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I am pleased to stand at the Dispatch Box this evening with the task of sending the Bill to another
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place for, I hope and trust, their Lordships’ final blessing on a complex but extremely valuable piece of legislation that will protect and enhance our common land for years to come. Although my time as Minister responsible for the Bill has been brief, I can now profess to understand the intricacies of hefting and the significance of levancy and couchancy, as well as ancient rights of common such as blacksmut, hedgebote and whitestump. Blacksmut, I hasten to add, is the collection of charred root mould for fuel.

The Bill will protect some of our most treasured land in England and Wales for many years to come. Commons are an ancient institution that predate the Norman conquest. Today they remain important in the agricultural economy of upland areas in England and Wales, in providing a vital resource for biodiversity and recreation, and in forming a key part of our landscape. Many of our commons need help, and that is why the Bill is important. It will encourage more and better local management of commons through commons councils, and it will provide new powers to enforce against unlawful agricultural activities. It will allow us, too, to modernise the consent regime for works proposed on common land. It will drastically improve the system for registering commons and greens by bringing the registers up to date and keeping them so. We have even reached consensus on the thorny issue of severance of common rights—a Herculean achievement in its own right.

We are proud of the Bill, which has benefited from the close scrutiny it has received, and the changes that have been made to improve it. I have read the debates in another place and this House, which were productive, constructive, at times amusing and, most importantly, well intentioned. Today I have gained a first-hand appreciation for the genuine determination of hon. Members on both sides of the House to do the best job that they can. I pay tribute to the commitment shown by hon. Members and to the detailed knowledge and experience that many of them have brought to our deliberations from their years of interest in the subject. I also thank the Deputy Speakers and Chairmen who have chaired our discussions on Report and in Committee.

I acknowledge the support of the members of my team in the Department. They have worked long and hard to bring the Bill to this stage, and they have worked tirelessly with everyone who has shown an interest in the Bill to establish consensus on all the main issues. I am grateful to hon. Members for the individual tributes that they have paid to them in the course of our deliberations this afternoon—my team put that in my speech, no doubt expecting a drink at the end of this.

Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for Schools, who was responsible for managing the Bill in its earlier stages in this House. His open and consensual approach in Standing Committee has ensured that the Bill has the broad support of all parties, and I have tried to continue that approach.

Mr. Paterson: Returning to our little debate earlier this afternoon, will the Minister give me some examples of construction works?

Barry Gardiner: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has caught me, because I was about to sit down. We would not consider that the erection of a
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boundary fence cordoning off a development or the digging of a trench for foundations to be construction works. I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s points this afternoon and to his quotations from the guide that he alluded to earlier. The point is that construction—building—must be taking place. The erection of a fence, clearance works or digging exploratory boreholes would not be admissible. I know that he will not be pleased by our view, but I hope that I have at least clarified the situation.

We have improved the Bill during our deliberations, and I have no hesitation in commending it to the House.

5.3 pm

Mr. Paice: I shall start by picking up the Minister’s comments to my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson). We were unable to conclude the discussion in which the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) discussed long-standing planning consents. We were not trying to allow someone with planning consent to circumvent the basic import of being able to apply to register a village green. The Minister has suggested that I was asking for a third concession, which was not the case. I was asking for a clarification of the word, “construction”, which the Minister has just provided for my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire—although as we all know, it will be for the courts to decide. It would be a shame if anybody who had begun a development—the moot point is what constitutes “beginning development”—finds that the opportunity is taken away from them.

This is an extremely important Bill. It is a great pleasure in many ways—I know that other Members find this—to deliberate on a matter without party division or point scoring. We had a little contretemps during the debate on the last group of amendments when it was suggested that my party was divided. That is not so; I merely wanted to ensure that the other side of the debate was properly aired because I knew what the Minister was going to say. There are two points of view, and it was right that they should both be put.

It is also unusual to debate a Bill dealing with legislation that is in many cases hundreds of years old. I think that the earliest piece of legislation that we mentioned dated from the 1270s. We have some ancient commons in my constituency, some with their own statute, and I have learned a great deal about that law. I hope that that will enable me to understand local problems better, if not to resolve them.

As the Minister said, his predecessor, who is now the Minister for Schools, led us through Second Reading and Committee in the extremely constructive way that those of us who have worked with him for some time have come to expect. I congratulate him on his promotion, which was well deserved. He was a good Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I hope that he takes that skill forward in his new role. The current Minister has carried on the style adopted by his predecessor and has been extremely helpful in discussions outside the Chamber, as well as in his responses today. I thank him for that.

I also thank the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), who has adopted an equally constructive approach, bringing his experience
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as a Welsh hill farmer to bear, and the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who brought to our debates his tremendous experience as a rural lawyer dealing with common law, among other things. He has contributed considerably. Many outside interests and organisations have put forward their thoughts and views, and were involved in the long discussions and consultations that the Government held prior to publishing the Bill.

It would be remiss of me not to say that one or two concerns remain, including on development and minor but necessary works. I look forward to the regulations that the Minister will publish as a result. I am sorry that it has not been possible for us to deal with incorrect registrations. We considered several options, including the concept of reintroducing the principle of levancy and couchancy. The Minister and I discussed that, and I accept that it would be difficult. However, it is a pity that we have not been able to find a solution to the glaring examples of people on the register who have rights that they should never have registered, but are difficult to shift.

Nevertheless, we have dramatically improved the common law of this land as it applies to commons. I hope that what we have done will prove durable and flexible for a very long time. I hope, too, that it will help not only landowners but owners of the ancient rights that we have discussed and owners of newer rights such as open access. The only group that I hope that it does not help are lawyers. I hope that we have created a Bill that is clear enough, so that the common man can understand it and the lawyer is the poorer for it. I wish it well.

5.8 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): It was a great pleasure and a fantastic learning opportunity to serve on the Standing Committee on the Commons Bill [Lords]. I hope that it will shortly be followed by the Lords Bill [Commons].

My constituency has 10,000 hectares of commons, the largest of which are Bowes moor, Cotherstone pasture, Barningham moor, Eggleston common, Cockfield fell and Hamsterley common. There are 39 commons in all. Among other things, it emerged from the discussion that half the commons in this country are sites of special scientific interest, which many people found surprising at first. As we considered the Bill in more detail, however, I realised that that was not an accident: the reason why commons are so environmentally important is that landowners have not historically had the same rights or financial incentives to sell or develop the land.

There is a general lesson for us, in all our work on protecting the environment, in the great value of taking collective responsibility. This Bill shows that it is important to continue managing commons in the interests of all stakeholders—landowners, tenant farmers and those with interests in sport and walking. In my constituency, that is especially important for the hill farmers and the environment, as part of it is an area of outstanding natural beauty. I especially welcome the democratisation process with the new commons councils being set up and the measures to protect village greens for shared use.

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I want to say a brief word about part 3 of schedule 6. Before we repeal the Commons Act 1285, from the reign of Edward I, I want to share something with hon. Members about it. It is a very short piece of legislation—less than one column long—and begins:

It is interesting that the problems in 1285 were similar to those that we have been addressing. The Act goes on to say:

We are often criticised in the House for producing too much hasty legislation, which we have not had time to consider properly. The 1285 Act, however, has had a good run. We know how it is operated, and we are in a position to repeal it as part of this Bill. I am very happy to support the Bill.

5.12 pm

Mr. Roger Williams: I, too, have been privileged to take part in the consideration of this legislation, the roots of which go back to feudal times. The wasteland of the manor has survived intact over a very long period, and given the diverse expectations of different people and different parts of the community about the common land, I am always amazed by the fact that people generally seem to get on well and ensure that it is managed to the best purpose. Obviously, some aspects needed improving, and the Bill will do that and ensure that such land exists for a long time into the future.

