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Lord Whitty: I am not persuaded by the arguments in favour of these amendments, largely for the reasons outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. We are talking about rights of way in both urban and rural areas. As I said during Monday's debate, our intention is that these new Sections 118B and 119B to the 1980 Act should be used sparingly to tackle serious problems of crime. They should not be used as an excuse for restricting the availability of existing and often historic rights of way.
It is not a question of the Government being soft on crime; nor are we complacent. We are concerned about the rise in crime in both rural and urban areas. But the key question is: what is the right mechanism for tackling crime? There are many ways in which crime should be more effectively tackled. Surely the closure of a highway is the measure of last resort. A right of way should be closed only when the threats posed by its availability to criminals are greater than its benefit to the public; in other words, the public interest in reducing crime has to be weighed against the public
The Government introduced these provisions because we stood by our belief that there are situations where closing or diverting a right of way could be justified. However, we do not wish to see that generalised. Indeed, we would need to find some fairly robust tests before we would resort to such a measure. The Government responded in another place to the arguments that the powers should not be confined to urban areas, as originally provided. We indicated then that there might be settlements and other places within rural areas where the use of such powers may well be necessary. Nevertheless, we regard such places as being relatively few. Therefore, these powers should be a last resort option.
Amendments Nos. 372 and 385 would remove one of the requirements that such powers should only be used when criminal activities are widespread in an area and are disrupting the local community. Unlike the noble Earl, Lord Peel, and the noble Baroness, we are not talking about relatively isolated or even sporadic criminal activity; we are talking about a systematic use of a highway, a byway or a right of way for criminal purposes. The effect of a single incident may well cause concern but it is not sufficient reason for closing a long-standing right of way. After fairly extensive debate in another place, we placed these provisions in the Bill and they were welcomed at that time. I believe that they strike the right balance.
I turn now to the query from the noble Earl, Lord Peel, about the rather different situation in relation to access land. If anyone is engaged in criminal activity on access land, criminal sanctions apply. I refer to the laws of trespass and the criminal law. Those sanctions will apply on that land. However, with regard to rights of way, we are dealing with a different situation. I do not think that the two situations are analogous. I hope that, for the reasons I have spelt out, the noble Baroness will not press the amendments.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I do not think that I heard the noble Lord refer to the involvement of the Secretary of State. If he did so and I missed it, I willingly give way. I belong to a legion of people who do not credit successive Secretaries of State with omniscience, or even exceptional wisdom. They are more than capable of making mistakes and, they take quite a long time in making them. It is a common habit of successive governments not to have sufficient confidence and trust in local authorities. Over a long term that has the effect of weakening local authorities when our desire should be to strengthen them. I hope that the noble Lord will at least refer to the involvement of the Secretary of State. He certainly has not as yet said anything to justify it.
Lord Whitty: I said that the use of these provisions should be subject to fairly robust criteria and procedures. The procedure in this case seems to us to require referral to the Secretary of State. I agree that Secretaries of State, with certain obvious exceptions, are not omniscient, but nor are county councils. The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, is also apposite here in that a temporary panic in relation to a particular crime or wave of crime could lead to local councils engaging in the closure of significant numbers of rights of way. That would be wrong. That is why we say that the matter should not be left simply to local decision. Rights of way should be closed for that reason only in exceptional cases. That is why we think that the Secretary of State should be involved in the matter and why we believe that the robust tests set out in the Bill would meet that point.
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: I beg the Minister to put himself in the shoes of people in a local community. If they consider that a footpath or a bridleway facilitates the commission of a series of crimes, they will discuss that matter within the local community. The valid arguments which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, deployed will also be deployed in the local community. The incidence of crime on a footpath situated alongside a main road will be discussed. The local community may decide that they want to close a footpath. The Secretary of State, with Olympian detachment, may say that he will not allow it, as he thinks that he knows better than the local community. These are matters for the relevant localities. Of course, people from outside the immediate locality who want to use the footpath must be involved in the discussions, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said. However, these are nevertheless local matters. I am surprised to hear the arguments that have been put forward by the Liberal Democrats as they invented community politics.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I had avoided making party political points until this moment. However, I am worried about those Conservative county councils who might use the amended provisions--if the amendments are accepted--to close the footpath network. The next group of amendments seeks to remove the words "high levels of" and "persistent" with regard to crime. If those amendments are accepted, those county councils could close the rights of way network for virtually any reason.
I thank my noble friend Lord Peyton for his comments as he touched on the very matter that I intended to mention. The Minister's response to those comments rather suggested that the Government do not have any trust in local authorities and therefore feel that the relevant decision must be taken by the Secretary of State. I always took the view that the provisions we are discussing would be used sparingly.
I thank those Members of the Committee who have spoken. I hope that the Minister has realised the strength of feeling that exists on this matter. I shall not press the amendment now but I believe that the Government would be wise to reconsider the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The proposed new Sections 118B(3)(a) and 119B(3)(a) of the Highways Act 1980 provide that powers to close or divert paths for the purposes of crime prevention can be used only in relation to highways that are
The Government seem intent on fettering what should be flexible and responsive powers to tackle crime related to rights of way with tests which put unnecessary barriers in the way of authorities seeking to use these powers. We accept that the powers will not be used on a regular basis. The requirement to show that premises adjoining or adjacent to a highway are
Lord Renton: The expression "high levels of crime" is not defined in the Bill, so far as I am able to discover. It is a vague expression. Some people would say that more than one theft constitutes a high level of crime. Other people believe that that constitutes a murder or manslaughter. The expression is so vague and uncertain. One of the responsibilities that we all have in both Houses of Parliament is to ensure that the laws that we pass are certain in legal effect. Nothing could be more uncertain than the expression "high levels of crime".
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