HC Deb 06 July 1990 vol 175 cc1255-69

Lords amendment: No. 1, in page 5, line 18, after second "if" insert "(a)".

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

With this we may take Lords amendment No. 2.

Mr. Leigh

These are technical amendments, but it is only proper that I should briefly explain them to the House.

I thank my predecessor Lord Kimball for so ably steering my Bill through the other place. I also thank my noble Friend the Earl of Radnor for his diligence and experience, which enabled him to spot a point that had hitherto been missed, despite all the careful scrutiny that the Bill had received from those on the working party that developed it—lawyers, officials of three Government Departments, parliamentary draftsmen and so on. The point did not surface during the Bill's earlier passage through the House, despite the careful consideration that it was given.

Although the amendments are being dealt with as Government amendments, they derive from that important point. It concerns the definition of "grass" in new section 137A, which the Bill inserts into the Highways Act 1980 to deal with the problem of crops that are allowed to encroach on or grow on a right of way. I do not need to remind the House that the new section is the key provision of the Bill. The survey carried out by the Countryside Commission into the condition of the rights-of-way network found that crops growing on the line of rights of way were the single most prevalent factor affecting the public's use and enjoyment of footpaths and bridleways.

The vagueness and uncertainty of the present law severely limits the ability of local authorities to deal with the problems effectively. The amendments go to the heart of an important Bill. Section 137A requires a farmer to prevent any crop "other than grass"—that is the key phrase—from either obliterating the line of the right of way on the ground or making the right of way inconvenient to use. The Bill will impose on the farmer a clear duty to ensure that the line of the right of way is apparent on the ground. If he fails to do so, the authority may clear or cut back the crop as necessary and recover its costs, or it may prosecute him. It is essential that the section is as clear and unambiguous as possible. When the Bill left this House it was not, and that could have led to all sorts of problems.

The section applies to a crop "other than grass" for a number of reasons. I have spoken before about the problem caused to walkers and riders by the invasion of paths by oilseed rape, nicknamed by some "the yellow peril" because of its vivid colour and its habit of growing as a dense impenetrable mass reminiscent of a tropical rain forest.

More traditional crops—wheat, oats, rye, barley and the like—can be a considerable problem when they are growing across the line of a right of way. It is hard to have an enjoyable walk in the countryside if one must wade through acre after acre—should I now say hectare after hectare?—of knee or waist-high crops, particularly if they are wet.

We have heard from hon. Members about the scale of the problem and how such crops can deter many people from even venturing on to footpaths and bridleways. As every survey shows, most people who walk in the countryside are very law abiding and are discouraged from walking by such hindrances.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Crawley)

My hon. Friend says that the majority of people who walk in the countryside are very law abiding. Is he aware of the increasing concern among farmers about people failing to secure gates and to leave the countryside as they found it? Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the Bill and the Lords amendments deal sufficiently with the farming community's concern in that respect?

Mr. Leigh

I am anxious to keep strictly to the amendment. My hon. Friend makes a worthwhile point and speaks from personal experience, but I hope that he will not mind if I do not go down that footpath because I want to remain strictly in order. As always, he made his point fairly and very well.

It has always been accepted that there is no justification for applying the provisions of the new section to pasture land—pasture can be either permanent or pasture that has been sown like any other crop—and that they should not apply to hay meadows. It was pointed out in an earlier debate that hay meadows can be pleasant to walk through.

The problem throughout has been how to define grass. The amendment addresses that because it was the substance of what their Lordships were worried about. The problem was considered by the working party of the rights of way committee. That group, which represents all interests in a powerful network, put together the excellent measures in the Bill, and I stress that the Bill is widely supported by all sides of the countryside network and hon. Members. The committee's legal advisers paid much attention to the problem.

Hon. Members might say that crops and grass are understandable and straightforward terms, and so they are, and the working party's initial advice from its experienced learned counsel was that the courts would have no difficulty with either term. The Bill, as first presented to the House and debated on Second Reading, simply referred to a crop other than grass without attempting to define either term. The House was satisfied with that; although several important points of detail were made by hon. Members, that was not one of them.

