HC Deb 21 April 1939 vol 346 cc712-9

1.26 p.m.

Mr. Mander

I beg to move, in page 4, line 32, at the end, to insert: Provided that no Order shall be made in respect of any land to which regular public access has been permitted for a continuous period of ten years prior to the first day of January, nineteen hundred and thirty-nine. The object of this Amendment is to preserve existing rights. Where for a period of 10 years, or, indeed, for very much longer, perhaps hundreds of years, the public have been permitted access, there is no reason why this should be disturbed, and it is a fact that in the greater part of England and Wales there is no problem or trouble. It is only in the Derbyshire district that trouble arises, and that is why this Measure is required. It may be said that landowners are unlikely to take advantage of the provisions of the Act to disturb what has been going on satisfactorily for so long, but undoubtedly there is power under Clause 3 for an owner of land to apply for an Order the effect of which, if made, would be to bring in all the penal Clauses with regard to access, to abolish the law of trespass, and to limit the periods during which people could go on to the land. It would be deplorable if the passage of this Measure made it possible for some reactionary landowner to take it into his head to disturb what has been going on satisfactorily for so long, and put into operation this new and restrictive machinery, which is nothing like so good as what is happening in the greater part of England and Wales at the present time. I desire to press the Amendment very strongly, because I feel that it would be disastrous if any power were given to disturb existing arrangements. I am not dealing with the Bill itself, or with what it does for the areas under consideration, but am simply speaking of places where everything is going on satisfactorily. Why disturb them and make it possible for any landowner to alter the present satisfactory arrangement?

Mr. Harvey

I beg to second the Amendment.

1.29 p.m.

Mr. Creech Jones

I think that all of us would sympathise with the point of view that the hon. Member has put, but, unfortunately, the Amendment hardly covers the position he has in mind. It should be appreciated that at the present time, in respect of private land, the public have no rights whatsoever to wander, and it could quite easily happen that land which had been opened up to public access, but which was still in private possession, could be fenced round and the public excluded altogether. It often happens that there is a change of ownership, when land is transferred to another owner or when the present owner dies, and if in such a case the new owner should decide that the public should not have access to the land, under this Amendment the public would have no redress whatsoever. Therefore, while we sympathise with the object of the Mover, we ask the House to resist the Amendment, so that, what-may be the future of the land, at least it shall be possible, if it comes within the terms of the Bill, for the Minister to make an order on an application with respect to the land should the land be closed in.

Personally, I think we should leave the matter as it is, to the discretion of the Minister. We recognise the very generous way in which numbers of landowners have agreed that, so far as their own rights in respect of the land are concerned, they shall be transferred to the Minister in order that he may exercise his discretion, and the public likewise should be prepared to trust the Minister to exercise his discretion wisely should an application ever be made for the enclosure of land to which the public now enjoy access. If it can be established that, without damage or prejudice to the owner, access to the land has been enjoyed by the public for a long period, it is very unlikely that the Minister will make such an order, because, after all, his order will only be made after a public inquiry, and if at the public inquiry it is established that no prejudice to the owner has resulted from the public having access to the land, we must trust the Minister and believe that he will not make an order imposing restrictions on the access to the land. For these reasons we ask the House not to accept this Amendment, much as we sympathise with its object.

1.34 p.m.

Mr. Macquisten

This is a very specious Amendment, the result of which would be that many owners who have allowed their land to be used by the public will say that they must protect themselves. I can recall one case in which something of that kind happened. A new owner came in, took over a piece of waste land to which the public had had access for many years, and, with great agricultural skill, made it blossom like the rose, and, of course, it had to be taken away from the public. If this provision came into operation, that beneficial action might have been prevented. It is a very dangerous Amendment.

1.35 p.m.

