HC Deb 04 July 1973 vol 859 cc605-43

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Before calling on the hon. Member to move the Second Reading, I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has not selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop).

7.10 p.m.

Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine (Rye)

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

It is customary, when addressing the House, to declare any interest. I am in the exactly contrary position, since none of Ashdown Forest is in my constituency. The only reason that I am dealing with this matter is that my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Mr. G. Johnson Smith) has ministerial responsibilities and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish), who lives in the Ashdown Forest, is at the moment in Europe. My constituency is, therefore, nearest the scene of operations. If I could have taken part in the earlier debate I could easily have declared the interest that my constituents have in railways, but that is not in order now.

I am sure that every hon. Member will have noted that the Bill has come from the House of Lords. Before it went there, there was a period of 10 years when negotiations were going on about the way in which the Forest was to be run, and there was a report on 10th July 1972. A summary of that report was sent to all commoners, after which there were four general meetings and two group meetings. There have also been consultations and discussions with various bodies. Support for the Bill comes from the Department of the Environment, the Countryside Commission, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, and a voluntary body known as the Friends of Ashdown Forest, as well as the conservators.

The Bill therefore has wide support, in which case I do not imagine that the House would wish me to go through the 34 clauses and two schedules, or the details of a lengthy petition submitted by commoners opposing the Bill. All I propose to do is deal with one or two matters that may be relevant to this debate.

Clause 14 sets out the arrangements for voting: Notwithstanding anything in the award to the contrary the provisions set out in Schedule I of this Act shall have effect with respect to voting at meetings of the commoners. That part of Schedule I which is referred to provides that The requirements of the award with respect to the votes of the commoners at any meeting of the commoners may be varied in accordance with a resolution of the commoners passed at a meeting of the commoners at which not less than 21 days' notice has been given to the commoners and provided that the terms of the resolution have been set out in the notice. So, once the Bill is passed there is no reason why any arrangements for voting that may or may not be regarded as satisfactory should not then be varied.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point, will he confirm that there are 585 commoners on the roll but that only 17 control 55 per cent. of the voting rights for the election of conservators, and that therefore it is not correct to say that the commoners, on a majority vote, can decide to alter the arrangements for the election? That is already in the hands of a small minority who support the Bill against the wishes of the majority of the commoners.

Mr. Godman Irvine

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to take my speech in my own way I hope that my arguments will persuade him that the situation is not quite so dreary as his question suggests.

The reason for the Bill being drafted in the way it is is that even at this moment there is no agreement among the commoners or those who are to vote as to what they would like put in its place. In promoting the Bill, the county council could have put forward a proposal that voting should take place in a certain way. What it has written into the Bill is a provision that the voting arrangements can be altered.

There is a division of opinion among those who have been consulted about whether voting should be dealt with on a modified rateable value or should be on a basis of one man, one vote. No one can say that that is precisely what will be required. So far as I can discover, fewer than 24 Commoners exercise their full rights under the old Acts. Only three graze cattle, some have sheep, and one has two pigs.

Some people—I know that this does not include the hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson)—imagine that, simply because an area is a common, people have complete rights to do what they wish there. Schedule 2 lays down very limited uses to which Ashdown Forest can be put under the old Acts. It gives six fir clumps and two cricket grounds to which the public have access, in exchange for which we have Clause 21, which provides that Subject to the provisions of the Ashdown Forest enactments and to the regulations made thereunder the public shall have access on foot to and over the forest for quiet recreation and enjoyment.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

Clause 20(3) refers to the lord of the manor, and in a previous clause there is reference to compensation for the lord of the manor. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us something about the lord of the manor, and how much it will cost the ratepayers to compensate him? What additional powers will the lord of the manor have under Clause 20(3)?

Mr. Godman Irvine

I cannot immediately identify the hon. Gentleman's reference, but if he will allow me to proceed on the basis on which I propose to argue in favour of the Bill, the matter will become clear, because I shall deal with finance in a moment.

Mr. Loughlin

I shall help the hon. Gentleman. I am referring to Clause 20(3) on page 14.

Mr. Godman Irvine

There are 26 lines in that part of the clause.

Mr. Loughlin

The hon. Gentleman should know the Bill.

Mr. Godman Irvine

It is a little difficult to follow exactly what the hon. Gentleman is dealing with. In a moment I shall deal with finance, and if the hon. Gentleman will wait I think he will find that that matter is covered.

I have made two points. One is that the original commoners are not making full use of the common as the old Acts entitle them to use it. Secondly, in exchange for certain rights the public will have much greater rights in future.

I come to the financial aspects. At present the East Sussex County Council has five representatives out of 20 on the body of conservators, and yet it is providing two-thirds of the income. When part of East Sussex goes to West Sussex, two fewer councils will be represented on that body, because they will be in West Sussex. It is proposed that there shall then be three fewer conservators. There will be nine representing the East Sussex County Council, out of a total of 17 on the body.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

I understand that nine conservators are elected by the commoners. It is proposed that there shall be five. My hon. Friend has said that there will be three fewer commoners. I think that he will agree that five from nine is four.

Mr. Godman Irvine

The East Grinstead and Cuckfield Councils will be leaving the area because they will become part of West Sussex. I was saying that there would be only 17 conservators. There would be nine representing the East Sussex County Council, out of a total of 17, instead of five out of a total of 20. It is now providing two-thirds of the income.

Clause 21 gives the public much greater access, and therefore it is expected that more will have to be paid. Clause 24 provides that the county council will meet the expenses of the conservators, so it seems perfectly reasonable that the county should have increased representation.

If it is questioned whether we shall have democratic representation of the people using the forest, I believe it to be a reasonable proposition that the representatives on the county council are democratically elected, and that therefore no point can be taken that people who are not even using their rights of common are as democratically elected as the representatives of the people paying the money.

The purposes for which the Bill has been introduced are set out in Clause 16, which states the duties of the conservators. as follows: It shall be the duty of the Conservators subject to the provisions of this Act at all times as far as possible to regulate and manage the forest so as to protect the existing rights of common upon the forest, to protect the forest from encroachments, and to conserve it as a quiet and natural area of outstanding beauty. The way in which the conservators are to carry out those duties are set out in Clauses 17–20. It is quite clear from a comparison of Clause 16 with the old regulations that it extends the rights of the public.

Therefore, I have no hesitation in recommending the Bill to the House. I hope that it will be given a Second Reading. If a contrary view were taken, the commoners would not be in a better position. We should simply maintain the status quo, apart from the fact that two councils will be leaving.

It is only a very short time before the East Sussex County Council will be working on a different basis. Nobody can forecast what view the next council will take about Ashdown Forest. Those of us who served on the Standing Committee considering the Countryside Bill—I see the hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South here—know exactly what arrangements are contained in that measure for dealing with such matters.

The position will be much better under the Bill than it would be if we did not have it, or if we waited to see what happened on another occasion. Therefore, I urge the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.

7.28 p.m.

Mr. Carol Johnson (Lewisham, South)

I should like to say a few words about the Bill because it deals with the reorganisation of the administration of Ashdown Forest, and the Commons Society, of which I am chairman, is naturally interested in a forest area which is a large common of 6,400 acres. The society's interest has been recognised by the promoters of the Bill, for we were first consulted about the problems with which it is designed to deal as long ago as 1968. I should like the House to take particular note of that date, because similar discussions have taken place with other bodies and other persons. The Bill has come forward after a very long labour.

