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Mental Health Unit (Romford)

4.52 pm

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I wish to present a petition with no fewer than 1,200 signatures, from residents of the western part of my constituency, in the Oldchurch, Rush Green, London road and Waterloo estate areas. The petition was collected by members of the Oldchurch residents action group. It

The petitioners believe that
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The petitioners

The main signatory is Alan Pettet, chairman of the Oldchurch residents action group.

To lie upon the Table.

Andrei Bazanov

4.54 pm

Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I wish to present a petition signed by nearly 1,200 students, teachers and parents from Bournemouth school for boys, attended by my constituent Andrei Bazanov from 2001 until 2003, in protest against his possible deportation following the failure of his recent appeal against a Home Office decision not to grant him further leave to remain in Britain. I have received glowing letters of support for Andrei from his former teachers, from his current lecturers at Bournemouth university, and from his manager at Comet, where he works part-time. Each letter highlights Andrei's many positive characteristics. He is bright, hard-working, honest, enthusiastic, a pleasure to teach or to work with, and overall an exceptional young man.

On behalf of Bournemouth school, I present a petition that states:

To lie upon the Table.
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Off-road Motor Cycling

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

4.56 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): I begin this important debate by welcoming the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) is going to respond to it. I am well aware that over the past year or more, he has had many discussions with members of the off-road biking fraternity and sorority, and that he has always been frank and straightforward in discussing with them what are often contentious issues. He has sometimes faced undue criticism, particularly in the off-road biking press and newsletters, but I commend him for taking a reasonable and reasoned approach at all times.

Motor cycling of any type should carry some form of Government health warning. Mothers and fathers throughout the land warn their sons and daughters off all forms of motor cycling because it is dangerous. Well, those whose sons and daughters are MPs should warn them against dabbling in the politics of off-road biking, because doing so can certainly prove very dangerous for one's political health. This is the crux of the matter. For any politician—be they an MP, a parish-pump community councillor or a county councillor—getting involved in tackling off-road biking requires either great courage or absolute stupidity; I leave the House to decide which I am guilty of. Generally, it is better to ignore this issue and bury one's head in the sand. Why? Because an errant politician who enters this sometimes battlefield of off-road biking risks being mown down in the crossfire between those who want to take part in this activity—those who love it, but who are hunted up and down the country until they find the sanctuary of a place where they can legally ride their bikes—and those who want such people to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

So why on earth have I entered this battle zone and tempted the Minister in with me? Frankly, I am weary of receiving a postbag full of endless complaints about nuisance behaviour arising from off-road biking. People who should know better are riding very powerful machines up and down cycle paths and pavements. Weekends are frankly too short for my constituents to have to put up with the incessant buzz-saw noise of such machines riding up and down their back terraces and in neighbouring fields. Linked to off-road biking is a massive trade in stolen bikes and various drug-related activities. Moreover, I get annoyed when, on walks on the Sarn Helen Roman path across the Brecon Beacons, three bikes hurtle out of the mist towards me; or when, on walking along the cycle path in Blackmill with my children on push-scooters in front of me, bikers come down it—at speed—towards them, because it is the easiest way to get to the petrol station without risking the police stopping them on the highways, on which they are not allowed.

But there are other reasons why I have tempted the Minister to join in this debate. First, there are youngsters, parents and grandparents who want to pursue this activity legitimately without being chased by the police or being derided by their neighbours. I am talking about the ones who have a responsible attitude
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to this sporting activity, but feel marginalised because they have nowhere to go.

Another reason for the debate tonight is that the police, local authorities, community safety partnerships and many other agencies are now waking up to the fact that this is a growing issue. Also, the motor cycle industry has suddenly realised that there are commercial dangers if it does not tackle its own responsibilities. Finally, riders themselves and their organisations have come to realise that their existence is under threat unless they take responsibility for their own actions and the actions of others who are giving their sport a bad name.

In common with many other people, I have come to realise that it is all right to bury one's head in the sand like an ostrich, but when the feathers get ruffled and the backside gets kicked, it is time to recognise that there is a problem. It is then time to pull one's head out of the sand and tackle the problem head on. I am not directing all of this specifically at the Minister; it is for every Member, every councillor and community officer throughout the land.

I would like to commend to the Minister the approach promoted by the Auto-Cycle Union, which is the governing body for motor cycle provision in the UK. As part of a Government-funded national strategy for off-road motor cycling, a report was published in August this year, which identified 10 key issues that need to be addressed. Of those, most Members will probably be most familiar with the sixth, which is about noise pollution. That is what fills hon. Members' postbags and what is often put to us at our surgeries. We know that many people are annoyed at the excessive noise outside the House. We realise that many people, after mowing the lawn, want to put their feet up and are annoyed when all they can hear is noise from bikes.

Equally valid, however, is the second point—the lack of understanding about the activity and a lack of awareness and education about provision and, indeed, about the law that currently applies to off-road biking. That applies to parents, landowners and communities. More importantly, the 10 issues highlighted in the report reveal conflicting demands. As well as being a keen hill walker, I also enjoy the activity of off-road biking. It is very difficult to mix the two, which brings me to the need to have off-road provision in the right places at the right times.

There is a long-standing tradition in this country of unconstrained use of this activity, but unlike in America and other countries, we do not have a tradition of control. I can remember when, as a youngster, I used to go out with my brother and take my scrambling bike across the road to a piece of waste ground in Gowerton known as "the Slag" and we used to ride for hours. But that was in the days when it was a fairly minority activity. Nowadays there are bigger and noisier machines, and many parents and grandparents buy expensive bikes for their children to use. The problem has grown, so we need to look further into the need for controls.

Many other issues are highlighted in the report. The most fundamental issue, on which everything else hangs—unless we want simply to ban the activity out of existence—is No. 1 on the top 10 issues. I refer to the lack of legal off-road facilities and the real problem
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throughout the country of identifying sites for off-road provision to which there will not be objections.

I realise that some of the issues do not fall under the Minister's remit, but the need for a cross-cutting approach at local and national level remains the key to the solution. Providing a holistic solution to the problem is the biggest challenge. I have already raised some of the issues with other Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers. I note, in passing, that the Labour Government should be commended for trying to produce some joined-up thinking on the matter. Only a few years ago, the Government established the Government Motorsport unit in Northampton. It was funded by the Department of Trade and Industry, but pulls together the whole range of motor sport interests from the DTI, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the regional development agencies—for the east of England, the south-east and the east and west midlands. My right hon. Friend will notice that there is no mention there of any Welsh interest, but perhaps he and I can look further into that after the debate. We may be able to work together to rectify the problem.

There are some people—I am probably known as one myself—who adopt a very tough stance on nuisance behaviour. I know that some people want us to throw the book at those who cause a nuisance through off-road biking.

In that connection, I commend the south Wales off-road police bike team. It remains desperately in need of a minimal amount of sustainable funding from local authorities in south Wales, but it mounts aggressive operations to clamp down on the illegitimate and dangerous use of off-road bikes. The last time that the team went out, it combed the Garw, Llynfi and Ogmore valleys and all the way down to the M4. Around 30 riders were caught and cautioned, and four bikes were confiscated.

Police in Durham and elsewhere in the country do not merely confiscate bikes. They also crush them so that they are taken out of the system and cannot be stolen. However, my preferred approach would be to provide opportunities for people to pursue off-road biking, and then come down hard on people who abuse that right. Also, instead of confiscating and crushing bikes, I believe that we should reuse them as part of a scheme to train young people in riding skills or mechanics. For the network of youth offending teams, an asset of such value as a motor cycle could be put to good and constructive use.

However, that means that facilities need to be provided so that we can take advantage of such an approach. Adequate provision for off-road biking would mean that the police could be involved, as they are in existing schemes in some parts of the country. Officers could then work with youngsters and give them skills and safety awareness, and they would no longer be seen merely as the long and tough arm of the law.

The fundamental question remains: how can we clamp down on the miscreants—those uninformed and, frankly, idiotic people—if we do not provide the facilities as well? We have to adopt the stick-and-carrot approach, and recognise that off-road biking is as legitimate as any other activity.
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Last year, I wrote to every local authority in Wales on this subject. I also wrote to the national park authorities, the Countryside Council for Wales and other agencies in an attempt to determine the level of concern that exists in respect of off-road biking. I hope that it will help the House if I refer to some of those responses.

For example, Torfaen local authority wrote:

The response from Torfaen continued with what is a common theme. It stated:

Denbighshire county council replied that, in common with many other parts of Wales, off-road biking was a problem in many parts of the county.

My discussions with the all-party parliamentary group on motor cycling, and other people, suggest that the problem is national in extent, so let us jet across Wales to Caerphilly, where the borough council replied:

The council listed some of the problems, which include severe noise nuisance, damage to boundaries caused by riders gaining illegal access to land, damage to the land itself, and to the farm livestock that it supports and to wildlife habitats. The council also reported the dangers posed to legitimate users of the land. It stated that there was evidence that adult riders travel into the county from Cardiff, Cwmbran, Newport and even Bristol and the west midlands.

The Pembrokeshire Coast national park authority wrote:

Time and again, it comes down to that.

The final illustration I have is from Cardiff, which I know will ring a bell with my right hon. Friend the Minister. The local authority states:

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The local authority gives an example:

That is the scale of the problem, but it is not good enough—as several of those correspondents pointed out—to look only at banning, penalties and other methods of clamping down on such behaviour. We have to find the space for people to take part in a legitimate activity.

We need a stick and carrot approach, but what is the way forward? The Auto-Cycle Union has advocated a coherent national strategy, through the work of its local authority support unit. The first requirement is the political acceptance that something must be done. The first step towards the development of a solution is taking the decision to tackle the problem. In parts of the UK, including some in Wales and Scotland, local authorities and countryside agencies have taken that step, but other areas have not. They must make a commitment to address the problem, in conjunction with the police. The commitment must embrace the two principles of meaningful provision and meaningful enforcement. One without the other is hopeless.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel, but we do need to take the issue seriously. We need to consider tailor-made solutions for local contexts—

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