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It has given me great pleasure to introduce the Bill and take it through the House. It lays the foundations for a more holistic and, I believe, more effective approach aimed at ensuring a high-quality natural environment and thriving rural communities. It has had an interesting and fairly rapid journey from its publication in draft in February this year to its Third Reading today. For the most part, it has been a fairly smooth process, for which I thank Members on both sides of the House, particularly the hon. Members for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed), who led for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats respectively. I enjoyed working with them on a constructive basis. We
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engaged in extensive pre-legislative scrutiny, debate and dialogue, which has helped to shape our approach to the Bill. I am grateful, not least to Lord Haskins, who undertook much public consultation and dialogue before producing the report on which we drew in framing the Bill, and the previous Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which carried out formal pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, as well as scrutiny of the rural strategy itself. I must also give special mention to Lord Whitty, the former Bill Minister, from whom I took over the lead on the Bill in May.
I confess to being daunted by the prospect of taking such an important Bill through the Commons so early in my ministerial career. In fact, the Bill was the first Bill to receive a Second Reading in this Parliament. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the constructive cross-party spirit in which the Bill was scrutinised, and impressed by the probing questions posed by members of all parties, all of whom had clearly given much thought to the issues.
On Second Reading, we heard a number of maiden speeches. I am delighted that some of those who made them stayed with us in Committee, even if they have been unable to stay until Third Reading. [Interruption.] I beg the pardon of the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill), who I recall made a very good maiden speech on Second Reading and who is here now.
Having faced a Standing Committee for the first time as a Minister, I have great respect for the rigour of the process. The amendments that I have moved today reflect points raised in Committee, and, as I have said today, I am still considering some of the points raised then. I will listen carefully to the arguments advanced in the other place, while also reflecting on those advanced this evening, and expect the Government to table Lords amendments.
I especially thank the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson) for chairing our Committee proceedings so ably. I also thank all who have spoken today.
The context of the Bill is the vision of rural England set out less than a year ago in the Government's rural strategy. It is a vision of a better quality of life for all, with particular emphasis on improving the quality of life for the most disadvantaged; a vision of a conserved and enhanced environment that everyone can enjoy and from which everyone can benefit; a vision at whose heart is the pursuit of sustainable development, so that social, economic and environmental issues are taken into account in the shaping of policy.
The Bill will establish Natural England, a new agency that will act as an independent and powerful guardian of our natural environment. For people in rural areas, it will establish the commission for rural communities, a strong, independent rural advocate, adviser and watchdog. It will also implement a number of important improvements to wildlife, national parks and rights of way legislation, all of which follow lengthy consultation. Let me give just a few examples. There is a package of amendments to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, intended to improve protection for native animal and plant species, and a new provision on the possession of pesticides designed to help prevent their abuse for the killing of wild birds and animals.
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The main public interest, of course, has related to the rights of way provisions. The Bill places important limits on the establishment of rights of way for mechanically propelled vehicles by limiting vehicular rights that can be recorded on local authorities' definitive maps and statements. The package curtailing historic rights, clarifying the use of TROs and extending powers to national parks authorities, and the commencement of the provisions as soon as possible, willI hoperesolve the difficult and growing problem of damage to our historic trails.
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