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As I suggested in an earlier discussion, I welcome the amendment, together with most of these groups of amendments, because they are all positive Government responses to representations made by myself and other hon. Members in Committee.
Amendment No. 23 is extremely sensible. It shifts the balance, as the Minister said.
It might help, however, if the Minister would say precisely how he envisages the provision operating. I do not think that he intended those using the rights to have a right of veto, but has he had any discussions about how he would apportion more weight to them, particularlyI shall not reopen an earlier debategiven that non-users but holders of rights may vastly outnumber those who exercise their rights? There may only be two or three people who exercise their rights; there could be dozens oras in the example of development that I used earliertens if not hundreds of people who hold rights but do not exercise them. It would be useful if the Minister explained in more detail how he envisages that balance working out, bearing in mind what could be a considerable numerical imbalance.
Mr. Atkinson: Now that we are on the right amendment I shall ask the Minister a few questions, although my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) has shot most of my foxes. Like my right hon. Friend, I would like an idea of how the Minister or the Government will interpret this provision. I raise this particularly because in my constituency I have a large number of grazed commons, and at the moment they are extremely well organised. One of the biggest, Allandale common, has a stintholderspeople with common rightscommittee, and they run the common extremely efficiently, despite some difficulties that Natural England or English Nature have been presenting them with recently over the issue of fencing.
The stintholders are anxious to know whether their stintholders committee would simply be seen to continue to exist in its current form as a committee, or whether it would be preferable for it to translate itself into a council; and whether, if it translated itself into a council, people other than the stintholdersthose who have direct common rightswould have a right to be involved in the management of that council--that is, other local organisations, or ramblers, who might consider that they have a right to access that common. A fuller explanation of how the Government intend to work this would be appreciated.
David Maclean: Amendment No. 23 is an important amendment and I congratulate the Minister on listening to the representations made in Committee. It is important that those who earn a living from the land should have more say on how the commons are managed than those who are just living in the area. There is an increasing tendency these days, as farming declines and particularly some of the small farms at the foot of the hills decline, for them to be bought out by offcomers like myself, as they would say in Cumbriaa large number of people who do not earn a living from the land but are buying up farmhouses or farms; and suddenly, one discovers that one has some extraordinary rights of common.
I thinkI can only say think because I am not certain; it is my negligencethat for the past 10 years I owned some rights to cut peat on Mungrisdale common. I did not exercise them and I have sold that house now, so I shall not be exercising them, but it is not too far-fetched to imagine a situation where so many of us who are not practising farmers buy houses
or landwe buy our quaint little bit of old Englandand then we want to freeze things in aspic. We do not want to let modern farming practices continue and we do not want to see sheep around, breaking into the garden. We do not want grazing. We do not want this or that. It is important that the minority, in some cases, who may be actually carrying on the practice of farming the commons, and managing them and keeping them in their current condition, have a much greater say in how they are run than those people who just buy a bit of land and suddenly find that they have a grazing right, a peat-cutting right or a heather-burning right and do not intend to do anything with it.
Again, I know that the Minister cannot be specific about what weight he will attach to five representations from one side and 10 from the other. He cannot be formulaic about it, but we need assurances on the mechanics of how he will listen more to the views of practising commoners, rather than those who have merely acquired a piece of land. That is probably going to be an increasing problem that we face in rural England in the management of commons over the next few years.
Mr. Llwyd: I also agree that the amendment is important. It redresses the balance that appeared to be out of kilter in the initial wordingaccording to one view, at least. Many people will welcome the amendment. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is vital that the voice of people who make a living from the common be heard clearly. Of course, it is a balancing exercise, because many other interests are involved. The amendment redresses what was perceived to be an imbalance at the beginning. I would be interested to hear the Ministers response to the various points that have been raised, but I welcome the Governments amendment.
Barry Gardiner: First, I would like to address the remarks from the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), who raised the issue of voluntary associations. The Bill has no effect on existing voluntary associations. Where such a body is working well, there is no need for any change. However, where a commons council is established on a single common or a small number of commons, we would expect that the council might replace any existing voluntary association. That would be a decision for those running the voluntary association and not one that would be taken by the national authority.
Where a larger commons council is establishedfor example, covering several commons in an areait is entirely possible that voluntary associations might continue to exist and to have a role in the day-to-day work on an individual common. Rules about management would be made by the statutory body and the voluntary association would have to abide by those rules in carrying out its operations. Dartmoor is a good example. Voluntary commoners associations exist on many of the commons, but management of the commons is governed by rules made by the Dartmoor commoners council. I envisage that as the sort of relationship that could and should develop.
The wider questions were about trying to give a feel to how one would arrive at the judgments and the relative weight that would be given to the active and inactive commoners. Primarily, I am here as Minister for biodiversity. The Bill is about land management and the improvement of our common lands. When considering whether to establish a commons council, the national authority will consider the local circumstances. Where there are numerous inactive commoners, with no interest in the common, the national authority will pay greater regard to any active commoners. Similarly, the inactive commoners would be given fewor fewervoting rights, compared with the active commoners.
