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Pete Wishart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. The list of hon. Members from this House who have been proposed to serve on the Joint Committee contains no Members from Northern Ireland or from Wales, which is shocking.
The Leader of the House has stated that he intends increasingly to use Joint Committees in the future. I urge him and the Government to consider how such Committees can best be constructed to reflect all the interests and opinions in the House.
We appreciate that we are the minority parties in the House on basic arithmetic. However, the minority parties represent the opposition parties of Wales and Scotland and, as the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) has said, the governing party of Northern Ireland. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree with me that we have an important and democratic part to play in the House's proceedings, and I hope that that will be reflected in the future composition of such Committees.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): There is a lot in what the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said on which we can find common cause. I welcome his support for our commitment to enhance and increase the opportunities for pre-legislative scrutiny. I am convinced that that will give the House a better chance to influence the shape of public Bills, and will ensure that when Bills come before us officially they will be in better order and better shape.
I also welcome the right hon. Gentleman's acceptance that that is best done through a Joint Committee. We gave an assurance some months ago that we would consider the draft Communications Bill in a Committee of both Houses, drawing on the expertise and interest in both Houses. I also welcome his acceptance that we need to make progress on this matter, and to get the Joint Committee under way soon, so that it can report in time to have a Bill ready to go when we meet for the next Session.
If the right hon. Gentleman will pardon me for saying so, I warmly welcome the support he gave in his speech for the principle of proportionality. I look forward to his commitment to proportional representation at the future debate. [Interruption.] I am sorry that I have not entirely carried the right hon. Gentleman with me on that point.
I believe that we can learn some lessons from the exchanges we have had over the past few days. It might be helpful if I were to say to the right hon. Gentleman and to the minority parties that we will not regard agreement to the resolution before the House tonight as a precedent for future Joint Committees. We have sought to construct a Committee of modest size, with a total of 12 members, because we wanted it to be able to carry out a thorough examination with a relatively discreet number. However, that poses problems in reflecting the balance in either House. A total of six members from this Chamber necessarily limits the extent to which the result can be fully proportional. On future occasions, we may aim for a larger Committee, conceivably one so large that minority parties will be able to claim a place on it as of right, although that would require a Committee of some 20 members.
I am happy to take those points on board for future consideration. I hope that that will enable the House to proceed with the resolution tonight, given my assurance that it will not be taken as a precedent. I will not take down and use this occasion as evidence in the future.
I cannot promise that I will always be able to respond to the wish of every party in the House to have more members on every Committee we set up, but I hope that next time we will have learned lessons and will produce a more consensual proposal.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution relating to the said Joint Committee.
That a Select Committee of six honourable Members be appointed to join with the Committee appointed by the Lords to consider any such draft Communications Bill.
That the Committee shall have power
(i) to send for persons, papers and records;
(ii) to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House;
(iii) to report from time to time;
(iv) to appoint specialist advisers;
(v) to adjourn from place to place within the United Kingdom; and
That Paul Farrelly, Mr. John Grogan, Nick Harvey, Mr. Andrew Lansley, Anne Picking and Brian White be members of the Committee.
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): In my maiden speech in this Chamber in 1983, I waxed lyrical about the primeval monuments that distinguish my constituency, including the white horse, dating back to 1,000 years before Christ, and the bronze age barrows dating back 2,000 years before that. I am afraid that I omitted to mention the even older feature that links all those monuments together: the Ridgeway. Tonight, I hope to make up for that omission.
The Ridgeway, stretching along 85 miles from Overton Hill in Wiltshire to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, is England's oldest green road. It dates back to the earliest days of agriculture and inter-regional trade in this country, 6,000 years ago. It is an historical feature of European importance, and because of its upland location it is, or rather it ought to be, a site of great natural beauty.
I say ought to be, because the Ridgeway is being subjected to such abuse and progressive degradation that, although the distant views from it may be splendid, those who walk it or ride along it are dismayed at every turn. The present unhappy state of the Ridgeway, to which I am drawing the House's attention, has come about as a result of a combination of many different factors, the most fundamental of which is the growth in the number and variety of motor vehicles. That has exposed this ancient highway to a host of new pressures. Alongside that is a failure of public regulation, which has not kept up with this automotive explosion, and has not mitigated and managed its impact.
I shall begin with the growth of motor traffic on the Ridgeway. I particularly want the Minister to realise that it is certain that growing affluence and the multiplication of automotive technologies will go on throwing up new ways of abusing the Ridgeway, and of expanding and intensifying the scale of the pressures that we have already experienced. For instance, over the past decade there has been a 400 per cent. increase nationally in the number of off-road motor bikes and 4x4 motor cars, which has brought with it a corresponding increase in the use of the Ridgeway by such vehicles.
