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1.30 pm

Clause 10(5)(b) contains the intriguing provision that

Amendment No. 105 is a probing amendment, because I want to find out on what basis the fraction of one twentieth has been arrived at. I have suggested that the figure could be one thirtieth, because that figure would be more in line with the period of a month. However, I admit that my suggestion is every bit as arbitrary as the one in the Bill. I am left wondering why the figure should be one twentieth and not a different one.

More than that, the provision could create difficulties because it is possible that someone may genuinely be unable to remedy the offence after conviction. One can imagine all sorts of family or business circumstances that might render the individual who has been found guilty unable to respond. To be fined one twentieth for each day that passes may turn out to be unreasonable because someone could be away for a considerable length of time and may be unable to respond to the notice. We should pay considerable attention to that point.

I suppose that it is inevitable, but clause 11, which deals with remedial action, also contains some rather arbitrary figures that require explanation. Subsection (1) states:

Mr. Chope: My right hon. Friend is making several points seeking elucidation from, I imagine, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). Is my right hon. Friend aware that his points are not being picked up by our hon. Friend because he is not in the Chamber? [Hon. Members: "He is."] My hon. Friend is in the Chamber, but he is not listening; he is talking to the Minister. Is my right hon. Friend sure that our hon. Friend is taking these points on board?

Mr. Forth: I have great faith in the ability of all my colleagues and Ministers to do many things at the same time. I am sure that my argument has been followed--as ever they are, I trust--very closely and with great attention.

Mr. John M. Taylor: I am glad to have the opportunity to apologise to my right hon. Friend the Member for

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Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) if, for a moment, my attention was diverted elsewhere. It is hard to concentrate hard non-stop for five hours, but I am doing my best.

Mr. Forth: Those of us who have taken the trouble to be here are all doing our best. It was heartening that, out of almost 660 Members of Parliament, 40 were prepared to be here to show interest in my hon. Friend's Bill. [Hon. Members: "Forty-one."] I am corrected, but the number probably fairly reflects the support that the Bill has in the House and the interest that Members are prepared to show in it. The 41 of us who were here for the Division, the eight to 10 of us who are present in the Chamber and the handful of us who have been here since 9.30 this morning have been present because we all believe that the Bill is important and requires our detailed attention. We believe that it--and not least clause 11--could have considerable effects on our constituents.

Clause 11(1)(a) refers to powers of entry to private property by the authorities. That should alarm us all considerably. I regret to say that powers of entry appear in more and more Bills, and this clause contains the Bill's cutting edge. After only seven days' notice, at the end of the compliance period, local authority employees will enter private property without the owner's permission and lay waste to his trees, shrubs and bushes.

Mr. Jim Cunningham: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that those powers exist in other circumstances? For example, public health legislation allows that to happen if a landlord fails to carry out basic repairs to a property that might affect safety.

Mr. Forth: Yes, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue in that context. Although I err on the side of caution in such matters, I accept that entry might be justified on health and safety grounds, but what is at risk--the amount of light coming in, privacy, amenity? Those do not come into the category of health and safety.

Mr. Cunningham: Let me expand the concept. It is feasible that a tree's roots under a property might render it dangerous. Surely the right hon. Gentleman concedes that.

Mr. Forth: I am not sure that that is part of the Bill's objective or one of the criteria that would be applied. If we were discussing the hedges endangering the foundations of houses Bill, the hon. Gentleman might be right, but I am not aware that that possibility has been considered.

The problem is that the Bill provides explicit powers of entry by an authority to private property. Amendment No. 106 suggests that instead of giving seven days' notice, authorities should give 14. I think that I am being too reasonable. On reflection, I should probably have gone further, but I wanted to use the amendment to make an important point that relates to what I said earlier. It is always possible that, for legitimate reasons, the occupier will not be at the property or aware that the compliance period has ended. There are many reasons why that might be the case. He may be indisposed or away dealing with a family or business crisis. Seven days' notice before the

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heavy boots of the authority come marching on to private property strikes me as utterly inadequate, and the amendment is designed to deal with that eventuality.

It is worth pausing to consider penalties. The seriousness of infringements and what penalties should be imposed are always disputed. Amendment No. 108 is a probing amendment to discover what was in the mind of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull when he settled on a level 3 penalty for someone wilfully obstructing a person exercising his powers under clause 11(1). There is a serious possibility that when the authorities arrive, the citizen will not understand what is happening or will be angry and frustrated and will try to obstruct those ghastly people with their ghastly mechanisms so that they cannot cut down the offending hedge. What is a reasonable penalty for obstructing a person acting in the exercise of his powers to enter a private property? The Bill might at first glance appear to be worthy and well intentioned, but it contains difficult provisions.

Amendment No. 75 deals with the distinction--if it is valid--between the owner and occupier of a property, a distinction to which subsequent amendments also relate. At the very beginning of our consideration of the Bill, I, as a non-lawyer, became worried about whether in allocating the responsibility that the Bill places on different people we are making sufficient distinction between the owner and the temporary occupier of a property. What are their relative responsibilities when it comes to making a complaint or being complained against? It strikes me that there are significant differentiations to be made.

I can well imagine circumstances in which someone who was looking after a house on behalf of the owner or who was a paying tenant made a complaint about another householder or, conversely, received a complaint. How do we start properly to distinguish between the powers and responsibilities of owners and occupiers under the Bill? I believe that we should do so because if we do not get this right, someone who is the occupant rather than the owner of the property could make or receive a complaint but might not be in a position properly to discharge their responsibilities following the mechanisms outlined in the Bill.

I raise this matter in speaking to amendment No. 75, Mr. Deputy Speaker, although I believe that we will return to it in more detail when we discuss a subsequent group of amendments. We must pay close attention to the matter because if there is confusion about the Bill, it will affect many different cases, and we could get ourselves and, more importantly, the people involved into great difficulty.

The new clause and the amendments grouped with it demonstrate that a measure that seems fairly innocuous involves a wide range of responsibilities and a rather alarming set of powers that are being given to the responsible authorities, not least the power to enter a private property and, presumably, to start cutting down the offending hedge to the appropriate dimensions. Given that the people involved may be legitimately absent during crucial parts of the process and could not reasonably be held responsible at the material time, I hope that the Bill's promoter will be prepared to reconsider my proposals to see whether they have merit and should be included in the Bill.

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Mr. Dismore: The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made important points about new clause 11 which I was, less elegantly, trying to address in amendments Nos. 36 and 37. The wording in the new clause is perhaps rather better.

It is important that the House look behind the corporate veil at those who are responsible for the actions that are carried out in the name of a company. Often those individuals, as the right hon. Gentleman said, fail to keep the company and its members informed of what they are doing. If we can start to examine the people involved, not only in this but in other areas of the law, it would be a great advantage and would significantly aid enforcement of the law.

I turn now to the points that the right hon. Gentleman made about penalties. He is going somewhat soft on crime, if I may say so. By the time the penalties come into play, the offending person will have had many opportunities to put things right, whether through simple discussion with a neighbour, mediation, the intervention of the local authority, or a notice requiring compliance. If he ignores all those options, it would be wrong to require him only to pay a pittance for every day of non-compliance. We either respect the law or we do not, and I think that someone who has shown such a flagrant disregard not only for the law and but for the interests of his neighbours should be subject to more severe penalties.

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