The problems with which the conservators of the forest have been faced have occupied a great deal of their time and attention for some years. The Bill embodies many changes as compared with the original draft, changes for the better suggested as a result of widespread discussion.

Before I deal in detail with the Bill it might be helpful if I define in broad terms the society's general approach. The society has long been anxious to secure a legal public right of access. The long process established by the Commons Registration Act will eventually lead to that in the many cases where no such right now exists.

I emphasise that at present Ashdown Forest is a common where only limited rights of public access exist. I stress that because I and other hon. Members have received representations suggesting that public access is already provided by existing legislation. That is not so. There is a right of access at present only to certain clumps of trees, apart from the limited right to play cricket and other games. To the extent that this measure will create for the first time a legal public right of access on foot to all the forest for recreation and enjoyment, I give it a warm welcome on behalf of the Commons Society.

A legal right of access in these days is not enough to secure full recreational enjoyment. There must be adequate funds available to maintain the forest. Further, there must be a responsible management authority to do that and to introduce and operate the necessary regulations to that end. Another strong point in favour of the Bill is that the Bill gives additional powers to the conservators which will enable them to preserve, maintain, improve and regulate the forest more effectively than in the past. In previous legislation no such specific authority was included.

The society's general objectives are not intended to overrule the rights of commoners. However, it would appear that common rights have become less important in the context of Ashdown Forest. I understand that only two farmers still depend for their living on forest grazing. That surely is a minimal number out of a total of 590 commoners. I was given the figure of 590 but some of my hon. Friends suggest that it is 585. Perhaps there is no need to squabble about that. I contrast the minimal use by commoners with the fact that the recreational use of the forest, especially in the summer, has increased enormously.

Let us now consider the other side of the coin—namely, the conservators' point of view. Their position under existing legislation has remained fairly static while the cost of running the forest has increased considerably. I am sure they have done their best to cope with the situation, but undoubtedly the forest has suffered through lack of funds. The rapidly growing use of the forest for recreational purposes has put an enormous strain on the environmental balance of the area.

The conservators have been unable to deal satisfactorily with the problem because of inadequate staff and financial stringency. How can they be expected to run and maintain, let alone improve and regulate, the forest to meet modern demands with their present staff of one part-time clerk, a superintendent and two rangers when dealing with an area of 6,400 acres? That seems to be the nub of the problem.

When the society was first consulted five years ago it expressed the view definitely and clearly that more public authorities should be brought in to help finance the forest. It had in mind the coastal towns of Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings. A stroll along the fronts of those resorts will show the many coach tours advertising excursions to Ashdown Forest. In addition, hundreds of visitors come to the forest by car from the whole of the south of England, including the Greater London area. In general it can be said that Ashdown Forest is part of the tourist trade of the South Coast. It seems fair and just that an area which so directly benefits should contribute.

If that argument is accepted, contributions by the coastal authorities should and would mean substantial conservator representation. That is precisely what the Bill provides. That is particularly important as the main burden in the future will fall on the new county council. In 1968 it was not possible to foresee the terms of the Local Government Act 1972 and the incorporation of the seaside county boroughs to which I have referred in a large new county. However, the basic principle is precisely the same and it is still felt that more local authorities' money from a wider area should be obtained for the care of the forest.

If we accept that extra local government money must be obtained, there must be extra local government representation. That is only fair and, I believe, in the long-term interests of the forest.

Mr. Loughlin

If there is a need—and I agree with my hon. Friend that there is—to maintain environmental areas of this kind, is there any objection to the forest going into the control of the Forestry Commission?

Mr. Johnson

That raises a much wider issue than is provided for by the Bill and it requires a great deal of consideration and thought. I am not sure that the Forestry Commission would welcome that.

There is no clear evidence that the majority of commoners oppose the Bill—

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Surely the fact that over 60 per cent. of the registered commoners have signed the petition duly deposited in the House opposing the Bill is the most conclusive evidence there could possibly be in that respect?

Mr. Johnson

They have also signed other documents which are in conflict with the petition. It is difficult for outsiders to distinguish between the two. I am satisfied on the information which has been given to me that there is no clear evidence that the majority of commoners oppose the Bill. I sympathise with those who take the view that they must oppose it because the new arrangements, by reducing the commoners' representation on the board, may result in effective control passing to a remote county council.

Let us look a little more closely at that grievance. It cannot be disputed that in the past the commoners have had representation. That is because they had an economic interest in the common. However, all the evidence suggests that that interest has declined so materially that it is no longer a relevant consideration. Certainly the majority of commoners no longer exercise their commonable rights and interest and it seems that they regard the forest more as local inhabitants than as commoners.

It could be argued that the commoners' motives are rather self-centred. It is true that a rigid enforcement of all the commoners' rights might well be inimical to the proper management of the forest as a place of natural beauty and to its proper use by the public.

Mr. Wellbeloved

I am sure that, with his great use, expertise and understanding of the public's need and right to use the countryside, my hon. Friend will agree with me that it is imperative that the rights of local people, whether or not they be protected by commoner rights, should be considered so that there should be a complete avoidance of conflict between the general public using the countryside and those who live adjacent to beauty spots. Therefore, the commoners' interests are the public's interest. Unless both act together, both will lose out in the long run.

Mr. Johnson

I intend to make at the conclusion of my speech the first point which my hon. Friend made. As to his second point, I was trying to emphasise that the interest of many of the commoners is as members of the public and not as commoners, because their commonable rights are no longer exercised in a material and relevant way.

My information is that, apart from the two commoners who exercise grazing rights—the two farmers to whom I referred—not more than 12 commoners seriously exercise their rights to estovers—that is, to take wood—and only three take brakes or litter. It cannot be said that their interests as commoners will be seriously undermined by the Bill. In so far as they have rights as members of the public, these will be enormously increased by the measure.

I sympathise with the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved). There is a general wish for local participation in the enjoyment of the forest both by commoners in the legal sense and by other persons. I suggest that this could be met by the new conservators co-opting representatives of local organisa- tions, such as the Friends of Ashdown Forest, on to the various committees. This they have power to do under Clause 13 of the Bill. It would allay a great deal of apprehension if someone could say on their behalf, either tonight or in Committee, that they propose to do this.

To sum up, I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. It will create for the first time a legal right for every member of the public to visit the forest on foot for recreational purposes. It will provide the necessary funds to enable the conservators to meet the widening public needs both by the provision of more staff and by the protection, improvement and regulation of the amenities that the forest has to offer. It creates a wide and representative body of management which can be trusted to exercise its new powers in the broad public interest. If there are minor criticisms of the Bill, there will be ample opportunity to pursue them in Committee. I have no reason to feel that any reasonable criticism will not be most carefully considered by the promoters.

7.42 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

The decision of the Chair on the dilatory amendment means that at the conclusion of the debate we shall vote on the main Question, "That the Bill be read a Second time". It is usual on the Second Reading of Private Bills to distinguish for the benefit of the House the principles properly involved in Second Reading and the matters which are more properly examined by a Committee if the House approves the general principles. I intend to honour that convention of the House but to put forward the reason why I believe that the Committee should he spared this task and why the Bill should be refused a Second Reading by the House.

There is a general principle of law in this country that a person comes into court with clean hands. There should be a corollary that a person comes into Parliament with clean hands if he asks for greatly extended powers over his fellow men by special private legislation, and that is precisely what the Bill does. Have the promoters of the Bill come into Parliament with clean hands? I suggest that that is exactly what they have not done.

