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Baroness Byford: I thank the Minister for going through such a big group of amendments. In fact, it is so big, it is difficult to respond to it.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I appreciate that point. If any Member of the Committee wishes to write to me when they have considered the group, I shall endeavour to reply as quickly as possible. I appreciate the complex inter-relationship that is involved. As I say, if Members of the Committee wish to write to me, I shall be only too happy to respond.

Baroness Byford: My comments were not intended as a criticism; I stated a fact. I have several queries with regard to the noble Baroness's response. I shall read Hansard and return to the matter. The measures have a number of implications which I am anxious not to overlook. As the noble Baroness is aware, some of my subsequent amendments comprise probing amendments to these measures. I was glad to hear her clarify that a landowner or land manager of an SSSI who wishes to modify it will be given three years in which to do so but after that time will be able to resubmit his application. As I say, because of the length of the Minister's response, I think that it is much better that I return to the matter at a later stage.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: We are discussing Amendment No. 515, are we not?

Noble Lords: All of the amendments in the group.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: It seems to me to be appropriate to make some comments at this stage. I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness on staying awake during her speech which, through no fault of hers, was not full of interest. It was a terrible recital to have to make. I felt some sympathy for the noble Baroness. However, I have to tell her that not even the charm and good manners with which she normally speaks in this Chamber could invest that material with any charm, although that was not her fault.

As I understand it, the whole of this schedule is now up for discussion. I should like to be told if I am wrong. Putting it as civilly as I can, I think that it is a fairly revolting monster which was heaved at Parliament as

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an afterthought. I always find it rather objectionable when Ministers, some of whom are possessed with extremely bad ideas, come to this Chamber and--as on this occasion--empty their slop pail all over the statute book. It makes a nasty, disagreeable mess. I do not think that any amount of tidying up of which this Chamber is capable will be adequate.

The first point I want to make on this monster schedule is the following. How much prior consultation has there been with the army of people who are concerned in some way or other with sites of special scientific interest? I do not believe that there has been any great amount of consultation. As I understand the measure, it is designed to create bodies and powers and to pass about the powers in a rather high-handed fashion. I hope that the Minister will tell me immediately if he thinks that I have in any way misunderstood the situation. As I see it, this constitutes the major opportunity for us to discuss the schedule in detail. I seek guidance on that. But it seems to me that it would be wrong if we were expected to accept it in the form of an amendment and then say no more. I ask the Minister for guidance on this matter.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I apologise if my concentration made my delivery rather pedantic.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: It had nothing to do with the delivery; it was the material that was at fault.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: We issued a consultation paper in September 1998. The issues covered in the transitional provisions which the group of amendments encompass take forward the matters that were raised. Although the technical procedure for achieving the objective of this group of amendments is necessarily complex--for which I apologise--the issue is a simple one; namely, how to equate the existing provisions with the provisions in the Bill during the interim period before the Bill is enacted.

The other important point to place on record is that there has been extensive discussion on the SSSI provisions with the National Assembly for Wales, including the extent of the transfer of functions. The Assembly fully supports the proposed arrangements. I apologise again for the detail of the means of achieving what is a necessary, short-term transitional objective.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 67, as amended, agreed to.

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 510:

    After Clause 67, insert the following new clause--

Compulsory acquisition of land by Nature Conservancy for establishment of nature reserves

(". In section 17 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (compulsory acquisition of land by Conservancy for establishment of nature reserves), for the words "on terms appearing to them reasonable" there is substituted ", on reasonable terms,".").

The noble Baroness said: I refer to the provisions for compulsory purchase under the 1949 Act to be made consistent with those under the Bill.

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In response to strong concerns voiced in Committee in the other place, the Government amended the provisions of the proposed new Section 28L(2)(a) to provide that, before acquiring an SSSI compulsorily, English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales should show that they were unable to conclude a management agreement "on reasonable terms", rather than--as originally drafted--

    "terms appearing to them to be reasonable".

This amendment provided welcome recognition of a lack of balance in the arrangements for compulsory purchase. The ability to take a view on what is reasonable should not lie solely with English Nature or the Countryside Council for Wales but should also lie equally with the owner.

While an appropriate balance has been restored in the Bill between the interests of English Nature, the Countryside Council for Wales and owners, an inappropriate balance still persists elsewhere. In particular, Section 17 of the 1949 Act, which provides compulsory purchase powers in relation to national nature reserves, provides that land will not be compulsorily acquired unless English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales are satisfied that they are unable to conclude a management agreement,

    "on terms appearing to them reasonable".

The same issue arises here under the proposed new Section 28L(2) as originally drafted. The same correction should accordingly be made. The suggested amendment would ensure consistency among all the provisions relating to compulsory purchase of land by English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales. I beg to move.

Lord Renton: I support my noble friend's amendment. Clearly, what we are dealing with here is something that requires an objective criterion because it will at times become judicial or quasi-judicial. For the people who make the decision to have the last word on terms appearing to them reasonable seems to be quite wrong in the circumstances. This is an important constitutional point and one which I very much hope that the Government will accept.

6 p.m.

Lord Whitty: We are repeating to some degree an earlier discussion. The amendment concerns the circumstances in which the agencies may proceed to acquire compulsorily any interest in land in relation to a national nature reserve.

The declaration of national nature reserve is at the heart of the agencies' statutory responsibilities. They have a significant statutory role under the 1949 Act in declaring land as a national nature reserve and ensuring once the declaration is made that the land continues to be managed satisfactorily. There are well over 200 such reserves in England and Wales, some in public ownership but the remainder owned privately and managed in accordance with an agreement with the agency. These are truly special sites, often providing substantial opportunities for study and research and in many cases enabling people to experience a particularly fine view of nature at first hand.

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While land is not declared as an NNR without the consent of the landowner, there may be circumstances where the agencies have been unable to enter into or renew an agreement for management of it as a reserve. In those exceptional circumstances, the agencies have the power to acquire the land so that they ensure that it continues to be managed in ways which serve the national interest.

Once again, that power of compulsory purchase is very much a last resort. But in relation to the acquisition of land for national nature reserves, it does not appear to me unacceptable that the decision whether to make an order acquiring the land should turn on whether the conservation agency is able to conclude an agreement on terms appearing to it to be reasonable. Indeed, it is difficult to envisage how it could judge the reasonableness in any other way. It would have to decide whether it was acting reasonably. That would then be subject to appeal or to a court to judge the reasonableness.

As we argued in the earlier context, this is a standard approach adopted widely in legislation. I referred earlier to the terms of planning legislation when there is reference to its own opinion and environmental legislation where there is reference to reasonable opinion. There is a full and appropriate means to test the decision--whether the appellate procedure considers it reasonable. But in the first instance it must be for the agency to decide to follow a path which appears to it to be reasonable. The logic of that stands up. The precedent of earlier legislation stands up. There are means to test the decision were the reasonableness of the action to be challenged.

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