Doubts were first expressed, however, about several detailed points on the drafting of the Bill by Department of Transport lawyers. In their initial reaction, they were unkind enough to say that the word "grass" might be roast beef to litigators. Whether grass can be roast beef to the Department of Transport or anyone else I do not know, but they raised several detailed points that caused much difficulty to those who drafted the Bill.

That caused the working party to reconsider the issue with the experienced draftsmen who had framed the Bill and to take further technical advice from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the National Farmers Union on how grass might be defined. It considered many possibilities, but, as I do not want to prolong the debate, I will not go into them. Suffice it to say, briefly, that it considered the definition of grass in previous Acts of Parliament, such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, and in common agricultural policy set-aside procedures.

The working party found two problems, the first of which is technical. The crops that must be kept clear of rights of way must include cereal crops—wheat, oats, barley and the like. The difficulty is that, technically, or botanically at least, certain cereals—wheat, barley and oats, for example—are also classified as a grass. It might have been possible for a clever lawyer to argue that a crop growing on a right of way was perfectly legal and permissible, however inconvenient it might be to path users. That is why the amendment is so important. If their Lordships had not spotted the problem, it might have been possible to drive a coach and horses through the provisions of the Bill. That is why we must briefly discuss it.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside)

I must declare an interest, because, as a farmer, I am growing oats and vetches for silage, and it might be difficult to define how the amendment would apply to them. If there are difficulties with cereal crops grown for silage, could not they be overcome if the so-called problem crops to which my hon. Friend referred—rye, oats, wheat, maize, barley and the like—were defined in the amendment? If they were set out in statute, it might overcome the difficulty and prevent those of us who earn a paltry living by farming from running foul of the law.

11.15 am
Mr. Leigh

That is an important intervention; my hon. Friend speaks from personal experience. I rang the executors of Sir Joseph Nickerson, which is one of the leading seed companies in the country and is my constituent. If I wanted to waste time, which I do not, I could go through an enormous list of varieties of winter wheat, winter barley and spring barley. I have the set-aside procedures and could read out all the crops that are listed.

My hon. Friend's suggestion would not have worked because the schedule to the Act would have had to be so long that it would be unworkable. I am trying to go through this carefully, step by step, but if my hon. Friend is patient I shall explain that, having rejected the schedule setting out what is or is not a grass, and having gone through those difficult matters botanically, we have found another way of proceeding. I hope that at the end of my brief explanation the House will be satisfied about these technical but important matters.

As I said, the problem could have caused much confusion in the courts, and it has been made more difficult by the great advance in recent years in plant breeding. A range of cereal crops, many of which, botanically, are considered as grasses, have come on to the market.

The second problem is a practical one—to achieve a definition of grass that will not only be satisfactory for the statute book and understood by the courts but can be understood and applied by the farmer and the rights of way officer. The working party has striven hard to make the Bill as clear and straightforward as possible, and the essence of the Bill is that it must be easily understood. The working party was keen to ensure that the rights of way officer should not have to be a qualified agronomist or have a degree in botany to work out whether the law was being broken. He must be able to do so at any stage of the crop, or at least as soon as it begins to inconvenience users of the right of way. That goes to the heart of the Bill and I reassure farmers that they need not worry about a crop growing on a path; they need to worry when it becomes inconvenient to users of the path. One should not have to wait until the crop is matured to be able to see what it is. The farmer needs a straightforward, simple definition of what he can or cannot grow on a right of way. It is no good expecting him to refer to a long technical list of botanical species and sub-species or different strains to decide whether he is keeping within the law.

The working party rejected as impractical the idea of identifying individual species or strains, as identified in some Acts or Common Market regulations. Its draftsmen produced a simple—I am coming to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) asked—and straightforward definition that a particular crop shall be treated as grass—and these are the words that were in the Bill before it went to the other place— if, and only if, it is of a variety or mixture commonly used for pasture, silage or haymaking, whether or not it is intended for such a use in that case. That seemed to satisfy everyone. The Government's parliamentary draftsmen, the lawyers, even the lawyers of the Department of Transport who had caused so much trouble earlier, the Department of the Environment, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the NFU, the Country Landowners Association and the ramblers were all satisfied with what seemed to be a reasonable way of defining the problem.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

My hon. Friend is my next-door neighbour and represents a large rural agricultural constituency, where probably more cereals are grown than anywhere else in the country. Is he aware that the definition of grass in the Bill, at least when I last heard it, mentioned silage? Is he aware that silage can be made from cereals? Is not that a problem?

