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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): I thank all Members who have taken part in this constructive debate on an important, yet somewhat technical, Bill. I am sure that it is no coincidence that it was planned to be the first Second Reading debate after the Easter recess, which has meant that our minds are fresh to tackle the more technical elements of common land law, which, as we have heard, goes back to 1235.

When I was first briefed on the Bill, I was given a glossary of terms that I might encounter. It is redolent of an earlier age. Who could fail to be fascinated by an ancient manorial system of rights of pannage and piscary, of house-bote and hedge-bote, and of rights of pasture that were regulated under the principles of levancy and couchancy? We may learn more of these things in Standing Committee, perhaps even from the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd).

I am delighted that the Bill fulfils a manifesto commitment. The fact that it was a Conservative manifesto commitment from the 1987 election should not detract from its merits. Indeed, the Bill has attracted widespread support from all parties in the House, as well as support throughout England and Wales. I am particularly grateful for hon. Members' comments about the officials who have done so much work on the Bill, particularly the explanatory notes.

The debate has reflected the consensus while raising a plethora of technical points. I could go through all those in some detail, but as I spent 10 years in classified directory advertising as a profession, I am looking forward to the Adjournment debate and want to give it proper time. Nevertheless, I will dwell on a few issues.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) raised a series of technical points, most of which will be dealt with in Committee.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who said that 12 per cent. of common land in England and Wales is in his constituency, spoke with some knowledge and authority. I look forward to his being able to lease some rights, which might satisfy his desire to be active in common land.
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My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) spoke with his usual authority, and his passion for biodiversity and town and village greens shone through. I will chase up the correspondence from Mrs. Perry for him.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Mr. Truswell) spoke, again with passion, about the green application for Yeadon Banks. I must not comment on that particular case, but he is right to pay tribute to the role that just a few volunteers play in putting such applications together. We are grateful to them. The Trap Grounds case that he and many other hon. Members mentioned should reach a conclusion shortly. That may inform what we decide to do on Report, depending on what is said. I hope that the measures in the Bill will be sufficient to sort those matters out. I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend, as he requested.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) discussed the programme motion. I have to tell him that the amount of time that we propose for the Committee stage has been agreed on both sides of the House, including his own. In fact, we have extended the amount of time from that which his hon. Friends proposed. I hope that he will be satisfied with that.

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about some of the problems of under-grazing on the uplands. I listened carefully to his remarks and I hope he will respond to the consultation on the England rural development programme, with the discrete consultation on uplands, so that we can hear the experience of his constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) recalled the Diggers and the Levellers. He wanted conflict, but with his usual charm and charisma, some of that conflict ebbed away magically as he spoke.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) spoke with knowledge, informed by his interests, which he declared. I am pleased that he welcomes the proposal in the Bill that the commons registration authorities should be the local authorities, and that registration will not be handled centrally. If I have time, I shall say a little more about the electronic register.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) spoke about the target for 95 per cent. of SSSIs to be in favourable condition by 2010. I should advise her that that includes those that are improved or recovering, which might assist progress in Wales. Here in England, we are up to 72 per cent., which puts us on course to meet the 2010 target. My hon. Friend spoke with passion and in some detail about the Kenfig site in her constituency and showed the importance of protecting commons, which we are seeking to do in the Bill.

The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) was unsure whether he wanted to serve on the Committee that will consider the Bill. I am unsure, too, whether I want him to serve on the Committee. No doubt he would bring great expertise to it, which at times, as the Minister being scrutinised, I might not welcome, but on balance, it would probably be a good idea. He raised a case that the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) mentioned in his summing up. If the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy writes to me about it, I shall be happy to look into it. I was grateful to him for brandishing the draft strategy instrument, because my officials then passed it on to me.
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The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) spoke about livelihoods. The Bill is about livelihoods, of course. It is also about matters of life and death for some of the biodiversity on our common land. That is why we think it important to tackle these issues.

I shall deal more substantively with one or two of the key points made. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire asked why the Bill does not allow the correction of mistaken, fraudulent or excessive registration of rights under the 1965 Act. That query was repeated by others. We have listened to the views of stakeholders. We recognise that many rights registered in the 1960s were excessive or inflated and have led to problems, but we believe, in common with most stakeholders, including the National Farmers Union and the Moorland Association, that we must move on, and that re-opening those registrations 45 years later would not be helpful in achieving better management of our commons. I am sure we will debate the matter further in Committee, but if the result of that inflation of rights is over-grazing, we hope that the formation of statutory commons associations will tackle it.

The hon. Gentleman questioned whether the registration of land as a green breaches human rights. We will hear more when we get the judgment on the Trap Grounds case. He asked about the cost of commons registers. The Bill enables commons registration authorities to convert their own registers to electronic form. It is important that that power should be available as we move into an electronic age, but it is not a power for DEFRA to create a national electronic register. It is for the authorities to do that. Like many other features of the registration authorities, we will start with pilots in areas where there are significant amounts of commons to make sure that they work. We will fund that, learn from it and roll out best practice elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood asked why there was no pre-legislative scrutiny. As I said, the measure was a manifesto commitment back in 1987 and much has been said about the time it has taken to get a slot for it. We now have the slot and we shall use it to the best of our ability. Pre-legislative scrutiny might have disappointed the high expectation for action among stakeholders.

I could continue going through various points but I believe that we will cover them well in Committee. Again, I thank all those who have taken part in the debate. Hon. Members referred to the importance of biodiversity, which my hon. Friend the Minister emphasised in his opening comments. The Bill will help common land to be sustainably managed, thus benefiting not only SSSI commons but all common land. It will help improve biodiversity and contribute to our domestic and international targets.

Biodiversity is important for our national sense of well-being. It is a resource for recreation, tourism and education. It provides the vital ecosystems that we all need to survive. It regulates our climate, provides clean water, air, fuel, food and medicines. It is also good for business—to keep my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who is present, interested. It helps create thriving, sustainable communities by providing employment and generating
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revenue. It is estimated that activities connected with the management of the natural environment support nearly 300,000 jobs in England and contribute £6.5 billion in gross value added to the economy.

The Government's commitment to biodiversity informs the need for the Bill, but it is also important in its own right. Legislation on commons does not come along often and we have an obligation to ensure that the Bill makes good use of a rare opportunity to help protect and conserve our common lands for current and future generations. I believe that the measure does that and I therefore commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

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