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Mr. Hanson: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) for speaking to both schedule 2 and, indeed, schedule 3. I assure him that, when the Assembly is fully restored—I emphasise the words "fully restored"—with an Executive, a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister and its full legislative powers, it can obviously have locus in any matter to do with its responsibilities and it can pass any matter that it wishes. I cannot fetter that potential legislative Assembly in the future by orders that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or I pass now. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman and that, with that, he will accept schedule 3.

Question put and agreed to.

Schedule 3 agreed to.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

5.55 pm

Mr. Hain: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third Time.

I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions to the debate. All the contributions have been very positive. The way in which the Bill has gone through the House has been an indication and a signal of where Northern Ireland can go in the future. I commend the Bill to the House and hope that all the politicians in the political parties in Northern Ireland will work together to deliver the opportunity that the Bill provides for self-governance in Northern Ireland again.
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5.56 pm

Mr. Lidington: What has been striking about the debate has been the clear readiness on the part of all three of the Northern Ireland parties that take their seats in this House to put the dreadful events of the past behind them, however difficult that step may be, and to look to the future. I hope that, with the passage of this Bill, the remaining major party that has, as yet, refused to take its seats in this House will now accept that it must come and take part and accept the same democratic, peaceful nature of politics that is accepted by all other parties here from Northern Ireland constituencies.

5.57 pm

Mr. Alan Reid: The Liberal Democrats, too, support the Bill and we are pleased that we have reached Third Reading. The only disappointment is that the Government rejected amendment No. 6. Given that all the Northern Ireland parties that are represented in the House supported it, I hope that the Government will think again and, in another place, will table that amendment or something similar. That was the shared will of the Northern Ireland parties and we hope that the Government will give effect to that. The Government have set a deadline of 24 November, which we support. There must be no moving away from that deadline. I hope that the Government will emphasise that that definitely is a deadline.

5.58 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down) (SDLP): I welcome the introduction of the Bill and the fact that we are completing its Third Reading. I hope that the tenor of the Bill and of the debate in the Chamber today and yesterday, which showed what happens when there is a willingness to work forward together, sometimes with a sense of humour—perhaps that was absent in the past—will continue. If we bring that to the round-table conferences that we will be having over the next few months, I sincerely hope, on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland, that we can have a new future and a new beginning based on that total trust that we can have in one another. If we fail, it will be because some parties have put party interests before people. I hope that, in this case, the people win and that we carve out the new beginning in Northern Ireland for which we have striven for nearly 40 years. It would be a wonderful achievement if we could do that, not by 24 November, but before the summer recess, because I think that that is possible.

5.59 pm

Mr. Dodds: I am glad to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). Yesterday we entered into what I think was a time-sharing arrangement. I would certainly be happy to go even further and enter into a power-sharing arrangement with the hon. Gentleman and his party as soon as possible, even before the summer recess. Certainly we have had a very good debate over the past few days.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) said, we are a devolutionist party. We want devolution. We have challenges ahead of us, but we are determined to try to meet those challenges. We go into this new Assembly in a positive
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mode. We are glad of the opportunity to debate issues of relevance to the people of Northern Ireland and we hope that we can get full restoration, but there are conditions. The IRA and Sinn Fein must become a fully democratic party. I think that Ministers have recognised that in the debate. We look forward to completing the road that we are now on.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third Time, and passed.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Will all hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so as quickly and quietly as possible?

27 Apr 2006 : Column 810

Freemen of Beverley and the Beverley Pasture Masters

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Coaker.]

6 pm

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): It is a great pleasure to stand in the Chamber and talk about an issue that is of great importance to the people of Beverley: the Freemen of Beverley and the Beverley pasture masters. I plan to speak first about the considerable history of the Beverley pasture masters, move on to the threat to their existence and conclude by discussing how we can ensure that the ancient tradition can be preserved.

As hon. Members may be aware, the town of Beverley is fortunate enough to have some beautiful common land. It is a source of great pride to Beverley residents, and people travel great distances to enjoy it. There are three common pastures in the town: Beverley Westwood, Figham and Swinemoor. Of those, Beverley Westwood is the largest, at more than 600 acres. It was granted to the Beverley freemen in 1380 by the Archbishop of York, Alexander Neville, for the sum of £5. Most people who have visited it would consider that to be money well spent. It is a magnificent landmark for the town and has some interesting history.

As the name suggests, there was once a substantial number of trees on the Westwood. They were frequently felled to provide money for the town and to increase the acreage available for grazing stock. In 1584, the corporation sold more than 1,000 trees, primarily oak and ash. However, new plantations have been established and the replanting of trees is an integral part of the management of the pasture. The Westwood also has a surviving 19th century mill. In 1853, a look at the ordnance survey map would have shown that five corn windmills were in use at that time, and three still exist in part. The tower of one of them, Black Mill, which was built in 1803, is a prominent local landmark.

The Beverley pasture masters are responsible for managing the three common pastures in Beverley. That has been the case since 1836, when the Beverley freemen, concerned that the recently established local council would not look after the pastures properly, petitioned MPs in the hope of establishing a new law that would guarantee independence for the pastures from local government control. They and other freemen from throughout the country were successful. An Act of Parliament, the pasture Act, which made provision for the annual election of pasture masters by the pasture freemen was duly passed. The election is held on 1 March each year and allows for a body of 12 pasture masters to be voted in from among the pasture freemen.

