HC Deb 10 March 1971 vol 813 cc456-62

(1) Section 143(1) of the principal Act (which gives highway authorities power to deal with barbed wire, at the side of a highway, which is a nuisance) shall be amended as follows:— After the words 'in or on it' there shall be inserted the words 'or, in the case of a highway being a bridleway, electrified wire'.

(2) After section 143(4) of the principal Act (which defines barbed wire ') there shall be inserted the following subsection:— (4A) For the purposes of this section 'electrified wire' means a wire through which an electric current may from time to time be caused to pass.—[Mr. James Johnson.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

A few seconds ago the Minister said that he hoped the House would find it easy to accept new Clause 4. I hope that the House will find it as easy to accept this new Clause. I was unfortunate in that I was not chosen to sit upon this fascinating Committee but I have perused the speeches of the Minister with much benefit. It was after doing so that my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow-in-Furness (Mr. Booth) and I tabled this new Clause.

In the first column of the first day's procedings in Committee an Amendment was moved dealing with footpaths and bridle paths. We are all concerned about access, convenience and conditions in using these footpaths and bridle paths. Our new Clause is drawn very narrowly, and it relates not so much to human beings being on these paths as to horses. I want to deal later with a speech made by the hon. Lady the Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett). She made such a ferocious speech that she completely quelled my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, North-East (Mr. Bradley), who promptly sat down in a panic. This is what I understand.

This is a matter of genuine concern for members of both sexes and for animals with or without wet noses. In Committee the hon. Member for Lancaster—I am sorry that she is not here—said: It is mainly a hindrance to animals with wet noses, which get a considerable shock from it. Persons wearing normal clothing would be unlikely to come in contact with it, and if they did they would suffer absolutely no damage."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee D, 26th January, 1971; c. 177.] I wonder about that. If the hon. Lady were wearing "hot pants" she might suffer some damage but I am told that the voltage is not too great.

Section 143 of the principal Act was enacted about 80 years ago. I have taken advice from some of my legal colleagues, and I understand that it has worked very well, enabling local authorities, highway authorities and even farmers, who can be a bit peppery sometimes, to deal with this nuisance of barbed wire at the side of gates and other places. I was born in a village, about half a century ago, and I know that farmers have progressed a great deal in that time. They have many more mechanical instruments and they tend to use more electrified wire. This is a useful development for farmers, but I speak on behalf of people who are not farmers. I am speaking on behalf of people who have horses and take lessons at riding schools. Although the current may be low and of not much nuisance to walkers, that is not the case with horses.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) is not here, because I gather that he is an expert in these matters and could speak with much more authority than I would dare to speak with. The undoubted purpose of an electrified fence is to give a shock to animals, particularly horses, which are much more skittish and masculine in their attitude than cows, which, despite their sex, tend to be much more stable and stolid when subjected to shocks.

Mr. Bob Brown (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, West)

I am grateful to my Northumbrian colleagues for putting their names to the new Clause. When my hon. Friend refers to horses, is he talking about gallawa's or cuddies, as we know them in my part of the country?

Mr. Johnson

Gallawa's, which are to be found in South-West Scotland, tend to be used in the pits. They do not constitute a menace in the same way as hunters or hacks. The cuddie does not often wander down footpaths. It is a donkey which is often seen on the seashore with juveniles on its back.

Societies like the Commons and Footpaths Society have made representations to us. I have been told that when one dismounts at a gate and leaves the horse behind, the horse may easily touch the electric wire. The hon. Lady the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Sally Oppenheim) assents. I hope that she will speak in the debate as the hon. Member for Gainsborough is not present.

All that we are requesting in this modest new Clause is that the paths be made a little wider at certain places. Councils and highway authorities are given powers to look after our equine friends and to widen paths. I would never dare to suggest that highway authorities should use their powers extensively, but powers should be used if it is necessary. Barbed wire fences can be a great nuisance to horses. I accept the need for electrified wire fences, but there should be powers to regulate them and to move them.

Electric fences can be a nuisance to people of either sex, old and young, and animals. This is a small point, but it is small points which annoy people. To people who live in villages and who wish to go for walks, with or without horses, small things can be a nuisance.

5.15 p.m.

Mr. Albert Booth (Barrow-in-Furness)

The new Clause proposes to amend the provision in the Barbed Wire Act, 1893, which was re-enacted in Section 143 of the Highways Act, 1959. Its effect is much more limited than that in Section 143. It is worded in such a way as to restrict its application for electric fences, to bridle paths. No such restriction exists on its application to the use of barbed wire. We are considering only a very limited mileage—namely, bridle ways—as compared with the general highways provision which applies to barbed wire.