Mr. Price

I should feel inclined to support the general idea of this Amendment, seeing that in my own constituency, the Forest of Dean, the public have had access to the forest and open land around it for centuries. Therefore, anything which might facilitate the owner—in this case the Forestry Commission, or the Crown— to close in part of this land I should naturally resist. On the other hand, I do not see that this Amendment is very necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Creech Jones) has shown that there is machinery in the Bill to prevent anything of that kind. I am prepared to trust to that machinery and to the force of public opinion in the locality, which should be very considerable. In any case, I do not think the Forestry Commission would close lands other than those now being closed.

1.37 p.m.

Mr. Ramsbotham

The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander) is unduly apprehensive, I think, with regard to this Clause, and I do not believe the Amendment would improve it. In the first place, if everybody concerned wanted to have an order and no objection was raised, there seems to be no reason why the Minister should prohibit the making of the order. If a public inquiry was held and it was shown that an order was undesirable, by reason of the fact that the public had had access for years, I cannot see the Minister lightly disregarding the history of the area. Thirdly, there is a danger that I see in accepting the Amendment. Take the case of an area which has been regularly visited by the public. Suppose a new landowner comes along who is of a less friendly disposition. If this Amendment were on the Statute Book there would be no power to make the order, and, so far from this being in the interests of the public, it would be to their disadvantage. From a psychological point of view, it is worth remembering what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. Macquisten) has said. The Amendment would not improve the Bill, and would, in certain cases, do considerable harm to the very interests which the Mover and most of us wish to protect.

Mr. Mander

In view of the fact that the promoter considers the words to be unsuitable and to go too far, would he be prepared to consider inserting in another place an Amendment which would meet apprehensions that many of us feel?

1.39 p.m.

Mr. Stephen

I rise to support the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander). I think there ought to be some protection of existing rights. The protection afforded by the fact of the Minister having to make an order is not sufficient, and possibly in another place the promoter of the Bill would be able to meet what is the purpose of this Amendment, but what, unfortunately, it does not achieve. I daresay there are other members in the same position as myself, having had letters from the ramblers' associations objecting to the Bill in the form it is now, because it will possibly take away liberties that they now enjoy. The purpose of this Amendment should be secured. I admit that, having listened to the various interpretations, I think the Amendment as it stands would be dangerous. But the House should be given the assurance that rights enjoyed by the public at present are not going to be derogated in any way by the passage of the Bill. If the Bill is to be passed, it must be an addition to the rights at present enjoyed by the public. I have been approached by people in my constituency who have been very interested in the Bill, and about the one good thing that I see in the Bill now is the last Clause, which says that the Act shall not apply to Scotland. If it were to apply to Scotland, I think that I would, with my colleagues, try to prevent it passing in its present form.

Mr. Macquisten

It is not a question of rights, but of permission.

1.41 p.m.

Mr. Harvey

I wish to support the appeal that an effort should be made in another place to meet the intention of the Amendment. The Minister indicated that, although he disapproved of the terms of the Amendment, there was a very reasonable purpose underlying it. I think it would be possible, with the help of the Law Officers, for the promoters to find some words to safeguard the public on a point on which there is widespread anxiety. It would be lamentable if this Bill, which is called the Access to Mountains Bill, should finally take a form which would justify the title "Prevention of Access to Mountains." No one wants that to happen, after the very devoted labours of the promoters, of the Bill. I think that in all parts of the House there is a desire that the purposes of the Bill should be fulfilled, and it should get on the Statute Book in a form which will command general assent. I do not think it will be beyond the power of the Law Officers and the promoters to find a form of words which will have the effect of safeguarding existing rights and not extending the law of trespass.

1.43 p.m.