Mr. Leigh

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. If he will be patient for a moment, I shall deal with the issue of cereals being used for silage, which is a relatively modern procedure. This point also goes to the heart of the Lords amendments.

The amendment was one of a series that were designed to add clarity to the Bill and which both sides of the Committee were pleased to accept. The long experience and wise counsels in the other place, which are so valuable to us, especially on countryside matters, came into play in this issue. The Earl of Radnor, from his long experience of farming and the countryside, noticed what no one else had noticed, but which my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Cleethorpes (Mr. Brown) has already noticed—in the past, certain cereals have been grown for silage. At once it was possible to see that there was a gaping hole in the middle of the Bill. Perhaps the Earl of Radnor had in mind also the rapid and continuing development of new strains and species. He was concerned that the words in the Bill could still lead to legal arguments, which we are all trying hard to avoid.

Raising the point in this way encouraged the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to look at the problem again on behalf of the working party. It found that, although oats were once grown widely for silage, that practice is currently restricted to a few hundred acres in Scotland. As the Bill applies only to England and Wales and as no cereals are grown for this purpose in England and Wales, the Department's initial advice was that any claim that cereals were commonly grown for silage would be unlikely to succeed.

At this point, therefore, it seemed that their Lordships' fears were ungrounded and that the amendment was not necessary. But it was then realised that failed cereal crops could sometimes be used as pasture or be fed to livestock while they were still green. That might be the case with, for example, a crop that had been damaged by frost or had failed to ripen. Occasionally a farmer might run short of feed and want to use a growing cereal crop as emergency pasture.

In the light of all this, everyone realised at that stage that the Earl of Radnor's amendment was a valuable and important addition to the Bill. It will close this potentially troublesome loophole by excluding any cereal crop from the definition of "grass". It does so regardless of arguments about botanical species or strains, with all the difficulties that I have described to my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside, and it clearly sets out what a crop will be grown and used for.

Unfortunately a further difficulty arose, for which I must apologise. The parliamentary draftsmen were not entirely satisfied with the words chosen by the Earl of Radnor to frame his amendment and preferred their own words. Throughout the Bill's passage, we have repeatedly come up against parliamentary and departmental draftsmen and we have always given in to their demands, just as we have done today. The difficulty led to a Government amendment to an amendment on Report in the other place.

I have gone through the story logically step by step and am now coming to what I hope will be a happy ending. The amendment is a small but valuable addition to the Bill.

Mr. Colvin

I thought that my hon. Friend was coming to a point that he has not yet covered. Although he has dealt with grass and cereals in the countryside, he has not covered another crop. I have a crop of peas in at the moment, mixed with oats and vegetables. Would a pea crop be adequately covered by the Bill? I bring my hon. Friend back again to the possibility of having a schedule. It would be cumbersome, but it would leave the matter beyond doubt, as it would set out precisely what crops were covered and what were not. What about peas?

Mr. Leigh

That is an interesting point. At about half-past eleven last night, I asked myself that question when an officer of the Countryside Commission and I were discussing how we could get the Bill through today. He told me that he was satisfied that the Bill covered all crops, whether they are soft root crops, peas or beans. The Countryside Commission was anxious that the Bill should be passed, and it is satisfied that these matters are covered.

Although sometimes the House has a reputation for shouting party political abuse, it comes out best on this type of issue. There is all-party support on this technical and complicated Bill. There have been hundreds of hours of detailed scrutiny by parliamentary draftsmen. Thanks to the efforts of my noble Friend Lord Kimball, the Earl of Radnor, members of the Labour party, the Countryside Commission, the NFU, the CLA and Conservative Members, and provided the House agrees to the Lords amendments, the Bill will be right, will work and will be a major benefit to the 17 million people who every year walk through the countryside.

