HC Deb 25 June 1984 vol 62 cc734-56

Order for Second Reading read.

7 pm

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

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

Before I go through the detailed provisions of the Bill, I shall try to paint a picture of the moor. I shall then deal briefly with the background to the Bill and explain why legislation is needed. At the outset, I pay tribute to the promoters, Devon county council, and to Dartmoor national park authority and its parliamentary agent for the thorough, efficient and courteous way in which they have carried out consultations and for the flexibility with which they have approached amendments. I record my personal thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) and for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), who have played a formidable part in the negotiations behind the scenes, for their support, guidance and advice to me. I pay tribute to the research and secretarial help of the former secretary of the Dartmoor Preservation Association, who is currently the secretary of the Open Spaces Society. I welcome to the debate my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, whose love of the countryside and concern for protecting the environment is well known.

Dartmoor is one of Britain's 10 national parks. It covers about 365 square miles, of which the core is approximately 150 square miles of common land. The moorland plateau rises to more than 2,000 feet at its highest. It is a sweeping wilderness, covered with blanket peat bogs and devastating and dangerous mires. Spectacular outcrops of igneous rock, known as tors, crown many of the hills. The larger granite masses are Hay, Hound and Vixen tors. The weathering of granite over millions of years has created all sorts of variations. There are logan stones, massive granite slabs which rock to and fro, tolmen rocks with huge holes in the centre gouged out by water action, and shaped granite blocks resembling animals and people, such as Bowerman's nose.

Dartmoor is one of the last great wildernesses in the south of England. It has the highest rainfall in England with more than 100 inches of rain, because it is the first upland that the rain-laden Atlantic winds encounter. The abundance of water, collected in the great sponge of the blanket bog on the Dartmoor plateau, pours off the moor and has carved deep valleys on the edges, clothed in rich and verdant woodland. The Dart, the Erme, the Plym, the Avon, the Teign and the Tavy all have their sources on Dartmoor. It is well known for its mists and its prisons; hon. Members may remember that Sherlock Holmes groped his way through the mists of Grimpen Mire to be confronted by the baying hound of the Baskervilles.

Dartmoor was the home of neolithic man 4,000 years ago, with some of the best preserved stone rows such as Merrivale, hut circles such as Grimspound, and encampments such as Kes tor. Spinster's rock boasts the remains of a chambered tomb, and there are good examples of kistvaens at Blackslade and medieval field boundaries at Foales Arrishes. The northern plateau is a grade I site of special scientific interest. Ironically, it has been remorselessly pounded by the military, creating 50 craters to the acre in the blanket bog.

I have set the scene. I can hear that hon. Members have the feel of the place, so I shall move on to the background to the Bill. It has been talked about for eight years or more. The problem is the misuse of 100,000 acres of common land by massive overgrazing on the periphery and massive undergrazing in the more inaccessible parts of the moor. The deterioration in shepherding and an increase in the number of animals turned out have caused the problem. That has followed generous headage payments from the Government.

By 1976, the 1,500 commoners were largely agreed that something had to be done, but the first Dartmoor Bill that was brought before the House in 1980 fell, largely because it got the balance wrong between agricultural interests and environmental and conservation interests. After a further four years of fine tuning, the new Bill in its present form enjoys the broad support of the Countryside Commission, the National Farmers Union, Dartmoor Commoners Association, the RSPCA, Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society, the Open Spaces Society, the Ramblers Association, the General Council for Physical Recreation, the Youth Hostels Association, the British Horse Society, the Dartmoor Preservation Association and the Devon Trust for Nature Conservation, just to mention a few.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I should make it clear that although many of those groups support the Bill, at least some of them have introduced petitions against the part dealing with criminal trespass. They might welcome the rest of the Bill, but they have strong reservations about that section.

Mr. Steen

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important matter. When the Bill was deposited, objections were received on a range of matters. As a result of the skill of the promoters in accommodating many of the points made by the petitioners, many of the petitions, or parts of them, have been withdrawn. I shall mention criminal trespass in a moment; the hon. Gentleman was right to mention it because there is some misunderstanding on that point.

I shall now address myself to the question: is legislation needed? All hon. Members must ask themselves that question when a private Bill comes before the House. I have repeatedly asked the commoners the same question. Do they really want more rules and regulations for Dartmoor? Does Dartmoor deserve a Bill? Is there no other way of sorting out their problems? The commoners, who have grazed the moor since the Black Prince restored their pre-Conquest rights in 1336, adamantly answer, "No. Legislation is the only way forward." That is largely because of the decline in, and the loss of impact of, the old manorial courts to which the commoners used to bring their grievances and which affected all the commons of Dartmoor.

It would be as well for the House to understand a little about the commoners' rights. They have the right to graze, to cut peat and to collect wood, among other things, and those rights are fundamental to the Bill. These rights are usually attached to the most secure part of the commoners' holding, which is normally the hearth and the chimney breast. In Anglo-Saxon times the hearth and the chimney breast were the only parts of a cottage that were unlikely to blow away, the rights were attached to them. They go back to Anglo-Saxon times. They are expressed like this: Two cattle or horses, or Len sheep; peat and turves for fuel; stone, sand and gravel for repair of the holding; heath and fern for thatching. The great environmentalist and Dartmoor preservationist, Lady Sylvia Sayer, attached to the hearth of her cottage at Cator the words: So long as the hearth is there, the rights go with it. I pay tribute to her for her outstanding contribution to the protection of Dartmoor.

All commoners have their rights and quotas of animals recorded in registers that are set up and housed in the county council building in accordance with the Commons Registration Act 1965. The registers are now closed but there are disputes about ownership and rights. The Commons Commissioner is currently hearing such disputes and making decisions. Until those deliberations are concluded the Bill cannot bite because not all the commoners will have registered the number of animals that can be grazed. Will the Minister take steps to appoint a further Commons Commissioner to assist the present incumbent because that is obviously an important task that must be completed?

Clause 8 is an important and interesting provision. It prevents common rights from being sold separately from the property to which they are attached. The clause is aimed at landowners who buy up all the common rights so that they can then free the land from its common status and do what they like with it.

Although common rights are in theory enforceable, in practice no one will take the necessary action. Stories of cowboys unloading cattle trucks on the commons in the middle of the night are rife. But nothing is done to follow up those stories or to pursue the cattle that have been put out on the moor. Some farmers do not seem over-concerned about the sickly state of their animals, and that is not being challenged either. Without power to deal with overgrazing, the vegetation of many commons, especially those near the road, have been eroded so badly that besides looking unpleasant there is little nutrition left for the increasing numbers of stock. The less meticulous farmers are driving out the more conscientious grazers who will not risk their animals being affected by sheep scab or brucellosis.

Not only are there no powers for the commoners to regulate the grazing of the commons, but the National Park Authority has no powers to protect the moor from the increasing number of city dwellers who visit the moor for its solitude and tranquillity. Once any one of the 8 million visitors sets foot on the commons he is technically trespassing. He enjoys no right to walk or ride there. Furthermore, the Litter Act 1958 does not apply since the commons are not a public place. There are no powers to stop anti-social pursuits such as motor cycle scrambling and crossbow shooting. The concentration of large numbers of people, vehicles and horses damages the terrain, scarring the landscape and making it unpleasant for walkers. That is obviously having a serious adverse effect on the natural beauty and wildlife of the moor. That is what the Bill seeks to remedy.

