HC Deb 23 June 1961 vol 642 cc1896-906

2.15 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

I beg to move, in page 4, line 29, at the end to insert: (4) The highway authority shall have power to recover the cost of replacing trees, shrubs and grass verges damaged by horses or cattle from the owner of such horses or cattle. I very much regret that the satisfactory progress which is being made has to be impeded for a short while, for reasons which I propose to set forth. The Amendment refers to a point which I raised in the Second Reading debate. I then developed the argument to a limited extent, and asked the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken) if he would consider an addition to the Bill in Committee. I said: If the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds could consider some addition to this Bill during the Committee stage to enable local highway authorities to recover the cost of cleaning up the roads and repairing damaged verges from the farmer whose cattle were responsible for causing the damage. I am quite sure that a great many people living in the country would be grateful to him. That is the only criticism I have of the Bill."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th February, 1961; Vol. 635, c. 1115.] It was not my good fortune to be appointed to the Standing Committee which considered the provisions of this Bill, but I studied the Report of its proceedings with considerable interest, and I found to my great regret that, either owing to an oversight on the part of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds or for some other reason, no attempt had been made to introduce the Amendment that I had suggested or something on similar lines.

During the Second Reading debate the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aviation, who was representing the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport, who was unfortunately not well on that day, dealt with numerous points that had been raised during the debate, but made no reference to what I regarded as the interesting and valuable suggestion that I had made. In those circumstances, I felt it my duty to put down this Amendment.

I hope that it will find favour both with the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds and the Parliamentary Secretary. Farmers or other persons in charge of horses or cattle do drive them along subsidiary roads at the side of which there are verges and hedges and, on occasions, either the person in charge of the animals does not exercise sufficient care or there are not a sufficient number in charge of the drove going along those subsidiary roads. As a result, the verges are trampled down, the soil from those verges is pushed into the ditch and the hedges—

Mr. Dudley Williams

The British Railways ditch will be covered, because of an Amendment we passed earlier.

Mr. Lipton

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Wigg

I urge my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) to consider whether it is in order for the hon. Gentleman the Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) to refer to an Amendment that was passed earlier.

Mr. Lipton

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) for that observation and, thus, I am obliged to both hon. Members for the contributions that they have so far made to this discussion. I hope that we shall hear the views of other hon. Members when I have concluded my arguments.

I was about to say that a drove of cattle might be taken along a subsidiary road where, particularly in winter, the verges are liable to be a little softer than usual. The verge may be trampled down, part of it may be pushed into the ditch and the other part scattered over the highway. The hedges may be nibbled and destroyed by the cattle or horses. It can and it does happen that perhaps an ordinary private resident has a reasonably nice garden, with one or two ornamental trees in the hedge. They may be destroyed or severely damaged. That can happen even though the cattle or horses may be under the control of someone acting on behalf of the farmer, that person perhaps taking the cattle from one field to another a hundred yards or so up the road.

Mr. Aitken

Would it not be most unusual for the ornamental trees and other ornaments actually to be on the highway?

Mr. Lipton

I am surprised at that intervention. I could take the hon. Gentleman to certain parts of the country, not far from London, where this sort of thing has happened more than once. I do not know what the conditions are like in Norfolk, or perhaps in East Anglia—

Mr. Aitken

In Suffolk.

Mr. Lipton

I am speaking in the broadest sense. It may be that the local farmers in these areas know how to behave, but in some counties some farmers—particularly city gentlemen who set up as farmers—do not know how to behave.

Mr. Wigg

Surely my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) sees the class approach to this matter by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken), who cannot conceive the possibility of someone having an ornamental tree in a hedge in his front garden. The hon. Gentleman's conception is of a great stately drive in which the trees are miles from the road. Our constituents, on the other hand, have their ornamental trees growing alongside the road.

Mr. Aitken

Perhaps I did not make myself clear. How can one make a highway authority responsible for something which cattle have done while moving along a highway which is not someone's private garden?