The consequences of that problem immediately hit the eye when one walks the Ridgeway at any time of the year, as my wife and I do frequently. Those vehicles destroy the surface of the trail. In wet weather, huge sections of it become a sea of mud and deep puddles. In dry weather, the surface sets into a series of ankle-twisting, knee-wrenching ruts. The impact is not only visual: there is also the noise, especially the buzzing from the motorbikes, and the pollution that those vehicles cause. This is a matter of great concern in my constituency and in those of my colleagues who are present for this debate.
Those are not the only abuses that arise from the openness of the Ridgeway to motor traffic. Because of its easy accessibility, the Ridgeway is the scene of all-night raves, with large numbers of vehicles driving along it to party sites. It is used by so-called travellers, who set up their camps and leave behind them piles of rubbish when they are moved along by the authorities. There is also more and more fly tipping: it is easy to drive a short way
A particularly unpleasant example of what is happening is the use of an iron age burial mound just off the Ridgeway at Peewit farm in my constituency as a stunt ramp by motor bikes and 4x4 vehicles, to such an extent that it will soon be totally destroyed.
The damage being done by all this is not just aesthetic, but economic. A great deal of effort and taxpayers' money is being put into encouraging the diversification of the rural economy, and the Ridgeway should be a major tourist attraction; but a survey published last April by the National Trails Office showed that some 50 per cent. of users were so dissatisfied with the condition of the trail that they were not likely to use it again. The Ridgeway is not as much used by hikers as many other national trails, and its potential as a contributor to a more diverse rural economy is not being fully realised.
Meanwhile, the flora and fauna are also suffering. Dr. John Dover of Staffordshire university has demonstrated the potential value of "green lanes" as biodiversity reservoirs in intensively managed farmland. If and aswith agriculture policy reformfarming recedes from some of the uplands along the Ridgeway, a great opportunity for expansion of those reservoirs will present itself; but that cannot be done if the Ridgeway continues to be exposed to abuse by cars and bikes.
My second point is that the Ridgeway is suffering from the failure of public regulations to keep abreast of the impact of expanding automotive technologies. Most of the western half is classified as a "road used as a public path", or RUPP, while the section in Wiltshire is classed as a "byway open to all traffic", or BOAT. It is on the basis of those regulatory classifications that the Ridgeway is open to motor traffic.
In 1992, the then Countryside Commission, together with the county councils, sought to introduce a traffic regulation order along the whole Ridgeway. That constituted a welcome recognition of the growing problem, which I supported at the time; but the inspector who presided over the public inquiry that followed, and the Minister to whom he reported, unfortunately failed to rise to the occasion. As I recall, the application for a TRO was rejected mainly on the ground that the presence of motor vehicles on the Ridgeway did not pose a safety risk to other users. I submit that the issue is not one of safety.
Over the past 10 years, the preferred device for dealing with the continuing deterioration of the Ridgeway has been a voluntary code of respect drawn up by worthy representatives of the different users and managers of the trail. I fear that there is considerable naiveté on the part of the worthy authorities involved about the motives of many motorised users. The code of respect asks them, for example, to avoid using the trail in wet conditions or when the surface is vulnerable after wet weather, but that is precisely when most of them enjoy the sport most. The code also recommends that motor vehicles stick to the well-worn parts of the track to prevent damage to the whole width, but although the Ridgeway is 30 m wide in some places its whole width is often covered with ruts. We must face the fact that the more the surface is destroyed, the more many motorised users enjoy it.
The only effective way of protecting the Ridgeway from this growing abuse is to return to the principle of traffic regulation. I ask the Minister to do two things. First, I ask him to tell the Countryside Agency and the relevant councils along the Ridgeway that he looks to them to promote traffic regulation orders to ban all non-essential motor vehicles from the Ridgeway. Secondly, I ask him to confirm that if such TROs are not in place by the time the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 is implemented, all sections of the Ridgeway currently classified as RUPPs will become restricted byways that will no longer be open to motor vehicles except as narrowly prescribed in the Act.
Let me briefly anticipate and rebut two objections to my proposals. The first is that enforcement is impossible. I do not agree. The vast majority of users of the Ridgeway are law-abiding people who will refrain from doing what it is clearly not lawful for them to do. Physical barrierslocked gates with keys available to legal userscan also be effective. Beyond that, there is the fact that the police can take action against abuse on the basis of dated and timed photographs of the abuse taking place.