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Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I am very often on my noble friend's side. I am sympathetic with his wish that the cost of signs should not be borne by the person who owns or occupies the land. However, I am worried about the possible results of the wording of the amendment, particularly the words "shall", "requisite" and "any source of danger".

The countryside should be as unspoilt and as beautiful as possible. I would generally rely on a landowner to respect that view, but I am worried that

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a local authority with a statutory obligation expressed in the words of the amendment would go over the top. We could end up with an awful plethora of signs, repetitions of signs and goodness knows what. Frankly, I believe that the landscape is much too precious to take that risk. Therefore, I would not be happy with Amendment No. 100, put forward by my noble friend.

9.15 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I start by reminding the House that, although grave matters have been discussed in this short debate, Clause 19 concerns notices. It is not a fundamental part of the Bill, although I do not deny that notices can be most valuable as well as, as the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, said, potentially dangerous.

I speak first to government Amendment No. 101 which provides that, before an access authority erects a notice on access land under Clause 19, it should, where reasonably practicable, consult the owner or occupier of the land. This amendment meets the commitment that we made in Committee to introduce a duty on access authorities to consult, similar to their duty under Section 27(1) of the Countryside Act 1968 to consult before erecting signposts on rights of way.

I was asked why that duty is qualified by "if reasonably practicable". It can often be difficult to assert the identity of the owner or occupier of land, particularly where the land is unregistered and where there is no obvious person in occupation. That does occur in areas of open country. If the requirement were not qualified in that way, the access authority might be required to erect a notice simply to inform "anyone whom it may concern" that it intended to erect another notice using its powers under Clause 19. I believe that the House will agree that that would not make very good sense. Therefore, the qualified requirement meets all reasonable demands for consultation.

I turn to the other amendments in this group. Amendment No. 97 would place a duty on authorities to erect notices indicating the boundaries of access and excepted land and giving information as to the effect of restrictions or other information about access land wherever it is reasonably practicable to do so. What is "reasonably practicable" in this case? I know what the phrase means when it refers to identifying owners. However, in this instance "reasonably practicable" could mean that they should not bump into each other but should be placed apart at a distance, say, of 3 feet. I do not know what is intended.

Our intention is that the authority should be able to erect signs where they are most needed, perhaps at frequently used means of access or locations where the boundary of access land may not be clear. However, here "reasonably practicable" seems to run the risk--again, identified by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford--of flooding our uplands with unnecessary signs. I do not believe that anyone wants to see that.

We believe that it is right for local authorities to use their discretion in assessing where and when notices are required. As I said, government Amendment

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No. 101 places those authorities under a duty to consult, if reasonably practicable, the owners or occupiers of land before erecting notices. Therefore, I believe that we could expect people on the ground, so to speak, to reach sensible agreements without adding this amendment to the Bill.

Amendment No. 98 would require that access authorities should consult,

    "persons interested in the land".

Again, I have lent my support to consultation. However, who are persons interested in the land? As I said in Committee, "interest" is defined in Clause 41 as including any estate in land and any right over land, including by virtue of a licence or agreement. That would mean common or sporting rights over the land. It would not be practicable to require consultation with all those interests, of which there could be hundreds in a particular area. The notices would not have any impact on most of the people who would be required to be consulted.

Amendment No. 99 would require access authorities to erect notices,

    "in particular where a definitive map in conclusive form is not in existence".

However, the right of access will not come into force until definitive maps are in existence. It would not be appropriate to erect notices before the right comes into force purely to inform the public that they do not have a right of access. That is the only sense that I can make of this amendment.

Amendment No. 100 concerns the safety of those who exercise the new right of access and how it should be protected. We have made clear that those who exercise the new right should take responsibility for their own safety. I believe that that is the fundamental principle to which we must adhere. It is not for government or anyone else to take the necessary steps to ensure that no one is injured, lost or damaged in any way in our countryside. That would be the nanny state carried to absurd extremes. People expect to take risks; they do so now and they will continue to do so. Some people glory in it. I cannot think why, but they do. That is why we have substantially removed occupiers' liability in relation to the natural features of the landscape.

Government Amendment No. 73, to which we have already agreed, removes occupiers' liability in respect of any river, stream ditch or pond, whether or not it is a natural feature, and also removes liability in respect of someone suffering injury when climbing or walking through a wall, fence or gate. Government Amendment No. 77 provides for the courts to have regard to, in considering questions of liability, the need to ensure that the new right of access does not place an undue burden on the owner or occupier of land.

I understand concerns that landowners should not be subject to additional costs. But local authorities will have, in some circumstances, powers to remove dangers on land and to make payments to others who carry out works to prevent or remove danger. In addition, land which poses a danger to the public by

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virtue of anything done or proposed to be done to the land--such as, for example, quarrying--may be closed to access under Clause 23 of the Bill.

There may be some cases where the landowner is obliged to fence dangers such as quarries. If the noble Earl, Lord Peel, wants to talk about that between now and a later stage, I am happy to do that. But in many cases they already have those duties under existing legislation. There are duties under environmental protection legislation and under health and safety legislation which require landowners or employers to remove dangers.

And of course, access authorities will have the power under Clause 19 to erect notices informing the public of any hazards on the land where the access authority feels that warning is needed. So it is not necessary to give those access authorities a duty to fence off that land.

Finally, Amendment No. 103 would make the removal or defacement of a notice erected under Clause 19 a criminal offence. I agree that notices should be protected from vandalism and I am happy to inform the noble Earl, Lord Peel, that they are already protected under existing criminal law. Section 1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971 provides that a person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another, intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged, shall be guilty of an offence.

Earl Peel: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that. Will he give me an assurance that that criminal activity of removing or defacing a notice will appear in the code of practice? I say that because it is such an integral part of implementing the access agreements that I believe it should be made absolutely clear to everybody that removing or defacing a sign is a criminal offence.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I agree with that and I shall draw the noble Earl's remarks to the attention of those who are drawing up the codes of practice.

Finally, I turn to Amendment No. 102. We have provided that access authorities may contribute to the cost of a landowner erecting a suitable notice or may refund the cost in full. We have not made that a requirement because authorities must be able to use their discretion in judging whether a contribution should be made.

It may well be reasonable for authorities to reimburse landowners who have put up useful and informative signs. But I do not see a need for a plethora--again, I use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford--of signs on open country, and I do not want to promote such an outcome by providing that signs will always be funded at public expense.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his very full reply to the amendments. I smiled slightly when he asked where we got "reasonably practical"

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from. Indeed, had I known that in response to my amendment he was going to use the words "most needed", perhaps I should have considered those words to be more appropriate than "reasonably practical". But that is another matter.

I thank the Minister for his response. I am well aware that noble Lords on all sides of the House do not wish to see the countryside swamped with notices. That is something that we certainly do not want to see. But we feel that there should be sufficient notices at the right time and in the right place. That is why we chose the words "reasonably practical".

I turn to Amendment No. 101. I thank the Government for coming back with that amendment. We spoke about it in Committee and the Minister promised to return with an amendment, which we are now very pleased to have. The words "reasonably practical" do not cause concern to those of us on the Front Bench. The direction is that the owners should be consulted wherever it is reasonably practical to do so and we are grateful for that. Therefore, at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 98 and 99 not moved.]

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