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Lord Hardy of Wath: I had not intended to speak on this amendment but as noble Lords are touching upon matters almost in a Second Reading way, I thought I should say a few words in regard to the effects of irresponsible access.
The vast majority of people who want to enjoy the British countryside will cause no problem. However, we have to recognise that there are those who, through ignorance or sheer ill-will, inflict a great deal of damage. From my own observations during the past two or three years, I can think of half a dozen skylark nests which have been destroyed; I saw a four-wheel drive vehicle wipe out the nest of a little ringed plover; I can point to two sites within a reasonable distance of my home where lapwings were driven off. All three species need our care and attention.
I hope that during the passage of the Bill we shall see the Government avoid the accusation of attempting to square the circle of, on the one hand, providing for massive rights of access and, on the other, giving a full commitment to the survival of wildlife.
I recall saying to Mr Meacher some months ago that I should like an answer to what I described to him as the "lady's slipper orchid" question. In 1975 I took the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act through the Commons. English Nature--the Nature Conservancy Council in those days--provided a list of species of flora and fauna which were endangered. One of them was the lady's slipper orchid, to which I have referred in previous debates but the point needs making again. In 1976 there was one lady's slipper orchid left in the United Kingdom. I believe that it is hanging on. Its location is a secret which has been thoroughly kept. I asked Mr Meacher what steps would be taken to ensure that a responsible rambler does not put his size 10 boot on the lady's slipper orchid; or, if the site is known in an attempt to secure protection, that some thief will not come along to take it. It would be a very attractive item for a thief to take.
The nature conservancy bodies at national level may be less anxious about the Bill than some of the organisations which flourish at local level. If a local naturalist trust or some other similar body has responsibility for a site where such a rare species exists, how can it be sure that it can protect that species by giving ecology a greater priority than access? I hope that the question will be answered in the debates as the Bill proceeds through the House. If it is not answered, the Government will not gain all the credit they deserve in so many ways in this field.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: The noble Lord made a very interesting speech--I agree with him--but does it lead him to the conclusion that my noble friend's amendment which clarifies the purposes of the Bill, should be supported or not?
Baroness Masham of Ilton: The public roam all over the place at the moment. I should like to give the Committee an example. Only last Friday, a gate was left open and about 100 of my sheep roamed onto a golf course. No one was very pleased about that situation. Will the Government give guidelines to the public that they must respect stock in fields? Control of the public is not easy. We who farm need help in dealing with the public, who can become very aggressive.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: A purpose clause debate on the Bill would have been useful if it had helped to draw together the strands we heard about at Second Reading; it would have been useful if it had painted more of the vision of where we are trying to get to with the Bill, which we support in general. The purpose clause should have mentioned the management of the natural resources of the countryside and the paths network to the benefit of the people and wildlife; it should have looked at regenerating rural communities through the wider use of the countryside. It reaches out towards doing some of that but it still has a long way to go.
It is very silent on resourcing, a matter which comes up time again as a major issue for user groups, land owners and access authorities. It is silent, too, on the issue of educating people. During the summer I talked to all manner of people about the Bill and found that they had a lack of education and knowledge of how to use the countryside. Far more guidance should be given in the Bill about access and closures.
The Bill is silent on giving local people--whether users, landowners or access authorities--a real, true say in the actions that the Countryside Agency will take as a result of this legislation. There should be far more of a link between people wanting to resource the countryside and farmers being seen as countryside stewards, and happily paying for that. For instance, there has been a missed opportunity with the reform of the hill farmers allowance. There are a number of criteria for enhancing that allowance but, even knowing that the legislation was coming, that has not been mentioned as a possible criteria. Indeed, if one has a land holding of more than 700 hectares, one will
Drawing together those kinds of strands will be very useful. Our amendments aim to do that, but I do not believe that this purpose clause does so. A purpose clause should mention something about bringing together people who could do a lot for the countryside. I must declare an interest as the vice-president of the British Trust of Conservation Volunteers, an organisation which is dedicated to enhancing the future of the countryside. It works with people on the New Deal, with people who at the moment have no future, to harness their energies and enthusiasm to produce a different picture in terms of path erosion and to provide other great benefits which they can bring through their schemes. At present, too many of the Conservative amendments tend to divide users and owners and set them at loggerheads. The theme of our amendments will be local cohesion and agreement.
The purpose clause relating to the rights of way network presents difficulty. For these Benches, the rights of way network referred to in Part II represents a missed opportunity. The purpose should be to enable the network to be maintained and enhanced for the benefit of all users; to promote linkages of the fragmented parts of the network; and to enable simple mechanisms for diversions and changes which benefit landowners and users alike, and which do not harm the network. Part II does not even approach that vision at this stage.
There is presently a large hole in the Bill. I should have liked to see the inclusion of commons and village greens, which the Bill does little to protect. They are an essential part of access although they are often only pockets of land. In examining the question of open access, we should protect the small as well as the large.
Finally, wildlife protection is a cosy, "huggy" area, so there is wide consensus. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, in his comment on species protection. It is a matter that we shall examine--if we ever get to Part III, as we all very much hope. The message through the summer--from people dedicated to wildlife and from those with merely a passing interest, but who are horrified at its decline--has been one of nervousness about the Bill. They do not want to see the Bill disappear--if only because they are keen on greater wildlife protection. We have a vision of how the Bill can be improved and we mean to help the Government to achieve that vision in the coming days.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Briefly--I do not want to take up the time of the Committee--we have tabled an amendment with regard to the precautionary principle and wildlife. We shall explore issues relating to nuisance and aggravation through our amendment extending the exclusion period to 27 days instead of one day. It is an area that we are interested to explore.
We owe a debt of gratitude to my noble friend for introducing the amendment for two reasons. The first relates to the merit that purpose clauses have. It was well spelt out by my noble friend Lord Renton. So far as I am aware, purpose clauses as a principle of good legislative practice have never been challenged. The principle may not have been used as often as it should have been. This Bill presents a good opportunity.
Secondly, I should like to applaud and say how enlightened I was by the masterful and authoritative speech of my noble friend Lord Brittan. I ask the Minister whether, when he gaily signed the statement on the European Convention on Human Rights, he had received anything like the quality of advice that my noble friend has just given. It is all too easy for Ministers just to sign bits of paper placed in front of them by civil servants. This is a serious aspect of the Bill.
As I drove to the House today I was able to listen to a fascinating radio programme in which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, was interviewed about the effect of the new Act and the European convention. I suggest that unless the Government have very good evidence to refute the contentions of my noble friend Lord Brittan, they should assure us that they will re-examine this important point.
I hope that the Bill eventually becomes law. It contains much that is good. But we simply cannot allow legislation to slip through if it is not properly drafted and will not work. That would bring no credit on Parliament or the Government. Most of all, it would not help the relationship between those who live and work in the countryside and those who visit it--a relationship which it should be the object of any government to improve.
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