Mr. Michael Stern (Bristol, North-West)

I follow my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), who said that he hoped that the Lords amendments would lead to a happy ending, by expressing a small measure of doubt. As he knows, the Bill is supported by both sides of the House, and I have expressed my support for it in the past. My concern, as on the previous occasion when I spoke, relates to the fact that the Bill must be not only enforceable by farmers and countryside officers, who can be presumed to have the detailed technical knowledge necessary to enforce its provisions, but immediately obvious to ordinary members of the public, like the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and myself—two keen ramblers. People must be able to see clearly when the Bill's provisions are breached and when they are not. I have severe doubts whether the amendment as drafted, without a schedule, will make the Bill more easily enforceable.

Without a schedule, we have to fall back on whether a path, bridleway or road is being encroached upon by a crop of cereals or by grass. I am not sure that the definition will be obvious to the average rambler like me or even to the average amateur botanist. My first query is directed to either my hon. Friend the Minister or my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle: in the absence of a schedule, is there in statute or case law a definition of "cereal" which could be used instantly without recourse to further legislation?

Mr. Leigh

I shall try to answer my hon. Friend's question. I understand his anxiety. I am sure that he will accept, however, that it would have been absurd to have drafted the Bill in such a way as to make it illegal for a farmer to grow grass across a right of way.

Mr. Stern

indicated assent.

Mr. Leigh

My hon. Friend accepts that point. One must let the grass grow. Having accepted that, one is up against the second problem—botanically, many cereals are grasses. We all know that cereal crops are a major disincentive to walkers, and this is the key point of the Bill. My hon. Friend heard me refer to the many strains of cereals that exist and the many new strains that are being developed. I hope that he accepts that, as a matter of common sense, we have got the Bill about right. The farmer will understand that he can grow grass on a right of way, provided that it is not a cereal. That is a common-sense way forward. I believe that he can make the legislation stick.

Mr. Stern

I accept my hon. Friend's point. The majority of farmers who wish to stay within the confines of the Bill will understand it. My point relates to the small minority of farmers who, as in the past, do not necessarily wish to stay within the strict confines of the law and those people who are not farmers, and presumably do not have the technical knowledge to recognise a cereal crop. Those who feel that the law is being encroached upon will not immediately be able to say, "I must report this offence to the highways authority, because it involves encroachment by grass"; or, "This is an offence that I must report to the Countryside Commission, because we are dealing with encroachment by cereals"; or, "This is not an offence."

11.30 am

As I explained to my hon. Friend on a previous occasion, I am concerned that although we must accept—as he does and, as he knows, I do—that the vast majority of people who use the countryside will do so with good will and in the spirit of the legislation, which I hope reaches the statute book today, we must remember the areas where friction has arisen. In that connection, we must question whether the legal definition that we are using in the Bill will aid the resolution of problems that have arisen as a result of that friction.

I must go more deeply into why I am worried by the absence of a definition of cereals. I have had the good fortune to refer to what I understand to be the standard work on British grasses. In "Grasses" by Mr. C. E. Hubbard, I find that there are eight different groups of grasses which are commonly referred to as cereals.

I will not go through all the groups because I am conscious of the need to make progress today. But I shall refer to the three groups which are commonly referred to under the heading of oats, and I hope hon. Members will forgive me if I refer to them also by their Latin definitions, not least because the debate will be unintelligible to botanists without mention of those definitions.

That group of oats is known as the avenas. The three groups of avena which are commonly referred to as cereals are the avena-strigosa, which is the bristle or small oat; the avena sativa, which is the common oat and the one most frequently seen; and the avena byzantina—not often seen in this country—which is the red or Algerian oat. None of those groups includes perhaps one of the commonest plants in the countryside, the avena fatua, which is the common wild oat.

So we immediately have the difficulty that even by basic botanical definition, there are four similar plants, three of which are cereals and one of which is not. When we consider the structure of those plants, the position to anyone other than a farmer or acknowledged botanist becomes even more confusing because all four plants are annuals, all four can grow to about 100 cm high and all four have culms—for the benefit of non-botanists I should explain that the culm is the overall structure of the seed of the plant which can be tufted or solitary, erect or bent and can contain three to five nodes.

I trust that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle appreciates that a non-botanist, walking along a path which has been encroached on by something which even to a non-botanist is recognised as a member of the oat family, whether wild or cultivated, will have some difficulty knowing whether an offence has been committed and, if it has, to whom to complain. If the encroachment is by cereal oats, my hon. Friend may say that it will be obvious because the rambler might see the cereal oats stretching for some distance, but where a field has been left to pasture and it has been seeded—

Mr. Leigh

I appreciate that my hon. Friend is making a serious point and, while I cannot claim to be a botanist, I intervene because I think that I have the answer to his question. The Lords amendment would make the provision read:

For the purposes of the application of sub-section (1) above in the case of a particular crop, the crop shall be treated as grass if, and only if… it is a variety commonly used for pasture, silage or haymaking, and…it is not a cereal crop. In other words, the oats about which my hon. Friend is speaking must meet those two tests. But the problem he raises would be addressed not simply by that provision, for they might not meet those tests. The difficulty would be addressed by the point I made in my initial remarks, when I explained that when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did its reasearch, it found that although it may have been true that oats were once widely grown for silage, that practice is currently restricted to a few hundred acres in the far western islands of Scotland, and the Bill will apply only to England and Wales. So my hon. Friend's point about oats, although well made, should not be a problem in England and Wales, where the Bill will apply.

Mr. Stern

I take my hon. Friend's point, but I fear that he has not taken mine. I accept that when it comes to enforcing the legislation, as a result of the expert advice which my hon. Friend just cited, the enforcement authority may be clear that we are dealing with encroachment by a grass, the common wild oat, or by a crop—any of the other versions of avena to which I referred.

The trouble is that by the time we have reached that stage we shall be several steps down the road. We do not have, as a result of the Lords amendment, a list of the different botanical varieties of oat available to the Countryside Commission and the highways authority so that, on receipt of a complaint from, say, myself as a rambler, the highways authority will immediately be able to say that it is a particular type—

Mr. Leigh

I interrupt my hon. Friend again because I think I can help him overcome that problem. The officers of the Countryside Commission are listening to the debate. They are drawing up a code of practice which will be sent to every farmer in the country. Would it help my hon. Friend if I said that after the Bill becomes an Act we can do some work on the subject and make sure that clear guidance is given to farmers so that the problem is addressed?

Mr. Stern

My hon. Friend is going a long way towards meeting my objection, but if such guidance is to be drawn up, it should be made more widely available than just to farmers. As I told my hon. Friend on a previous occasion, difficulties have occurred not with the vast majority of farmers but with the few who are prepared to see highways, bridleways and paths misused and who in the past have not shown themselves to be particularly concerned with infringements of highways and byways. If such guidance is drawn up, it should be made available not only to every farmer but to the Ramblers Association for dissemination among its branches, to local botanical societies for dissemination among their members and to all organisations through which users of the countryside might have access to the information. By disseminating the information to farmers my hon. Friend is going some way to meeting the problem, but he should go further.

Mr. Leigh

I cannot give an undertaking on behalf of the Countryside Commission, but I undertake to convey my hon. Friend's fears to that body. I agree that if this important measure is to work, the widest possible dissemination of the points in question should be made to all interested organisations. So I give my hon. Friend the undertaking he seeks.

Mr. Stern

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Soames

I support the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern), and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) will honour the undertaking that he has given. But in view of the extreme lack of credibility in the Countryside Commission among those who have knowledge of, or dealings with, the countryside, may I ask my hon. Friend to agree to discuss with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle the issue of what is the right body to produce the material for dissemination? By that means we shall ensure that its presentation is entirely honourable and factual.

Mr. Stern

I should be only too happy to accede to that request and to become involved in discussions of that nature with my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle. Given the good will that exists generally for the Bill among hon. Members in all parts of the House, I hope that such discussions could involve not just me but, for example, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, with his well-known concern for the ramblers' organisations, and other hon. Members who have expressed interest in the subject.

At present, there is a general understanding of what the Bill means by a "cereal", at least among farmers and their organisations. However, we are dealing with one of the fastest-changing sectors of agronomy in this country and in the western world. Therefore, I hope that in making the arrangements to provide regular information to farmers and other organisations about the definition of a cereal as it now appears in the Bill, the Countryside Commission and other organisations will undertake regularly to review the nature of their advice so that all new varieties of cereal are compared with similar grasses and there is no possibility of the position being changed by legislation or litigation in four or five years' time. By that time, as I am sure farmers present will agree, there may be an entirely different major cereal crop in this country.