Part I deals with animal welfare and good agricultural practice. Clause 3 establishes a Commoners' Council, totalling 26 people, of whom 16 will be commoners, four from each quarter of the moor. At the moment there are 31 commoners' associations covering all of the 100,000 acres of commons throughout the moor. They will be allowed to elect 16 commoners from amongst their number, four from each quarter of the moor. They will represent those with grazing rights in each parish.

In addition, there will be two small graziers from the Commoners' Council who graze fewer than 50 sheep, 10 horses or 10 cattle. There will be two representatives of the 55 landowners, one representative of the Duchy of Cornwall, which owns over half the common land, and two representatives of the Dartmoor national park authority, one a county councillor and the other an appointee of the Secretary of State for the Environment. There has been an additional member since the Bill was before the House, a vet—because part I deals with animal welfare. In addition, the council may co-opt two people as professional advisers.

The attractiveness of the Commoners' Council is that it will be self-regulatory and self-financing. It is based on the old adage and Tory philosophy that self-help is probably best. The council will ensure that commoners do not graze more animals than they are entitled to graze. Once the registration process has been completed—I drew the Minister's attention to the problem of the delay in registration which means that the Bill cannot take effect—the finite number of animals which can be grazed on any one of the 93 common land units will be known. When necessary, for the well-being of the commons and the animals, the council may fix the number at a lower level as set out in clause 5(1)(b).

Some commoners have rights, not just on their abutting or immediate common, but on all the commons of the Forest of Dartmoor. Those are known as venville rights. Historically, they are of great interest, but the Bill does not affect them.

To carry out that work the Commoners' Council will appoint reeves. That is a nice historical term in clause 6. Probably the commoners will be the reeves. They will see that the regulations made by the council—in clause 5—are upheld. The reeves will be volunteers and the system will work well if the precedent at Spitchwick and Holne is anything to go by. There the old manorial courts still sit. When the Bill was before the House in 1980 there was quite a discussion because it was felt that the reeves would not work and hon. Members asked who would raise the money for them. The answer is that they will work because they are the commoners themselves, policing their own commons.

The effectiveness of the reeves will depend on a second register set out in clause 7. Let me explain that. The first register, the one in county hall, lists all the 1,500 commoners with grazing rights. Under the Bill there will be a second register, which will be kept and maintained by the Commoners' Council, of those currently exercising their grazing rights. At the moment I am advised that that is about 450. There will be two registers, one dealing with who has rights, the other, which the Commoners' Council will maintain, telling people who is exercising his rights and what his animals and their markings are. That will be available for all to see. The reeves and the council will know what people are misusing their rights or what animals are straying.

For each animal which is on the Commoners' Council register the owner will pay a 30p charge or levy which will go towards financing and paying for the council. There will probably not be enough to pay for the reeves. It is worth mentioning that as the reeves will probably have their animals out on the common they will easily be able to identify animals that should not be there. The House is probably familiar with the practice of learing, whereby herds of cattle and sheep are trained at an early age to stay in close proximity to the commons on which they were reared. My hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West, who is well known for his agricultural prowess, is obviously familiar with that particular problem.

That is the first part of the Bill. It deals with animal welfare and good agricultural practice. It also has a bearing on the environmental interests. How the moor looks affects walkers, ramblers, riders and others.

The second part of the Bill aims to give the public a right to walk and ride over the common land. That is clause 10. It sets an important precedent. The 1980 Bill gave that right only to walkers, but this Bill extends it to horse riders, who have enjoyed riding over the moor for centuries. Some have, unfortunately, ridden to their deaths, as Childe's Tomb in the middle of Fox tor mires bears witness. Land erosion has taken place as a result of the commercial riding stables following the same tracks. The national park authority will have powers to regulate which tracks are used in consultation with the horse riding interests.

I should pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) who, unfortunately, could not be here this evening. He is a great horse rider and spoke with great passion and feeling in the proceedings on the earlier Bill about the need to include the horse riding interests as a statutory right. I am glad that the promoters have been able to accommodate him, and to include a statutory right for the horse to ride over the commons. It is only right to point out that the commercial riding stables have 30 or 40 horses going over the same track two or three time a day, and this badly erodes the land. This is why the national park authority will have powers to regulate where they go. It will not affect their statutory rights, but where they go will be determined by the national park authority.

The statutory right of access was not challenged when the Bill previously came before the House. The Country Landowners Association, in a petition lodged in the House a few days before the closing date for which petitions have to be lodged, expressed disagreement with the concept for the first time. Although broadly supporting the Bill, the country landowners believe that every one of the 55 landowners on Dartmoor should be deemed to have entered into an access agreement with the county council. Those could be varied to reflect local needs and the demands of individual landowners.

In practice, the difference between a statutory right and a deemed access agreement can best be illustrated by explaining what would happen if a walker were confronted by a landowner when walking across the moor. If there were a statutory right, which is what the Bill proposes, the owner could ask the walker to leave his land and the walker could say, "Parliament has given me a right by law to walk or ride over your land, and I am going to do that." But, if there were a deemed access agreement, the walker could say, "Although I have no right to be here, I am not a trespasser and you cannot throw me off." In practice, therefore, there is virtually no difference, other than the words, between the two except that "deemed access" bears potential for restriction and confusion.

I will explain why there would be confusion. It is because the common land units on Dartmoor are joined one and another in one block with no physical boundaries between the two. Therefore, if there were different access agreements for walkers and riders on the land of each of the 55 landowners, the walkers and riders would be unable to judge when they were moving from one common on to another common, and what conditions applied to each. I understand that the national park authority might then be compelled to erect notice boards at the boundaries of each common, saying exactly what the rights of the public would be. The House can imagine that the picture that I have given of this wilderness and beauty would be ruined if, on every occasion that one crossed on to another moor there were a big sign—there are enough signs already belonging to the Ministry of Defence—explaining what one might do and what one might not do. It is clear that deemed access agreements are not as attractive as the country landowners believe they are. I am advised that, of the 55 landowners on Dartmoor, about half are members of the Country Landowners Association, and half of those are opposed to a statutory right of access. Somewhere between 14 and 15 are opposed to a statutory right of access. The other 40 are in favour.

Further, deemed access agreements are contrary to the recommendations of that august body, the Royal Commission on common land, which in 1958 stated that a legal right of access on commons would make the law simpler and give effect to a long-established custom. Consultations have taken place over the past four years on the basis that the statutory right of access would form part of the Bill.

