HC Deb 25 April 1991 vol 189 cc1267-88

`( 1 ) No landowner or any other person or group of persons shall take any action which prohibits or impedes or reduces reasonable public access to the countryside without first reporting such proposed action to SNH.

(2) SNH shall consult appropriate local authorities and advertise any proposed action under subsection (1) of this section.

(3) If any objections are registered with SNH, then SNH shall arrange for a public inquiry to be held before deciding whether to approve or reject any proposed action under subsection (I) of this section.'.—[Mr. Canavan.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

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

During our debate on the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Bill it is appropriate that we should pay attention to public access to one of the most valuable parts of Scotland's natural heritage, the Scottish countryside. In terms of natural beauty, there are few, if any, countries which can equal Scotland. It is important to remember that the people of Scotland who, as a whole, have inherited that natural heritage have a duty to protect it, to ensure that it is used for the benefit of the people as a whole, and to pass it on to future generations for their enjoyment.

Unfortunately, the land—particularly the countryside—does not in law belong to the people as a whole. Huge countryside estates, including some of Scotland's most famous mountains, hills and glens, are owned by wealthy landlords such as the Duke of Buccleuch—with 277,000 acres—the Wills family—with 263,000 acres—Lord Seafield—with 185,000 acres—the Countess of Sutherland—with 158,000 acres—and the Duke of Westminster with 113,000 acres. It is worth remembering that it was people like the ancestors of the Sutherland family who were responsible for the Highland clearances. Some of the likes of them today are not content simply with owning huge tracts of land in Scotland; they seem to be intent on trying to keep the people of Scotland from enjoying access to that land. The House should try to do something about that. The enjoyment of the Scottish countryside should be the birthright of all the people of Scotland—and of people from further afield who come to Scotland to enjoy its natural beauty and its other assets.

I am not a lawyer, but, as I understand it, there is no common law of criminal trespass in Scotland and very little in the way of statute law and byelaws relating to criminal trespass. I hope that the Minister, who is a lawyer, will be able to say whether the law needs to be clarified and what improvements, if any, the Government have in mind, whatever the merits may be of my new clause.

My understanding is that, if someone is causing, or threatening to cause, damage to property, or is being a nuisance, a landowner can initiate civil action through the courts by reporting the matter to the sheriff court and seeking an interdict—although that could be granted only against a named person or persons. I should welcome clarification of that from the Minister, who is a well-known Scottish advocate.

Mr. Wilson

Is he?

Mr. Canavan

The Minister certainly was at one time.

It is my experience, and that of many who enjoy the countryside, that some landowners—not all—set a bad example by threatening walkers, climbers and innocent people even with violence. Those innocent people have no criminal intent; they want to enjoy a walk in the countryside or pursue a favourite sport or pastime.

I declare an interest as I regularly enjoy walking, hill running and climbing, most of which I do in the Scottish countryside. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), I cannot claim to have conquered all of Scotland's Munros. My hon. Friend is unique in the House—although I think that I might be the only hon. Member to have survived the Ben Nevis hill race on two occasions, and one has to be a bit of a masochist to enjoy that.

I wish to give a couple of examples of my experiences. One winter's day a few years ago, I, my brother and some friends arrived at daybreak in Glen Lyon to do some mountain climbing. My brother, who is more civilised and polite than me, courteously asked a chap in a tweed suit to tell us the best way to go up the mountain. The tweed suit gruffly replied, "You don't." It was difficult to argue with him because he had a gun and a big dog, and there were some other tweed-suited thugs lurking in the background. They told us in no uncertain terms to clear off because they were deer stalking. They made thinly veiled threats that, if we did not clear off, we risked being shot—I do not know whether by accident or design. I was so incensed by that attitude that I initially wanted to stand my ground. However, because of the undesirability of a by-election, my colleagues persuaded me that it would be better to climb another mountain.

I do not want to turn the debate into an argument about the morality or otherwise of certain blood sports, and whether they should even be taking place in the countryside. However, in all common sense there is a strong case for saying that there should be some regulation—preferably a statutory regulatory body—to decide whether certain activities should be given priority over other activities in certain areas at certain times. My new clause is a reasonable attempt to achieve that through the new Scottish Natural Heritage.