Mr. Soames

My hon. Friend will recall that, during his excellent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) mentioned set-aside policies. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) is pursuing an important point because the imperative of the set-aside policy may lead to the sort of circumstances that he mentioned. That makes it even more pressing for my hon. Friend the Minister to state at length how the Government intend to frame the legislation.

Mr. Stern

I entirely accept my hon. Friend's point.

I accept the spirit of the amendment, but I remain concerned about the availability of information to enable the amendment to be enforced. I readily accept the undertaking of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) to involve non-farming organisations as widely as possible in the drawing up of the definitions and their dissemination to make the clause enforceable.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

I wish to make two or three points, and to raise a possible inconsistency, a possible difficulty and a matter brought to my attention by a group of constituents. I am a great supporter of the Bill and spoke in support of it on Second Reading. The Bill states that crops should not encroach on a highway to reduce its apparent width, which means that tall crops such as rape should be cut back by farmers should they grow over the right of way. That does not apply to grass, but, as we heard earlier, cereals are grasses and the amendment is designed to deal with that.

There is an inconsistency, because cereals will have to be cut back to provide a clear right of way, but not grass. A crop of grass such as cocksfoot has a growing habit similar to that of wheat or barley. It grows to much the same height and tends to hang over more than wheat and barley, yet the cereals will have to be cut back, but the cocksfoot will not.

I raise the second difficulty not to be nit-picking, but because it seems best to raise such points and receive an answer to them in this place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) said, if, growing among a field of cocksfoot there are wild oats, are they defined as grass or cereal? I do not know. If the wild oats among the cocksfoot overhang the path, are they to be treated as grass or cereal?

My final point was raised with me by a group of constituents who enjoy walking in the country.

11.45 am
Mr. Leigh

We know that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) has professional expertise in this matter, and he makes a fair point. However, the basis of the Bill is compromise. It was agreed that the Bill would not apply to grasses used for silage or hay making. If we were to try to address the problem as my hon. Friend seeks, the agreement on which the Bill is based—we all know that private Bills go through with agreement—would have fallen down. My hon. Friend was making a fair point, but I hope that he will accept that we had to make a rough compromise, which is what we have done.

Mr. Summerson

I appreciate the work that my hon.Friend has done on the Bill, and I realise that it involves a delicate compromise between various groups of interests. In the light of what he has said, I am satisfied on that point.

A group of my constituents have raised an unusual point. They told me that, when they go for walks in the country, they actually enjoy finding difficulties and obstructions on the paths. They say that when they go for walks around the constituency and in towns and cities, everything is even and easily laid out for them, so they simply walk along the pavements, which is no challenge to them. When they get into the country, they enjoy it if they have some difficulty in getting from A to B, and have to clamber over a tree trunk that has fallen over the path. They say that they carry wire cutters and if they come to a strand of barbed wire they take the greatest pleasure in snipping it so that when they get home they feel that they have accomplished something. Therefore, it seems that the Bill, although welcome—

Mr. Leigh

I refer my hon. Friend to column 1181 of Hansard, 23 February 1990 where, on Second Reading I referred to the very point he makes and mentioned the 1988 Countryside Commission survey, carried out by 1,000 volunteers. I said:

They discovered that on a typical two-mile walk along the 140,000 mile footpath network there was a two in three chance of meeting an obstacle … Impenetrable vegetation or hedges or fences across a footpath can be dealt with by existing legislation. The most important problem, which occurs repeatedly in the surveys, is the ploughing up and cropping of footpaths."—[Official Report, 23 February 1990; Vol. 47, c. 1181.] They found that, contrary to what my hon. Friend says about some people liking to wade through knee or waist-high cereals, most people do not like doing so. The problem addressed by the Bill is the single greatest disincentive to the enjoyment of the 17 million people who wish to walk in the countryside every year.

