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Chris Huhne : I am also happy to support the amendments, with which we broadly agree. There is a contrast between the provisions for the inspectors' powers and the Government's previous stubbornness on what is now the Animal Welfare Act. They resisted the cause of my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) to allow witnesses to intervene in the case of cruelty when it is clearly visible, for example, in a garden or an open yard.
Mr. Paice: The Animal Welfare Bill is not yet an Act because it has not been before the other place, which will consider it after Easter. Perhaps the power of my argument and that of the hon. Gentleman will persuade the Government to amend that measure to match this one.
The amendments show clear proportionality in examining the code of practice, which we greatly welcome, and limiting the ground for entry to property to search for proscribed pesticides in situations of reasonable suspicion. We are therefore happy to support them.
Jim Knight: The amendments do two important things. The first is a small facilitating measure that will benefit landowners and occupiers, especially by removing the implication that the power to denotify SSSI land should be available only if it was previously of special interest. In essence, and without detracting from the main purpose of the provision, it provides for a simple remedy for any landowner or occupier who discovers that a part of his land has been mistakenly included in the boundary of an SSSI, for example, because of a cartographical discrepancy between paper and digitised maps.
The second amendment benefits the public interest. By the strong will of Parliament, shown in the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the conservation bodies have been required to serve SSSI notifications on every owner or occupier of the land in question. Despite their best efforts, that can be a tall order, given the paucity of comprehensive sources of land tenure information. The amendment introduces a saving to ensure that, provided that all reasonable steps have been taken to discharge the notification duty, SSSIs, present or future, will not be rendered invalid by reason of it later being discovered that some relevant party's interests were not identified when the notification was served.
Importantly, the provision protects any such missed party from any liability for things that happened before commencement, and they become fully liable as a notified owner or occupier only after they have come to light and the notification papers have been served on them by the relevant conservation body.
Mr. Paice: When the Minister talks about cartographical discrepancies, I hope to God that he is not talking about the Rural Payments Agency; otherwise there would be so many denotifications and renotifications that we would be here for ever. That organisation seems to be completely incapable of getting its digital mapping correct. Nevertheless, I understand the point of Lords amendment No. 15, and I support it.
On Lords amendment No. 16, I understand completely what the Minister is trying to achieve. The inability to serve a notice because an owner cannot be traced should not result in an SSSI being rendered invalid. However, I want to challenge the Minister on a couple of aspects of the provision. The first involves the use of the word "failure" in the phrase
It seems an odd word to use when we are really talking about an inability to serve the notices because a particular owner or occupier cannot be traced. I wonder why the word "failure" has been used.
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The second, more important, aspect relates to the use of the term "reasonable steps". Who is to make a judgment on that? Am I right to assume from what the Minister has said, and from the way in which this provision is drafted, that the only form of appeal would be by judicial review? If an owner came forward and said, "Well, this is all very well, but I wasn't notified, and I've been at home for the last six months", who would decide whether the conservation body had taken all reasonable steps to ensure that every owner and occupier had been notified? I do not want to suggest that anyone would intentionally set out to fail in that task, but the practicalities might dictate that the notice could not be served. I can well understand that, in some parts of the country, a small parcel of land could be overlooked. An organisation might think that it has covered all the owners involved, when along comes an owner who has a bit of land in the middle of an area. He might then say, "There is no reason why they should not have been able to serve the notification on me. I haven't been anywhere. I haven't disappeared."
I am worried that the provision is too open-ended and that the conservation body could still serve the notice, and do whatever it wanted to do under the provisions in subsection (2), without necessarily having been as diligent as we might wish in ensuring that every owner or occupier had been notified. While I accept that nothing will happen until after the commencement of this section, that is a relatively minor point. What is important is what will happen in future. Before we concede to this amendment, I would be grateful if the Minister could explain how he envisages it operating in practice. What grounds for appeal will be open to an individual who feels that he should have, and could have, been served a copy of the notification but did not get one?
Chris Huhne: I, too, would be interested to hear the Minister's reply to the points raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). Generally, we support these amendments, which we find helpful, but I wonder whether they will cover the thousands of sites and notices already in existence before the Bill is enacted. That would certainly be welcomed by Natural England, as it would ensure proper protection of all the sites that, as we have heard in the House, the Government have been struggling to bring up to scratch.
In response to the question from the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), the use of the word "failure" is technically right. If a conservation body has not managed to notify the owner or occupier, technically it has failed to fulfil its duty under the law as it is written. We are therefore dealing with failure, and we might as well call it what it is.
On the second question about who will determine ultimately whether reasonable steps have been taken,
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the hon. Gentleman is right. If representations to the conservation bodies are not successful, it will ultimately be for the courts to determine. As an independent body, English Natureor, later, Natural Englandwill need to make its own judgments and decisions. A range of inquiries and searches are possible, however, in order to discover ownership or occupancy information. Clearly, it is reasonable that all those possible routes should be pursued. If representations made to those conservation bodieswhich, one hopes, would identify whether something in the public domain had been missedfail, the courts would decide the matter.
One of the reasons that I wanted to table an amendment, apart from on its own meritsto which I will return in a momentwas that most of this section is completely new to the House. The reason for that, as I am sure that the Minister would tell us, is that the Meyrick judgment handed down by the courts came after we dealt with the Bill in the House. The Government took the decision that the Bill was a suitable vehicle to revert, as they intend, the law to what it was prior to the Meyrick judgment.
I understand that the noble Lord Bach told the other place on Monday night that the Government have been granted leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal in the Meyrick case. Lord Justice Keene was quoted at column 50 in House of Lords Hansard on 20 March:
Nevertheless, I agree with the Government that the Meyrick judgment, as it stands at the moment, is anomalous. It goes way beyond what any of us has previously understood as being the criteria for national parks, and refers to this high degree of "naturalness". The judge in the case, again quoted at column 50, said that,
"well-maintained historic parkland providing the setting for a grade 1 listed building, and well-ordered dairy fields of dairy farms would seem to be the antithesis of naturalness".[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 March 2006; Vol. 680, c. 50.]
Arguably he is right, but if we accept that as the criteria for national parks, there probably would not be any. We all know that the British landscape has been affected by mankind since time immemorial. Certainly, all the evidence suggests that since 12000 BC, when mesolithic man first invaded the wild woods and started cutting them down, the British landscape has been in a state of change and affected by mankind. To refer to naturalness seems a bit odd in that context.
Having said that I entirely agree that Meyrick goes too far, I also believe that the amendments go too far in the other direction. I accept that the Government's intention is simply to return the law to where it was before the Meyrick judgmentalthough if they won the appeal such action would not be necessary, because that would emphasise that the pre-Meyrick legislation stood, or that the interpretation of it stood. In many ways, I hope that the Government do win the appeal, but they tabled the amendments using the Bill as a vehicle, so it is therefore right for this House to have an opportunity to debate them.
Lords amendment No. 17, which would insert a new clause on criteria for designating national parks, suggests measures that I believe would extend the criteria for designation beyond where they were before Meyrick. Indeed, I think they could almost be seen to be opening the whole of rural England to such designation, which goes too far in the opposite direction. I believe passionately in national parks, but they need to have specific attributesto which I shall returnthat identify them as being areas of particular importance. If we allow the criteria to be too lax and end up being able to designate much larger swathes of rural England in the coming years, the designation of national parks as a whole will be brought into disrepute, and will not be treated with the respect to which it is entitled. That would be a great sadness, which is why I tabled amendments (a) and (b).
I think that most of us would accept that it is sensible to include wildlife in a provision relating to national parks, for obvious reasons. It is the term "cultural heritage" that I find more difficult to understand. I am sure that the Minister, who has briefing papers, will point out that it was the last Conservative Government who first introduced the phrase to national parks legislation. He nodshe was going to throw that at me, so I am glad that I got in first. That is perfectly true, but anyone who reads Lord Bach's speeches and the briefing that we have all received from the Council for National Parks will observe that the terms "cultural heritage" and "landscape" appear to be interchangeable. It seems to me that the Government mean "landscape", and I would therefore prefer that word to be used in the Bill.
We all understand what "landscape" means. It deals with the issue of naturalness, because we all know that the landscape of England is affected, has been affected and will be maintained by mankind. There can thus be no dispute about the interpretation of the word, whereas I believe that the phrase "cultural heritage" is open to much more question.
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Of course, we want the public to be able to enjoy the special qualities of a national park, but that ability has always been there. I do not understand why the Government want to open it up to that extent. The issue of enjoyment of those special qualities was clearly included in the criteria specified in the Countryside Act 1949. There have been various reports on national parks: the Addison, Dower and Hobhouse reports, and more recently the Sandford and Edwards reports. There seems to be a common theme in all that work, namely, the importance of special areas with an element of wildness, beautiful and suitable for public access at the time of designation.
That is very important point and a constant theme, so we are forced to ask what it is that the Government are changing, given that such a provision already exists in legislation. It seems that, in using the phrase
the Government are implying that in future the public enjoyment of such special qualities could be opened up considerably. That, in turn, raises the possibility of damaging the special qualities that caused an area's designation in the first place.
Amendment No. 17 widens the criteria too far the other way, although I readily except that Meyrick needs to be redressed if the appeal is lost. Of course, if the Government win the appeal, this whole debate could become irrelevant. Indeed, the Minister may wish to tell the House this afternoon how he sees the legislation working. If we pass all this and the Government then win the Meyrick appeal, what impact will that have? In a sense, two different pieces of legislation would apply to national parks.
As I understand itthe Minister will correct me if I am wrongthis, too, is part of the Government's desire to rebalance the Meyrick judgment, with which I wholly agree. Indeed, I do not disagree with any aspect of the new clause's definition of natural beauty. That is fine, but why, having included that new clause, is amendment No. 17 still necessary? I appreciate that I have spoken first and that the Minister has not had a chance to respond, but I hope that he will indeed explain why amendment No. 17 is necessary, given that amendment No. 33 defines natural beauty, and that such a definition is fundamental to the criteria for designating national parks.
We do not oppose the idea of correcting Meyrick or of national parks, but if national parks are to retain the value and esteem that people attach to them, they should remain areas with special qualities. My concern is that the Government, in their desire to rebalance the legislation following Meyrick, have gone too far the other way. In future years, attempts could be made to designate areas that perhaps do not have the special quality that we attribute to existing national parks. I
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look forward to hearing the Minister explain why it is necessary for the Government to go as far as they are going with their amendments.
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