Environmental, conservation and recreation organisations agreed to the package. The Open Spaces Society, the Ramblers Association, the Central Council of Physical Recreation, the Youth Hostels Association, the British Horse Society, the Cyclists Touring Club—and the House may remember that, in a fit of pique, I suggested that there should be a statutory right for cyclists over the moor on the last occasion that the Bill came before the House—and the British hang-gliders organisation are all adamantly opposed to changes in the access provisions at this late stage. The deal was struck that there would be a statutory right of access for the walkers and the horse riders. The conservationists, the environmentalists and the animal-loving organisations have behaved in a most responsible and impeccable way on that basis. It was only at the eleventh hour that they were suddenly advised that there was a proposal to change it, and they have responded in consultations with the county council to the effect that they would be thoroughly opposed to it.

Mr. W. Benyon (Milton Keynes)

I do not know the area in the way that my hon. Friend does, but am I not right that the land ownings on the moor vary considerably, and that half the problem is that some farms lie within the common area, although they are not commons? Secondly, am I not right that the Duchy will enter into an agreement with the park authority? If it is possible for the Duchy, why is it not possible for the rest?

Mr. Steen

The Duchy has approximately 50 per cent. of the commons. I am glad to advise my hon. Friend—and the country landowners may not know this yet—that the Duchy through its own Attorney-General, although the Duchy is outside the terms of the Bill, and could not be involved if it did not want to be, has agreed recently that the same statutory right of access for the walker and for the rider should be given to riders and walkers over the Duchy land just as in the Bill they have a statutory right over the other land. Thus, the country landowners have expressed themselves as ready to follow the Duchy's lead. I am glad to say that the Duchy has now led by saying, "We shall follow the statutory right of access in the Bill for riders and walkers."

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon) may not know the moor as well as I do, and I should like him to come to the moor. I invite him to come and walk over the moor with hon. Members who represent Devon, and we will show him what the problems are. We could also take the Whips on duty, and show them just how it is. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point, because it is an important and worrying one. I am much encouraged by the responsible attitude of the Duchy. It owns the commons in the highest, most remote part of the moor, and it has set this lead. I think that the country landowners will find it encouraging. The last thing that the House would wish to do is to pass legislation by agreeing to a deemed access arrangement which must make things more complex and open to all sorts of confusion.

The House should know that a statutory right of access will help the landowners. They will no longer be liable for the injury of walkers or riders on their land. At present, if somebody has an accident, they are liable if that person does something that he should not do. The county council proposes to add a clause to the existing Bill making the Occupiers Liability Act 1957 not applicable here. 'The county council is also willing to add a clause making it clear that the national park authority will make good any damage caused by the public to a landowner's land. Again, this is a quid pro quo, and many landowners will he encouraged by such a provision.

There are other advantages for landowners. Besides drawing up byelaws to regulate the public use and appointing wardens to enforce them, under clause 11 the national park authority may restrict access in certain circumstances. Indeed, the point was raised earlier in the debate about the restriction of access in certain circumstances. This is to protect ancient monuments, scientifically important sites, young trees and the like. The concern is that people who disregard these restrictions intentionally or not, are, according to the Bill, criminally liable under clause 10(8). The argument is that the criminal offence would take place when a member of the public deliberately ignored notices erected and approved by the county council to prohibit access for a limited period. This would be in extreme cases because there was some danger or special ecological reason that the space should not be entered.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

The hon. Gentleman used some crucial words there by saying that someone would deliberately ignore notices. As I read the Bill, that is not included. It is possible for a person to do this accidentally, as I read the Bill, and still to commit a criminal offence.

Mr. Steen

I am somewhat troubled by that remark because in the criminal law, as I recollect it, one needs two ingredients. One needs something called the actus reus, the going across that particular notice, and the mens rea, the intention to do so. If there was not the intention to cross the notice, and it was inadvertently crossed, I do not see how a criminal offence could have been committed. It could have been committed only if there were the intention to defy the notice, and the defying of the notice.

The idea is that the county council will not put up "No" notices. It does not want to see notices going up all over the moor. However, in exceptional cases it wants to protect against people going somewhere that they should not. I am advised by a Dartmoor national park officer that behind one of the information kiosks in the park there is an exceptional piece of bog land where certain frogs proliferate. The frogs are very rare and the last thing that he wants is for the public to go there while they are mating. He would like to put up a sign saying that children going to the information kiosk should not rush there and disturb frogs getting on with the job, and so ruin a piece of ecological and natural development. Perhaps that helps the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett).

This issue has nothing to do with trespass. Trespass is, of course, a civil offence and no one is trespassing on anyone's land. The national park will put up a notice once it has gained the county council's approval. The notice will say that people should not walk on a certain part of the moor. Provided that the period involved is less than 28 days, there is no need for an advertisement. Several of my constituents have written to me on that point, and I am sure that it will be discussed further. However, I hope that that explanation will be of some help. Some organisations, including the Dartmoor Preservation Association and the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society, feel that the Bill should include an out-wintering clause.

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

Does my hon. Friend accept that some owners on Dartmoor feel very strongly about access? Although the CLA has petitioned against the Bill, its objective is to achieve constructive solutions and it is not bent on sinking it.

Mr. Steen

That was a most helpful intervention. Perhaps I should have explained that the country landowners were in favour of the first Bill. The problem of access has cropped up in the second Bill. The problem for the promoters is that some 40 of the landowners on Dartmoor believe that a statutory right is perfectly acceptable. For hundreds of years people have travelled over the moor by horse and by foot and no one has objected to it. It is only because of the legislation that the matter has raised its head. The question is whether the landowner should have his right extinguished by an Act, or whether he should have some agreement with the county council that affords the walker or rider the same protection, but gives him the freedom to say that it is his land: The only snag is all the ramifications involved. However, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised that point. I have dwelt for some time on that issue, but it is of great interest and it would be wrong not to deal with the Bill in its entirety.

As I have said, some organisations feel that there should be an out-wintering clause. By that, it is meant that the commons should be cleared entirely of all livestock for three months in the winter, since the weather is particularly severe on the moor.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Can be.

Mr. Steen

Can be, and often is. Whereas in earlier days, there was sufficient space on the inbye land—land attached to the farm or holding—for the animals out on the moor in the summer to be kept in those fields during the winter, nowadays, because of the increase in the number of animals that most commoners have as a result of the headage payments that the Government have generously given, there is insufficient space on the inbye land to accommodate them. There is a further problem that the farmers use the inbye land for making silage and for feeding the animals in winter, and they cannot put the animals there and create feed for them. Thus, as long as there are more animals on the moor than they have inbye land for out-wintering cannot be a practical solution. Furthermore, the animals are bred to be particularly tough on Dartmoor and are greatly sought after because of their strength and robustness. Once they are put on to inbye land in the winter, they will lose their strength and hardiness.

The conservationists complain that as a result of the animals staying out on the moor in winter, some of the moorland becomes rutted because farm vehicles cross the wet terrain to feed the out-wintered cattle. They argue that the flora and fauna would improve if the moor were cleared of animals for a few months each year. However, the practicalities do not allow that. I have had to explain to the Dartmoor Preservation Association and the Dartmoor Livestock Protection Society that it is not a feasible provision to include in the Bill, even though it is an attractive idea.

