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Baroness Byford: No, indeed. But the Sunday Times article referred to both sets of figures. The noble Lord's interjection was right, but the report to which he alludes indicates smaller increases in the recorded crime figures than does the Experian survey.

The noble Lord has anticipated my remarks--namely, that many of us who live and work in the countryside have experienced what some might regard as smaller problems which are not necessarily reported to the police. I can confirm that from my own experience. At home--which I believe would fall into the new phraseology of "curtilege"--we have twice had occasion to ask people to leave the property, which they should not have been on. The first time, they left; the second time, they came back and torched the barn. Obviously, on the second occasion the fire

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brigade was called, but we did not report the matter to the police. I suspect that the same is true of many other farmers. So although a crime had been committed, it was not recorded by the police. The noble Lord is right: it is common knowledge that there are increases in crime.

These amendments are important because they place the responsibility of closing footpaths very much on the locality; they place it with the local highways and police authorities. I beg to move.

Earl Peel: I support my noble friend in these four amendments. Speaking first to Amendments Nos. 371 and 384, I can see no logic in the Secretary of State being involved in cases of closure or diversion of footpaths. It seems to me that either there is a problem and the most appropriate way of reducing crime is by closing or diverting the path, or there is not a problem. Frankly, I do not see why the Secretary of State should involve himself in such matters. Furthermore, these are local matters and are best dealt with by the police and the local authorities. I sincerely hope that the Government will look seriously at these two amendments.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I hope that the Committee will support my noble friend on this point. It sounds like a small matter, but it is in fact a rather large one. Anywhere in the country, a highway may make it more possible than it would otherwise be for crime to be committed. It could happen anywhere. It is ridiculous for the Secretary of State to have to say where that is more, rather than less, likely. Crime crops up anywhere, and highways are places where people who want to commit crimes very often gain access. The Government have an opportunity to lessen the appalling centralisation that is apparent in the Bill and to make it possible for local people to decide what should happen on their footpaths when their property is threatened by crime.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Given the way in which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, explained her amendment, it sounded as though, were it to be passed, the local parish council would be able to have an enormous say in what would happen to the paths in relation to crime. But as I understand the clause as drafted, the decision would still be that of the highway authority which, in the case of many of the authorities quoted by the noble Baroness, may cover a vast rural county; and the parish council is nearly as remote from its county as is the Secretary of State. Nevertheless, I do not feel that these amendments would necessarily bring the matter much closer to the parish council.

More seriously, the noble Baroness's amendment removing the words,

    "which would otherwise disrupt the life of the community"--

Baroness Byford: I believe that that amendment has been de-grouped. I have spoken to Amendments Nos. 371 and 384, which stand on their own. I do not think I have made a mistake.

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Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I thank the noble Baroness. I shall save my comments on the matter until later. The Minister indicates that the amendment is included in the grouping.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: No indication has been given that the grouping has changed. The noble Earl, Lord Peel, spoke to amendments in this group. It would perhaps be helpful to inquire as to whether any other cases of de-grouping are intended as it would make for a more orderly debate.

Baroness Byford: I apologise to the Committee. It is terrible to get matters wrong in moving the first amendment. I should have spoken to Amendments Nos. 372 and 385 at the same time. Is that correct?

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Yes.

Baroness Byford: With the leave of the Committee, perhaps it would be helpful if I spoke to those amendments as well. It is my mistake.

Perhaps I may turn to Amendments Nos. 372 and 385. Proposed new Sections 118B(1)(a) and 119B(1)(a) would provide the powers to close or divert paths for the purposes of crime. However, these powers can only be used in relation to crime,

    "which would otherwise disrupt the life of the community".

In practice, that test can be viewed in only two ways. First, I suggest that it would be impossible to satisfy that test, because someone could always be found among user groups--and not necessarily those based in the community concerned--to argue that particular crimes did not disrupt the life of the community; on the other hand, the test could be set aside every time because it could be equally well argued that every crime disrupts the life of the community and it certainly disrupts the life of the person affected and makes neighbours more wary as to the possibility of crime being committed. Accordingly, the test does nothing to assist the highways authority in determining whether to exercise its powers and we suggest that the provision should be deleted. Highway authorities would then be free to exercise their discretion to decide that paths should be extinguished or diverted simply in the interests of preventing or reducing crime.