The Bill is promoted by the county council and it has the support of a completely unrepresentative group of people termed the conservators whose function, which is clearly defined, is frustrated by the electoral system. Whether there are at this moment 582 or 590 commoners is not material. What is material is that, under the system for electing conservators, 17 out of between 580 and 590 commoners have 55 per cent. of the votes but pay only 9 per cent. of the forest rate. The remaining 560-plus commoners pay 91 per cent. of the forest rate but have only 45 per cent. of the votes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine) rather guilelessly directed our attention to the provision in the Bill which enables the commoners to alter the voting system. So it does—on the present basis. Therefore, this corrupt and archaic rotten borough system of voting can be used to block any such reform. If the Bill embodied a rational system of voting, we could rely on the commoners to look after their own interests as they wish, but it does not.

Mr. Carol Johnson

Is the hon. Gentleman able to say definitely that the commoners as a whole agree upon a specific way of voting which can be embodied in the Bill?

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

No. No such proposition can he advanced. One of the well-established principles in the House and in the country is one man, one vote. The present system, which is so archaic that I imagine few would defend it, is that the rate per acre goes down the larger the holding, but the vote goes up the larger the holding. The promoters are explicitly maintaining this extraordinary proposition by the form in which they have drafted the Bill.

If we pass the Bill into law, we shall perpetuate a blocking system. It is no use anyone purporting to give undertakings about what conservators who have not been elected will do if the Bill is passed. The history of undertakings given during Second Reading debates on Priviate Bills is, to put it mildly, an unhappy one. The largest single corpus of Private Bill legislation is that which enabled the railway system to be built. At the direction of the Board of Trade —or whatever it was called then—written into all those Bills was a requirement for the directors of the companies who would be empowered under the Bills to give a personal and collective undertaking under the companies' seals never to allow more than one engine in steam on any one section of line at a given time. The history of railway accidents shows that those undertakings were generally and flagrantly ignored, and I am not aware of a single prosecution ever having taken place.

The parliamentary agent acting for the promoters was told of this manifest and important objection considerably before the Bill received its First Reading in the House of Lords. He was advised not to introduce the Bill into either House of Parliament until this unacceptable and corrupt system of voting had been remedied. It was entirely open to the promoters to write into the Bill before introducing it into the House of Lords a specific correction of the abuses. The promoters chose not to do so.

The fact that this Bill arrives here still containing an utterly unacceptable voting system and not providing the machinery by which that can be remedied without the assent of the 17 people who can block the rest of the commoners at the moment is not the fault of the commoners who oppose the Bill. It is the fault of the sponsors. That is why they should take the Bill away and save Parliament further pains until they have remedied this defect.

There seems to be an element of disagreement between my hon. Friend the Member for Rye and the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) who sponsored the Bill. My hon. Friend complained that the commoners were not exercising all their rights while the hon. Gentleman complained that it would be unreasonable if they did.

Mr. Carol Johnson

That is a complete misrepresentation of what I said. I pointed out that they were not exercising their rights at present. I said that, if 590 commoners sought to exercise all their rights, they would obviously interfere with the public enjoyment which I understand we all want.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I entirely agree. That is the point I was making. The hon. Gentleman said that it would be unreasonable for the commoners to exercise all their rights. My hon. Friend appeared to complain that they were not exercising all their rights. I know of no hon. Member who exercises all his rights. How many hon. Members have ever gone to the Vote Office once a year and obtained the accounts of the Royal Patriotic Fund Corporation and examined them? That is one of our rights. The fact that we do not exercise it surely does not mean that we ought to apply for the stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds.

Mr. William Wilson (Coventry, South)

Surely it is not the law of the land that if a commoner does not exercise his rights he loses them. A commoner has his rights in perpetuity.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I agree. That is the opposite to the point made by the promoters, which was that unless a commoner exercised his rights they should be attenuated or removed. I agree that the commoners are being reasonable in the exercise of their rights. To exercise them fully and to the letter would cause inconvenience to the public. If everyone in society exercised all his rights all the time, no one could exercise many of them for any of the time.

The principle on which we should determine whether the Bill receives a Second Reading is not embodied in Committee points. There is a petition signed by the time it was deposited, by 353 of the 580-odd commoners. That is 61 per cent. of them. Others have since indicated their support for it, although it is too late for those signatures to be formally appended to the deposited petition.

The promoters of the Bill have knowingly, wittingly and intentionally introduced a Bill which perpetuates an unacceptable voting system. The conservators with whom they negotiated were elected under that corrupt system. The five conservators to be elected by the commoners will continue to be elected, if the Bill receives a Second Reading, under a corrupt voting system unless the 17 people who control 55 per cent. of the votes will otherwise. There is no means of making them do so and nothing in the Bill makes them do so.

The healthy thing for the House to do, therefore, is to say "Take this Bill away. We refuse it a Second Reading. Cut out of it that which is totally unacceptable to the general principles which are common to both sides of the House." In my judgment, that is why the Bill should be refused a Second Reading.

7.55 p.m.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

I had better declare my interest, as other hon. Members have done. I am the national vice-president of one of the major voluntary organisations which uses the countryside for leisure and sport. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) in trying to ensure the right of free public access, subject to certain safeguards for local inhabitants, to all beauty spots in the country.

I differ from my hon. Friend in believing that it is necessary, in the discharge of this desirable aim, to strike a careful balance between the rights of the public to enjoy the countryside and the rights of those who live in beauty soots to enjoy the quietness of their area without having it destroyed by those like myself, from the great metropolis of London and other major centres, who go into the country at weekends to enjoy ourselves in what is someone else's back garden.

That is precisely the case with Ashdown Forest. It is a place of great beauty, giving pleasure to many thousands of people in south-east England, and south-east London particularly. I want that enjoyment to continue, but I also want to see a balance struck between the desires of those who wish to visit the place and the anxities of those who have banded themselves together in a Commoners' Association for Ashdown Forest to protect their interests and to see that they and we—the outsiders—can mutually enjoy this great national asset.

The only difference between my hon. Friend and I is that we take a slightly different view of the emphasis that ought to be placed on the rights of local people to be properly represented under a democratic system on the Board of Conservators for the Ashdown Forest. I am advised that the Ashdown Forest Act 1885 enshrines free right of access by the public to the footpaths and glade lands of the forest and that, in practice, since 1885 that free access has been maintained. I do not believe that a new Act is necessary either to enlarge or to maintain what is already enshrined in statute law and in the normal custom and practice of the usage of Ashdown Forest by the general public. On that ground, I do not believe that the Bill can be justified. It is not necessary.

Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine

The matter is set out clearly on page 21 of the Bill. I summarised the rights of the public under the 1885 Act. I ask the hon. Gentleman to modify his observations, because such rights are limited.

Mr. Wellbeloved

The Act talks about having regard to the effects of the neighbourhood as well as to private interests, and goes on to specify free access and talk about local inhabitants. The "local inhabitants" definition has been considerably enlarged by custom and practice so as to justify the words that I have used. In his opening remarks the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine) gave the impression that the commoners who are to be affected by the Bill are not commoners as originally envisaged. Apparently, certain commoners have two or three pigs and a number of cattle, but most of them are domestic house occupiers and are therefore not the sort of people the original arrangements were designed to protect. He gave the dates of a number of meetings that were held to explain to the commoners the purposes of the Bill. I am informed that two of the meetings took place—on 6th January 1973 and 16th February 1973—without the Bill then being available. A verbal statement was made to the commoners and they were asked to accept something that they had not had the benefit of studying in written form and in detail.

I do not believe that it lies with the hon. Member to pray in aid these public meetings when there was no firm proposal in writing upon which the commoners could express a view.

Mr. Godman Irvine

All I said was that a full report of the board was made on 10th July 1972 and that that was available.

Mr. Wellbeloved

As I understand it, the report did not embody the details of the Bill, and it is to the Bill that the commoners are objecting. It is, therefore, clear that they were not properly consulted by the promoters of the Bill before it was presented to Parliament. In itself, that justifies grave anxiety among hon. Members and should be sufficient to cause us to stop and think before we give the Bill an unopposed Second reading.

The hon. Member for Rye said that the people who supported the Bill included the county council, the Department of the Environment, and someone else. Good as those bodies may be, their support does not, in itself, justify the Bill. It can be justified only if it can be shown to be necessary, and if it can be shown not to cause grave public anxiety in respect of the matters in which it claims to seek to allay such anxieties. I shall not take up the points raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) except for what he called the corrupt practice of election of the conservators. Having briefly studied the situation, I concur with some of his judgments. It seems intolerable that this Parliament should be asked to enact legislation that will mean that the power for the appointment of conservators will lie with 17 commoners out of 585 or 595, whichever is the correct number. That is something of which we cannot approve. It is therefore not acceptable for the hon. Member for Rye to say that under the Bill the commoners can meet and alter their election system. We all know that they cannot do that as things stand. That is a basic requirement for adjustment at some stage or another, be it in this Bill or in some other, before we can even consider allowing it to have a Third reading—if it gets that far.

There is another aspect of voting rights to which I wish to draw attention. I am advised that the system of voting provides for either the male or the female member of a household to attend a meeting of the commoners and cast only one vote per household. From a quick reading, Schedule 1 appears to seek to alter that position, so that only the registered commoner will be entitled to attend and vote, and it will require an involved system of the appointment of a proxy for the female of the household to attend and vote.

This House has been endeavouring to promote equal rights between men and women. We have passed Bills about equal pay. As a Parliament we are committed to a rapid advancement towards equality between the sexes. That is a good enough reason why we should ponder before we pass the Bill. In those circumstances it would be wrong to act contrary to general public legislation by passing a private Bill of this nature.

Representation will consist of nine conservators appointed from among the elected members of the county council, two conservators appointed from the members of the local council and five appointed under the proposed system of election of conservators. I should like that balance of representation altered. I should like to see an increase in the commoners' representation at the expense of of the representation of the county council. I do not suggest a substantial increase in the local district council representation. I believe that the county council representatives can bring a broader view to the deliberations of the conservators. But there should be a reduction in its representation to provide a better chance of local interests forming a majority.

Mr. Carol Johnson

Is my hon. Friend seriously suggesting that with the financial burden imposed by the Bill on the county council, the council should accept the exercise of rights by a body on which it did not have a majority?

Mr. Wellbeloved

If I understand the position correctly, in the formation of its rates estimates the county council will provide for the levying of a rate for the use of the conservators. The amount of money that the conservators can spend will already have been determined by the council. My hon. Friend's point is not valid, because in its financial provision the county council already has a veto on the amount of money that it will provide to the conservators from the general rates.

The other point of general principle is one which arises on Clause 17(2) in which it is laid down that The Conservators shall not under the powers conferred on them by subsection (1) of this section keep enclosed at any one time more than 100 acres of the forest without the consent of the Secretary of State. Under that subsection the Secretary of State will have the responsibility of giving authority if the conservators at any one time wish to enclose more than the 100 acres specified. Will the Secretary of State undertake that, before exercising those powers, he will consult the commoners' association? On this matter of enclosures I believe that we must exercise very great care.

Mr. Loughlin

I very much appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend, but even if the present Secretary of State gave that undertaking he could not bind future Secretaries of State.

Mr. Wellbeloved

My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) has the advantage of having been a Minister. It may be, therefore, that his faith in the process of government has been diminished. As a humble back bencher, however, I have sufficient faith in that process to believe that if the present Secretary of State gave such an undertaking it would be duly recorded and that, at least, a civil servant would draw it to the attention of any successor of the right hon. Gentleman.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I may be able to put the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest at once. Any transfer of land is subject under that clause to the consent of the Secretary of State, who must hold a local inquiry if a commoner objects. That will apply to the present Secretary of State and to all future Secretaries of State.

Mr. Wellbeloved

I must confess that I had not grasped that that was the case under Clause 17(2), but I accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

I move to another general point which is contained in Clause 18. This clause and the principle enshrined in it cause considerable anxiety to the commoners, quite apart from the anxiety which it causes my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South, myself and everyone else interested in the preservation of the countryside for the use of the general public.

There is a fear amongst the commoners that the clause will give general powers for the commercial exploitation of Ashdown Forest. I am sure that if there is one matter about which my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South and I are likely to agree, it is that we want to see beauty spots such as Ashdown Forest open to the general public but preserved from the evils of commercial exploitation which would completely destroy the beauty that we seek to enjoy. I hope that during this debate we shall hear a little more from a supporter of the Bill about what is foreseen as coming from the operation of that clause.

Mr. Clinton Davis (Hackney, Central)

As one who is an expert on the subject of assemblies, will my hon. Friend refer to Clause 23, which is very reminiscent of the Isle of Wight County Council Bill, on which he indicated to the House some considerable expertise? Does not this provision offer to an undemocratic group of people the right to say that any number of people exceeding 100 may not assemble in the forest for any purpose which they consider offensive, whether or not it is an offensive purpose?

Mr. Wellbeloved

I lived in fear that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. Clinton Davis) might put that very question to me. With my hon. Friend, I was a protagonist during the course of the passage through this House of the Isle of Wight County Council Bill dealing with the right of the public to assemble overnight in an open space for the purpose of a lawful occasion. In the context of the Ashdown Forest Bill, I do not see any grave danger in Clause 23 in respect of large assemblies, though my hon. Friend is right to raise the point. I agree immediately that my knowledge of Ashdown Forest is limited. However, in my judgment it is not a place which would be suitable for overnight assemblies of the kind which my hon. Friend and I tried so hard to protect on a previous occasion. But I accept that the principle is there. Therefore, if the Bill gets a Second Reading, it will be right for the Select Committee to look carefully at this provision.

Mr. Clinton Davis

I was thinking of people who might want to make a short protest, perhaps, about blood sports. If a majority of the conservators were opposed to that object, they might say, "No. We do not want that sort of assembly here".

Mr. Wellbeloved

That may be the case. But I am sure that this provision would not deter those who are dedicated to the abolition of cruelty to animals from assembling in the Ashdown Forest if they thought that that would bring relief to the suffering of dumb animals.

Mr. Davis

It puts them in difficulty.

Mr. Wellbeloved

I agree that it puts them in difficulty. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will deploy the arguments on the civil liberties point if and when he succeeds in catching your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is only fair to say that from my limited knowledge of the Ashdown Forest, because of its make-up, the trees and the lack of wide open spaces, it is not the sort of area where several thousand people would assemble overnight for a pop festival or to camp. Therefore, I do not see any great danger in that clause. But I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to explain my position.