Mr. Noel-Baker

Everybody in the House has great sympathy with the point of view of the hon. Member who moved the Amendment and those hon. Members who supported it. They want to be assured that on land where liberal practices have been adopted that shall continue to be the case. But I suggest that the Amendment would achieve exactly the opposite of what they want. It would, in many cases, prevent the public from being protected, whereas the Bill will protect them. I suggest, with the utmost respect, that there are two mistakes in the minds of hon. Members supporting the Amendment. They assume that those owners who have pursued a very intelligent practice up to the present will be induced by the Bill to change their policy, and, in the second place, that the public have got rights now which could be diminished by the operation of an order by the Courts. But the owners who have adopted that intelligent policy in the past will be likely to continue to do so in future. If they tried to introduce new restrictions they would bring a hornets' nest about their ears. I can imagine what would happen, for instance, to a landowner in the Lake District who tried to diminish the facilities for access to the public.

On the second point, the public, unfortunately, have no rights. It is not a question of, as the hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen) said, protecting existing rights; the rights do not exist. If an owner tries to impose restrictions, as owners do continually— I could take the hon. Member to many places within reach of London to which it is highly desirable that the public should have the right to go, but where within the last 10 years new owners or the successors of old owners have forbidden access which used to be allowed— under this Bill we have the right to stop him, and we can rely upon the Minister to see that the rights of the public are secured. As to the point put forward by the hon. and learned Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) I do not think the Bill would so operate. I hope that the hon. Member for East Wolver-hampton (Mr. Mander) will not persist in his Amendment.

1.46 p.m.

Mr. Mander

I made an appeal to the promoters to facilitate the further passage of this Measure by saying that they would try to consider whether certain words could not be found, agreeing that my words are unsuitable, between now and what happens in another place. The promoters have made no response, and I hope that in the interests of the further progress of the Bill, the hon. Gentleman the Member for Shipley (Mr. Creech Jones) will be good enough to promise to do something.

1.47 p.m.

Mr. Creech Jones

Certainly, if the point can be properly covered, but the real difficulty is that the law gives the public no rights what ever, and we are trying to secure, by order of the Minister, the continuance of access. The Amendment would, unfortunately, have the opposite effect, and it would be a matter of considerable difficulty to find words to meet the point of view of the Mover of the Amendment. We will search for the words, if such can be found, and consider whether they can be put down in another place, but I submit that it is far wiser to leave the whole matter to the discretion of the Minister, who will make a decision in the light of past experience where the public have had this enjoyment without prejudice to existing rights. Therefore, I suggest that the Amendment should not be pressed. We will search for a form of words, but I cannot possibly say whether such words can be found.

1.48 p.m.

Mr. Silverman

I have not followed the progress of this Measure very closely, but I have followed this particular discussion, and I wonder whether the point made by the hon. Member for East Wolver-hampton (Mr. Mander) has really been seized, or whether I myself may have possibly misunderstood it. We are saying that in many places access has been allowed by the owner of land for a number of years. It may be true to say that the public does not acquire any rights thereby, but, on the other hand, one would have thought that if it had gone on for long they would have acquired some rights. I understood the Mover of the Amendment to say that if the position were left as it now is, the public would be satisfied, but if, on the other hand, an order were made affecting the land, the order having the consequences which this Rill contemplates, it might leave the public in a worse position than they were before. That seems to be a simple point. It may be that this particular Amendment is not apt to meet it, but it looks as if it is not unreasonable to ask that the point should be met, and not impossible to devise some form of words to meet it. The promoters of the Bill ought to have no difficulty, and certainly ought not to display any reluctance, in attempting to see whether they can find some form of words to meet this limited class of case, so that the making of an order should not leave the public worse off than they were before.

Mr. Macquisten

We ought to assume that the Minister will act intelligently.

Mr. Noel-Baker

If we can find a way of doing this we shall be delighted, and if a means can be suggested to us between now and another stage of the Bill, we shall be glad to consider it. We cannot think of any form of words which would not do more harm than good, and we are satisfied that the words of the Amendment would do more harm than good.

Mr. Mander

In view of the attitude taken by the promoters, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

1.52 p.m.

Mr. Creech Jones

I beg to move, in page 5, line 2, to leave out from "conditions," to the end of line 3.

This Amendment is consequential on the Amendment to leave out Sub-section (4) of Clause 1.

Amendment agreed to.