HC Deb 28 October 1988 vol 139 cc641-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dorrell.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)

Although I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter, it is not necessarily the stuff of which tomorrow's headlines are made. I have sought this debate in my capacity as chairman of the rights of way review committee, which is a non-statutory committee composed of all the bodies concerned with public rights of way, such as farmers, landowners, all the different user groups—whether they wish for access to the countryside on foot, on horseback, on cycles or in four-wheeled vehicles—local authorities and representatives of three Government Departments.

The committee existed in its present form since 1981 when, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer), the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, it played a key role in securing agreed changes to part III of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 during its passage through the House.

My purpose in raising the matter is not to ban motor rallies from rights of way, as could possibly be inferred from the title which has been applied to the debate: I simply want to draw attention to an anomaly, contradiction, confusion or lack of clarity in the law. The matter first came to the attention of the rights of way review committee in 1985. It arose out of two incidents. One occurred on a bridleway in Nottinghamshire when members of the Cyclists Touring Club narrowly escaped injury when encountering, entirely without warning, an unauthorised car rally. The other has been a continuing saga in mid-Wales where conflicts have led to a local rambler, who sought to have the law enforced, being obliged to leave his home and move to a secret address following threats and intimidation.

The problem is whether a rally, which is race or trial of speed, can or cannot be authorised on those highways which are public footpaths or bridleways. I do not want to exaggerate the problem, nor do I wish to pillory those who organise or take part in motor rallies. I am happy to acknowledge that the standard of organisation of United Kingdom events is high, with proper regard for safety and the public. Of course, many rallies take place with no practical problem arising.

Nevertheless, the present state of the law has led to trouble, and it may lead to trouble again. I believe that it ought to be put right in a calm atmosphere, unprompted by any fresh incident. The present uncertainty is no good for anyone except hard-pressed Ministers who probably think that other matters affecting safety have higher priority, and I appreciate that.

The relevant legislation where the anomaly occurs is the Road Traffic Act 1972, although provisions in it come from previous legislation, going back as far as the Road Traffic Act 1920. A consolidation measure, presently before the House, will become the Road Traffic Act 1988. The anomaly is transferred almost wholly and completely from one statute to the proposed statute. Therefore, I propose to use the nomenclature of the 1972 Act, as I believe that that is still the extant measure.

There is a conflict between the wording of different sections of that Act. So far, the Department has been unwilling to give guidance on interpretation or to introduce amending legislation. Section 14 of the 1972 Act makes it an offence to promote or take part in a race or trial of speed between motor vehicles on a public highway. Section 15 makes it an offence to promote or take part in a competition other than a trial or race of speed on a public highway, unless the competition or trial is authorised.

The Secretary of State is given power to make regulations governing the authorisation of trials, and I shall come to that. Section 35 makes it an offence to promote or take part in a trial of any description between motor vehicles on a footpath or bridleway, unless the holding of the trial has been authorised by the local authority. Section 36 makes it an offence to drive a motor vehicle on a footpath or bridleway without lawful authority.

The problem of interpretation that has arisen is that section 14 places an absolute ban on races or trials of speed on a "public highway" without making it clear whether the term "public highway" includes footpaths and bridleways. Neither the word "highway" nor the words "public highway" are defined in the Act. Section 35 refers to trials "of any description" without making it clear whether it was intended to exclude races or trials of speed as being prohibited under section 14.

The regulations to which I have referred are made under section 15 and are called the Motor Vehicles (Competitions and Trials) Regulations 1969. In schedule 2 the regulations refer to lengths of any public highway which are footpaths or bridleways". That would seem to suggest that in 1969 the House believed that footpaths and bridleways came within the definition of "public highway".

Section 15 of the Act was first introduced as section 36 of the Road Traffic Act 1962, and the then Minister responsible, Ernest Marples—a name which is no doubt remembered with great affection—appointed a committee under Lord Chesham to advise him on the exercise of his powers under the section. The committee's report led to the framework which was subsequently set out in the 1969 regulations. Paragraph 70 of the report refers to advice given to the committee—one assumes it was given by the then Ministry of Transport—that

section 36 should be regarded as applying to footpaths and bridleways, because they are public highways. More recently, an effort to obtain clarification was made in another place when the noble Lord Melchett tabled a question about whether the words "public highway" in section 14 of the 1972 Act included public footpaths and bridleways. In what amounts to an almost Gilbertian passage, my noble Friend Lord Brabazon of Tara admitted in his reply that there was uncertainty about the precise meaning of the term and went on to suggest that bridleways and footpaths were highways but not necessarily public highways. If the Department believes that there is a real distinction, in apparent contradiction of the previous advice given to Lord Chesham, it should say why.