Although there is no out-wintering clause in the Bill, the Commoners' Council has powers under clause 5(1)(e) to exclude from grazing on the commons … any animal which in the opinion of the Commoners' Council either has become unthrifty, or is in such a condition that to allow it to remain depastured on the commons would be likely to cause it unnecessary suffering". The county council has agreed to add or cause offence to the public". At Easter, I was walking my constituency's boundaries and I had never before seen so many dead ponies or sheep. I raised the matter with the chairman of the Commoners Association, Herbert Whitley, who rightly pointed out that the first Bill included the words or cause offence to the public which had miraculously slipped out of the second Bill.

Thanks to him, this Bill will include those words.

The clause will thus deal with the problem of dead ponies and sheep that are scattered over the moor, particularly in late spring, and which are becoming increasingly offensive. The farmers and commoners will be responsible for clearing them. It is not a question of them being abandoned by the fanners. There are all sorts of reasons why the animals die. There are a lot of parasite problems on the moor, and by March or April the grass is extremely thin and the new grass has not started. The animals die from a mixture of under-nourishment and disease.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Is there not yet another reason why we all die?

Mr. Steen

I am most grateful for that helpful intervention. That is perfectly true, but most of the animals are not of that age. Many of them are in foal and just do not get the necessary nutrition from the moor. However, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that helpful and, as always, useful intervention.

I shall deal briefly with tree planting. The Bill gives powers to the Commoners' Council to plant clumps of trees. They have to be indigenous to Dartmoor, which means hawthorn, ash or oak. They will be sited to give animals protection during the wild winter months. The environmentalists have expressed concern at the prospect of clumps of trees springing up all over the moor, albeit less than an acre in extent and over a mile apart. I should like to reassure the House that, since the commoners will have to pay for the trees, and fencing them will continue to be subject to ministerial consent under section 194 of the Law of Property Act 1925, it is most unlikely that Dartmoor will become Dartmoor forest again.

The Bill is intended to deal with a serious and longstanding problem, which affects a national asset of great importance. The Bill will benefit the public, the livestock industry and the wildlife which has its habitat on the moor. The Bill also demonstrates that agricultural and environmental interests can be compatible and symbiotic.

The conservationists need the commoners to maintain their livestock and so keep the commons accessible. The commoners need the ramblers, the Open Spaces Society and other conservation groups to ensure that the land is safeguarded. I believe that the Bill may pave the way for more general legislation affecting common land.

It has been a great privilege to be given the opportunity to promote the Bill for a part of the country which I have known and walked for more than a quarter of a century and with which I have been associated as a life member of the Dartmoor Preservation Association. The Bill turns a page in the long history of Dartmoor on which man has lived and toiled for over 4,000 years. I commend it to the House.

7.40 pm
Sir Peter Mills (Torridge and Devon, West)

I declare an interest, since most of Dartmoor is in my constituency. It is a privilege to be able to speak about it tonight.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) for the way in which he introduced the Bill and for all the hard work that he has done. He worked with tenacity and skill and he is to be congratulated. When the Bill was before the House previously, my hon. Friend did not take the same view. I believe in conversions and it is a great thing for a person to be converted and changed. My hon. Friend could not have been more helpful. I congratulate him again.

Dartmoor is superb. It is a lovely area, enclosing lovely small towns. The moorland people are tough, hardy and shrewd. The Bill is important for Devon and Dartmoor. My hon. Friend rightly stressed the national interest, but the Bill is also important for Devon and Dartmoor itself, because much is at stake.

Dartmoor creates strong views. One has only to read in the papers what people say about me to realise what strong views Dartmoor stimulates. I also have strong views. My position is clear. I love Dartmoor. I have been around Dartmoor for longer than most hon. Members and longer than many of the people who talk about Dartmoor. The big difference is that I believe that one must consider the needs of those who live and work there and the economic problems of the district.

I was disappointed that the previous Bill failed. It was tragic, because many years were lost and some deterioration has taken place. We could have made an earlier start on tackling the problems. It is no good looking to the past; we must look to the future. The need for the Bill is obvious, particularly to those who live and work in the area. Indeed, in some aspects the need is acute.

We need some form of control. That is essential in these modern times. I remember the times when my grandparents went out on the moor in a pony and trap and when I went out in an ancient Buick motor car for my first picnic on Dartmoor. The hills were so steep that we had to stop and reverse up the hill. In those days few people used the moor and only a few cattle and other stock were grazed there. That was 50 or 55 years ago. An enormous change has taken place. Today, vast numbers of tourists and much more livestock use the moor. The need for more control is apparent and essential.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Not only the people in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) and those associated with the moor appreciate the need for development and for the Bill. People living in areas which are not contiguous with the moor appreciate the need for development. Not only those who are lucky enough to live in that beautiful part of our county, but people throughout the county have a feeling about the moor.

Sir Peter Mills

My hon. Friend is right, although I have a slight bias towards my own patch.

Mr. Steen

According to the Dartmoor national park authority, about £7 million-worth of stock now use the moor and 8 million people visit the moor each year. Things have changed dramatically.

Sir Peter Mills

That is right. Overstocking exists. The grants which are so important to the moorland farmer have had some effect. Dartmoor is a great reservoir of stock which must be fattened and which are essential for the lowland farmer and for the consumer. We must consider carefully the problem of health and the control of disease. That is not easy on Dartmoor. We must also preserve and protect areas of outstanding beauty.

Only a small minority of farmers make life unfair and unpleasant for the remaining farmers. The majority are hard-working. They care about their stock and deplore the activities of the few. The Dartmoor farmer—the salt of the earth—was there long before the tourist and preservationist. He has a right to be there and to be respected. He also has a task and must get on with it.

I am proud of moorland farmers such as John Hodge and others whose fathers and grandfathers have farmed the moors for years. They care. They are concerned. It is wrong to condemn Dartmoor farmers as a body, because of a small minority.

The question is one of balance. No one interested party can have it all its own way. The farmers cannot, nor can the preservationists or tourists. There must be a balance. The Bill achieves that balance. That is why I support it and recommend it to the House.

I am sad and disappointed at the Country Landowners Association's reactions. Of course I understand its objection to access, but over many years the right of people to walk over the moor has been accepted. It is in the interests of all to allow the Bill to go forward. I am glad that the CLA is not asking hon. Members to vote against the Bill. I am also grateful to others who have shown great tolerance and understanding.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has an interest in horses and handicapped riders. He has been helpful. In the House one hardly dares mention fox hunting, but I believe that if ever a place was suitable for fox hunting, it is Dartmoor. There is no question about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Hickmet) has been concerned with that issue.

One has also to bear in mind the animal welfare lobby and the ban on over-wintering. On the surface it all seems reasonable, but there are practical reasons why over-wintering on Dartmoor must be continued. It has disadvantages, but the advantages outweigh them. Again, we must listen carefully to the views of the farmers who are looking after their stock.

I hope that I do not exaggerate when I say that my main concern for Dartmoor is not the farmer or preservationist, but the enormous burden imposed by the ever-increasing number of tourists coming on to the moor. We in Devon welcome them. We must, for they are part of our bread and butter, though it is extraordinary how little of Dartmoor they visit. There are real problems when one considers the whole question of tourism, and that is why the Bill will be of help. Undoubtedly, tourism creates problems. As I say, we need tourists, and the Bill will help deal with the problems they pose.