Mr. Dudley Williams

On a point of order. Is it not out of order to discuss trees in private gardens on this Amendment, which refers to verges only? I should have thought that the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) was out of order in discussing anything that happens in people's private gardens.

Mr. Wigg

Further to that point of order. I am not sure whether we are in the gardens or on the roads, and unless we can get this cleared up we shall be in an impossible position.

Mr. Lipton

The facts do not appear to have dawned on some hon. Gentlemen That may be because I have not made myself completely clear. It is possible for a hedge to be situated alongside a ditch. Let us proceed from there, by stages, because I want to make the matter as simple as possible or otherwise I shall be misunderstood. Let us assume that this hedge is alongside a ditch in a country lane and that it belongs to, or to some extent is the responsibility of, the owner of the house or garden behind that hedge. If the owner of that hedge allows it to become so unkempt that it protrudes over the highway, the local authority can require that owner, or the person responsible, to cut it back so as not to create an obstruction.

Mr. Dudley Williams

If the ditch is inside the hedge it is the responsibility of the local authority to keep the hedge tidy. But if the ditch is outside the hedge it is the responsibility of the owner.

Mr. Lipton

I accept that.

Mr. Wigg

Before my hon. Friend accepts that, is he quite sure about the position? I should have thought that it would have been exactly the reverse.

Mr. Lipton

The situation will become a little more clear when all hon. Members who have views on the subject have expressed them. I hope that they will now allow me to adduce my argument because they will find that it is not without substance.

Mr. Wigg

Hear, hear.

Mr. Lipton

We have arrived at the stage where the damage is done to the verge, in the first instance—and, incidentally, the damage is done to the hedge as well—by the cattle or horses of the farmer about whom I have been speaking. The position of the person outside whose property the verge is situated becomes difficult. He can institute legal proceedings against the farmer, in certain circumstances, although it is not his verge, but if the ditch is blocked and he suffers some inconvenience, he may be willing to engage a good lawyer and go to the trouble and expense of fighting the case. He may, in those circumstances, establish a case.

But, in the meantime, someone must repair and unblock that ditch. In certain parts of the country county councils are not very anxious to undertake one ha'porth of work if they can possibly avoid it. Thus the wretched citizen is subjected to this inconvenience and damage and probably has himself to try to repair it; firstly, because the farmer refuses to do anything about it, and, secondly, because the county council, as the highway authority, refuses to do anything about it either.

That constitutes a serious hardship to people who may be living in small cottages along a highway which has been disturbed in the manner I have indicated. In these circumstances, in order to reduce the inconvenience to the utmost possible extent, the county council, as the local highway authority, should be able to do the necessary repair work forthwith and to charge the cost to the farmer whose cattle have been responsible for the damage.

Mr. Ede

If they can prove that the grass verge is the property of the county council.

Mr. Lipton

Naturally, subject to that and similar provisos. I maintain that the local highway authority should have the power to recover the cost from the farmer who, in present circumstances, gets away with it altogether.

Mr. Wigg

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) in this matter, but is he right in agreeing with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede)? As I understand the purpose of the Amendment, the hon. Member for Brixton wishes the local highway authority to do the repairs and to seek to recover the cost from the owner of the horses or cattle. Is that the case and, if so, does the hon. Member for Brixton still wish to agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields?

2.30 p.m.

Mr. Lipton

I am prepared to be as accommodating as possible in order to secure acceptance of this Amendment. Of course, it would be ridiculous for the county council to incur expense without the remotest possibility of ever being able to recover it, but in the countryside everybody knows who does what, and it is not very easy to avoid responsibility in this kind of thing.

Therefore, I urge the Parliamentary Secretary and the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds to view this Amendment with favour. It tries to remedy perhaps not a very widespread hardship, but a hardship nevertheless. We have before us a Highways (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. Let us add just one more miscellaneous provision for the protection of the dweller in the cottage alongside the road, who has been put to considerable inconvenience by cattle either straying or being driven along the highway.

