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Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Will the Minister clarify that he is talking about all those applications that have been made since consultation and up to commencement?
Jim Knight: Yes, I am talking about outstanding applications.
I intend to make a clear and explicit announcement about this while the Bill is in the other place, once I have received sufficient legal advice about how we can deal with it. To those listening outside this House, I say that if there is the flood that we fear as a result of my announcement about commencement, I will seek to take as aggressive a stance as I possibly can from that legal advice on how outstanding claims are to be dealt with.
We will shortly be publishing an updated version of "Making the Best of Byways", a practical guide to managing the use of mechanically propelled vehicles on routes where there are established rights for such vehicles. That will help with what the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) described as "the Bassetlaw question." We are also introducing guidance on the better use of traffic regulation ordersincluding pre-emptive traffic regulation ordersand other regulatory and enforcement measures on which my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw is so keen.
Because of the interest expressed by the Welsh Assembly Government in this guidance, we have decidedI am sure that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) will be pleased with thisto simultaneously launch a Welsh language version. This means that it will take a little longer to publish than I had hoped, but it will be readyalong with "Making the Best of Byways"certainly by the time this Bill has Royal Assent and, if I can have anything to do with it, a little bit sooner.
I am grateful for the commitments that my hon. Friend the Minister has made and I am delighted that commencement will proceed at as early a stage as possible after Royal Assent. Clearly there will be further discussions on that. However, this House and the other place will want to discuss the outstanding applications. In Hampshire, and other parts of the country, there are a great many. In many cases, those
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applications have been made to the local authority, which is the highway authority, but no order has been made by the local authority. Those cases must be dealt with by the new legislation, so those applications will fail on Royal Assent if commencement is at the same time. Have I understood this correctly? I hope I have.
Jim Knight: As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Following our identifying the wider problem and announcing that we would curtail historic rights, there was a muted celebration from hon. Members, who then focused on commencement. Having now made an announcement on commencement, we received a muted "Hear, hear" from Members, who then moved to the next problem, the outstanding applications. I will make an announcement on that when the Bill goes to the Lords and I hope to be able to satisfy my hon. Friend
Jim Knight: And even the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Letwin: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again; he has been very generous. I want to press him on this question, which is important from the point of view of our planning in the Lords. When he says that he will make an announcement, does he mean that he will announce amendments that will be tabled in the Lords and will have the force of law, or does he mean that he will make some clarificatory statement? If the former, hallelujah; we will look at the amendments with great delight. If the latter, I must warn him that it will not satisfy.
Jim Knight: I hope it will be "Hallelujah." It would be my intention to clarify this matter in law in the Bill. That is subject to the legal advice that I need to receive and the discussions that I need to have with officials, but that is my intention.
Mr. Paice: I am sorry if the Minister thinks that there is a pincer movement; it is not intentional. But may I press him a bit more? I accept that he must take more legal advice and will not want to be too tied down at this moment, but is it his intention to put it into law that, basically, these outstanding applications will be dealt with under the new law or in some other way that will restrict the use of mechanised vehicles? That is what we are trying to prevent: these 2,000-odd applications all becoming BOATs.
Jim Knight: We all agree that, as far as possible, we want an end to this abuse of the countryside and to prevent local authorities from being deluged with applications and not being able to process them; in Wiltshire's case, as some have said, for 30 years. That is my intention and the announcement will be based around trying to resolve that problem. In addition, we are providing national park authorities with powers to make traffic regulation orders on unsurfaced routes and rights of way.
I hope that the House will agree that this is a significant package that will deliver much of what hon. Members on both sides are seeking in their amendments. I hope that, on that basis, they will feel able to withdraw their amendments. If so, I will not go
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through the long rebuttal that I have prepared on some of the detail of the amendments. If the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire is willing to nod to that, I will not need to go down that road.
Mr. Paice: Not quite a nod, Mr. Deputy Speaker; or even a wink, which might be misconstrued. The Minister said in his opening comments that he accepted that if he put right the issue of public versus private rights, the Human Rights Act would not come into play. We have tabled amendments based on the advice of counsel, to which several hon. Members have referred, that would do just that. Is the Minister saying that he is not accepting the amending provisions on that issue? I am not talking about the separate issue of existing claims, but we need to know whether the Minister is refusing to accept the amending provisions drafted by counsel and, if so, why. Secondly, if it is not the way forward, I want an explanation of what is wrong with the approach devised in new clause 4.
Jim Knight: In that case, I shall go through the detail as quickly as I can.
Under new clause 4, a sort of suitability test would be applied by the Secretary of State. The letter from the Secretary of State has been read out and it refers to the similar approach taken in the reclassification of roads used as public paths in the Countryside Act 1968. Disputes about some of the reclassifications are still ongoing. I heard what was said about the present task being more restricted than that, but the proposals in new clause 4 would require local knowledge and a local presence on the ground to enforce the ordersneither of which requirements could be fulfilled by the Secretary of State. For the Secretary of State to make traffic regulation orders that would have to be enforced at the local level would impose significant new burdens on local authorities. By commencing the part 6 provisions as early as possible and by looking at ways of dealing with existing byway claims, I believe that we can deliver what the new clause seeks more effectively.
Paddy Tipping: Will the Minister give way on that point?
Jim Knight: I will give way one last time, particularly as it is to my hon. Friend, but I really want to make some progress.
Paddy Tipping: We all want to make progress on this issue and the line of progress has been laid out clearly to the Minister. New clause 4 is not at issue: the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) was referring to amendments Nos. 12 and 13. I cannot speak for the Opposition or anyone but myself, but if the Minister is saying that those amendments are acceptable in principle and that he will introduce them in some form at a later date, we can make some progress.
Jim Knight: By way of making progress, I am seeking to table amendments in the other place that will satisfy the points that have been raised. I will continue my discussions with hon. Members in order to achieve that.
It is important to deal with new clause 10, because the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) made some significant points. I recognise that many people
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living on roads used as public paths have until now relied on the uncertainty as to whether RUPPs carry vehicular rights for motor vehicle access to their property. Under the combined effect of this part of the Bill and the restrictive byway provisions of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, those routes will become restricted byways and any motor vehicular rights will be extinguished. It will then become an offence, as the right hon. Gentleman said, to drive a mechanically propelled vehicle over them.
In strict legal terms, anyone with a property on a RUPP should have been advised at the time of purchase or construction of their property that to rely solely on the uncertain status of a RUPP for access to a property is legally unsatisfactory; but I accept what the right hon. Gentleman saysthat it has become standard practice in certain areas. It seems that in some parts of the country it has been common practice to rely on the uncertainty and the Government recognise that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. With that in mind, we introduced a clause to ensure that anyone in those circumstances is not left landlockedsubject to one condition, to which I shall refer.
The present clause provides for a private right for those who have a reasonable need to access their property and were doing so by relying on a public vehicular right prior to the commencement of the rights of way provisions in the Bill. However, those people will have to prove that a public vehicular right existed before they can establish a private right. I appreciate that that may be difficult in the sorts of circumstances that the right hon. Gentleman described. Accepting the urgency of the problem for the right hon. Gentleman's constituents, it does not seem unreasonable to exempt people who wish only to access their property from committing a criminal offence. I am therefore prepared to consider the issue further with a view to introducing improved wording in the other place. We have some difficulty with the concept of reasonable occupationwording in the right hon. Gentleman's new clause that would be new to law. I hope that he will allow us to resolve the matter as I have suggested.
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