habitat destruction. I also understand that only last Friday, the Joint Nature Conservation Council published various recommendations to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions on how agencies could be enabled, when they identify the need, to extend their management agreements beyond SSSIs.

The third--but no less vital--issue is the fact that the legislation could be greatly strengthened by underpinning in law the United Kingdom's biodiversity action plan, which was developed as a consequence of the United Kingdom's commitment to the 1992 Rio earth summit's

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convention on biological diversity. The Government strongly support the convention. As I understand it, the problem in developing species and habitat biodiversity action plans is that they require the voluntary involvement of many stakeholders. Although voluntary involvement is good--it helps to build the partnerships necessary for the plans delivery--without a foundation in law, long-term commitment and planning is vulnerable to changing political priorities and administrations, whether at local, regional or national level. I believe that we should explore the extent to which the legislation might not only protect species and habitat, but actively promote their recovery, as happens in other countries. The United States's Endangered Species Act provides an example of that.

The lack of legal protection for marine wildlife is the final issue, which is addressed also in my ten-minute Bill on marine conservation. My Bill is part of the campaign--to which I was alerted by The Sunday Times campaign--to develop better control over use of personal leisure craft, such as jet skis. As I said, I was very pleased to see the offence of recklessness included in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill--as it was in my very much smaller Bill.

I was very disappointed that in the Bill, as defined, the offence of recklessness does not seem to be appropriate for application in the marine environment. Dolphins and porpoises do not nest and they also do not have easily definable places of shelter. I hope that something can be done to change the definition. The scenes around our coast and elsewhere are urgently in need of protection and recovery. Many marine species are threatened by very inappropriate international policies and economic activity. I wonder whether, in the Bill, we could not make at least a little progress towards taking the much wider action that is so urgently needed, so that the greater protection that the Bill will deliver on land and in other terrestrial habitats could be extended also to our seas.

Overall, I give a very big welcome to the Bill. However, I hope that we recognise that we have to get as much as we can right now if we are to make wildlife protection as comprehensive as possible. I hope that we also recognise that we act in a wider global context, in which factors beyond the simple scope of national legislation are most powerful. As the Minister for the Environment will know, climate change is the most general demonstration of that fact. Climate change is already happening, and it is affecting wildlife and wildlife habitats--not tomorrow, but now. The sooner that we do as much as we can, the better.

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