As for the future, if the House agrees to the Bill, as I hope it will, and we can, in Committee, overcome any outstanding problems—we must listen to people and see what we can do to help—the enactment of the measure will result in great advantages. I am sure that the various interests, given good will, can work together. I believe that I can say, in view of all the attacks that have been made on me personally, that perhaps a new chapter can be written in the history of Dartmoor.

If we must adapt and change slightly in the light of experience as we see the Bill working, I hope that we shall be big enough to do exactly that and that the council will listen to what people say. This measure and what it will achieve may be the pattern for elsewhere in the country. Let us try to make the Bill a success. I believe that, with good will, we can do that.

7.52 pm
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

I wish at the outset to pay tribute to the industry, tact and capacity for listening and decision-making shown by my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen). He has borne the burden of the Bill, not only in Parliament, but in the immense amount of work outside, working closely with the gifted parliamentary agent, Mr. Durken, who has been handling the Bill on this occasion, and the clerk to the county council, Mr. Macklin and his staff.

Nobody can claim that the Bill satisfies everyone. The nature and history of Dartmoor are such that the interests involved are not, and never have been, conterminous. The Bill represents the best possible overall compromise, and for that the thanks of the House are due to those whom I have singled out for praise.

The interests involved in Dartmoor throughout history have been even more diverse than some which have been described. The reason for the reference to the "forest" of Dartmoor has nothing to do with trees, any more than a deer forest in Scotland is primarily the location of silviculture. "Forest" was the word applied to the Norman laws for the pursuit of game, and it is in that context that Dartmoor was referred to as a "forest".

The interesting characteristic of Dartmoor, unlike many other open spaces, is the extent to which throughout history it has been in the service of man. Surrounded by Norman castles at Lydford, Oakhampton and Gidleigh, for instance, a considerable part of Dartmoor was, and arguably still is, subject to that separate corpus of law called the Stannary law, which had to do with the winning of tin from the granite resources of Dartmoor. Indeed, the Stannary prison was in Lydford castle; and Lydford and Tavistock are Stannary towns. For centuries the water power of Dartmoor was harnessed in the great woollen towns, not only Tavistock but, for example, Ashburton and Buckfastleigh. Dartmoor has been a resource for food, for producing livestock, and for breeding horses tough enough to stand the climate of Devon, to be used in transporting those who ride them and to draw agricultural vehicles which they used.

There are manorial, common, Stannary, duchy and common law rights of the citizens of the United Kingdom as a whole. Anyone who claims that it is possible to draft a Bill which will meet all the aspirations of such disparate, though wholly legitimate, interests is wrong. There can be only compromise or chaos. Those are the alternatives.

When the pressure on Dartmoor was less—because the holiday visitors were fewer in number, the costs of agriculture were lower and the roads were worse—it was possible to resolve these conflicts by custom, without statute law. The confluence of those various pressures has made it clear that a private Bill is necessary to resolve those conflicts reasonably and temperately, and that is why the Bill commands the support of all Devon Members and many others in all parts of the House. However, they include a number of Devon Members, including myself, parts of whose constituencies lie in Dartmoor.

I was born at Ivybridge on the edge of Dartmoor. As a child, I walked and rode over considerable portions of Dartmoor, some of which I recognise as totally different from the descriptions given of them by those who visit them only occasionally. I look on the Bill as the only alternative to a chaos which will not go away, and which cannot be resolved in any other way.

Second Reading debates exist not to alter Bills but to approve or otherwise their general principles. The Committees process on a private Bill—this may not be generally known outside Parliament—excludes all hon. Members who have any constituency or personal interest. Thus, the Committee has a more judicial composition than does the Standing Committee on a public general Bill. It hears petitioners who have what is technically called good locus standi.

I hope that that process will not be abused, because Devon county council lives in a world of severe financial constraints. It does not have unlimited resources with which to finance expensive gentleman of the long robe to represent it viva voce in Committees of this House. I hope, therefore, that any hon. Members, if there still be any at the conclusion of this debate, who are unable to accept the measure as drafted—remembering the immense amount of compromise that has gone into it—will be measured, temperate and brief in putting their case to the Committee which will hear it. I commend the Bill to the House.

8 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

As one of those who put their names to the blocking of Second Reading, I welcome the opportunity to debate the Bill. I did so because I felt that this was an issue worthy of at least three hours of debate in the House. It is a sad reflection on the House that we have insufficient opportunities to discuss the problems of the countryside, and in particular access to the countryside. It is not my intention to vote against Second Reading because I welcome most of the Bill, but I shall express a few reservations about clause 10.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) on the way in which he has introduced the Bill and the work that he has done to bring all the groups together. It is a nice bit of poetic justice that he is one of those who mucked up the last Bill on this subject, and if he manages to steer through a replacement for it that meets most of the objections he will have done well.

In his introduction, he referred to the issue about which I am concerned. A question is raised by clause 10(8), which concerns criminal trespass. If his explanation to the House was of what is in the Bill, I should not be too unhappy, but his explanation was not of what is in the Bill. We have to deal with what is written in clause 10(8), and that gives me considerable concern. It is important that the national parks should have power, in consultation with the commoners, to regulate occasionally the areas to which people can go. However, it should not be a criminal offence for someone to ignore the notices, particularly if the individual has not seen them.

As I read clause 10(8), it does not specify whether one has actually seen the notice, but whether closure is required by the notices. There is thus a matter of concern there. If someone accidentally ignores one of the notices and does no damage, it is unreasonable that he would be liable to a fine of up to £400.

Mr. Steen

If in clause 10(8) the words "with intent" were added, would that change the hon. Gentleman's approach?

Mr. Bennett

It is probably not very useful for us to negotiate across the Floor of the House, and it is probably not effective as I am not a trained lawyer, and should not wish to give any undertakings. However, I hope that it will be possible, as the Bill goes into Committee, for some discussions to take place. The Ramblers Association and the British Mountaineering Council have a petition on this point, and I hope that it will be possible to find some solution to the problem other than to make it a criminal offence if someone ignores one of those notices, such as making it merely a civil offence if damage is done.

I also hope that punishment will depend on the person seeing the notices. The placing of notices will be difficult. The hon. Member for South Hams said that we do not want the whole moor covered with notices, which could be unsightly. There is difficulty in making sure that adequate notice is given. In clause 10(3) there is provision for protecting such things as the ancient monuments, and areas of historical, scientific or archaeological interest, all of which are legitimate reasons why it may be necessary to introduce a closure. However, I hope that we shall not introduce the criminal law.

I suspect that the vast majority of people who go out to walk to enjoy Dartmoor and other parts of the countryside would not want to do damage, and on the whole would be willing to follow any notices or requests not to walk on a particular area for the reasons set out. However, they might feel a little narked and uneasy if the criminal law were brought into the matter. I hope that as the Bill goes into Committee the promoters will examine this point and find a solution that makes it possible to enforce much of what is in clause 10(3) without making it a criminal offence.