The pasture Act ensured that the common pastures had total independence from local government decision making. No part of the common land can be disposed of for building or any other purposes. The pasture masters also have the power to pass byelaws to ensure better management of the land. As a result, the unique character of the landscape has not been lost.

However, the pasture masters are under threat. To be admitted as a freeman, one must either be born as the son of an existing freeman, or qualify by servitude. If
27 Apr 2006 : Column 811
one serves as an apprentice under a freeman, one can apply to be admitted as a freeman. However, the number of apprenticeships has declined rapidly in recent years and the craftsmen offering them frequently now tend not to be freemen.

We are thus left with qualification by birth. To become a freeman of Beverley in that way, one must be born as the son of an existing freeman. Daughters are excluded. One must also be born in the town of Beverley itself. That is fast becoming a problem. In the 19th century, when the tradition of the pasture masters began, people remained in the same town or village for a lifetime. Generations of one family could be found in one place, which meant that the son of a freeman was almost always born in Beverley itself. Today, however, there is greater mobility. Freemen have left Beverley and their children have been born outside the town, so the chain has been broken. The dilemma was compounded nine years ago when the town's maternity hospital was closed. The only people born in Beverley are those who are born at home.

There are now just 100 freemen left in the town. Of those, more than half are in their 50s and 60s, and many are in no shape to begin childrearing again. The situation has become so serious that last year, Neil Walker, a Beverley freeman, and his wife decided that they would have a home birth for their unborn baby. That was a conscious decision, made in order to ensure that a son was born in the town. Luckily, the newborn child was indeed a boy. However, even now there is no guarantee that the son will want to remain in Beverley for the rest of his life. There is certainly no guarantee that he will want to be a pasture master. There is, therefore, the very real danger that this ancient body will literally die out unless action is taken. That would be devastating for the town of Beverley.

What can be done? Essentially, the problem is down to discrimination against daughters and the requirement that freemen are born in the town itself. The dilemma is not exclusive to Beverley. Many towns and villages up and down the country are affected by that ancient anomaly. What steps have been taken to reverse the injustice? The Minister may be aware that a private Member's Bill, the Borough Freedom (Family Succession) Bill, is before the House. It would give the daughters of people made freemen of a town the same rights of succession as their male siblings. It would also remove any requirement limiting admission to the freedom of persons born within a borough's boundaries, meaning that if a freeman moves away from a relevant borough, his son or daughter could still claim succession even though they were born outside the boundaries.

The Bill has had a tumultuous time in both Houses. It was introduced by Lord Mustill in the other place, first appearing in the 2000–01 Session. It did not progress beyond First Reading. Lord Mustill tried again the following year. This time, the Bill did progress through the House of Lords, and was taken up by the then right hon. Member for South-West Surrey, Virginia Bottomley. However, it did not survive the end of the Session. Fast forward a couple of years to the 2004–05 Session and a new version was taken up in the other place by Lord Graham of Edmonton. It progressed safely through the House of Lords, and was sponsored in this House by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Jim Cousins).
27 Apr 2006 : Column 812

However, the Bill has now reached a crossroad. Despite sailing through its First Reading, it has stalled at Second Reading, which it has been due to receive on three separate occasions, most recently on 17 March. Each time it has been a long way down the list of Bills to be read, and there has not been enough time for full parliamentary debate. Second Reading has been deferred to 20 October, when again it is likely to be delayed.

We therefore have to accept that in all likelihood the Bill will fail. That would be desperately disappointing to the people of Beverley, and to the pasture masters and freemen themselves. They have pinned their hopes on its success. Chris Thompson, chairman of the Beverley pasture masters, said recently:

The Beverley freemen have been trying for five years now to let women, as well as those born outside the town, join their ranks, but to do so requires a change in legislation. I want to pay tribute to the region's media—the Beverley Guardian, the East Riding Mail and the local BBC, all of which have kept a strong focus on the issue and kept it high on the local agenda.

I do not want to test your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I should like the Minister to bear in mind that the issue is not contentious. A change in legislation has wide cross-party support, both in this House and in the other place. Government support would be gratefully received, not just in Beverley, but in the constituency of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central and across the country. I am aware that Members are not supposed to use an Adjournment debate to call for Government legislation on a particular subject, so I shall hesitate from doing so, but if Ministers were able to find a way of rectifying the problem—perhaps by thinking of a creative way to append it to a major Government Bill at some point—they would be doing a great service to that ancient institution of freemen.

As Lord Graham of Edmonton articulated in the other place in July last year, the freemen are of great sentimental importance to a town. That is certainly the case in Beverley. They are identified with the local community in a way that is much more intimate, continuous and long standing than the exercise of local government franchise or election to local councils. It is a joy in this age to find people who have such a strong allegiance to their community. However, the significance of the freemen is not just ceremonial or sentimental. In Beverley's case, they are responsible for preserving over 1,000 acres of common landscape. It would be a devastating blow to the town if they were to die out. They have been part of Beverley life for hundreds of years. I hope—indeed, I know—that the Minister will bear that in mind when summing up.

6.10 pm

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