Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Bennett: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Ms Atherton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Green: I think the hon. Gentleman was first.

Mr. Bennett: Last night, there was an extremely good moon. Many people would have enjoyed walking in the moonlight. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some measure is required for ensuring that mountain walkers get off the mountains safely? If those walkers had to be off the mountain by dusk, it would substantially limit the time that they could spend there.

Mr. Green: It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman wants the pleasure of walking in the countryside by moonlight when the Government ban doing so in urban parks. I know that he cares about that because we debated the matter in Westminster Hall last week. It is anomalous to claim that people can walk in the countryside in the dark, but not in urban parks.

The Association of Chief Police Officers believes that the provision is bad for crime prevention. The Government acknowledge the need to tackle crime, and threats to schools in urban areas, by providing for stopping up or diverting rights of way by night. They seem far less interested in preventing crime in rural areas. That is characteristic of them.

We must also consider the wider human rights element. I know that many Labour Members do not believe that human rights apply to landowners, but I should be interested to hear the advice that the Minister received on whether refusing compensation is legal under the Human Rights Act 1998. The statement on the front of the Bill claims that the provisions comply with that Act. The Government know that, according to many legal opinions, it does not.

Beyond the basic problem with human rights legislation, there is severe disparity in the enforcement of the access provisions. Any walker who does something wrong can be required politely to leave for a few hours, yet a landowner who does something wrong faces heavy fines and potential imprisonment. Labour Members believe that landowners deserve to be treated in that way. I would simply point out that in many areas where allowing access will prove most controversial, the landowners will be upland farmers. The average income of an upland farmer in England this year will be £4,600. In Wales, it will be £2,700. The Government are not attacking fat cats, but struggling upland farmers.

The final key point about access is that there should be well-signposted access points. That represents possibly the single biggest necessary improvement to the Bill. Those access areas need to be planned, practical and funded, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) said, the access provisions will achieve none of that.

Rights of way provisions form a large section of the Bill, and the Minister, with the characteristic honesty for which we all respect him, gave the game away at the start

20 Mar 2000 : Column 811

of the debate by saying that they are very complex and that he would accept any changes made in Committee. That ministerial code is easy to crack. His words meant, "The legislation is a complete mess; we haven't got a clue how to proceed; and we hope that someone tells us in Committee." Roads used as public paths were meant to be replaced by footpaths, bridleways or byways open to all traffic. Some local authorities have reclassified in that way and some have not, but, rather than a simple and complete reclassification, the Government propose to create a further type of right of way. Why do they insist on making an already complicated system more complicated? There are already at least six ways to stop up or divert highways under the highways and planning legislation: the Bill simply provides four new ones, making a bad situation worse.

We heard from the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Caton) that 25 years is too brief a time in which to do proper mapping, but it is far too long for many people in the countryside who seek some certainty in those maps. I think that the Minister used the words, "25 years, as resources allow," which is not jam today or even tomorrow, but jam at no time this side of the event--jam never, that is.

The nature conservation and wildlife protection measures have some merit. We support the improvements to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which strengthen the protection of SSSIs, but the Government should do more. My hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) made that point, as have many others. The Woodland Trust says that the Bill should protect important sites outside the SSSI framework if it is to make a lasting contribution to protecting our native woodland heritage--85 per cent. of all ancient woodland lies outside the SSSI designation.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England points out that the Bill

The Wildlife Trusts wants

    greater recognition and protection to . . . wildlife areas . . . outside SSSIs;

    legal underpinning to the UK biodiversity process; and

    better protection for species.
The organisation Plantlife says that the Bill fails to safeguard

    wild plants from non-native invasive species;

    protection of the habitats of species which are in danger of extinction . . .
I am sure that the Minister will recognise that much more needs to be done--even to the wildlife protection provisions--in Committee. I do not wish to be churlish, but even the good parts of the Bill are inadequate and they are heavily outweighed by the badly thought out ones.

The Government have missed their opportunity to make practical improvements to access and rights of way. Instead, they are luxuriating in an ideological spasm. Labour Members may enjoy that short-term pleasure, but they are putting at risk the very countryside about which they care. I fear that, in 10 years' time, we shall look back on the Bill and say, "They should not have tried to protect wildlife with one hand while allowing a thoughtless few

20 Mar 2000 : Column 812

to endanger it with the other." Those genuine concerns about the countryside are not confined to a privileged few, but are shared by millions who care for our countryside and our wildlife. If the Government continue to get it wrong, they will stand condemned by the many, not the few. I commend our amendment to the House.

9.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin): We have had a wide-ranging debate.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): It is the aviation Minister.

Mr. Mullin: I am the Minister of many things: today I am a countryside Minister--tomorrow, who knows?

Many sensible points have been made, and some not so sensible. I am sorry to say that quite a few of the not so sensible points came from members of the Opposition Front Bench. The contribution from the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) was a little disappointing. I felt that his heart was not entirely in it--I shall put it no higher than that. I know that he is a reasonable man, and I suspect that he knows that much of what is in the Bill, including the access provisions, are good, common sense.

I commend the views of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) to his Conservative colleagues. He described the present access arrangements as a legacy of feudalism. That sentiment will find widespread support in the House. I felt that the Opposition's heart was not entirely in their opposition: they were just going through the motions. I take heart from the fact that the squirearchy has been virtually unrepresented in the debate. There have been contributions from one or two aspirant toffs, but with the exception of a fleeting visit from the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) we never got a real toff. It has probably dawned on the more sensible and perceptive Tory Members that many of their supporters are likely to be in favour of the Bill.

There were one or two predictable contributions, including, I am sorry to say, the ideological spasm that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green). There has been a cynical attempt to piggyback on the undoubted crisis in the farming industry so as to extract some cheap mileage. There is no basis for that.

The hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) said that we were on a collision course with the countryside. That is absolute nonsense. The Bill has widespread support in the countryside. As he may have noticed, these days we represent rather a lot of it.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) accused the Bill of being anti-landowner. Many sensible and enlightened landowners would not recognise that description, and have long allowed access to their land. I predict that they will enter into the spirit of the Bill and will extend access.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), with characteristic understatement, compared the confiscation of property rights that he thinks are entailed in the Bill with those that occurred in Soviet Russia some years ago. He did not rest his case there. He went on to say that the situation was even worse than in Soviet Russia. I feel that he failed to carry the House with him on that point.

20 Mar 2000 : Column 813

We have, by and large, had a sensible debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) made it clear that one of the reasons for that was because the Government have gone to great lengths to consult those whose interests are directly affected. The result is a balanced Bill. The Government have bent over backwards to be reasonable and to enter into a constructive dialogue with the Country Landowners Association, the National Farmers Union and others whose legitimate interests are affected. When the huffing and puffing dies down, most reasonable people will realise that this legislation is inherently sensible.

After all, the right to roam already exists in millions of acres of our countryside. I have already referred to enlightened landowners who have allowed it for many years. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) referred to Sir Charles Trevelyan. There was an enlightened landowner, if ever there was one: I have spent many hours enjoying the rights of access on his magnificent estate at Wallington in Northumberland.

The right to roam has been conceded for years on most Forestry Commission land, and on most National Trust land. There is a de facto right to roam in Scotland. None of that has had any of the dire effects that have been alleged. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)--who is not quite in his place--knocked a lot of this nonsense on the head. He represents some of the most beautiful countryside in England, containing numerous sheep farmers and hill farmers. He said that, in 20 years of representing his constituency, he had never received a complaint from a farmer who had been adversely affected by the right to roam, which exists throughout his constituency.

Next Section

IndexHome Page