I question the inclusion in clause 10 of the procedures for closing footpaths and bridleways. In the rest of the country there is a fairly well-established standard of procedure for diversions and closures of footpaths and bridleways, so it is a little odd to include that in clause 10. It may be difficult for somebody if they have planned a long-distance walk involving public footpaths and they suddenly come to a point at which the route is closed by one of these notices. In other parts of the country it would normally be necessary to make a diversion order. In this area, all that would happen is that the footpaths would be closed and the individual might know that he can go on the common to get round the closed off area. However, that might not be made clear and we need to make it clear to people that they will have the right to divert round the area covered by the notices to continue the route that they were following. It would have been better if footpaths and bridleways had been left out of this section and had continued to be dealt with under the legislation for the rest of the country.

There is not much problem for most walkers if they have to divert from the footpath or bridleway, but there might be considerable difficulty for someone with a bicycle, for whom diverting over the rest of the open space might cause considerably more difficulty than for the walker. I hope that the inclusion of footpaths and bridleways in this section is perhaps considered so that it may be dealt with the rest of the country through national legislation rather than through special power of closure in this Bill.

Clause 10(3)(b) says that the footpath may be closed after consultation with the Commoners' Council, whenever it appears that by reason of an outbreak of disease amongst animals it is expedient to do so". I understand that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has considerable powers to close land if it is necessary as a result of disease. What instances are the promoters looking for where they need special powers under this legislation to close land as a result of outbreaks of disease that are not covered in the powers that the Ministry already has?

I understand that something has gone into the Bill through petition by the Country Landowners Association, which wants a different approach to access. That causes me and, I hope, the House considerable concern. The hon. Member for South Hams and the other promoters have gone a long way to meet almost all the objections. To have the whole spirit of the Bill altered as a result of petition from the Country Landowners Association would not only be unfortunate for this Bill—some of us might find that we had to oppose it or at least delay the Bill considerably in its proceedings—but would create a precedent for other parts of the country that would cause many people a great deal of concern.

I hope that the association, even at this stage, will sense the mood of the House and decide not to proceed with its petition. If it withdrew it and if there were further negotiations with ramblers and the British Mountaineering Council, it might be possible for the proceedings in Committee to be short. The fears of the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) that learned counsel would be making a great deal of money out of those proceedings could be allayed. In those circumstances the proceedings in Committee would be extremely brief.

The idea that there should be automatic compensation for allowing access is an unfortunate one. People should be compensated if they suffer as a result of access. I understand that it has been made clear that the park authority will have the power to make good any damage that is caused by access. I do not believe that much damage is caused by an individual gaining access but sometimes damage is created because of the volume of those who gain it. It is an important function of national parks to ensure that they make good the damage that farmers and individual landowners suffer as a result of substantial numbers going on to their land.

Earlier in the year we had a brief debate on landowners' liability. It seems that a reasonable compromise has been arrived at and it would be unfortunate if the commoners were held liable for accidents to walkers or climbers when the landowner is not responsible. I know that there are occasions when barbed wire is erected. I recently came across the deliberate placing of barbed wire on a rock climb, which created a nasty set of circumstances for the individual. If a landowner deliberately causes a hazard for someone who is legitimately on his land, he should not be exempt from liability. If an accident occurs merely as a result of someone walking or climbing in circumstances in which the landowner has no responsibility, it is important that we relieve the landowner of liability.

If the Bill is to work, the Government must ensure that the park authority has the resources to carry out its increasing responsibilities and that the Countryside Commission has adequate resources as well. With a small amount of Government expenditure we can offer sufficient carrots to make it attractive for more and more landowners and farmers to open up their land and allow access to the general public for everyone's benefit and for the better understanding of the countryside by the many who go out to enjoy it from the towns. I am worried that the Government are leaving the commission and the national parks far too short of resources so that they cannot act as mediators and play a helpful role.

When the Minister intervenes, I hope that he will welcome the Bill, tell us that the Government will support most of its provisions and give an assurance that more money will be made available so that the commission and the national parks can continue to play a helpful role.

8.15 pm
Miss Janet Fookes (Plymouth, Drake)

I do not wish to pursue in detail the arguments on access that were advanced by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). I hope that those issues can be resolved satisfactorily.

I think it can be safely said that there has never been so thorough and excellent a job done in consulting on access and all the other issues that are contained in the Bill as that which has been carried out by the Devon county council and my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen). I commend their activities and congratulate them on undertaking the task in the most thorough and painstaking way possible. The large measure of agreement that has been achieved is undoubtedly due to the enormous amount of spadework. Anyone not involved would be unable to realise the extent of the work that has gone into the Bill. I am glad to pay tribute to those who have worked so well and for so many hours.

When the Bill's predecessor failed, I can remember experiencing a sickening sense of disappointment. It was not the loss of the public right of access or anything of that nature that caused that sense of disappointment. It was caused by the feeling that there was to be an indefinite postponement of what I saw as urgent reforms to improve the welfare of animals on Dartmoor.

Dartmoor ponies are extremely lovable, but there are many more thousands of other animals on Dartmoor, including sheep, and they should not be overlooked, especially when we think of the ponies which are so well-known to us all.

I am more aware than most, perhaps because of my close connection with the RSPCA, of the difficulties of looking after animals when they are free to roam. I do not think that all of them are quite so well trained as my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams suggested as to remain near to their own piece of common.

Mr. Steen

I was not suggesting that the horses are experienced in remaining in the same part of the common. I was saying that all the other animals have that experience.

Miss Fookes

I was referring to the totality of animals. I am concerned—my concern will remain until the Bill is safely on the statute book—about the opportunity that is given to a minority of owners to neglect their duties. I say "minority" advisedly, because I am certain that the majority of those who have animals on the moor are only too anxious to ensure that they are well looked after. Unfortunately, there are a few owners—I mention no names but I reckon that my hon. Friends and I could easily produce half a dozen—who have shamefully neglected their duties.

Given the nature of the moor, it has been extremely difficult to bring such owners to justice by any normal means provided by the law. For example, RSPCA inspectors have found it virtually impossible successfully to bring prosecutions because of the impossibility of proving intent to neglect or to ill-treat animals. It is all too easy for the owner, once he has been traced, to say, "I have been looking for this animal for weeks and I have not been able to find it." Who can prove otherwise, even if it is known in one's heart of hearts that the owner has spoken a lot of rubbish? None the less, the prosecution will not stand up in court.

In many instances there has been difficulty in assigning the ownership of animals. There cannot be a prosecution if the owner of the animals is not known. These two factors have caused a great deal of misery which we have not been able to eradicate by the normal operation of the law.

I am sure that my hon. Friends, like myself, have often seen direct evidence of neglect or have had it brought to their attention by those who walk the moors. I know of the upset and anger that has been caused by the suffering of unfortunate animals. I welcome warmly and gladly the parts of the Bill that deal with animal welfare.

It is right that the commoners should govern themselves through the institution of the Commoners' Council. Most British people have a sturdy sense of independence. On the moor that sturdy sense of independence is very much more marked, and the commoners are far more likely to make a success of the enterprise if they impose the rules on themselves than if the rules are imposed by people whom they would regard as outsiders. The provision for a Commoners' Council made up of representatives of the commoners is an important feature of the Bill.