Mr. Eyre

I regret that perhaps I was too eager to assist the hon. Gentleman in relation to Clause 17. My reply applied to Clause 20. Referring specifically to Clause 17(2), as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the consent of the Secretary of State is required in the circumstances described in that subsection. But I believe that there is no doubt that any Secretary of State would exercise his power under this provision with responsibility and obviously would consult as widely as possible. In the circumstances, certainly this would include consulting commoners before coming to a decision and giving his consent as required under the subsection.

Mr. Wellbeloved

When the hon. Gentleman intervened earlier, I wondered whether we were not a little astray of the point that we were both trying to make, but I deferred to his expertise. I am grateful that he has so quickly and frankly put the record straight. If the Bill becomes law I should be quite happy to accept his assurance on the point. I am sure that it will be of considerable interest to the commoners to know that he has given it, and I hope that the civil servants will duly draw it to the attention of any successor Secretary of State should he be faced with such a decision.

I believe that a number of principles are involved in the Bill and that there is every reason to hesitate in giving it an unopposed Second Reading. It is not an unopposed Bill. It will go to the Opposed Bills Committee upstairs, and I hope that between now and its re-emergence on the Floor of the House the promoters will take the opportunity to come to some accommodation in consultation with the commoners as a whole, because if the Bill returns virtually as it is now it will not receive an unopposed passage through the House, and it may well not make the statute book this year.

Like the hon. Member for Tiverton, I am anxious that a proper balance should be achieved between the local and public interest and I hope that this chance will be taken to see that that legitimate and desirable objective is achieved.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I do not want to leave the impression that that would meet the point of principle on which the hon. Gentleman and I are agreed, because it cannot, in the rules of order, be dealt with by amendment in Committee. That is why I think it rather a waste of time to let the Bill go to Committee.

Mr. Wellbeloved

I have not given the Bill the detailed study which I know the hon. Gentleman has. If that be the case, we have nothing to fear. It will not pass this House.

8.22 p.m.

Mr. Martin Maddan (Hove)

It is a striking fact that all hon. Members concerned in the area of Ashdown Forest, or who are neighbours to it, support the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden) represents the biggest county borough in the area, and he also supports it. Therefore, we must address ourselves to the points of anxiety which commoners have expressed and to the petition they have sent, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) referred. It is always wise to secure one's opportunity to raise points in the passage of a private Bill by petitioning in due time. If one has not done it in due time, one does not have opportunity to raise such points.

From my knowledge, I doubt whether a majority of the petitioners have informed criticisms to make of the pro- visions of the Bill. It is striking that the majority—340 of them—have agreed to a modified rateable value basis for the elections amongst commoners. But there can be no such change in the method of election amongst the commoners unless a Bill goes through Parliament because, at the moment, they are stuck with voting on the acreage basis.

Hon. Members have made a major point about the election rights of the commoners. It is important to say—and I do so with the authority of the promoters—that a majority of the commoners, whether by acreage or by number, agree to a modified rateable value basis, but they cannot implement it until Parliament enacts a Bill to change the present provisions. The fact that not all are agreed leads to difficulties. That is why the Bill is drawn as it is. It gives the commoners the opportunity to agree on a form different from the present, and I hope that they will.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether the 17 commoners who control 55 per cent. of the votes, or a majority of them, are willing to see a change in the electoral system?

Mr. Maddan

Yes, I am happy to say that they are. The arithmetic is plain. The majority of the commoners, whether by acreage or by number, support a modified rateable value basis for voting. I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance.

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) referred to compensation payable to the lord of the manor. He may, understandably, have misunderstood the purport of the provision. All the soil in Ashdown Forest is owned by the lord of the manor.

Mr. Loughlin

Who is he?

Mr. Maddan

He is the noble Lord, Lord Buckhurst. All the provision does is to give the conservators a right to buy or sell a pocket of land for marginal adjustments in the boundary of the forest, but the chances are that Lord Buckhurst will receive no compensation whatever. It is most likely that if anything happens at all it will be a pure swapping arrangement.

The hon. Member for Erith and Cray-ford (Mr. Wellbeloved) also raised the question of wives voting. I cannot tell him about that. But I do not think that we would want to take away the rights of wives, and if what the hon. Gentleman says is so I think that he will agree that that is very much a point for the Select Committee to consider.

The purpose of Clause 18 is to strike a proper balance between local interests and the general public interest in the enjoyment of Ashdown Forest, and to place the responsibility for the exercise of expenditure where the responsibility for providing the finance rests. That must be a proper and sound basis on which to proceed.

Mr. Clinton Davis

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman, as a local Member, would apply his mind to Clause 23? Am I right in supposing that it provides a complete power of veto in the conservators to say that a group of 100 people—not very many—who may wish to assemble in the forest may not do so?

Mr. Maddan

I am not speaking with the authority of the promoters, but I think it does, and I think the reason is that Ashdown Forest is very liable to fire. There is an enormous amount of bracken, and the like, and I imagine that it would be extremely dangerous to encourage large assemblies of people there. I say that only by way of a general observation and not on the authority of the promoters.

Mr. William Wilson

I wonder whether the hon. Member can tell us about Clause 23(2), the last few words of which are shall not grant such consent without the approval of the local authorities". Can he tell us how many local authorities' consent would have to be obtained?

Mr. Maddan

Again, I do not speak with the authority of the promoters, but I expect that for instance, the fire authorities, the police, and the sanitary authorities would be concerned. I take it that this is what that means.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

To save any misunderstanding, hon. Members could read the definitions in Clause 2—the interpretation clause—in which "the local authorities" are defined. They do not include the fire authorities or the police authorities, as my hon. Friend has suggested.

Mr. Maddan

That is a very happy conclusion. Hon. Members can look at that and not listen to me any more at all—except to hear me say that when this Bill is enacted, as I very much hope it will be, it will be to the benefit both of the local people in Ashdown Forest and of those many thousands of other people who wish to enjoy it.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

I want to deal with the Bill in a serious way, but before I go on to my main points I should like to go back to Clause 23 to which the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan) referred. Clause 23 is quite clear and categorical. It gives to the conservators—the conservators are not merely elected members of a local authority but are commoners without any public accountability in this respect—the right to refuse to allow more than 100 people to come together in the forest.

The hon. Member says that there may be very good reason for that: that because of its bracken Ashdown Forest has a great fire risk. I live in the Forest of Dean. We have a fire risk, but we do not exclude any assemblies. The Forestry Commission does not attempt to exclude persons more than 100 in number on the ground that there is a fire risk. In practice there can be no greater fire risk than there is in the Forest of Dean. I would assume that Clause 23 is put into the Bill deliberately; and it is put into the Bill quite possibly on the grounds referred to by my hon. Friend in his intervention.

I shall deal with certain aspects not of the preservation of the rights of ordinary people to enjoy the environment and to enjoy the forest but of enshrining in a Bill the preservation of the rights of a particular individual. If the Bill says that the conservators have a right without let or hindrance to refuse to allow more than 100 people to assemble in the forest, we as Parliament want to know why. Is this clause aimed at certain categories of people? If it is not so aimed, why have it in the Bill? It may well be true, as one hon. Member has said, that Ashdown Forest does not lend itself to pop festivals but, when I look at the rights granted by the Bill to the conservators, I think it might be possible at some time that the forest would lend itself to pop festivals.

Mr. Peter Hordern (Horsham)

If it were to lend itself to an assembly of that kind, it could do so only on the assumption that a large part of the forest should disappear.