The second two amendments to which I have spoken relate to a considered value judgment. I wonder whether we should be making legislation where it is reliant on a value judgment. I commend the amendments to the Committee.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: Perhaps I may continue with the point that I was making. It is fundamentally important that some test is put in place. Just because we are talking about footpaths and bridleways, which people may think of as minor rights of way in communities, they are no less important than the roads network. If we were to begin talking about closing roads where a local authority arbitrarily decided that it was able to do so without a rigorous test in place, there would be far more objection.

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I hope that in the future the footpath network will be more widely used. We certainly wish to see car use reduced. I am afraid that this kind of amendment might result in pressure being put on councillors to start closing the footpaths network without due test, which we should strongly resist. I have been a victim of three break-ins during the past year-and-a-half. There are two footpaths situated close to my house, but I should still say that those break-ins occurred due to the proximity of the road, not the footpaths. However, if I were so minded, I could equally claim that they happened as a result of criminals walking down the footpaths, though it would be hard to prove. This debate needs to take place. I suggest that the wording in the Bill as it stands would be a good test for introducing that debate.

Earl Peel: I support my noble friend's amendment. Quite frankly, I believe that these matters are best dealt with at a local level. That is the main point. The difficulty that we have with this part of the Bill is that we are not sure how to define the term "community". Are we talking about 50 per cent of the local population or are we simply talking about one or two people? For example, if a collection of houses situated somewhat apart from a village had been subjected to a series of burglaries, would that constitute disruption to the life of the community? I do not know the answer. But, conversely, if those two houses were, say, half a mile away from the village, the inhabitants could no doubt be described as "the community". In such circumstances, it is possible that another judgment would be forthcoming. This seems to me to follow the lines of the arguments that I advanced in respect of Amendments Nos. 371 and 384. As my noble friend said, let us not put unreasonable conditions on this very important part of the Bill. We should allow local knowledge and common sense to prevail.

I have one question for the Minister. If there is a footpath that runs through access land, which under the Bill is open to general rights by the public, clearly it would be possible to close the footpath under these provisions. However, I do not believe that there are any provisions under either Part I or Part II of the Bill for the closure of access areas for similar matters. If that is not the case, it seems to me that that is something to which the Minister ought to give serious consideration.

Lord Renton: I should like to follow on from my noble friend's interesting point. As far as I remember, the smallest area contemplated by the law is a parish. Although some parishes are fairly large, everyone living in that parish is "a community".

3.45 p.m.

Lord Greaves: I very much regretted not being able to be present during the Committee proceedings on Monday when similar matters were discussed. There is widespread concern that many of the provisions of Part II of the Bill will reduce, rather than expand, the opportunities for people to walk on footpaths and ride

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on bridleways in the countryside. It is a matter of debate as to whether that is right or wrong. Indeed, the issue was debated on Monday.

Attempts such as those contained in these amendments to provide greater opportunity for restriction can only increase that concern. The question has been asked as to why the Secretary of State should be involved. I am a localist on many issues. However, if such an issue is left only to local opinion, half of the people affected by the outcome will not be involved because they are not local by definition. The rights of way network in the countryside is used by local people but it is also used by people from outside the immediate locality. If we leave this to be dealt with at a very local level, we risk a hue and cry in many places. People will seize on this part of the Bill when crime occurs. Unfortunately, crimes occur everywhere from time to time. When they do, people will immediately start petitions to close footpaths. There is a risk that that will result in the build up of campaigns in rural areas and on the fringes of urban areas for the wholesale closure of historic rights of way that have existed for many years.

It may be necessary to consider such a risk as regards certain areas. I believe that my noble friend Lady Scott put forward our concerns. Indeed, I think that we should prefer not to have this provision in the Bill. However, if it is to be included, there must be safeguards to prevent people at a local level misusing it in such a way that all the stated aims of the Bill to enhance the rights of way network in the countryside will be affected.

The single main factor in the growth of crime in rural areas as regards highways is not footpaths; it is the development of the motorway network and fast roads which allow people to travel to areas quickly, do their worst and get out again. We all know that that is the case. No one is suggesting that we should close down motorways. If we want to tackle crime, let us do so. We should not blame it on the availability of rights of way.

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