I ask that this matter be considered seriously because acceptance of the Amendment would go a long way towards protecting the interest and the convenience of small people living in rural areas, who are not big farmers and who have quite enough to put up with from their local county councils in backward areas, would-be squires and that sort of thing.

Mr. Aitken

I listened very carefully to what the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) has said, but I confess that I still find the intention behind the Amendment exceedingly obscure. As drafted, it would authorise a highway authority to recover from the owner of horses or cattle the cost of replacing trees, shrubs, grass and verges damaged by those animals, however slight the damage, regardless of whether the trees were on the highway or not, and regardless of whether they were the property of the highway authority or of some other person.

Is the hon. Member seeking to put on to the highway authority responsibility for the property of some other person? That is what the Amendment would seem to indicate. As for damage to grass verges, they are usually put down in a rough condition and I should not have thought they would suffer much damage from wandering cattle. Indeed, it is probably desirable that the drover should keep his cattle on the verge if he possibly can, as it is much safer for all who use the highway. If trees and shrubs are damaged there is already power to recover from the owner of the cattle. If the hon. Member wished to confer on the highway authority power to protect trees on the highway which the authority does not own but which it is responsible for maintaining, there might be a case for this Amendment, but not otherwise.

I regret to say that I cannot see any need for this Amendment, nor can I see how the hon. Member can expect a highway authority to do a job for which it is not responsible.

Mr. Wigg

I remember a case in my constituency of a man, not connected with agriculture, who was on his way to a factory and was knocked over by some beasts and received injuries. When he recovered he employed the services of an able lawyer and found himself immersed in tradition and law which went right back to the Middle Ages. Nothing is more complex than the law governing the responsibility for what beasts do upon the highway. There is a case for the whole of this problem to be reconsidered and for the law to be brought into line with present-day needs.

I remember driving along the road at my usual modest speed when suddenly an animal loomed up in front of me. I applied my brakes and avoided an accident, but a motorist who was following me told me that this was a fairly common occurrence. He himself had had a narrow escape and had protested to the owner of the animals, but all he had received was abuse because the owner thought that the highway was made for the animals.

It seems to me that my hon. Friend has not considered where the balance of argument rests. Most of what he said seemed to apply to animals which were going along a highway in the charge of a drover, the drover thinking of other matters and losing control so that the animals damaged a hedge or a verge belonging to a private person, the damage being of such a serious character that the highway authority should be responsible for repairing it. Is it the intention of the hon. Gentleman that if that were to happen the object damaged should be repaired by the highway authority which would then seek out the owner of the animal and recover the cost? There seems to be some doubt on that point. The Amendment might be of value if that were its purpose, and if the hon. Gentleman will give an assurance that he would accept something on those lines I would be prepared to accompany him into the Division Lobby.

Short of a re-examination of the law as a whole, which we cannot do today because we have other pressing matters to deal with later, and also because we should be out of order if we attempted it at this stage, we should try to introduce a concept which alters the balance of the argument to make the man who has cattle or horses aware of his responsibility in this matter so that the onus is on him to see that his animals do not get on to the highway.

It is all very well to say that the highway authority is responsible and that one can recover from it. But that is after the accident has happened. I agree with the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Aitken) that this Amendment would not achieve this purpose, even if one were quite sure what my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) was after. But I am in favour of some form of words of this kind which would bring home to the owners of animals that if they allow their animals to go on to the highway they will be brought to account.

My hon. Friend is right about the problems which will arise if the offender is to be brought to account by another resident in the area, who is probably on Christian-name terms with him, drinks at the local public house with him and worships at the same church. He will be reluctant to go to a lawyer, because the countryman knows what might happen to him if he made a journey to the nearest town and instructed a lawyer.

That is not the way to do it. Here is an occasion to use the power of the highway authority to see that justice is done in the interests of highway users. To have a Measure of this kind in the background might have a very potent effect in bringing home the fact that if people are careless in this matter they might be hit in the pocket. It is far better to attempt this than to wait until there is a great build up of opinion and the Government are then forced to depend on the luck of the Ballot and on the success of a kind-hearted Member such as the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds in introducing a Measure.

Short of the millenium, I hope that the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds will see the force of the argument for the Amendment. I thoroughly understand the reasons why he cannot accept it, but if he can give an assurance that he will see whether the problem can be tackled in another place, I shall be willing to ask my hon. Friend to withdraw the Amendment, and to move on to more pressing business. But if he cannot do that I shall accompany my hon. Friend into the Division Lobby.

Mr. Hay

With respect to the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton) the Amendment as it stands—and the House has to decide on this wording—obviously will not do for the purposes which he has in mind. The Amendment simply says that, The highway authority shall have power to recover the cost of replacing trees, shrubs and grass verges… It does not say where. It does not say "on a highway". They could be in the middle of Windsor Great Park or anywhere else. The Amendment continues, damaged by horses or cattle from the owner of such horses or cattle —and the horses or cattle might be anywhere in the country, and nothing in the Amendment makes clear which highway authority is concerned.

I appreciate that these are technical matters, for which I do not blame the hon. Member. We have all had trouble when on the back benches in trying to draft Amendments. But since the House must decide on these words, I must point out that clearly the Amendment will not do.

I will turn to the merits of the case. I hope that we shall make a little progress with the Bill, because time is getting on and there are other matters which await the attention of the House. It is not a very easy proposition to make that any damage which has been done by animals on the highway, whether they are under control or not, must automatically be compensated for by the owner of the animal. Let me refer particularly to grass verges. Grass verges are provided beside the carriageway and form part of the highway, and there is a legitimate and ancient right for anyone to lead animals along the highway. In fact, they lead them on the grass verges, those being part of the highway, for convenience, because the ground is softer than the hard surface of the carriageway, and in modern conditions they are thus not running the risk of being mixed up with vehicular traffic.

I hope that the hon. Member for Brixton will not press the Amendment to a Division but will withdraw it. As it stands, it will not do. If I may say so with respect, I do not think that it is well conceived. If what he has in mind is to ensure a change in the law relating to the liability for animals on the highway, I commend to him a Bill which was introduced this Session by his hon. Friend the Member for Aberdare (Mr. Probert), the Highways (Liability for Animals) Bill which as far as I am aware still stands on the Order Paper, and which has precisely that point in view.

2.45 p.m.

In all the circumstances, and since we are anxious to get on with the business, I hope that the hon. Member will withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. J. Wells

It is important that the agricultural and rural point of view should be stated, however quickly. I am grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for showing a clear understanding of rural life.

With great respect to the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton), this is a wonderful townsman's Amendment which bears no relation to the realities of the countryside. This loose definition of horses and cattle would alter the fundamental definition to which we have all been used in respect of animals on the highway. I deplore not only the wording of the Amendment but the spirit of it. I thought that I heard the hon. Member say that he would not withdraw the Amendment. I hope that he will change his mind. The position of the farmer in driving his cattle becomes more and more difficult every year, with the increase in the number of motor vehicles, and the farming community must be given every reasonable opportunity to move its animals about.

The hon. Member reasonably seeks to prevent damage, but damage is far more often done by motor vehicles than by cattle. Motor vehicles backing and turning, sometimes with careless driving of one sort or another, do far more damage to the side amenities of the highway than farm animals ever do. In the interests of a sensible and responsible rural community, I hope that the hon. Member will think again and will withdraw the Amendment.

Mr. Lipton

With the leave of the House I should like to add one or two words. The speech of the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. J. Wells) almost tempted me to adhere to my original intention and to force a Division, but I have made my point, and I hope that some thought will be given to the general problem in the future. In those circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.