Mr. Summerson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have raised with him the point that my constituents asked me to, he has given me an answer that I will happily relay to them. I am sure that what he says is right and the vast majority of people would much rather not meet with obstacles. I thank him for the fair-minded way in which he has answered my point.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

Rights of way are notoriously complex and arouse strong emotions and argument. Even the botany underlying some of the issues is far from straightforward, as we have heard this morning. It is to the credit of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) that he has threaded his way through the complexities and produced legislation that commands almost universal assent.

More than 40 amendments were accepted in Committee. They were mostly technical amendments, clarifying the Bill's intention. Taken together, they demonstrate the almost overriding importance of ensuring that the Bill is practical, workable and immediately understandable. It was because the Highways Act 1980 was widely misunderstood, and landowners, local authorities and path users had difficulty in interpreting some of its provisions, that the need for this legislation became so apparent.

The failure to restore paths properly is probably the major cause of dispute and misunderstanding between landowners and path users. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) that a walk in the countryside should be something of an adventure, and perhaps our paths and rights of way should not always be clinical and straightforward. But I think that all hon. Members agree that blocked paths that are impossible to traverse are against everyone's interests. Not everyone is as athletic as my hon. Friend. We want the countryside to be enjoyed by all people, old or young, athletic or less so.

It is right that the Bill should not merely clarify the law but ensure that our marvellous network of footpaths—about 140,000 miles of them are kept open and, as far as possible, free of obstruction.

We have been lucky that the Bill received such detailed and expert scrutiny in another place. I pay tribute to the work of Lord Kimball, and perhaps it is also appropriate to remind the House of the important role played by the rights of way review committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst).

The Bill recognises that pasture land already provides a suitable surface for walking and riding. One of the pleasures of the countryside is walking through crops of grass—it is one of the reasons why people go into the country—but walking through cereal crops is a different matter. Riders' and walkers' confidence is diminished if they are faced with a field of oats or barley across which there is no visible path. That is why the Bill requires that such a path be kept clear of crops other than grass, and provides a definition of grass.

The Bill was drawn up as widely as possible to cover grass mixtures of a type commonly grown for pasture, silage or hay-making. Certainly, to the layman's eyes, that definition excludes cereals, which are not commonly grown as silage. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Stern) who as always, has done his homework, mentioned the possibility of different species of barley causing problems. I draw his attention to the fact that oats are not merely botanically, but are commonly considered to be, cereals and would therefore have to be removed under the provisions of the Bill. He also mentioned wild oats, which are not botanically classified as cereals. Page 5 of the Bill makes it clear that grass will be permitted on the footpath only if it is commonly used for pasture, silage or hay-making. Wild oats, which are chiefly a weed, would not fall into that definition, and would therefore require to be removed under the provisions of the Bill.

Mr. Stern

I am not sure that my hon. Friend understands the point that I was trying to make. I agree that wild oats are not classified as a cereal, and so I assume that, under the Bill, they will be treated not as a cereal but as a weed. My point was that, botanically, wild oats are so similar to oats treated as cereals that problems of description and identification could readily arise unless clear guidance were given to as many countryside users as possible.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

Whether wild oats are classified as a cereal or as a weed is not important in practical terms, because under both definitions they will require removal.

My hon. Friends the Members for Bristol, North-West and for Gainsborough and Horncastle raised the question of guidance to educate the public about their rights under the Bill. I draw hon. Members' attention to the rights of way review committee's intention to draw up detailed notes for guidance, which will perhaps—it is up to the committee—go into the matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West. It is intended that those notes for guidance will be distributed to every farmer and local authority in England and Wales, and possibly more widely, through groups such as the Ramblers Association which are anxious to improve access to the countryside.

The explanatory and educative function of the rights of way review committee will help to remove any lingering uncertainties or scope for misinterpretations, as well as ensuring that the Bill is a success in practice as well as in theory.

The Bill represents a hard won and possibly unique consensus between users and landowners. Some disbelief was expressed in another place that the National Farmers Union had agreed to a rights of way Bill, but I confirm that it has done so, and that it has been extremely supportive throughout the passage of the legislation. Along with the Ramblers Association, the British Horse Society, local authority associations and many other groups, the NFU hopes that the Bill will help to remove the uncertainties and misunderstandings that have bedevilled the issue in the past.