I shall give another example from my home area that shows the difficulties of gaining access to the countryside. Not long ago, I was doing a bit of cross-country running—a harmless enough pursuit. I was training for the London marathon, and my route took me through a country estate. I was accosted by the husband of the landowner, who shouted, "What the hell do you think you are doing?" I kept on running, and politely replied, "What does it look like? I'm running".

He drove ahead of me in his van and closed a gate to try to obstruct me. He virtually threatened me with violence if I went any further.

That man did not succeed in scaring me, but I know that other people in the area, and especially elderly people, have been intimidated by his behaviour. They are being deprived of access to the countryside so that they cannot even enjoy a walk. It is not even a walk with a dog; if it were, that man would probably argue that the dog might worry sheep if it were allowed off the leash. Groups of elderly people are too frightened to go walking through the countryside because they are being intimidated. That is unacceptable, and it is time that the House got to grips with the problem. Such thuggery by landowners cannot be allowed to continue.

I have quoted only two of my experiences; I could quote many more. Anyone who regularly enjoys countryside pursuits could cite many other instances of landowners using intimidatory and obstructive tactics, such as putting up barbed-wire fences and notices saying that trespassers will be prosecuted. Of course, in law the notices have no validity. Nevertheless, through that intimidatory behaviour, landowners are hounding and harassing innocent people, with the result that many of them are terrified of going into the countryside and enjoying Scotland's natural assets.

My new clause would help to put a stop to that nonsense. The procedure that it outlines is simple. If a landowner had reasonable cause to limit or prohibit public access to an area of the countryside, he would first have to report his proposal to Scottish Natural Heritage. The agency would then consult the appropriate local authorities and advertise the proposal—something similar to a planning application—and people would have the right to register their objections. If there were such objections, Scottish Natural Heritage would arrange an appropriate public inquiry before deciding whether to approve or to reject the proposal. That is a straightforward and common-sense proposal.

My new clause is a reasonable, practical measure that would clarify Scottish law. It would improve access to the countryside and it could lead to a charter on the right of the people to access to an important part of Scotland's natural heritage. I ask the House to accept it.

Sir Hector Monro

I followed what the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) said with great interest. He was right about the vagueness of the law of trespass—indeed, there is none. The best statement that I could obtain was from the Scottish Landowners Federation, of which I am a member, although I do not speak on its behalf. It is that no one has the right to enter anyone else's property without consent except by means of an established public footpath or roadway, and that anyone who does so is strictly a trespasser. The term "trespass" is in common use, but it has not been defined in Scotland in statute or by the courts. The main difference between Scotland and England on trespass is that the common law of Scotland, unlike that of England, provides no penalty for the simple act of trespass itself. Damage or nuisance must first be proved. That shows that in Scotland there is no law of trespass. There is, however, the right of ownership.

7.30 pm

We must try to bring people together when it comes to using and enjoying the countryside to the best of everyone's advantage. That is the key approach. I was quite taken by the approach of the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) in Committee, where he took a responsible attitude and rightly explained the wishes of so many people to use our wonderful countryside but said that, at the same time, they should not, as it were, overstep the mark or cause a nuisance to those carrying on farming. The achievement of that careful balance is the key factor.

So much depends upon attitudes. The hon. Member for Falkirk, West told us about his experience when running along a farm track. If he had stopped and asked the owner whether he would object if he, the hon. Gentleman, were to run along the track, I suspect that he would have been warmly welcomed to do so and told to enjoy his recreation. In many instances too much is taken for granted and not enough politeness is shown in using other people's property.

Those of us who frequently use the hills know that we must be careful about erosion and generally causing damage to the landscape. The dangers become clear when we consider what has happened to Ben Lomond and the damage that has been caused in the Cairngorms. There are other concerns that turn upon farming operations, especially at lambing time. Other worries arise at nesting time, especially for many of the birds that we are keen to protect.

I once had to speak for an hour in Committee about bulls on public footpaths. I dare say that the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) had to put up with my speech. I am not sure whether he listened to it with enthusiasm. There are many who can identify a bull, but not a heifer or a cow with a calf. They can be every bit as dangerous as a bull. People must be very careful when wandering about the hills if they are not aware of what they are doing.

