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Mr. Truswell: The hon. Gentleman uses loaded words such as "obstruct", but the people of Yeadon Banks and their counterparts up and down the country would not recognise that concept. They would use the word "protect", because they are trying to protect a facility, an open space, that people have been using for generations.

Mr. Atkinson: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. No doubt his constituents will read about his remarks in their local paper with great interest.

The Bill has proceeded through the other place, including its Committee stage there, to this House with a great deal of consensus. The Minister has been very willing to listen to all our remarks as he deals with this nightmarishly complex piece of legislation. It is sad, therefore, that having gone through all this, we are now faced with an outrageous programme motion. We know perfectly well that some amendments will need to be tabled in Committee. How on earth can the Committee deal with these complex matters by Thursday 27 April? That is an outrageous abuse of the programming system.

Before the programming system was introduced, the Opposition had the weapon of delay to wring concessions from the Government. This Bill would have provided a wonderful opportunity to prolong debate to win a number of concessions. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns), who is sitting on our Front Bench, was, in his day, a great master of speaking long and hard on certain issues in order to get concessions out of the Government. Given the provisions of the Bill, we could have spent at least an hour on turbary, a further hour on estovers and possibly even more on couchancy—although I am not sure whether my Norman French pronunciation is quite correct there. The Bill would have provided wonderful opportunities for delay, as well as for those who are interested in the arcane areas of common land law.

Mr. Llwyd : I wonder why the hon. Gentleman has left out rights of pescary.

Mr. Atkinson: That was remiss of me. That subject could also have taken up a fair amount of time in Committee. These are much-loved common rights that date back to the Norman conquest.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) mentioned the first commons Act, which was passed in the reign of Edward I in 1285. That must be one of the oldest Acts of Parliament remaining on the statute book, and if this
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Bill passes into law it will abolish it, so I want to pay a passing tribute to that old piece of legislation. My hon. Friend was right to say that the problems in 1285 were very similar to those that exist today, with which the Bill is trying to deal. The Act of 1285 says that there was concern among those who owned the common land and put up hedges or dug ditches that

In those days, too, landowners were worried about vandalism to their property, and the Act was introduced, in part, to deal with that.

I hope that the Bill will be more successful than the previous legislation on these matters. There is no doubt that some of the unintended consequences that have flowed from previous legislation—not least the Law of Property Act 1922, which abolished the old feudal right of copyhold—are the reason why we are debating this Bill tonight. That was an important right, because it meant that all those with common rights over a piece of ground were listed in the manorial roll. They also had a copy of that manorial roll, which enabled people to know exactly who was entitled to what common rights. That was abolished, and considerable doubt has existed ever since about who owns particular rights in relation to particular commons.

As we have heard, the 1965 Act left a lot of doubt about the ownership of commons and common rights, and the amount of grazing rights that various commoners had. As a result of the 1965 Act, many rights that were unclear and had been more or less lost in the mists of time were hopelessly exaggerated, and many more farmers than were entitled to do so claimed the right to graze sheep on a piece of land. That is reflected now in the single farm payment, which is based on historic rights. If those historic rights were based on the wrong figures, either accidentally or deliberately, other farmers on the common might not get the payment to which they were entitled, and the money might go to another farmer who might not be entitled to it.

Despite what I have said, I welcome the Bill, as it will make a difference and clear up several anomalies, not least in my constituency. In one case in my constituency, somebody's drive was apparently listed as common land a number of years ago. In another, somebody had bought an existing house that apparently, unknown to anybody, was built on common land—at the time of the registration in 1965, no one noticed that so there was no appeal against it. Of course there was no way in which the couple living in that house could unlock themselves from the situation. I hope that the Bill will at least resolve that problem.

There is no doubt that there are many problems with commons. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, the nature of those problems depends on where one comes from. In commons in the south of England, under-grazing has often been the problem. Having lived for many years in East Anglia, I know that some of its commons have become completely overgrown because nobody there grazes sheep any more, or cuts bracken for bedding. Commons in the north, however, such as some of the big north Pennines commons in my constituency, have been over-grazed. If one looks at the landscape, one sees that where there is a moor that is managed for grouse, a fence, and
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then a moor that is not managed for grouse, there is purple heather on one side of the fence and white grass on the other. That is a stark example of how over-grazing can cause deterioration in management. I do not know whether that will continue. We have not yet seen the full effects of the single farm payment, but now that subsidies are not production-driven, there seems to be a tendency towards under-grazing on some upland commons. People will take cattle off those upland commons, and grazing cattle and sheep is important in maintaining proper biodiversity.

The Minister should also address the management of commons in any amendments about erecting and taking down fences. One of the difficulties is that when many flocks were slaughtered during the foot and mouth epidemic in my constituency and other areas in the north, hefted flocks were destroyed—flocks that have lived on a particular piece of ground for generations. That ground has been repopulated with new sheep, which do not have the tradition of hefting. Those sheep wander all over the place.

For example, on Allendale common, one of the biggest commons in my constituency of well over 20 square miles, the commoners—or stintholders, as they are called—put up a 3 km fence to manage the movement of sheep better, because some individual sheep were travelling 20 or 30 miles from where they should have been. Farmers were driving up and down collecting odd sheep that had turned up as far away as Weardale over the border into Durham. They have now been told to take the fence down, as they did not have the correct permission to erect it on common land. That is an example of how unsympathetic officialdom can make life difficult for commoners.

On the point made by the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) about access, the fact that there is a fence does not mean that there is not access. It simply means that people must go through a gate or climb over a stile. In view of the changing circumstances of management, fences should be allowed without the long protracted process of consent, which can cause considerable expense and waste a great deal of time. A more sympathetic form of management would make an important contribution.

In the handling of severance of common rights and the reallocation of rights, commons associations should have greater flexibility than the Bill allows them. In different scenarios on different commons, severance of rights can be important, but reallocation of rights should not necessarily be on the pro rata basis stipulated in the Bill. No doubt the Minister has read the explanatory memorandum on the subject.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight) indicated assent.

Mr. Atkinson: Of course he has. The official who wrote the explanatory memorandum deserves credit, as it is a clear and interesting document. It gives an example of a piece of one farm being sold off for housing development—not on common land but where the owners had rights to graze on common land—which
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could have ended up, had the rights been halved, with one farmer having 50 per cent. of the grazing rights, and 50 individual house plots having the grazing right of, say, one sheep each. Of course those householders will never exercise that right, which will remove sheep from the area. If the commons association could intervene, it could award the 50 grazing units given to new householders to the farmer or other farmers who had access to the common, so that the grazing regime could be properly maintained.

When I have inquired in the past what the balance should be between commoners, stintholders, farmers or other interests on the commons association, I have been told, as the Minister of State said earlier, that he had no scenario in mind for who should be in the majority. One can imagine a conflict between the owner of a grouse moor, the leaseholder of the shooting rights and those interested in nature conservation. Those issues can be difficult, and it is important that commons associations know exactly where the priorities lie. The composition of commons associations is a recipe for considerable conflict of interest.

I want to reinforce the concerns expressed by the National Trust, because an important point of principle arises. I understand that many commons are subject to different and various Acts of Parliament, and that we need to be able to change those without the scrutiny of the House. However, the National Trust owns a huge amount of common land—about 10 per cent. of the total in England and Wales—and for the National Trust Act 1971 to be amended by regulation in relation to commons associations is wrong. The National Trust Act should not be changed without proper scrutiny by the House.

I am sad to end on the sour note that there will not be proper time to debate the Bill in Committee. Apart from that, however, I welcome the Bill, and I am grateful to the Minister for listening to representations previously made to him.

6.28 pm

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