The new Clause is important mainly as a safety measure. With no disrespect to the very good case which my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. James Johnson) made for horses, I propose to direct my remarks mainly to the question of safety of human beings. At points where riders dismount on bridle ways to go through gates there is a danger that the horse will touch an electrified fence on the immediate boundary of the bridle way and may kick or rear and strike any person in the vicinity. I do not cast any aspersions on the horse, which, I understand, is normally a well behaved animal, but it must be very difficult, if not impossible, to train an animal to withstand an electric shock without moving. If it were possible to train animals to accustom themselves to electric shocks, there would not be much point in having electrified fences. The raison d'être of the electrified fence is that it should provide a shock to an animal.

Therefore, legal provision should be made to enable local authorities, when they deem it proper to do so, to require an electrified fence in the vicinity of a bridle way to be moved. I cannot imagine that such a provision would be widely used. It would operate only in those parts of bridle ways which are narrow and have some obstruction in them. We are probably concerned with only a few miles of bridle way, but that does not mean that this question is not important to safety.

We are not trying to make a general case against electrified fences; quite the contrary. We accept that, properly used, as they usually are, they can be an important element in good husbandry. They have advantages over other fences in that they are mobile. Their advantage over barbed wire fences is that they do not cause cuts and tears. The danger of them is that if an animal comes in contact with them it may kick or rear. I accept the assurance of those who say that electrified fences are not dangerous to human beings, but it is fair to point out that people vary widely in their reaction to electric shock. In admittedly unusual cases an electric shock of a very small current capacity can be dangerous. But that is not our case for the Clause. Our argument is that in certain limited areas of bridle ways a shock to a horse can cause danger to a person.

Horse riding on bridle paths is a pleasure enjoyed by a small minority, but that is not to say that we should not make provision for it in our legislation. Throughout the whole of our beautiful countryside, particularly that traversed by bridleways, many minority occupations and pursuits afford great pleasure. It is only by a tolerant realisation that we must accommodate such a wide range of activities in an area which is for one man a work place and for another man a place of enjoyment that we can properly serve our country by this legislation. It is in that spirit that we put forward the new Clause, and I hope the House will accept it in that spirit.

Mr. Graham Page

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the logical way in which they put forward the new Clause, which amends Section 143 of the Highways Act, 1959, so as to extend the powers of highway authorities to take steps to abate any nuisance caused to users of a bridleway by electric wire on adjacent land.

Section 143 of the Highways Act, 1959, provides: Where on land adjoining a highway there is a fence made with barbed wire, or having barbed wire in it or on it, and the wire is a nuisance to the highway, the appropriate authority may by notice served on the occupier of the land require him to abate the nuisance within such time, not being less than one month nor more than six months from the date of service of the notice, as may be specified therein. The new Clause seeks to add electric fencing to that provision concerning barbed wire.

I am reluctant to deter the use of electric fencing, which cannot do as much damage either to animals or to human beings as a barbed wire fence. An electric fence cannot cause tears to the skin of an animal or a human being as can barbed wire fences. Barbed wire fences can be a serious nuisance if placed close to the highway or bridleway. Electrified fences cannot cause that physical damage. Electric fencing is used with increasing frequency nowadays instead of barbed wire for this reason. It is used alongside ways which cross grazing land and for movable fences when intensive husbandry is undertaken.

Electric fencing works by causing a slight shock to the animal, particularly to the animal with a wet nose which nuzzles against the fence. It causes no damage beyond that slight shock. It is not dangerous to human beings. The voltages used are low, there are usually warning signs and the type of fence is recognisable to those who normally use a bridleway.

I appreciate the argument that if electric fencing is used along the side of a bridleway it may cause danger to a person on horseback if the horse were to rear after touching the fence and getting a slight shock, and thereby throw its rider. All the new Clause seeks to do is to give power to the local authority to move electrified fencing so as to protect against accidents of that sort. This is a moderate argument, but I fear that acceptance of the new Clause might deter the increasing use of electric fencing, which is far more satisfactory than barbed wire fencing.

Electric fencing is an efficient, cheap and harmless way of providing temporary fencing around arable crops. It is essential where crops have to be protected from animals and where there is no alternative method of control except at considerable expense to the farmer. Electric fences are normally in the open and easily identifiable. They have special posts topped with insulators, which are almost invariably brightly coloured, through which the wire passes and to which it is customary for warning signs to be fixed. To a rider in control of his horse, there is not as much danger from a slight shock as from many other hazards which a rider has to face. My advisers have discovered no evidence to suggest that electrified wire has caused any nuisance to bridleway users.

On those grounds, because I do not want to deter the use of electrified fences, which are far less dangerous than barbed wire fences, and because I have no evidence that they have caused difficulties or dangers, I must resist the new Clause.

Mr. James Johnson

Although I am disappointed by the Minister's answer, I find it difficult to rebut, and I am left with no alternative but to beg to ask leave to withdraw the Clause.

Motion, and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Forward to