It is wise to have two representatives of the small graziers on the council, as they might otherwise feel left out in the cold. I also welcome the inclusion of a veterinary surgeon. He will be able to give wise professional advice on all matters relating to animal welfare. This addition to the Bill is an excellent one. I am pleased to see that it has been accepted by all those involved.

Bearing in mind the difficulty of establishing the ownership of animals, I am pleased to see that among the powers given to the Commoners' Council there will be the power to ensure that animals have permanent markings which will enable them to be identified. That may sound mundane, but the key to the enforcement of any welfare provisions is the ability to trace owners and link them to a particular animal.

Despite the reservations of some, I am pleased that clumps of trees are to be planted to give shelter for animals. Anyone who has been on Dartmoor in the winter, or even on some of our chillier summer days, will know how bleak the moor can be on occasions. The selective planting of trees to give protection and shelter to animals will be welcome both to them and to those who have their interests at heart.

I am also pleased that there is to be power to remove animals which would suffer if they were to remain on the common any longer. I have slight reservations about the failure to provide that all animals should be taken off during the winter months. My hon. Friends have referred to this, and I recognise the difficulties of a carte blanche withdrawal, but I hope that the commoners, in exercising their powers, will not hesitate to be firm even if that means taking off a fair number of animals during the winter months.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) mentioned the hardiness of the Dartmoor ponies. It is true that the pure strain is very hardy, but, because of the desire to breed these animals for riding, other breeds have been introduced—I believe that they still are brought in—so that the animal on the moors is not necessarily the pure-bred, hardy breed.

The ponies which are not pure-bred are less able to withstand the harsh winters on Dartmoor. I should welcome an attempt to bring back the pure, hardy strain. That idea was dear to the heart of Mr. Philip Brown, the former chief veterinary officer of the RSPCA, who made an extensive study of the ponies and other animals of Dartmoor. It could not become a reality while there were no external controls, but I would hope to see a move in that direction if the Bill becomes law.

It will be apparent how much I welcome the provisions in the Bill for the welfare of animals. We must seize this golden opportunity. I hope that nothing will go wrong either on Second Reading or in Committee, where, sadly, the Bill passes out of our hands. I shall not readily forgive anyone who stands in the way of the Bill becoming law. I give that warning now, but I hope that it will not be necessary. I hope that the Bill will go ahead and that, at long last, we shall have a proper and sensible regulation of the varied interests on Dartmoor.

8.27 pm
The Minister for Housing and Construction (Mr. Ian Gow)

It may be convenient for the House if I say a few words at this stage. You may think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it is commonplace for those who speak from the Back Benches to know a great deal more than the Minister who speaks from the Dispatch Box. That is certainly the case this evening. All who have participated in this debate know a great deal more about Dartmoor than the Minister who, somewhat surprisingly, has been asked to reply.

At the start of the debate, in a somewhat light-hearted vein, the former Patronage Secretary, the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) muttered something from a sedentary position about my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen). Those who have known my hon. Friend—even when he represented a constituency many miles away from Dartmoor—know that he has, and, I suspect, has had throughout his life, a great love and concern for Dartmoor. That was made clear in the debate in the House on 24 April 1980, when my hon. Friend explained that he had been for many years a member of the Dartmoor Preservation Association.

I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on representing a constituency in the county of Devon, but also on the deeply informed way in which he moved the Second Reading of the Bill. Tribute has been paid to my hon. Friend by my hon. Friends the Members for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills), for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes). If the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) had as much deeply informed local knowledge as my hon. Friends, no doubt he, too, would have paid tribute to my hon. Friend.

As I have said, it is somewhat surprising that I should be standing at this Dispatch Box.

Mr. Steen

My right hon. Friend was chosen because there are no houses on Dartmoor.

Mr. Gow

I shall explain why I am here and not my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Waldegrave). My hon. Friend has special responsibilities for the countryside and the national parks. He would have liked to have been here, not only to listen but also to speak. However, he is representing the Government at the air pollution conference in Munich.

My hon. Friend, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jopling) and I are concerned for the preservation of the Dartmoor commons, which constitute much of the Dartmoor national park. I pay tribute to Devon county council and to the Dartmoor national park authority for their persistent toil on the preparation of the Bill. Since the failure of the earlier Bill in 1980 they have continued their unremitting efforts to seek an acceptable legislative framework to enable the Dartmoor commons to be better managed and to improve public access. It is a difficult task to reconcile the wide range of interests involved, but it is clear that the Bill has a much wider measure of support than was enjoyed by its predecessor.

The Government have no objections to the powers being sought by Devon county council. Characteristically, my hon. Friend the Member for Drake addressed much of her speech to the welfare of livestock, which, particularly the welfare of the ponies on the commons, has been a matter of great concern for many years and has received considerable publicity. The Bill is designed to improve the standard of livestock husbandry, and that is a purpose that I warmly support. As my hon. Friend said, the Countryside Commission and the Nature Conservancy Council have both given their support to the Bill. It is true that both bodies are seeking some changes, and I hope that the Bill's sponsors will consider their views carefully.

I want to put the Bill into the context of commons legislation. It has been argued by one of the petitioners, the Country Landowners Association, that the Bill is premature and that no legislative action should be taken affecting the Dartmoor commons pending further general legislation on common land arising from the recommendations on management of and access to commons in the 1958 report of the Royal Commission. However, second stage legislation on common land—the first stage was the registration procedure provided by the Commons Registration Act 1965—is a highly complex subject. The common land forum was established in January this year under the auspices of the Countryside Commission. Its task is to reach agreement with a wide range of interests on the content of second stage legislation. I hope that it will report its findings to the commission in the latter part of next year. It may be that that report will be the precursor of another Bill on common land.

We have heard this evening of the problems that exist on the Dartmoor commons and the generally accepted need for better management. The Government believe that a solution to Dartmoor's problems should be sought now and should not be deferred until after general commons legislation has been enacted. The Government have not been a party to the prolonged discussions undertaken by my hon. Friend, the Bill's sponsors, the county council and the national park authority. Yet it is not surprising, even after all those sustained efforts, that the Bill has not been able to satisfy all interests. There are still petitioners against the Bill. It seems to the Government that it is right for the detailed arguments to be resolved in Committee when the petitioners will have an opportunity to present their case. For that reason, I wish the Bill well and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading.

8.32 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

It gives me a great deal of pleasure, for a number of reasons, to speak this evening. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) on the assiduous way in which he has prepared the Bill and the eloquent way in which he presented it to the House. I am sure that that view will be shared by everyone who listened to his speech. Basically, the main thrust of the Bill is good and right, and I hope that it is given a Second Reading tonight. Obviously we have certain worries, but on the whole it is a thoroughly good Bill. These debates on environmental and animal welfare matters show the House at its best. The standard of debate is good and I always find the amount of knowledge shown by hon. Members to be quite remarkable. Tonight's debate has been a good example of that.