This is not just an academic point of law, although it may seem that way because of the many references that I have had to make to statutes and parts of statutes. Users of the countryside need to know where they stand. At present, the situation is productive of potential danger, even if in most instances common sense and good management prevail. I have not come to the House to offer the Minister the precise formula that he should adopt and I am certainly not suggesting the exclusion of any interest from access to the countryside.

It should be obvious from what I have said that a degree of regulation is necessary to ensure that different users have access to the countryside without detriment to others. That cannot be absolutely guaranteed while there is uncertainty in the law. It should be equally obvious that, because an anomaly has been exposed, it should be corrected.

I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to give an assurance that the matter will be tackled at the first convenient opportunity. If he feels that this is a classic matter that should be thrashed out unofficially within the rights of way review committee, I hope that he will say that, if the committee can reach agreement on how the law should unambiguously be written, he will be prepared to adopt such a formula when there is next an opportunity to legislate. This is not an earth-shattering problem, but it would do good if, in a spirit of calm and rationality, it could be resolved once and for all.

2.40 pm
The Minister for Roads and Traffic (Mr. Peter Bottomley)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst) for the work that he does on the rights of way review committee and for the way in which he put the argument. When I have finished, he may regard me as Sullivan to my noble Friend's Gilbert, although I shall try to be helpful as well.

I should be grateful if my hon. Friend would pursue his offer of getting the various interests together in his committee or through its good offices to consider what the law might be. I cannot guarantee to adopt any agreed conclusion, but I shall give it serious consideration.

I go around the country praising much of the work of groups within the Department of Transport. I have not yet had an opportunity to praise the work of the lawyers, and I should like to do that now. They are asked to give definitive views or declarations of what the law means. My hon. Friend spelt out plainly that nobody knows what the law means. He will agree that it would be fruitless—unless a case goes to court, when it would necessarily have to make a decision—to try to decide what the law is intended to mean. We must take the various sections of the law and non-definitions and mix them with what has been decided by definition or case law. It is generally agreed that there are no obvious conclusions to which a court could come; it would be a matter of arguing it out, if the case went that far.

The good news is that there are relatively few conflicts. Those concerned about rights of way may want to spell out the position in advance so that conflicts do not arise, but the best that I can do is to echo my hon. Friend's words about common sense and good management at rallies.

A number of issues affect rights of way, footpaths, bridleways, highways and public highways. I am the last person to try to distinguish all the differences between them, but the Department and I, as the Minister for Roads and Traffic, are concerned not only about main trunk roads but about the effects of roads on people's rights of way, footpaths, bridleways and highways. I remember saying at the opening of the Bridport bypass that it was our policy, wherever possible, to ensure that footpaths are not unnecessarily diverted. Pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders prefer the option of going in straight lines or on historic paths without unnecessary disturbance. It is not always possible to arrange that, but it is right to say that we in the Department, although we must cater for the needs of heavy goods vehicles, buses, cars and motorbikes, do all we can to maintain the rights of way that traditionally people have built up.

My hon. Friend mentioned a member of the Ramblers Association. Although 50 years ago it might not have been the most popular of bodies with landowners or the Government, one can pay tribute to the work that it has done to preserve rights of way and footpaths throughout the country. I have had the experience of trying to follow a path that has been available to me for 20 years and to others for generations, only to discover that it has been ploughed up with no provision for people to take the traditional route. In my case, it was distressing because it was the route to church.

My hon. Friend referred to motor rallies. I acknowledge that he has been concerned about them for some time. A small number of motor rallies cause public disquiet, especially when they make use of quiet country paths. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for acknowledging that there is no evidence of a major safety problem. None of the 5,200 road deaths last year happened because of motor rallies on public rights of way. That is not to say that one will not happen this weekend, but the overall pattern shows that there is not a major safety problem at the moment.

The Government's attitude to motor rallies must remain balanced. There are 12,000 rally drivers. Rallies give pleasure to many people. They are a traditional and helpful offshoot for our motor industry. Sometimes rallies provide test conditions, allowing the development of approved vehicle and component design. They should not be organised in ways which cause distress to others or which compromise the safety of either participants or people who are in no way involved. Underlying my hon. Friend's interest, besides the wish to protect rights of way, is the view that those who are not involved should not be put at risk. There is no perfect way of ensuring total safety on the roads, as members of the Cyclists Touring Club acknowledge, but it is important to ensure that unnecessary risks are not added to by the activities of others.

For many years, the Department has appointed the Royal Automobile Club as its agent for acting as the governing body for motor sport under the terms of the Motor Vehicle (Competitions and Trials) Regulations. I pay tribute to the RAC. This is a good example of agency agreement or privatisation, call it what one will. The system has been acknowledged to work well because of the common sense, goodwill and professionalism of those involved.

The Government are satisfied that rallies are organised in a way that minimises disturbance to the public and does not exceed a tolerable level of nuisance. These events are rationed to a maximum level of one night event every three weeks, or a day event every three weeks, with a minimum of three weeks between any two events. In practice, in few areas is this maximum level of activity approached.

Rallies are authorised only after consultation with the local police and, where appropriate, with representatives of local authorities and national parks. The RAC Motor Sports Association has regional route liaison officers to assist in alleviating any local difficulties. All involved are well aware that events can take place only with the kind co-operation of many residents along the route. Today I met with the RAC-MSA for a photograph with a 1904 French car with which I hope to travel down to Brighton. I was glad to be able to put my chauffeur, Mr. Stan Wyatt, behind the wheel. Although he will not drive to Brighton with me, he has driven me safely around the country over the past four and a half years.

Some minor events are automatically authorised, such as those involving fewer than 12 vehicles. Organisers of those events are made aware of the legislation for running events on public highways. Events are allowed only within the confines of the road traffic law, so, for instance, cars and motor cycles cannot break the speed limits. Rally events are divided into stages. Competitions are judged on merits of regularity. Any improvements to a given time for the stage receive no extra points. There is no incentive to speed.

There is no place for improperly organised rallies. I am pleased to understand that, earlier this year, a Buckinghamshire motor club was found to have contravened the regulations and was banned from organising rallies for three years. My hon. Friend said that one example which prompted this debate was an unauthorised rally.

Rules are important. We recognise that they need to be up to date. Earlier this year we suggested to the RAC that it should review its code of practice to see whether it needs amendment or tightening. The RAC is now discussing its initial conclusions with us.

There is a long-standing question, which prompted the debate, about the legality of authorising motor rallies on footpaths and bridleways. I have before me some words which I would prefer to spin into a sentence of about 180 words so that it cannot be interpreted. I shall leave it because that would take me into a partial interpretation of the law which my hon. Friend has clearly spelt out as being uninterpretable. In other words, I shall stop digging.

There is one final aspect which has not been touched on, but which I trust is important because it relates to safety. Dr. Peter North's major review of road traffic law, published in the spring, recommended that we should consider extending at least some of the main driving offences to driving off the public highway. That is an important point because it would provide additional protection against the rare cases of misconduct that put people at risk. We are currently considering which offences should be more widely applicable and we shall cover this point in the full response to the North review which the Government have promised for early next year.

My hon. Friend has made this a subject for public debate—not just today but on previous occasions; for example, he has referred to questions in the other place. His committee is the right body to decide whether it is possible to agree a conclusion with the various interests concerned. The Government would give interested opinions on the results. If we conclude that this is not the kind of problem in which it would be appropriate to invest much public money during our campaign to cut casualties by one third by the year 2000—to save 1,700 lives and prevent 100,000 injuries a year—we shall say so openly. We shall not expect to be praised for it. On the other hand, if it turns out to be possible not just to provide interpretation of existing law—the Road Traffic Acts of 1930 and 1972 and others—but to incorporate an agreed conclusion in a future Bill, the Government will be prepared to do that. We want to do what is sensible and proportionate, and we shall be interested in any result that my hon. Friend can present to us.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Three o'clock.