Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Boris Johnson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. I accept what he says about the importance of keeping decisions at a local level. However, is he saying that he will take no view at all about the outcome of the audit report?

Alun Michael: Not at all. I am saying that it would be premature to impose solutions before the audit's full results are known, and the options that it presents considered—especially given that those results are so shortly expected. If we were being told that the audit would be undertaken in five years, with results available in 10, the concerns rightly raised by the hon. Member for Wantage, which clearly are shared by other hon. Members, would perhaps demand earlier action. In fact, the process is already nearing a conclusion. It is right that we await the outcome of the audit, and of the local debate that will be informed by its results.

Certainly I recognise that the activities of the irresponsible few can interfere with the rights of the many. However, we should consider the rights of responsible drivers, and especially the rights of people with mobility problems. Many places in this country offer only limited

1 May 2002 : Column 1027

access to people with such problems. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that access should be made available for them.

Access by farmers and farm vehicles is another matter for local discussion with regard to responsible use and the avoidance of problems of degradation. All such matters will emerge from the audit and the subsequent debate. That is imminent and being planned, and I commend the organisations that have put the process in hand. Clearly, they have been required to do so by the same concerns that the hon. Member for Wantage set out so eloquently when he opened the debate.

I join the hon. Gentleman in his wish to stimulate philosophical debate on some of these issues. I welcome the fact that that is happening in the age of computers and cars—neither of which were available to John Stuart Mill when he was reflecting on liberty. I certainly share the hon. Gentleman's view that the immemorial liberties of a freeborn Englishman are referred to in a variety of inappropriate places. The liberty to drive a 4x4 or a motorcycle in inappropriate places, or in a way that causes misery to others, is one such, and I recall that similar arguments were raised when I had some responsibility for introducing legislation to control handguns. I always felt it odd that the liberty to carry a handgun should be considered as inalienable as one or two other countries seem to believe. The issue occasionally appears in the hunting debate, and I wonder whether it is always appropriate there.

1 May 2002 : Column 1028

Finally, I assure the hon. Member for Wantage that the Fabian Society is alive and well. I declare an interest, as I am a member. It continues creatively to inform this Government's thinking, and I hope that it will inform the thinking of people in other parties as well.

Essentially, my message to the hon. Gentleman is that we are willing to take appropriate action, but that it must be proportional and based on evidence. It must also start from a strong consensus at a local level. The processes that are in place give some reason to hope that sensible proposals will come forward, and it would be entirely appropriate for the local partnership or local authorities to act on those proposals. If issues are raised that it is appropriate for the Government to consider, I look forward to walking with the hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues—as part of a curious mixture of people—along the Ridgeway at some point in the future.

I thank the hon. Member for Wantage for initiating this debate, and those hon. Members who have joined in. They have adopted a constructive approach to what is clearly a matter of great local concern. I hope that I have responded in an appropriate way. I accept that problems exist, but I have also tried to use the information supplied by the hon. Gentleman to tease out some of the ways in which it would be appropriate to respond. I am sure that all of us will look forward to the information emerging in June, and to the local level discussion that will follow.

Question put and agreed to.

 IndexHome Page