Another reason why I am pleased to participate in the debate is that I have non-financial interests as chairman of the Open Spaces Society, which is the oldest amenity society in Britain. It is largely responsible for all the major commons to which we have access, both in our major cities and elsewhere. It was largely responsible for various Acts in the 1890s, as well as the important Law of Property Act 1925.

We have always argued that commons create a two-sided problem—the problem of management and the problem of recreation and access. We cannot have one without the other. That is why I am broadly in favour of the Bill, which seeks to combine the two. Of course, that does not satisfy everyone, which is an impossible thing to achieve.

I am especially pleased with clause 8. It may appear to be a technical clause, but it is connected with the severance of commons rights from land ownership. Under clause 8 it will not be possible to sever the rights of commons from any part of the common land tenure. I assure hon. Members that that is an important point, especially following the decision of the Central Electricity Generating Board and Clwyd county council several years ago.

A number of people have actually bought out the rights of commoners. They may not own the land, but they can buy the rights. Once that has happened, they can seek deregistration of the commons and the general right of the public is lost. I hope that when the secondary legislation, dangled before us by the Minister, is introduced in two or three years it will contain the principle of clause 8 as a major piece of legislation.

We also welcome clause 10. The general right of access was recommended by the 1958 Royal Commission, endorsed by the departmental committee of 1978, and as recently as this year the Countryside Commission advocated access to common land. Again, that is nothing new. Following the 1925 Act there has always been access to commons in urban areas. That has provided us with many useful examples of management and planning.

There appears to be widespread support, not only for the Bill, but for the access arrangements—not only from those from whom we would expect support, such as the Ramblers Association, the Open Spaces Society, the British Mountaineering Council and so on, but from the Countryside Commission and the National Farmers Union. The Devon branch of the NFU recognises the problem and is prepared to face it. In the past I have said harsh words about the NFU, but I now compliment it on its progressive attitude on this matter.

I speak in sadness in saying that opposition comes from the Country Landowners Association. I hope that it clearly has the message from both sides of the House that it is trying to push things a little too far, and against opinion both in this House and outside. I hope that it will realise that its petition against general access is out of line with current thinking. I hope that it will withdraw its petition, which will not help anyone.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Redditch (Mr. Bennett) dealt thoroughly with an important point about the law of trespass. It is incumbent upon us to declare firmly that there is no criminal law of trespass on land—there is only civil law. That meets with general approval. I am concerned that one subsection may open the door to extending the criminal law of trespass to land.

It is only recently that the Government, quite rightly, decided not to extend the criminal law of trespass for residential property to land. It is unfortunate that the Bill, although not the Government's responsibility, may provide the opening for criminal law of trespass on land. We recognise that there is sometimes a problem of trespass on archaeological or nature sites, but that problem exists elsewhere as well, and it is tackled within the general legislative framework without too much difficulty. There is no need for the measure dealing with that matter.

I fully understand the problems of access to Dartmoor. Eight million visitors a year come to a concentrated area. I remind the House that similar problems are experienced in the Lake District national park, which has 20 million visitors a year. Since 1925 there has been access to all the commons in the southern part of the Lake District national park because those areas are under the control of the Lake District urban council. The Lake District planning board has no need to apply for these powers. I do not believe that they are necessary in this case.

The powers governing the control of disease of animals are not necessary either. They should be, and are, the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

We welcome the Bill. I was encouraged by what the Minister for Housing and Construction said. I hope that I did not read too much into his words. I thought he said that he felt the Bill should be presented to the House at this time because of a particular problem. He reported that the common land forum was studying the problem and that when it reported in 15 or 16 months time the Government would look at the results and bring forward secondary legislation.

Much of the Bill provides a blueprint for general legislation. I wish the Bill well and look forward to general enabling legislation.

8.41 pm
Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I shall not detain the House for many minutes, but I should like to associate myself with the praise that my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has rightly received for his efforts. Anyone who has seen his industry and determination must be amazed by it. It is impressive to someone like myself, who is Devonshire born and bred, that someone with fewer years of acquaintance with Dartmoor can have such a great feeling for it. It is a tribute to my hon. Friend that he can present his argument in that light.

My acquaintance and knowledge of Dartmoor stem not only from the fact that I have been aware of the area for most of my life but from the fact that a substantial amount of Dartmoor falls within my constituency of Teignbridge. Some of the places that members of the public most associate with Dartmoor, such as Widecombe and Hay tor, fall within my constituency. I do not wish to trespass on the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Sir P. Mills) but those parts of Dartmoor that fall within my constituency are as typical of the area as they can be.

Many points have been made about the reasons why the Bill is necessary. I shall touch on one point, not because it is an overriding matter, but because the other points have been dealt with at great length. I especially welcome the effect that the Bill will have on animal husbandry on the moor. I say that not just because of my particular interest in animal welfare, of which the House may know, but because that aspect reflects something important about the way in which farmers conduct their affairs on Dartmoor.

There has been much ill-informed criticism about the way in which Dartmoor farmers look after their stock. Coming from a farming background, even if I do not now farm I am aware of the fact that the vast majority of farmers have great concern for the animals they tend. That feeling may be based on long acquaintance—it is based on sense rather than sentimentality—but it is, for all that, a real concern. The representations that I have received from farmers leave me in no doubt that the great majority welcome the Bill's animal welfare provisions. People without an acquaintance with rural matters may not realise how important that can be.

Over-grazing of the moor leads to general deterioration. In the end, it means not just that animals will suffer misery, disease and death, but that responsible farmers will be reluctant to commit their animals to the moor. General deterioration follows. Others who use the moor do not benefit by a good example and there is a lack of monitoring by responsible farmers of those who are less responsible. There is a vicious circle in which the worse the position becomes, the worse it is bound to become. In the end, there is no regulation and animals suffer from a range of diseases—sheep scab, bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis, and the rest. If present conditions were allowed to continue without any regulation, that action would continue, even though it would be wrong to exaggerate it.

Once a special concern about animal welfare has been identified, the correct way of regulating it must be considered. In a sense, the Bill is returning to former conditions. Control by a system of manorial rights has disappeared. If the Bill is passed, a system of regulation by the Dartmoor Commoners' Council will replace it. That council is the correct body to tackle this type of task, because the people on the council know the commons and derive their living from it. It is difficult to think of any other way in which this matter should be regulated.

It is in no one's interests to continue the present intolerable position. Anyone with a genuine love and affection for Dartmoor would want the matter remedied. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) rightly said, it is impossible to please everyone by this Bill. A balance must be struck, and I have no doubt that that balance has been properly struck.

8.47 pm
Mr. Steen

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to thank the House for its generous approach to the Bill and the warm way in which both sides of the House have received it. I especially thank the hon. Members representing Devon constituencies for their generous statements about the way in which I have worked on the Bill. I thank also my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction for coming to the Chamber, because one can clearly say that there is no new housing on Dartmoor, and it is appropriate that he was selected to speak in the debate.

There is whole-hearted support for the Bill. The Committee will examine this matter carefully. I believe that nothing more needs to be said. The Bill should proceed quickly to Committee, to the other place and then back to the House on Report.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed.