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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Time is up.

8.36 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mrs. Brinton), who is an acknowledged expert on many countryside and wildlife issues. She will be concerned to hear that I agree with much of what she had to say, with the exception of her comments on the right to roam. I shall return to that issue in a moment.

I felt uneasy about the beginning of the hon. Lady's speech--which sounded like the beginning of most of today's speeches by Labour Members--as it seemed to express a type of triumphalism and class war. They

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seemed to be saying that, after 50 or 100 years of campaigning, they have finally given birth to this shabby and thin little piece of paper that we are debating today. The triumphalism is based on some idea that Labour Members are the champions of the cause of freedom of access to the countryside, and that Opposition Members are ideologically and fundamentally opposed to such access. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

I am very much a grammar school educated non-landowner. However, as guardians of the countryside for many hundreds of years, my colleagues who are landowners, and people in the countryside whom I represent, have always gone to great lengths to ensure that they make as much of their own land and the countryside available as they possibly can to all types and classes of people across the nation, so that they may have some pleasure in it. Labour Members seem to be suggesting that Mr. van Hoogstraten--whom various Labour Members have prayed in aid--is typical of landowners, but that is an absurdity. To create law based on one such example is to create extremely bad law.

The reality is that across this great nation of ours, all of us--people from all towns, cities and elsewhere--have been ramblers. I am a strong supporter of the Ramblers Association in Chippenham, although I have not yet been able to go out with it as it tends to go out on Sundays. I wish that it would change its outing to Saturdays, and I shall certainly send it a copy of today's Hansard to ensure that it does.

We are all strong supporters of the rights of people in cities, in towns and in the countryside to walk, to ramble and to enjoy the countryside. Of course we are. The issue is not whether the principle is a good one but the means by which we implement it. We must ensure that the countryside, which we all enjoy, remains the fine place that it has always been. I rather resent the hon. Lady's implication that somehow Conservatives have kept people out of the countryside.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), whom I respect greatly on this issue as the president of the Ramblers Association, said, "They are trying to keep them out." We will be able to check the record tomorrow. Others have said that access to the countryside should not depend on wealth. What marvellous old Labour rhetoric. "It is those Tories who kept people out of the countryside for 18 years because they look after wealth. We new Labour people look after the ramblers." What tosh. It is nonsense, and it is important that we lay the ghost to rest before we do anything else.

We all support safe and secure access to the countryside. I pray in aid a fine landlord who is just outside my constituency on the Marlborough downs, who over 20 or 30 years has gradually changed rights of way. He has gradually improved rights of access, pathways, walkways and bridleways. His estate is now acknowledged as being one of the finest in England for access to the countryside. That is acknowledged by the Ramblers Association in Swindon, Chippenham and elsewhere. It is an example of what can be done with proper, voluntarily managed access.

Mr. Bennett: Will the hon. Gentleman explain how it is that the Duke of Westminster has stopped the regular

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walking over Bousland that took place in the 1930s, and has been extremely obstructive in letting people get on to that area of high mountain?

Mr. Gray: I am not in a position to comment on that example. I am not certain whether the Duke of Westminster is necessarily an hon. Friend of mine any more. If the hon. Gentleman writes to him care of the House of Lords--that is if the duke is still a Member of it--the matter will be clarified.

Labour Members are talking about the right of people--the extreme ramblers as I would call them, the really keen people--to get out into remote areas where they are now not allowed to go, while we Conservatives would prefer the managed access approach. There is a conundrum because I am not aware of any huge demand for access to most of the areas of the countryside about which Labour Members have been talking. I spend my holidays in north Cornwall on the National Trust cliffs. Even in mid August, during the peak of the walking season, one rarely sees a walker. North Wiltshire is a key walking area, but the people of Swindon do not come out in their hordes. Many Labour Members have talked about opening up great areas of woodland or farmland. The idea that many of my constituents would go out to them seems misplaced.

I do not believe that there is any demand for what is being proposed. It is an imaginary demand that is based on the notion that something is being denied to the public and therefore the Labour party must find a way of making it available to them. There are a few odd characters like Mr. van Hoogstraten, but I am not aware of landowners and farmers who deny access. Perhaps there are a few exceptions such as the Duke of Westminster. I find that surprising because I know of his love for the countryside. I suspect that we may be talking about that one example. I am not aware of any more than one or two isolated examples of farmers who are not perfectly happy for people to walk across their land in a properly managed way. Many of them, as in the example to which I referred, go to great lengths to provide ways to enable the public to get on to their land. They adopt a systematic approach to giving them proper access to the countryside.

There is no evidence of any demand and there is no evidence of any obstruction. I am not convinced of the need for the Bill and I suspect that we might be setting the country against the town, although Labour Members have used new Labour expressions such as, "We are seeking a partnership between town and country". Of course that is what we are seeking, but we will not achieve it by requiring people in the countryside to do things that they currently do not do and do not wish to do. The partnership will be achieved by saying, "Together we will provide access for all to the countryside. We shall allow you as landowners and farmers to prosper. We shall allow you also to do the things that you have always done in the countryside. However, people from the towns also want access to it." That is the right approach. By doing otherwise, people will be set one against another.

I am not convinced about the right to roam and the principle behind it. I am also concerned about specific problems that arise from the Bill. We are told that cultivated land will be exempt from the right to roam, but what is that land? If the extensive grassland in my constituency were ploughed one year--much of it has not been ploughed for many years and has probably been

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extensive grassland for 100 years--would it become exempt? There are many definitions and words in the Bill that need to clarified, and I hope that the Minister will consider doing so.

There have been references to the 28-day rule and exemptions for weekends and public holidays. That is all absurd. No shooting estates could possibly operate on the basis of a 28-day exemption. The prerequisite of a shooting estate is to make it pay, and the exemption would have to be many more days than 28. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that and subsequent clauses.

The multiple points of entry argument is crucial and unanswerable. How can one say whether an estate is open on a particular day when there could be 100 or 1,000 points of access? This is a licence to trespass, because no one will know whether a place is open.

The Government have not thought about night access. Why are nearly all urban parks--other than unfenced ones--closed at sundown? It is thought that it would be bad for people to walk in them at night, but apparently people are to have the right of access to estates and farms at all hours of the day and night, regardless of whether, for example, lamping of foxes is being conducted--it is normal to keep foxes down by shooting them at night. How are we to stop the roamers from getting in the way? They cannot go into the park in London, so they will decide to go out into the countryside and do a bit of roaming there.

The great question of owners' liability has not been properly answered, despite what has been said about clauses 14 and 15. Clause 13 does not address what happens if a rambler falls off a dry stone wall and damages himself. People should enter at their own risk, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) rightly said.

A lot of the details have been badly thought out. It is important for the Government to accept a significant number of amendments in Committee. Of course, bits of the Bill are worth having, and we all support much of it. We all support increased access to the countryside, but that must not be--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order.

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