We need to retain the flexibility to respond to local circumstances. On an agriculturally active common, it would not make sense for inactive commoners to be given an equal say in whether a council should be established, or equal voting rights if one were. However, where there is no agricultural activity on a common, it may be right for inactive commoners to have a stronger representation. The amendment will retain that flexibility, which I believe is inevitable and right, but will ensure that, where they exist, active commoners will have a greater role and that the national authority will be able to look to the essential purpose
Mr. Llwyd: Would I be right in presuming that the actual framework will be subject to regulation? The Minister refers to a differential in voting rights. Will there be some guidance on that in regulations? I will not press the point at this immediate moment, so if he cannot give me an answer now, no doubt he can do so in writing at a later date. I do not want to put him on the spot, but how will the process that he is describing be rolled out, to use a modern term?
Barry Gardiner: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the wonderful way in which he extended his remarks until my inspiration came. There will be guidance, but there will be no regulations except the establishment orders, which will be brought forward on a case-by-case basis. I hope that that is helpful.
(4) Where subsection (1) applies and a commons association established under Part 2 does not exist in relation to the land, a local authority may assume and exercise any of the rights of management of the land which would otherwise be held by the owner, until such time as a commons association exists or the owner is identified.'.
We tabled amendments Nos. 122 and 117 so that we could address the fact that there will be not only voluntary associations in the future, but statutory
councils, as the Minister has said. In Committee, the then Minister, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), was reasonable and said that voluntary associations will be able to carry out their functions very much as they do today, in the sense that they will be able to enter into agreements on management that would attract funds and subsidies to allow them to fulfil their potential for biodiversity.
Some commons will want to remain as voluntary associations, while others will want to set up statutory councils. Sometimes, voluntary associations might even want to come together to form a council that would thus encompass more than just one association. In such a case, the powers in the Bill will give such councils a worthwhile way of ensuring that the management of agriculture is of a high standard, that there is a high standard of conservation of nature and archaeological features, and that promoting access is of a high standard. However, it might be more convenient if the associations that formed the council could interpret those principles locally, because one common might require different management from another to achieve the same goals. Amendment No. 122 thus explores the possibility of ensuring that smaller and more local associations would able to carry out such management within the statutory council that encompassed them.
Amendment No. 117 addresses the situation that arises when there is no known owner of a registered common. The Bill will give local authorities the power to act when someone commits an offence on such a common. The amendment would give local authorities the power to act more positively to promote better management, rather than merely preventing or dealing with offences that may occur. The amendments are probing, but I will be interested to hear the Ministers response to them because they reflect matters that cause people concern.
David Maclean: I am rather nervous about amendment No. 117. It may be giving powers to local authorities to exercise functions for which they are not fully up to speed. My local authorities are skilled in many things and they perform the functions currently conferred upon them reasonably well. The idea that they would be able to manage commons, even ones that are not claimed and are not currently identified, and perform some of the functions of the commons associations, with the proper skills and knowledge that some of those associations must have, is rather stretching the point. If the councils in my constituency had to undertake the function and had to get up to speed, I shudder to think of the cost involved in employing the experts that they would no doubt bring in, along with hundreds of consultants, to run a common.
Mr. Roger Williams: I reflect upon the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making. The amendment refers to where there is no owner or commons council or association that is in existence. The threat that a local authority might come in and start to manage a common might trigger the formation of an association or council. I do not think that the graziers would want that intervention to take place. The point of the amendment is to provide a safeguard rather than a continuing process.
David Maclean: I accept the hon. Gentlemans point. This could be an ultimate longstop. The threat of a local council running a common might produce an order double quick. I do not think that we can build that into legislation. I do not have a strong view on this point; I wish to hear what the Minister says. The amendment may be a step too far at this stage. There are many excellent provisions in the Bill. I am worried about the extent of the briefing that we have received from English Nature. It seems to think that it will be fully in charge of things. Its covering letter gives the impression that it will be running everything on the commons. I accept that it has wonderful skills.
We have commons worth protecting, but not because English Nature invented them 200 years ago. The great, great grandfathers of todays commoners created the wonderful commons that are worth protecting. I am loth to give additional powers to local authorities that are not entirely knowledgeable in this area. There, I rest my case.
Paddy Tipping: I am reluctant to break the consensus on the commons. I confess that I have some sympathy with the mover of amendment No. 117, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). As he rightly said, the amendment is a back-stop. There are pieces of land throughout the countrycommonswhere there is no known ownership. Commons are an important part of our environment and our landscape. Many of them are sites of special scientific interest. It seems that if no known owner exists, there is a case for management to come in. That management could be provided by the local authority.
It is not that we need additional legislation in order for it to happen.[ Official Report, House of Lords, 30 November 2005; Vol. 676, c. 282.]
Barry Gardiner: Amendment No. 122 would permit statutory powers given to commons councils to be delegated to voluntary associations of commoners. It would strengthen the role of voluntary associations of commoners where they might continue to exist on commons that come under the jurisdiction of a large commons council.
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