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The hon. Gentleman is espousing the position of Lord Haskins, who argued in his report that once an integrated agency for delivery was in place,
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there was no need for the Countryside Agency, which should be abolished. The hon. Gentleman is consistently setting out Liberal Democrat policy today, so will he confirm that it is his party's official position to have no commission for rural communities?
Norman Baker: Yes, as set out in the Bill and in the light of the structure proposed for natural England, it makes little sense to have such a second body, and we shall advance that viewpoint in greater detail in Committee. When the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), concludes the debate, I should be grateful if he would clarify the budget for this particular body. That would enable Members to assess whether it might be better spent by local authorities, for example, in delivering similar functions.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) about the effectiveness of rural proofing. It seems to me that present arrangements have not been very effective at all in certain regards. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) referred earlier to the Licensing Act 2003, which has been an enormous bureaucratic burden for many small businesses in rural areas. I have heard nothing about that in respect of rural proofing from anyone. One business in my constituency has been happily selling the odd bottle of sherry or whisky to villagers for some considerable time, but must now comply with a gigantic amount of paperwork to qualify to continue to sell such produce under the Licensing Act. The business was even asked to send a detailed sketch of the premises to the district council. Quite why the council needs to know how wide a shop is in order to allow it to sell bottles of sherry is beyond me. The rural proofing element, which is supposed to be present, seems not to have worked terribly well so far, and there is no indication that a smaller body would be any betterit may be worse.
The proposals for tightening up on the improper use of pesticides to kill particular species are welcome, as it is important to tackle that issue. We remain concerned, as I mentioned previously, about whether a law of unintended consequences might apply. We must ensure that the Bill does not catch unintentionally those who have legitimate uses for such products. That applies most obviously to the farming community, but it could apply to someone with a garden shed in Luton. We must ensure that neither are caught by the proposals. Will the Minister scrutinise the wording further to ensure that that will not happen?
Clause 49 provides another welcome initiative, dealing with the sale of invasive, non-native species. It must be right to tackle that issue, which has been the cause of enormous problems in the countryside over many decades. I am sure that Members will be aware of many examples in respect of both flora and fauna. Missing from the clause, however, is any recognition that the problem needs to be turned back. In other words, we need to make progress in unwinding some of the damage that has already been done. A case could be made for the Secretary of State to produce an extra
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schedule to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which could be used to identify particular species. Duties could be given to local authorities, providing that they were properly recompensed, or to natural England to ensure that further ingression did not occur. We must roll some of it back, particularly with respect to species such as Japanese knotweed. Far too little has been done so far. Clause 49 should go further, as we shall explain in greater detail in Committee.
I should also mention the Forestry Commission. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee asked why that commission's work was not included in natural England's remit. On the face of it, there is a good argument for saying that it should be. If people are concerned about overlapping functions and lack of clarity between bodies, they should bear in mind the potential for significant overlap and lack of clarity between natural England and the Forestry Commission. The Government's response to the Select Committee that everything will be all right on the night did not strike me as particularly convincing. I hope that the Minister will look at that again when the Bill is in Committee and as it goes through the House of Lords. We want to ensure that natural England works and that therefore wherever possible different organisations are not pointing in different directions.
The issue of bodies having overlapping functions and how that might be dealt with was raised by the right hon. Member for West Dorset and the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). At present, of course, there are bodies with overlapping functions and those that can take their remit to a degree that overlaps another's territory. There is nothing new about that. The Bill simplifies matters and reduces the potential for confusion. That is not to say that confusion has been entirely eliminated, but there could be less than at present. Nevertheless, there is a case for clear guidance on which bodies do what, and the Government should take the opportunity to make that guidance clear during the passage of the Bill so that we may analyse the various functions of the different bodiesperhaps through some organogramand assess how they relate to each other. That has not been done so far. I know that No. 10 is fond of organograms, so perhaps it can help.
I turn to the question of rights of way and to what in some ways is the most controversial part of this legislationcertainly outside the House. I entirely agree with the observations of the right hon. Member for West Dorset and the hon. Member for Sherwood about the commencement date and the need to deal with that quickly. Governments always recognise that they should not announce on Budget day a date 12 months ahead when fuel duty, for example, will change, enabling people to stock up their garages with petrol. Any change is made from 6 pm that evening in an attempt to avoid that problem. The Government recognise that when legislation is to the disbenefit of particular groups, such as the motorist, or when it prevents those who wish to use four-wheel drives or off-roaders in a certain way, it makes sense to limit the time to exploit the loophole that might be created.
It is very worrying that the Government have not yet given a commencement date. I urge the Minister to take on board Members' points. The danger is that if no commencement date is given or it is miles ahead, the problem that the Government are trying to address will
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not be cured but will be exacerbated by the arrangements proposed in the Bill. That would be a tragedy that nobody in the House wants. We must deal with the matter head on and not worry too much about what lawyers are saying. It is clear what people want to happen. I suspect that there is near enough unanimity in the House on the provisions and, as the hon. Member for Sherwood said, we should get on with it.
Although there is unanimity on the issue, personally I would go further. Roads used as public paths were not designedif they were designed at allfor the uses to which they are put nowadays. In fact, they evolved for the use of different classes of vehicle. They evolved for the use predominantly of horses and walkersperhaps even cyclists, although that is difficult on occasionsand of farmers accessing their property. Those are perfectly normal countryside uses. When the destinations were created, it was not envisaged that such roadsas they technically arewould be used by people who deliberately churn them up, preventing other legitimate users from accessing them. The chance of getting a horse down a path that some four-wheel driver has deliberately churned up by going in first gear and seeing how high they can rev is pretty remote.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I have listened to my hon. Friend's point; the Bill will probably make some progress on the matter. Does he agree that now is the time for a fundamental look at legislation that deals with rights of way, to bring it up to the modern requirements of those who want to use it and of the land over which the rights of way cross?
Norman Baker: I agree; the Government had an open consultation exercise to which they received a large number of responses14,000 I think the Minister saidbut they have tried to do the impossible and to find some theoretical mid-point that satisfies everybody, as they did with hunting. There is not a mid-point with hunting; there is either a for or an against, as there is over rights of way. There are legitimate views on either side of the argument, but a mid-point satisfies nobody. The provisions in the Bill are welcome in so far as they will limit further damage if introduced quickly, but they will do nothing to undo the damage of legitimate use of roads used as public paths. The Government have ducked that issue; it should have been addressed in the Bill, but has not.
I conclude by reiterating my main point that we welcome the Bill in principle. The Government are right to address the issue. There is a number of sensible provisions in the Bill. There are legitimate questions to be asked in Committee about some of the consequences, but those who value the countryside and who have read the views of the NFU, English Nature, the RSPB and others would be perverse in the extreme if they sought to vote against the Bill on Second Reading.
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