Mr. Soames

I must mention a serious matter which relates to the amendment and to the legislation which will flow from it. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not surprising that the NFU should wish to co-operate because no one, least of all farmers, seeks to deny the public access to land? But access must be responsible access. What worry the farming and countryside communities are the dreadful abuses heaped upon the countryside by those who use it.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I agree with my hon. Friend that rights carry obligations. I hope that the public will use the right of way network for recreation, but will understand that their rights carry duties and obligations to respect the countryside, to shut gates after them, not to throw litter down or to leave waste materials littering the countryside. I also agree with the idea behind my hon. Friend's intervention—that the rights of way network provides a marvellous means of reconciling potentially conflicting pressures. Of course there are difficulties—the public may interfere with farm practices—but the rights of way network provides a means of avoiding such conflicts.

Mr. Soames

Does my hon. Friend agree that in such cases, when farmers and other landowners are able to get together with people who wish to use the countryside for recreation, they may be able to work out extensions to the footpath network which will be of great advantage to both sides?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

My hon. Friend is clearly acquainted with the system whereby permissive rights of way can be negotiated or granted by landowners, in addition to the traditional rights of way network. That is an encouraging way forward. I urge landowners and farmers to work where possible with local authorities and access organisations so that, where appropriate, they can extend the marvellous rights-of-way network which we already enjoy. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle on piloting his Bill thus far. It is now at the last hurdle. It is called the Rights of Way Bill but I anticipate that the legislation will be known as the Leigh Act.

12 noon

Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

I shall be brief because the House wishes to attend to other important business. The Bill is as important as the Protection of Badger Setts Bill which we hope to reach later. The Opposition are as anxious as the Countryside Commission, the working party and the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) to see the Bill on the statute book. However, we regret that the Government have not come forward with comprehensive proposals of the type that were set out in the last Conservative party manifesto. It was made clear in our debate on Wednesday that although such legislation might be near it is still some way off. We need far-reaching and comprehensive legislation on the countryside which will incorporate the Bill and other measures about access.

The interests of path users are not always as well represented in the other place as they could be. The Second Reading debate showed that the Opposition were worried that the views of the land owning lobby and its nervousness about public rights of way were again about to make their influence felt. That view was expressed by the hon. Member for Crawley (Mr. Soames).

I hope that the Bill will overcome its last hurdle. The strong support for the Bill from the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and ramblers has no doubt helped its progress. I pay tribute not only to the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle but to my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) who played a large part in helping the Bill over its many hurdles. Even though the Bill has only two helpful amendments its progress thus far is a significant achievement.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle fully explained why it is important for the section of the Bill that deals with crops to be as clear as possible. I hope that subsequent discussions will clarify that matter and that the regulations and code of conduct will make such clarification widely available. Neither the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle nor the Minister mentioned the importance of the role of local authorities, in enforcing the new law. The Government must make sure that authorities have the modest resources that are needed to do that. This week discussions took place with the Secretary of State for the Environment about the standard spending assessments and the poll tax. Those matters will place intolerable burdens upon local authorities and we doubt whether the resources that they need will be available.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady knows that such matters do not arise from the Lords amendments.

Ms. Walley

Careful consideration of the Lords amendments shows that local authorities will have to make sure that the excellent measures in the amendments will work. However, those authorities have had curbs placed on their finances. Many make a valiant effort to enforce the law, but their achievements will be limited.

In areas where land-owning and farming interests dominate, local authorities could find a ready excuse for doing nothing and we want to avoid that. Walkers, riders and the voluntary groups to which they belong have an important role to play in encouraging farmers to comply with the new law as a matter of course. We are confident that the Ramblers Association and other such organisations will play that role.

New section 137A of the 1980 Act is one of the sections under which a prosecution can be brought by an individual or group or local authority. That is of great importance to such bodies, not only because of its provisions about crops but because it gives them the power to enforce the provisions and that is crucial. The clarification that is made by the two amendments and the closure of a potential loophole will be as welcome and useful to path users as to local authorities and farmers. For that additional reason, we welcome the amendments and hope that the final hurdle can now be overcome.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendment agreed to.

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