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Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for his comments and we mostly welcome this group of amendments. The Minister, and other hon. Members who have taken an interest in this part of the Bill, will know that it has probably caused the most angst, especially the issue of the date of commencement. I am the first to admit to an element of confusion earlier in the proceedings. Having read and reread the Committee and Report proceedings, my confusion appears to have been shared by everybody else, including the Minister. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) would probably agree. We were all saying the same thing based on what appears to have been a misunderstanding of the import of the Bill and the impact that it would have on what we believed to be some 2,000 outstanding applications for the creation of BOATs.
Subsequently, I tabled a written question and I am grateful to the Minister for taking a great deal of care in answering it. He has surveyed all the highways
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authorities to find out how many applications were outstanding on three datesthe date on which the Government published their consultation in December 2003, the date on which they announced the conclusions of their consultation in January 2005 and the date on which the Bill was presented in May 2005. That elicited the fact that the number of applications outstanding was not 2,000, as we had been led to believe, but fractionally fewer than 1,000, of which almost exactly half predated the original consultation. Some 288 were lodged in the consultation period between December 2003 and January 2005, and another 200 or so were lodged between January and May. That demonstrates an increasing rate of applications, but the situation was not as bad as we thought it would be.
The concern shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House was that the Bill would allow a long period in which those 2,000 applications could proceed. If that happened, the intention of closing off the loophole of previous use of byways by vehicles in BOAT applications would have been defeated. I am glad to say, for reasons that I will come to in a moment, that that possibility has been significantly diminished.
John Mann: Do the hon. Gentleman's figures relate to applications or to the number of routes? For example, in my area one application might cover six or 12 different routes. For the various people affected, a route is a route, whether it is dealt with as a separate application or as part of a group put in as one application. May we have a clarification of his clarification so that we are clear about the scale of the problem?
Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right and I am happy to agree with him. We can both blame the Minister, because his figures were not sufficiently explanatory. We do not know how many of those applications were multiple, but it is probable that more than 997 routes were requested.
John Mann: I can only give detailed illustrations from my own constituency, where the scale of the problem is related to the number of routes rather than the number of applications. For example, residents, farmers, dog-walkers, horse riders and so on might be affected by any one component of a circuit rather than by the entire circuit, which is an additional problem.
Mr. Paice: The hon. Gentleman is right. It may well be that the number of applications for individual routes is nearer to 2,000we simply do not know. I said in jest that it is all the Minister's fault, but I suppose that it is partly mine. I did not ask him the right question, so he did not ask the Highways Authority the right question. I am happy to share the responsibility, but I will not go further than that.
The other interesting piece of information that came out of the Minister's surveythis is directly relevant to the point made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann)is that there are tremendous variations around the country. The problem is concentrated on certain counties, including the Minister's own county, where there is a particular issue with a large number of applications. Several highway authorities reported few or no applications, so the situation is very patchy. When we debated this before, I was not awarethe hon.
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Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) may have beenthat trail riders were offering a "byway bonus" for applications. The Trail Riders Fellowship said:
The question is what was done about the large number of applications. The Government's original intention, clearly based on the expectation that they would all have to be resolved, was that commencement would be in a year or so. I remember that the Minister was concerned to give time for all that to take place. We persuaded him, following advice that we received, that it could be brought back to the date on which the legislation was enacted. The debate in the other House has concerned making the date even earlier.
I was never persuaded by the arguments that we should seek to eliminate all the outstanding applications. I took the view that those made prior to the Government's consultation in December 2003 were made in good faith and that they should be allowed to proceed under the rules that then pertained. I felt that December 2003 was the right date to go for, and that was the subject of amendments in the other place. I am happy to endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for Sherwood about the Minister's willingness to discuss the issue. It became clear in those discussions that the Government were advised that they could not accept such an early date. I am sorry that they could not do that, and we might continue to wish to dispute it, but nevertheless I face the reality. What we have achieved through the mutual pressure from both sides of the House is the bringing back of the date from a year or so hence to January 2005.
That makes a great deal of difference to the number of applications that will be dealt with under the existing rules. All bar 700 or so applicationsthose going up to Januarywill be dealt with under the old rules. The rest will be dealt with under the new criteria, which means that use of a byway by a vehicle, whether it is a Roman chariot or anything else from some distant point in history, would not be a basis for a claim for a byway open to all traffic.
On the legacy of the 300 or 400 outstanding claims that are not caught by the new rules, does my hon. Friend agree that it is most important that the Government give advice to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service? We have discovered that if these claims are undetermined, there is virtually no chance of the CPS agreeing to prosecute those arrested for trespassing on these byways.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that the Minister said that he is going to issue guidance. That is terribly important. As we have all found in dealing with this legislation, it is a minefieldsome of us might wish that some of these tracks were a minefield, because it might stop their being usedand it causes
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immense difficulty and confusion among users, as well as prosecutors. I look forward to seeing the guidance to local authorities and to the police.
I would add to that an exhortation to highway authorities, notwithstanding other pressures, to act quickly to resolve the outstanding applications. The sooner they are resolved and the map is definitive, the better for everybody.
Mr. Drew: In Gloucestershire, we have not had this problem because there is a degree of amicable arrangement between the different parties. It is therefore somewhat strange to find out what is happening in other parts of the country. The biggest source of complaint is that there is no resolution because those tasked with trying to come up with one delay it because they say that they do not have enough resources. That is not acceptable, is it?
Mr. Paice: Far be it from me perennially to refer to the fact that local authorities are deprived of resources by the present Government, but that seems to be what the hon. Gentleman is saying. So be itI am happy to accept his point. Yes, of course proceeding more quickly will take up more local authority resources, but in the long term it is in everybody's interests.
I wish finally to refer to the amendments that stand in my name. They refer to the amendments that the Government have tabled in response to the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay). The Minister has listened and acted, and we are grateful for that. As he said, there is some concern that the term, "visitor to the land", creates a loophole, and it was put to us that that could be closed by these amendments. I heard the Minister explain why he feels that they are inappropriate. I think that he could probably add to that the fact that he is anxious that the Bill becomes law as soon as possible. We all agree, but that does not negate the need to get it right. He asked me to withdraw them, but I cannot withdraw what I have not moved. Nevertheless, I was interested in what he said. He clearly put on the record, for everybody to see, the Government's belief that the loophole does not exist and that the phrase that they have employed does not give people a means of using a byway for other purposes. Concerns were expressed that it would be used as a means of accessing another byway, on the basis that all byways connect one highway to another highway. If the Under-Secretary is convinced that the amendment would be unnecessary, I am prepared to take his word for it, especially as he is prepared to make relevant provision in the Bill.
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