Mr. Loughlin

If the hon. Gentleman will look at the Bill, he will see that it gives to the conservators the right of felling trees, so the hon. Gentleman should not make that point unless he has read the Bill. It is possible that the opposition may well be against people who are opposed to bloodsports. I do not know whether there is any hunting in Ashdown Forest, but I am assuming that there is. If more than 100 people were to go along to oppose a hunt of any kind, it is not sufficient for this House to say, as the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) has said, that if those people were so dedicated they would be prepared to challenge the law. It is not for this House to produce a situation in which we deliberately place people in jeopardy of the law. It is for this House to ensure that we do not do so.

Clause 23, therefore, really ought to come out of the Bill altogether, because non-elected persons have no right to say how many people should come together. It might be a matter of a young farmers' association or a Young Conservatives' association. We might have a Socialist on the board of conservators, and in that case they might be politically vindictive against the Young Conservatives. Are we then to place the Young Conservatives in the position of having to step outside the law to defend their rights?

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

One should point out, of course, that the restriction applies to a hunt as well as to those opposed to hunting.

Mr. Loughlin

That may be so, but there is the possibility that there will be fewer than 100 people on the hunt or there might be more than 100 who are opposed to it. I am simply making the point that it is not good enough for the promoters of any kind of Bill to bring before the House a Bill containing clauses to which fundamental objection can be taken by a substantial part of this House.

Mr. Maddan

I might be able to help the hon. Gentleman by saying that the purpose of the clause basically is to see that Ashdown Forest is preserved as a place where members of the public can pursue quiet and natural enjoyment; and if there were large assemblies which would disturb the quiet and natural enjoyment on the part of members of the public, that would not be in the general interest. I believe that the hon. Gentleman would accept this.

Mr. Loughlin

I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that that is the kind of argument that has been advanced by those who have sought to stop people coming together throughout the ages. In particular, in relation to pop festivals, precisely that kind of argument was used on the Isle of Wight County Council Bill. I say that there must be a purpose for the clause.

Mr. Wellbeloved

As far as pop festivals are concerned, my hon. Friend will be aware that the Department has recently issued a code for use at pop festival assemblies, and that code would apply if the Ashdown Forest were to be used for such an assembly. I do not think it ever will be, because it is not a suitable place in which to have a pop festival. I appreciate and understand my hon. Friend's references to other types of assembly, but I can assure him that it would not be a suitable place for a pop assembly and, therefore, he should not waste too much time deploying his argument on the basis of pop assemblies. I believe that he is on better ground with the other types of assembly he has in mind.

Mr. Loughlin

I do not want to deploy that argument any further. I merely draw attention to Clause 22(4)(c), which refers to the rights of sporting of the lord of the manor". It may be that we there find the clue to the reason for the existence of Clause 23.

Before moving to the main burden of my opposition to the Bill, I want to draw attention to Clause 17(2), in respect of the consent of the Secretary of State to the enclosure of more than 100 acres of the forest. In his first intervention the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment said that any decision by the Secretary of State would be subject to an inquiry. In his second intervention he did not make clear that no inquiry is required in relation to this provision in the Bill. All he is asking the House to do is to accept his assurance on behalf of his right hon. Friend that any future Secretary of State would take the same attitude as does the present one. In the light of the history of this House, the Under-Secretary of State surely cannot give such an undertaking.

Mr. Eyre

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about a public inquiry, but I did not make a presumption in quite the way the hon. Gentleman chose to imply. I explained that the words without the consent of the Secretary of State would mean the present Secretary of State. I am sure that any Secretary of State would act responsibly in the exercise of his powers.

Mr. Loughlin

That is an entirely different matter, because what "acting responsibly" means to me might not be the same as it means to the Minister.

I have two fundamental objections to the Bill. The first point was made in an admirable speech by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) on the acreage voting system. The hon. Member for Hove attempted to answer that point by saying that there were provisions to cover this aspect of the matter. But why was not such a provision written into the Bill? This is on the same lines as the old argument of the difference between permissive and mandatory legislation. This matter could have been written into the Bill without any difficulty at all. The attitude of the hon. Member for Hove was that it was not written into the Bill because there was not unanimity among the commoners. His view was: "Give us the Bill and we shall achieve unanimity".

Mr. Maddan

There is an important distinction. The burden of my argument is that the best thing to do is to give the commoners the right to do what they think best, even though they would have to do it under the present voting system. I explained to the House what the majority of commoners, whether by acreage or numbers, think is the proper thing to do. In those circumstances, I believe that it is possible for the House to give those powers and for the matter to be sorted out locally rather than for us to railroad through detailed provisions.

Mr. Loughlin

The hon. Gentleman may have forgotten his reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Cray-ford. When my hon. Friend intervened, the hon. Genleman gave the House an assurance that the 17 commoners who control the voting would, if we passed the Bill, agree to change the whole voting system.

Mr. Maddan

I referred to the majority of commoners, whether by number or by acreage. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman in detail about each of the 17 commoners to whom he is referring.

Mr. Loughlin

In that case, my argument is valid. The system appears to be based upon one acre, one vote. I have heard some arguments about democracy, but now we hear about one acre, one vote. The more acres someone has, the more votes he has. We are going back to the twelfth century, not the eighteenth.

Mr. John Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

Has my hon. Friend considered what effect it would have on local government if there were a system of one vote per £1 of rateable value?

Mr. Loughlin

In that event I should have a large number of votes, because I have the highest-rated house in my village. It is not the best house, but it is the highest rated. I know that, because I have checked the valuation list.

I do not need to deploy the argument at any length because the hon. Member for Tiverton spelled out in great detail that, even though we may get assurances from those hon. Members who are in favour of the Bill, if the provision is not written into the measure we have no guarantee that it will be carried out. If it were possible for those who support the Bill to come to the conclusion, after it was tabled, that they would be prepared to make a change so that there would be a more democratic form of voting, I suggest that they withdraw the Bill now and bring it back to the House when they have reached agreement on the voting issue.

This is, after all, the first step towards the Bill's becoming law. Those who support the measure will have to deal with the voting issue when the Bill is considered in Committee, and again when it comes back to this House. They will face the same difficulty. We shall be here to deal with this issue. We are now at the beginning of July, and the Bill will not go through in its present form. The best advice that I can give to supporters of the Bill is to withdraw it, get agreement on the voting system, and then bring it back to the House. If such agreement is reached, there will be a much more democratic system of voting and it will be acceptable to the commoners in the area.

There may have been some change in the attitude of the commoners, but I understand that about 80 per cent. of them originally opposed the Bill. If the hon. Gentleman's figures are correct, 60 per cent. of them still oppose the Bill because of the proposed voting system.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

More than 60 per cent. of them signed the petition before the date on which it had to be deposited. Since then many more have indicated their support for the petition, but they cannot formally sign it.

Mr. Loughlin

My information is that originally more than 80 per cent, of the commoners opposed the Bill on the issue of voting. If that is so, the sponsors of the Bill cannot expect the Bill to get an easy passage if, after framing and depositing it, they inform some hon. Members that they are prepared to do something that they ought to have done in the first instance and rewrite a substantial part of this measure. As I understand it, the only way that that can be done is for the Bill to be withdrawn and resubmitted with new provisions. Unless that is done, I promise the sponsors that there will be a great deal of opposition when the Bill goes through its remaining stages.

I have, perhaps, a more fundamental objection to the Bill than that. I happen to have in my constituency the Forest of Dean, which is, in practice, the kind of amenity area about which my hon.

Friend the Member for Erith and Cray-ford spoke. He knows how well the Forest of Dean is looked after by the Forestry Commission. Although, at times, there is a dilemma in trying to balance the interests of the generality of the public with the interests of those who live in the area, the Forestry Commission has been able to ensure that, apart from certain portions of the forest which have to be enclosed for the purpose of maintaining the correct balance, the greater proportion of the forest is there for the benefit and enjoyment of not only those who live in it but who visit it from elsewhere. It is an enormous success.

By virtue of my experience of the Forest of Dean, therefore, I am in favour of trying to safeguard areas of this kind to ensure that we do not destroy or be spoil the whole of this small island on which we live. In this part of the world, perhaps, there is more reason to ensure that Ashdown Forest is retained for the benefit of the community who go there than there is for almost anywhere else in Britain. I take it that Ashdown Forest is within the area known as the South-East. The South-East is almost choked with industry and population.

In the Forest of Dean we have the Forestry Commission, and not conservators but verderers—a very ancient court. They are elected, but the Forestry Commission is directly responsible to the Minister. If I have a problem in the Forest of Dean, as I often have, and if I discuss it with the Forestry Commission but I am not satisfied with the policy as pursued by the commission. I can then go to the Minister. The Forestry Commission accepts that, and very often, when we have reached that point of impasse, I say to the commission's representative, "I am sorry, but I shall have to take this matter to the Minister". There is never the slightest straining of relations when I take that action.

I have looked at the Bill, however. To whom could anyone go, and what right would a Member of Parliament have in trying to redress any irregularities that may occur in the future once the Bill becomes law? I have full access to the Forestry Commission, and the commission has full accountability, but I cannot see any public accountability enshrined in the Bill. Where there is an admixture of local authorities and private persons public accountability, except in the fringe areas, goes out of the window.

I come now to my major objection. I asked earlier who was the lord of the manor. I referred to certain clauses in the Bill and assumed that the hon. Gentleman who was presenting the Bill would have been prepared to tell us something about the lord of the manor. This is a fundamental issue involved in Second Reading. The hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan) has told us that the lord of the manor is Lord Buckhurst and that he felt sure that it would be a matter of swapping pockets of land.

It is interesting to go through clause after clause in which there is reference to the lord of the manor. According to Clause 2 this means the lord of the manor of Duddleswell for the time being and, in relation to the lord of the manor, his nominee means such person as the lord of the manor shall nominate in writing, such nomination to be deposited with the clerk of the conservators.

One can go through the Bill clause after clause and see some of the rights and responsibilities of the conservators. It is the responsibility of the conservators to engage in arboriculture, which will include the planting, felling, cutting and lopping of trees and shrubs, the enclosing of newly planted trees or groups of trees, and the selling and disposing of timber. That is very much the kind of responsibility that is invested in the Forestry Commission and it is the sort of thing we should have heard something about. If we provide individuals who do not have public accountability with the right of felling and lopping of trees they can, without any difficulty, cut down the deciduous trees, which have an aesthetic value, and plant conifers. Thus, we can have the kind of situation, which has concerned me for a considerable time, in which the oak, elm and all broad-leaved trees are cut down so that a forest can be a commercially viable proposition, because conifers are faster growing than the broad-leaved trees.

If we give this power to private individuals we may destroy an amenity area rather than create it. We may be landed with conifers in Germanic rows and in uniformity, easy for felling. That is possible under the Bill. Before we start getting euphoric and rhapsodising over the possibility of retaining an area for amenity value we have to be quite sure that the amenity will be retained. The Bill gives the conservators the right to make the forest a commercial proposition.

I deliberately missed out the first line in my quotation from Clause 17(1)(a), which referred to these activities being subject to the consent of the Lord of the Manor". The Bill provides that, irrespective of what Parliament, the conservators or the county council feel, the lord of the manor will have the right to say yea or nay.

Mr. Carol Johnson

It is obvious from his recent remarks that my hon. Friend is quite unaware of the true nature of a common. The reason for the references to the lord of the manor is that he owns the freehold of the whole forest. It is not publicly-owned property. He has sacrified such rights as he has, going back for hundreds of years, so that, through the centuries and under recent legislation, the public right may be enlarged. Fundamentally, this refers simply to his existing rights and does not create fresh rights for him.

Mr. Loughlin

I am not arguing that it creates fresh rights, simply that the consent of the lord of the manor is mentioned in clause after clause. If this is a worthwhile amenity area and it is in his possession, I do not see why we should not take it away from him.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

As I understand it, so far from the rights having been granted to the commoners by the lord of the manor, he tried to cancel them all and sued some of the commoners for exercising their rights. The case went to the High Court and the Court of Appeal, as a result of which the rights were restored to the commoners by the Court of Appeal.

Mr. Loughlin

This I take to be the award mentioned in some of the material sent to us. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tiverton, who obviously knows more about this than I do. The significance of giving to the lord of the manor the right to say yea or nay—whether he has had that right in the past or not—is that it is written into the Bill.

Mr. Carol Johnson

My hon. Friend's argument would cover practically every one of the commons throughout the length and breadth of the land, where, except in the case of urban commons, the lords of the manor still have the freehold vested in them and still exercise certain rights, just as the commoners have certain rights. But the commons are not yet public property.

Mr. Loughlin

That may well be so. I suppose that the same argument applies when we defend the lord of the manor's right to game, his sporting rights. I suppose that because it is not nationally-owned land we defend that on the same basis.

Mr. Johnson

I am sorry to keep interrupting my hon. Friend. I am not defending anything. I am simply trying to explain the position. The proposal my hon. Friend is now making is obviously one that in any event cannot be dealt with by a Private Bill.

Mr. Loughlin

Well, it should not be in a Private Bill. I am glad that my hon. Friend is helping me. I ask him to turn to Clause 20(3). If it is something that does not matter, if the lord of the manor has always had a right to veto any issue within the curtilage of his house, irrespective of what the hon. Member for Tiverton pointed out a short time ago, I ask my hon. Friend what he makes of the subsection. Although the hon. Member for Hove says that it is all right and that it is a matter of exchange, the subsection says that, provided the Secretary of State consents, the lord of the manor may enter into and carry into effect agreements with the owners of land outside the forest for the exchange of lands of equal area (including the payment of money for equality of exchange), and on such exchange being completed the land so acquired by the lord of the manor shall be part of the forest and the land so transferred by the lord of the manor shall be released from all rights and obligations affecting the same in so far as such rights and obligations arise from the land having been part of the forest". Therefore, we are saying in the Bill "It is all right. We have conservators. The people in the county council area are paying rates. The ratepayers can pay, and the lord of the manor can act according to the provisions of the Bill". I am not saying what he would or would not do, but Parliament must ensure that Bills.

particularly Private Bills, are clear and determinate. We do not want any confusion later. That is why there is close examination of Bills.

We are saying that in practice the ratepayers shall pay for the privilege of maintaining an amenity area but, as I read the subsection, the lord of the manor will be given powers to decide what part of the amenity area will reside within the power of the conservators and what part will reside outside.

I know what small communities are. It is true that the Secretary of State has to give consent, but I would not trust a Tory Secretary of State as far as I could throw him when it came to the question of land. To determine my attitude to the consent of the Secretary of State I have only to consider the vast fortunes made in land speculation while the Tories have sat on their bottoms during the past three years.

If we go through the whole of Clause 20, irrespective of the special pleading of my hon. Friend, we see that we are doing two things in the Bill. We are giving our consent to a Bill which will set up a body which is obviously antidemocratic. It is not as if it has defects in its democracy. It is the negation of all that the House has stood for for a long time. Further, we are giving powers to the lord of the manor which no one has a right to have. If we give those powers to him we cannot, as my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) suggests, ensure that the forest will remain as an amenity area.

9.11 p.m.

Mr. Peter Hordern (Horsham)

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) has spent a good deal of time dwelling on the lord of the manor. I thought that the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) dealt very well with his remarks. It seems odd that, because the lord of the manor has certain rights, they should be taken away from him because they happen to appear in a Bill, whether or not it he a Private Bill. That seems extraordinary nostrum.

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West was perfectly genuine and right in saying that it was important to ensure that Ashdown Forest is retained for the benefit of the community and that it is more important than almost anywhere else in the country. I took down his words as he spoke, and that was what he said.

I cannot altogether connect those worthy sentiments with the hon. Memmer's remarks about Clause 23 and the rights of those who wish to have an assembly of more than 100 people. A place like Ashdown Forest cannot be protected if there are to be a number of assemblies of over 100 people. It is not the sort of place which lends itself to such assemblies.

In any case, the hon. Gentleman will find clearly set out in Clause 16 what he wishes in his own words to achieve. namely: It shall he the duty of the Conservators subject to the provisions of the Act at all times"— that means day and night— as far as possible to regulate and manage the forest so as to protect the existing rights of common upon the forest, to protect the forest from encroachments, and to conserve it as a quiet and natural area of outstanding beauty. If the hon. Gentleman is in favour of conserving the area of Ashdown Forest in that way—and I assume that he is—I must suggest that the area does not lend itself to large assemblies of over 100 people for whatever purpose they may assemble.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), the hon. Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) and the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West spent a good deal of time discussing the position of the election of conservators.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

By commoners.

Mr. Hordern

It seems that there must be some misunderstanding about the latest position. My advice is that a majority of commoners, both by acreage and by numbers, and including many of those who signed the petition, are in favour of a change in the method of election. Most, at any rate, seem to favour the sort of change which would result in the votes being drawn by value. No such system has been enclosed within the Bill because unanimity has not so far been achieved.

It cannot be claimed, as some hon. Members have claimed, that a majority of the commoners are against the proposal of the county council to allow the commoners to choose their own system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Mr. Maddan) rightly said, if the Bill is not given a Second Reading it will mean that the unsatisfactory position to which my hon. Friend and others have referred will persist. I cannot believe that that is a sound solution.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I am anxious that there should not be any misunderstanding even if we are in disagreement. The opponents of the Bill say that the commoners cannot exercise their choice about a change in the electoral system because they can be blocked by 17 individual commoners. What should have been written into the Bill and cannot now procedurally be written into it is the removal of that block. There is no means of enforcing any undertakings that are given if the Bill is allowed to reach the statute book.

Mr. Hordern

My information is that a majority of that block of 17 is in favour of a change. This question has occurred since the Bill was lodged. My hon. Friend and Opposition Members must be aware that there is no block to the wishes of the majority.

The promoters want to arrange a system by which Ashdown Forest can be kept in its present form while giving increased access to the forest and greater powers to the conservators to preserve the forest and improve its amenity value, not only for those who live locally but for the many visitors who come from far distances. These objectives cannot be achieved unless the Bill is passed, because the East Sussex County Council cannot be expected to provide the funds unless it has a measure of control.

From what I hear, the present situation is unsatisfactory because insufficient funds are raised by the commoners and the local councils, and the county council is looked upon to provide the balance. The difficulty has arisen that one local council at least has put a ceiling on the amount it is prepared to advance. The East Sussex County Council is bound to meet the difference, and in doing so properly expects to have a majority among the conservators and to be able to say what the policy should be.

Those who argue against such a state of affairs are saying that the East Sussex County Council is not competent to run a body of this sort. One could scarcely get a more representative or democratic body than the county council. In every way it is the right body to have this large burden of responsibility and to manage it in this way. I am confident

that Ashdown Forest will remain a place of great natural beauty to the service of all those who live in the area and the many people who visit it for enjoyment. I support the Bill.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 69, Noes 46.

Division No. 186.] AYES [9.19 p.m.
Alison, Michael (Barkston Ash) Hawkins, Paul Ridley, Hn. Nicholas
Baker, W. H. K (Banff) Hiley, Joseph Russell, Sir Ronald
Body, Richard Hornsby-Smith. Rt. Hn. Dame Patricia Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Bowden, Andrew Iremonger, T. L. Skeet, T. H. H.
Bray, Ronald Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.) Speed, Keith
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Johnson Smith, G. (E. Grinstead) Spence, John
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Kilfedder, James Stanbrook, Ivor
Cockeram, Eric King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.) Stewart-Smith, Geoffrey (Belper)
Cooke, Robert Knox, David Sutcliffe, John
Cormack, Patrick Langford-Holt, Sir John Taylor, Edward M. (G'gow, Cathcart)
Drayson, G. B. Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland) Tebbit, Norman
Emery, Peter MacArthur, Ian Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth)
Eyre, Reginald Maddan, Martin Thompson, Sir Richard (Croydon, S.)
Farr, John Mather, Carol Turton, Rt. Hn. Sir Robin
Fenner, Mrs. Peggy Mills, Stratton (Belfast, N.) Waddington, David
Fisher, Nigel (Surbiton) Moate, Roger Wall, Patrick
Fletcher-Cooke, Charles Monks, Mrs. Connie Ward, Dame Irene
Fookes, Miss Janet Monro, Hector White, Roger (Gravesend)
Fortescue, Tim Ogden, Eric Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Fowler, Norman Page, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby) Worsley, Marcus
Fraser, Rt. Hn. Hugh (St'fford & Stone) Page, John (Harrow, W.)
Grant, Anthony (Harrow, C.) Palmer, Arthur TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Gummer, J. Selwyn Pym, Rt. Fin. Francis Mr. Peter Hordern and
Haselhurst, Alan Ramsden, Rt. Hn. James Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine.
Redmond, Robert
Atkinson, Norman Golding, John Ross, Rt. Hn. William (Kilmarnock)
Benn, Rt. Hn. Anthony Wedgwood Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Sandelson, Neville
Bishop, E. S Hamilton, William (Fife, W.) Siliars, James
Carmichael, Neil Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas Silverman, Julius
Clark, David (Colne Valley) Hughes, Mark (Durham) Skinner, Dennis
Dalyell, Tam Hunter, Adam Spriggs, Leslie
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Jones, Barry (Flint, E.) Stoddart, David (Swindon)
Davis, Terry (Bromsgrove) Jones, Dan (Burnley) Stott, Roger (Westhoughton)
Doig, Peter Kerr, Russell Strang, Gavin
Douglas-Mann, Bruce Lee, Rt. Hn. Frederick Whitehead, Phillip
Driberg, Tom Lestor, Miss Joan Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Duffy, A. E. P. Loughlin, Charles Wilson, William (Coventry, S.)
Ellis, Tom McElhone, Frank
Ewing, Harry Milne, Edward TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Faulds, Andrew Mitchell, R. C. (S'hampton, Itchen) Mr. R. J. Maxwell-Hyslop and
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire) Mr. James Wellbeloved.
Garrett, W. E. Robertson, John (Paisley)
Question accordingly agreed to.
Bill read a Second time and committed.