I, too, thank the hon. Members who participated on Second Reading and in Committee. The Bill is improved, and I thank the Bill team for their work and generosity in giving of their time and expertise to me and to other hon. Members.

Commons will face threats and challenges in the future. As we see more and more of our agricultural land used for energy production, and less available for food production, common land might have to meet challenges that have not been met in the recent past. That will be a test of the legislation. The changes in the common agricultural policy and the different ways in which rightholders use their rights will be very interesting. Now that all the support has gone from production and there is no direct pressure on farmers to graze as much stock as they did in the past, it is possible that biodiversity will vastly improve.

It would be wrong to refer only to commons and not to village greens, which are very important to our communities. They are green lands in the middle of our towns and cities. They are important not only environmentally, but as a community resource. It has been a privilege to work with everyone involved. I am
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sure that the Bill will stand the test of time, and I look forward to its implementation.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

International Development

Question agreed to.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): I shall put motions 3 and 4 together.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Church of England (miscellaneous Provisions) Measure

Pastoral (amendment) Measure

Question agreed to.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Strategy for Sustainable, Competitive and Secure Energy

Question agreed to.

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Antisocial Behaviour (Hartlepool)

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

5.16 pm

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): It is an honour and a privilege to have secured the debate—although, given its nature, I sincerely wish that I had not had to initiate it. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on his relatively recent appointment to the Home Office. It is very well deserved, and I know that in his own constituency of Gedling he has worked hard on the issue of antisocial behaviour.

There has been real success in Hartlepool in bringing down crime rates in recent years. As a result of sustained funding and investment by the Government, and a degree of determination on the part of a variety of organisations and the community in the town to work together in partnership, there has been significant improvement. In 1999-2000, house burglaries were occurring at a rate of 39.4 in every 1,000 households, double the national rate. In 2004-05, the rate was down to 22.2. We had about 250 burglaries a month in the town a few years ago; now there are about 35 a month.

As for vehicle crime, Hartlepool was well above the national average, with 21.6 offences per 1,000 of the population in 1999-2000. The figure fell to 14.6 per 1,000 in 2004-05, below the national average, and indicators for this year show a 46 per cent. reduction in theft from a motor vehicle year on year. Although robbery rates increased slightly in England as a whole between 1999-2000 and 2004-05, in Hartlepool they fell. This year, robbery is down by almost a quarter year on year.

The Hartlepool basic command unit, led by Steve Ashman, is the only BCU in the country that figured in the top lists for both crime reduction and detection rates in the past year. Reassuringly for residents, in April 2006 Hartlepool became the pilot area for neighbourhood policing in the Cleveland police force area. An additional 21 police community support officers, paid for by the Home Office and the Hartlepool partnership—which I chair—mean that a total of 74 police officers are now part of the neighbourhood policing team in each of the communities in the town, patrolling all 17 wards, with neighbourhood police stations located in such places as Dyke House school, the Fens shops and a community centre in Greatham, providing real community reassurance.

Given those successes, why am I taking up the House’s time? Criminal and antisocial behaviour are still blighting the lives of far too many of my constituents.

Mr. Fraser Kemp (Houghton and Washington, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that one blight on people’s lives is the incidence of airgun attacks, which is an aspect of antisocial behaviour that I am sure his constituents, like mine, have suffered. Given the great success of the recent knives amnesty, will he support my call for an amnesty for airguns, so that some of the attacks can be prevented? The more we can get those dangerous and deadly weapons off the streets, the safer life will be for many people.

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Mr. Wright: I know that my hon. Friend works hard in his constituency to ensure that antisocial behaviour is minimised as much as possible. The knives amnesty has been a real success and I would fully support his call for an airgun amnesty along the same lines. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have some words to say about that.

The problems that I have been trying to explain are most vividly expressed by the people who suffer from antisocial behaviour. I received an e-mail this week, timed at 5.40 in the morning, from a resident in the Dyke house area, which read:

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