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Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): My hon. Friend refers to the contention to which the amendment might give rise. In his description of counties where that would be a major issue he omitted Shropshire where there is already considerable contention about the claims that have been made. Will the Minister consider the amendment in the light of its resolving that existing contention? For example, a farmer in the south of my constituency is facing two cases. One is going before the court, with the assistance of the Forestry Commission, which is also involved, and the other is causing the county council immense effort and work in balancing the competing rights of mechanised and pedestrian users of the land. The amendment would help to resolve such issues to the maximum public good.
Mr. Paice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who demonstrates tremendous support for his constituency. The problems he describes occur not only in his constituency but throughout the country. I apologise for not mentioning Shropshire. Perhaps I should add all the other counties that I failed to mention. The problem probably applies to every county, but I highlighted some of those with the largest backlog of applications.
I am very pleased by the way in which my hon. Friend has put his case. He has explained the problem very clearly. The truth is that national criteria would be a far better way of dealing with the problem than each county council trying to come to its own conclusions. We are in grave danger of having different rules in different areas. That is particularly so in my constituency, which includes a national park. Great anxiety has been expressed about the number of applications.
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Mr. Paice: I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's support, and I mentioned Derbyshire as one of the counties most affected. I am sure that he is right about having a set of basic criteria in the Bill. I stress that we are talking only about the bulge of applications that has taken place, but such criteria would be there and local authorities and national park authorities would be able to refer to them when they were considering whether to issue their own traffic regulation orders on other byways.
Before I end my remarks, I wish to make a few comments about two other issues that are referred to in this group. The first relates to the new clauses that were tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). I do not intend to speak to them; it is for him to do that. I am sure that he will do so far more eloquently and certainly with far more detailed knowledge than I can.
I have studied all the papers that my right hon. Friend and his local authority have kindly provided to me, and I know that he has had meetings and discussions with the Minister. I am therefore convinced that there is a serious problem of access across byways. I remember that, when I was the chairman of a local authority, similar problems could cause huge issues. The Bill, supported as it is on both sides of the House, inadvertently makes the problem worse.
I know that my right hon. Friend will refer to cases in which people cannot sell their property because the new purchaser is at risk of being prosecuted for driving to their own home across a byway. I do not believe that the problem can be addressed by ministerial statement. I therefore strongly support the proposals that my right hon. Friend has enshrined in his new clauses and that he will speak to himself.
The second issue refers to cyclists, and I am sure that many hon. Members have received letters from constituents. I was astonished by the number of letters that I have received from people in my constituency who are very concerned that cyclists may be prevented from claiming a right of way once the Bill goes through. My office has been in contact with the Minister's office, and I have to say that I accept that that is not the Bill's intention and that it will not make any difference to the position. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) has tabled a new clause on the issue and she will make her own case, but it is clear that there have been at least two casesprobably many morein which inspectors have used current legislation to rule against the opportunity for cyclists to claim a byway.
: We have some great parks, lakes, hills and dales in Berkshire and cycling is one of the healthy and environmentally friendly activities that people undertake. Like my hon. Friend, I have received many letters expressing concern about the issue. Given the vagaries of the current legislation, will he clarify the cases in which local inspectors have ordered against people having the 20-year right to ride a bicycle along some of these rights of way and urge the Minister to consider adding something to the Bill to deal with the problem?
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Mr. Paice: I will try to do so. I do not want to go into the detail of all the cases, because the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury may wish to do that. It would be wrong and unfair for me to do so. However, as this is my only opportunity to refer to the cases, I shall do so now.
There is clearly a problem of which the Minister is well aware. I understand that he and his officials believe that the inspectors have been wrong to rule as they have in the cases to which I have referred. He may well be about to say that and, if he does, that will be helpful. However, I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and the House would concur with the point that although ministerial statements about the intention of new law can be taken into account by the courts in interpreting the law, ministerial statements about existing law are effectively of no significance. They cannot alter the meaning of the law particularly when test cases have already taken place. I am not a lawyer, but that is my layman's understanding. Ministers cannot simply by a statement in the House change the meaning of established law.
I think the Minister appreciates that we have a problem in the cases to which I have referred. A change in the law is therefore essential. I will be honest and say that the drafting of the particular new clause is probably flawedI readily accept thatbut I hope that he will give a commitment that the Government will table an amendment in another place that will address the real concerns of many tens of thousands of cyclists that their opportunity to claim a right of way is being restricted. I do not think that anybody wants that to happen, and the Bill is an opportunity to put the position right.
I apologise to the House for taking so long to introduce this group of amendments and new clauses, but it is by far the most important group that we shall discuss tonight. I look forward to the Minister's response to the many points that I have made.
Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): As chair of the all-party cycling group, may I take this opportunity to raise an issue that is of particular concern to the cycling community? I refer to rights of way for cyclists in the countryside, 2,000 of whom have contacted their Members of Parliament. That is reflected in cross-party concern, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) and my hon. Friends the Members for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for City of York (Hugh Bayley) for taking their place in the Chamber to show their concern. I am confident that the concern that the cycling world has expressed to the Department has struck a chord and that the Department appreciates that we all want to go in the same direction.
In short, the problem comes down to rights of way in the countryside. Horse riders have bridleways and walkers have footpaths, but it is unclear what cyclists have. I know that many discussions between DEFRA and cycling organisations took place during the recess, and it is clear that we want the same thingproper access to the countryside for cyclists. It took the very
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invention of the bicycle to give many working people access to the countryside for the first time, and we want to ensure that their rights are instilled properly in law.
DEFRA's position has been that the law is already clear enough, but the cycling world's position is that it is not. When we go touring around the countryside, our panniers are already full of many other things and we would rather not have to arm ourselves with the number of documents that we might need to argue with landlords that we perhaps have the right of access to a particular piece of land. We do not have room for copies of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and a number of inspectors' decisions. We do not want to have a working knowledge of Pepper v. Hart, some of the compelling reasons for the judgment in IRC v. Dowdall and O'Mahoney in 1952, or the appeal case on page 401, with particular reference to the judgment of Lord Radcliffe on page 426. We do not want all of that or to have to carry a copy of Hansard; we just want the law to be made clear.
We would therefore like an undertaking from the Minister that he will take a serious look at plugging the hole in the law, meet people from the cycling world and sort the matter out in another place. I ask for that so that my inner-city constituents can freely enjoy the delights of south Dorset on bicycle. How we get to south Dorset and ensure that the trains are more friendly towards carrying bicycles is another issue for another time and, I am sure that the Minister will be pleased to hear, for another Department. Let us take one spin of the wheel at a time.
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