When so much depends on the rural economy and on providing employment in the countryside, we should not attack, as the hon. Member for Falkirk, West did, those who are carrying out legitimate sporting operations. Those activities are important and we must not prevent them. It must be realised that at certain times—for example, from mid-August to late September—important shooting takes place on the hills. The greatest worry is that on which the hon. Gentleman touched, stalking.

We were highly critical in Committee—the same criticism has been made in the press—about the insufficient cull of deer in Scotland, and especially of hind. Stalking hind is an intricate and difficult operation, especially during the short days in Scotland in mid-winter. If hikers, hill climbers or hill walkers are on the hills at the same time, the operation becomes virtually impossible. A little co-operation either way would make a tremendous difference to everyone enjoying himself while cohabiting with our landscape.

I shall not talk about the concerns that are expressed about litter, gates, fences and knocking down dykes. It is all too easy to think that we can climb a dyke. If the top stone is knocked out, however, the whole thing begins to fall down almost immediately. There is also the danger of fire in forests and, because of other factors, the inconvenience that is caused to fishermen. There must be a balance between water sports and the enjoyment of those who are fishing.

When I was a Minister in the Department of the Environment and concerned with rural affairs, there was an immense amount of work to be done in protecting footpaths and bridleways. It is a relatively low key matter in Scotland. I am not sure whether district and regional councils have taken enough interest in establishing or retaining footpaths and producing maps so that people may know where there are rights of way. Similarly, I am not sure whether enough has been done to ensure that rights of way are available to enable the public to enjoy the countryside. We in Scotland are lagging behind in the development of footpaths and rights of way.

So much could be taught in schools about how to enjoy the countryside, what to look out for and how not to be difficult at times that matter, such as nesting time and during critical farming operations. The hon. Member for Falkirk, West takes a swipe at the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry whenever he can. No one has done more than the duke and the Buccleuch estates to educate children in Scotland to appreciate the joys of the countryside. The duke takes many school parties to his estates at Bowhill, Drumlanrig and in Northamptonshire so that they may learn how an estate is run. They visit the sawmill, the farm, the gardens and the woodlands. The children leave with the feeling that they have begun to learn what enjoyment of the countryside is all about.

Anything that Scottish Natural Heritage can do to bring teachers and others to understand and to teach that appreciation in our schools, the better it will be. I know that it is said that the curriculum does not allow for such teaching, but if we cannot find time for things that matter, such as the countryside, much of our children's education will be lost.

It is extremely important to get right the balance of the use of the countryside. We must realise that everyone has an interest in achieving that. Only by working together in harmony will we all get the best out of the country.

Mr. Andrew Welsh

The major theme of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) was co-operation. That is clearly a reasonable goal when we talk about access to and use of the countryside. It is the traditional Scottish attitude to these matters. We believe that the land belongs to the people of Scotland and future generations of Scots. The land is merely held temporarily in trust by the present generation.

The Scottish attitude to our land and its enjoyment is that there should be freedom to roam, restricted only by the need to take care of the land and to be concerned about it. Passage should be allowed to those who give consideration to the needs of farmers and others who depend upon the land for their living. It is an alien experience when barriers are erected and rights of way are lost. The new clause seeks to clarify and consolidate the right of access of its people to the land of Scotland. I believe that it achieves the underlying purpose, within reasonable constraints, and will protect those who work on the land and gain a living by so doing.

The Scots have always taken a stroppy attitude to feudal landowners who try to get them off the hills. My only criticism of the hon. Member for Falkirk (Mr. Canavan) is that he was not stroppy enough during the incidents which he described. There is no law of trespass worthy of the term in Scotland. A person's home and garden are fully protected from unwelcome visitors, and rightly so, but provided that people keep to the countryside code and cause no damage or disturbance to livestock, there should be no barriers to wandering over the mountains or generally enjoying our magnificent scenery.

Recent changes in ownership have led to certain changes in attitudes. Bit by bit, more and more estates are seeking to keep their lands for themselves and their friends. Many of the new estate owners come from the south of Britain, from the continent, the United States or the middle east, where the concept of public access to private property does not exist. There is a danger, because alien ideas are being introduced to Scotland by those who have no understanding of how the Scottish attitude to land has developed.

Those new attitudes have brought with them, from the Borders to the Highlands, a growing infestation of notice boards and signs preventing and restricting access. The undeniable fact that a landowner cannot prosecute for trespass and that public authorities have limited control over campers is ignored. It is unacceptable that rights of way should be blocked up, barbed wire laid down and fences put up restricting what are clearly rights of way and the ability of people to enjoy the land of Scotland.

Instead of the people of Scotland still imagining that their country is freely available to them, the opposite is becoming the case. Unless action is taken to reverse such trends, we will simply be herded into forestry parks or reservations of one kind or another, and that would be a great loss to Scotland. I certainly would not like to see the bulk of the Scottish people herded around and directed to specific areas, leaving our hills, lochs and mountain tops the private preserve of the fortunate and selfish few. If that ever happened, we would all be the losers and the Government would have made a big mistake. Therefore, I welcome the new clause, which reinforces the rights of the people of Scotland to their own land.

One step in the direction of mediation and a straightforward way in which to help the people of Scotland would be if the Government were to consider ordnance survey maps which, in England, but not in Scotland, include rights of way. That would be a straightforward way in which to inform people of their rights, reinforcing traditional rights of access and preventing some of the worst practices of landlords taking over rights of way for their own purposes. Marking such rights of way on ordnance survey maps would be a simple way of informing people of their rights.

The new clause clarifies the legal basis for access to Scotland's natural heritage. It establishes the principle that landowners should not exclude walkers from their land except where damage or intrusion into personal privacy might result. Therefore, I support the new clause and hope that the Government will accede to its basic premise that the land of Scotland belongs to the people of Scotland, and that their reasonable enjoyment of it should be allowed in harmony with other land users.

Mr. Dalyell

About three months ago, I telephoned Sir James Stormonth Darling, the ex-secretary of the National Trust for Scotland, who is well known to the Minister and to my hon. Friends, on a completely unrelated matter. As soon as we had discussed our business, he said that he did not know why I was asking about that, because I should really be concerned about Mar Lodge.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I have made a statement on that. I regret that the hon. Gentleman was not present.

Mr. Dalyell

I know, and very inadequate it was. If it had been a half-decent statement, the House would have been spared my speech, but it is precisely because it was such an inadequate statement that I make no apology, with the good will of my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith), for returning to the subject.

I spare the House my three months of interest in the subject, but this very day there has been a leader on it, not the one in the Scottish newspaper which has been quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden, but in a national paper. It is entitled "Preserving Mar Lodge", and it says: The decision by the American billionaire Mr. John Kluge to sell the 77,000 acre Mar Lodge estate in the Cairngorms raises questions about the future of a mountain landscape which is to Britain's natural environment what St. Paul's Cathedral is to our man-made heritage.

Mr. Galbraith

Hear, hear.

Mr. Dalyell

I am glad to hear my hon. Friend say, "Hear, hear." If there is scepticism among Conservative Members, let me put their minds at rest. This is not some Labour tabloid or newspaper; it is The Daily Telegraph. The leader writer goes on: The sale, which coincides with the formation of the Natural Heritage Agency for Scotland, also creates an opportunity which, if not taken, will be lost for generations. The disclosure that the Prince of Wales is involved in negotiations to buy the estate on behalf of the Crown-Estate and the fledging Scottish Natural Heritage Agency shows that he believes that the opportunity to buy the estate for the nation must be grasped. The Prince of Wales should be wary of public ownership where other options exist. But the case of Mar Lodge is special. I did not think that there was much special about it from the response that my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden received from the Minister. I am on the side of The Daily Telegraph and against the Minister on this.

The Daily Telegraph says: But the case of Mar Lodge is special. It is so valuable that private ownership has meant foreign ownership for nearly 30 years. The rich men who have owned Mar Lodge have made mistakes—overstocking with deer and preventing one of the most magnificent fragments of Caledonian forests from regenerating, but they have kept it whole. The danger is now that a new buyer, anxious for a return on his investment, will split it up. Many of us would say amen to that. I am one of those who is fortunate to know something of this wonderful countryside.

7.45 pm

The Daily Telegraph goes on:

No government has faced up to the challenge of how to reconcile the conflicts in the Cairngorms, Britain's most important mountain landscape. Now there is the chance to demonstrate how to conserve nature on a large scale, while achieving income from sporting interests and restricting access to those who are prepared to make the long walk in. All depends on Mr. Lang, the Scottish Secretary"— or should we say, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) He should be clear on two things: that endorsing the purchase of Mar Lodge would banish doubt about the Government's commitment to nature conservation, and that it would prove enormously popular among the moderate opinion that the Conservative party badly needs to win back in Scotland. It is not my business to suggest to the Conservative party how to win votes, but it is my business to say that there is a strong feeling that this is a major litmus test for Scottish Natural Heritage. The kind of statement that the Minister has made simply will not do for serious Scottish opinion.

I do not criticise the Secretary of State for having just come in, but I am referring his ministerial colleague to the leading article on Mar Lodge in The Daily Telegraph today, of which I plead with him to take notice.

I shall not abuse the time of the House, but I want to refer briefly to the statement made by Robert Edwards on 19 April: Prince Charles was asked by Magnus Magnusson, chairman of the Nature Conservancy Council in Scotland, to approach the American billionaire, John Kluge, about the forthcoming sale of his 77,000-acre Mar Lodge estate which contains three of Britain's five highest mountains, rare flora and fauna. Kluge apparently refused to give the estate to the nation, but did agree to offer it to the Government or a consortium of voluntary organisations at the reduced price of £10 million, half of which could be paid over the next five years. It is expected to fetch over £13 million on the market. Are those figures available to the Scottish Office?

The Minister will know what I am talking about i f I say, in parenthesis and without going into detail, that some individual properties have had millions—in the plural—of pounds from the national heritage memorial fund. We are not talking about something extraordinary but, dare I say, about less than the price of one Tornado. However, that is by the bye.

An article in The Guardian stated: Kluge appears to have set a deadline, the first week of May. Magnusson, unable to convince the Scottish Secretary … to fight the Treasury for cash, this week appealed to conservation organisations for help with emergency funding. There is nothing more urgent or important on the agenda of the infant body than a decision about Mar Lodge. If that body acted on Mar Lodge, it could receive a great deal of good will, and if some of it accrued to the Conservative party, so be it.

I am not so inexperienced as to ask the Minister to get up to make a statement straight away, after what he said to my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith). However, I should like him to tell us tonight that, tomorrow and in the coming week Ministers, will discuss the issue, possibly with a view to revising their opinion. It would be a heck of a pity if the historic chance to do something of lasting importance for the countryside of Scotland were lost.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

It is 107 years since James Bryce introduced the Access to Mountains Bill. For 107 years, the country has been waiting for a right for the people of this country to have access to the open countryside, which they should have the right to enjoy.

I hope that my colleagues will forgive an Englishman for participating in the debate, but I claim a long and abiding passion for the Scottish landscape and countryside. Over the years, I have spent many happy days roaming the hills, mountains and wilderness of Scotland. I am delighted to say that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) the shadow Chancellor, is now following in my footsteps and has embarked on the herculean task of completing the ascent of Scotland's 277 Munros.

Barring a number of historical incidents of some notoriety—most notably perhaps, the famous battle of Glen Tilt, when an eminent professor and his students were on a geological expedition in the late Victorian years and were set upon by a landowner and his ghillies—the tradition in the Scottish hills, which is a good tradition, has on the whole been one of consensus. There has been reasonable access for those who want to walk, climb and take recreation in the Scottish countryside and, in return for their responsibility, permission for that access has been granted by the landowners. That consensus has been based on good will and, on the whole, it has worked. It has not worked by walkers asking permission every time they wanted to walk on any footpath—as I suspect the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) intended—but it has been a tradition of responsibility on the one side and access granted on the other.

However, there are three problems that increasingly threaten the good practice of that tradition. First, the law does not always work well. Sadly, an increasing number of landowners deny access to reasonable members of the public who have no intention of causing damage to the landowners' property.

A few years ago, I was sitting on top of one of the hills just to the south of Lochnagar in an area of rolling countryside and great beauty. My brother and I had walked on three or four of the mountains in the area. We were at summit Cairn when we were approached by an irate landowner who—as in the experience of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan)—carried a gun and was surrounded by a group of ghillies. He summarily ordered us off the mountain.

We were doing no damage; we were not disturbing any sporting interests and we were not disturbing any movement of deer. We were merely out for a walk. The special irony of the event was that we were sitting in a national nature reserve—the Caenlochan nature reserve. Despite that, the landowner was able to use his intimidatory powers to remove us from the land. When something of that type can happen, I contend that the law is not operating properly or fairly in the interests of all.

So the first problem is that the law does not always operate well. The second problem is that there is general confusion in the minds of many people who go into the Scottish hills about the exact state of the law. As the hon. Member for Dumfries stated, the law is somewhat unclear, because it does not prescribe a provision of trespass but it neverthless enables a landowner in some circumstances to remove a person from his land with the use of minimum force. An unclear law is not a good law. The new clause rightly seeks to clarify the law.

The third problem is precisely the provision for the use of minimum force. Where it is possible for a landowner to remove walkers from his or her land by intimidation—by hassling them, by threats or perhaps by revealing rather obviously the possession of a gun—there must always be a potential problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West wishes to put that right, and I support him. He is attempting not only to put the law into a clearer perspective but to move it closer to, for example, Swedish provisions for access, which work well. They are supported almost universally within Sweden; they preserve the right balance between the landowner's right of privacy and the general public's right of access, and enshrine those rights sensibly in legal form.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West will be successful in prevailing on the Government, although I doubt it. If we were able to enshrine such a provision in law for Scotland, I hope that it would give a lead for England and Wales. Therefore, I support the new clause.

The natural heritage of Scotland is unsurpassed. It is a landscape of breathtaking beauty. It has peaks, ridges, lochs and desolation in some of the wildest parts of our country, and they should be for all to enjoy and to share. It should not be up to anyone, however mighty, to remove that opportunity for enjoyment from the rest of us. My hon. Friend seeks to secure that enjoyment for us and for future generations. It is a noble cause, and I support him in it.

8 pm

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I understand and share the objectives of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) who moved the new clause in his purpose of seeking to enlarge the freedom of the citizen to have access to Scottish rural areas. However, I am doubtful about the mechanisms that he has proposed to achieve it. His proposal appears to put in the hands of a Government-appointed quango the decision whether a right of access should be enjoyed in a particular area.

That is a dangerous new power to give to a body such as Scottish Natural Heritage, and it could further restrict access in a way that would supplement and even empower proprietors to be more exclusive than some of them are at present. By simply prevailing on SNH that it had a good case to exclude the public, the proprietor would have the imprimatur of official approval which, at present, his ownership of itself may not give him. Far from achieving the purposes of Professor Bryce, to whom the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) so eloquently referred, I fear that the hon. Member for Falkirk, West could set back the very cause for which he so eloquently pleaded.

We should not be unduly hung up on the precise terms and proposals of the hon. Member for Falkirk, West, who identifies a serious and important issue. Many of us who represent parts of the country to which the public wish to have access in increasing numbers are conscious that there is a problem of reconciliation of interests which should be tackled and that the law, with all the obscurities to which the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) referred, may not resolve the difficulties which are increasingly sharp in certain areas.

Mention was made of the acquisition of estates by those who have shown less sensitivity to the custom and practice of those who have lived in the countryside than used to be the case. I do not, of course, exempt some of those who have lived in and known estates for a very long time from all blame for over-zealous exclusion of the public from their property.

This type of debate invites anecdotal evidence in support of whatever point of view one wishes to put. I do not want to go too far down the road of recalling the occasion in the Strath of Kildonan when the proprietor spoke, with accents of earlier years, pretty roughly to me when I was sitting by the roadside eating a sandwich, having just been re-elected as member of Parliament. She spoke roughly in terms of the possible damage that I would do to her property by sitting there and allowing the crumbs from my lunch to fertilise the moss around me. Her remarks may have been animated by a certain disappointment about the result of the election. On the whole, I have not found such an attitude among those who have lived and worked in the area, whether proprietors or others.

There are less attractive examples among the factors of estates. Factors often show the least sympathy for the public interest in access. They are rather at the sharp end of the conflict. There have been occasions when factors have deployed arguments that suggest that there is no time of year in some areas when it is suitable for the public to have access. They say that there is no time because it is either the time when people are stalking or shooting, or the time when the birdlife is breeding and the very scent of a human being could be enough to upset the eco-system over which the factors preside as the agents of the proprietor. Such an argument shows a certain lack of sympathy and understanding, and increases the desire to legislate where it is difficult to legislate without completely running into conflict over the use of land.

Certain uses of land are inconsistent with public access at certain times. It is not consistent with public access to stalk or to drive grouse across a moor. Many other forms of activity have some benefit for rural areas, but are inconsistent with public access at certain times. The limits to those times should be subject to some agreement and understanding. We may be reaching a time when the most constructive way forward would be to seek to agree for particular areas codes of practice with proprietors and representatives of the public who could, publicly and openly, express their view of the public interest in an area of land.

Like others, including the hon. Member for Falkirk, West, I do not wish to use the debate to run through the arguments about the appropriateness of blood sports. Field sports play a significant part, at least, in the highlands economy. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman or anyone else would wish to end such sports as a side wind of the proposal. That is not the purpose of the new clause.

However, we cannot rest absolutely content with the law and practice as they stand. In the past, the law has allowed gentlemen such as the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury, whose hill-climbing endeavours fill less energetic Members with nothing but admiration, to reach those achievements broadly unimpeded, although with one or two unpleasant experiences such as that with which the hon. Gentleman regaled the House. He and others are right to point to the threat of change from the arrival of people who are less than sensitive to the growing public interest in access.

We cannot reconcile those interests by old-fashioned means and by old-fashioned proprietorial power, with sticks, dogs, guns and threatening notices that imply or threaten action against those who appear on the land.

I suggest to the Under-Secretary of State that he has an opportunity to emphasise the desirability of reconciling those interests and of reaching agreement on how they should be reconciled. That cannot be done Scotland-wide. The interests of heavily populated areas close to Glasgow, where the countryside is much more penetrated by people on weekend or even evening outings, are different from the interests of the more sparsely populated areas, further from population centres.

If codes of practice are the route to follow, they must be studied and negotiated for areas narrower than Scotland as a whole. However, the time has come to take a lead in this, perhaps with the Scottish Landowners Federation. The time has come to discuss their interests and the interests expressed by the Ramblers Association, organisations promoting tourism and others to seek to ensure that the coutryside in Scotland, which is part of our heritage and with which we are concerned in the Bill, remains attractive and as open as we would like it to be.

Mr. Bill Walker

I represent a constituency with huge agricultural and shooting interests and with a large tourist-related economy. I shall be brief, but I feel that it is important that anyone debating the measures contained in this clause should fully understand that we can have the economy that we have in Perthshire and in the part of Angus that I represent, with a balance in the use of land, only if people understand that balance. There have been some interesting, thoughtful and helpful speeches on that.

There are times when it is just not suitable for people to wander willy-nilly around parts of Perthshire and Angus.

They are a danger to themselves and to everyone else, and one must recognise that. There are other times when people are welcome, as they are in their hundreds of thousands in my constituency. They are certainly welcome on the slopes of Glen Shee, which has become increasingly popular, and I am delighted that it has had a good season this winter.

The jobs provided from all those different activities show that the balance is important. There would be no economy in my constituency if there were not a balance between the rural and tourist-related interests, which are the providers of jobs. When anyone says that they believe that they should have unlimited access to any part of my constituency, I tell them that that is unrealistic. I spend a lot of my time walking around the mountain areas of my constituency and, because they are so beautiful, I understand why they attract people.

Mr. Dalyell

I would be interested to hear the hon. Gentleman's views on the Mar Lodge estate issue, although I know that it is just outside his constituency.

Mr. Walker

I know the Mar Lodge estate quite well. Like the hon. Member for Linlithgow, I think that it is much too valuable an asset not to be available to the public at large, if that can be arranged, and I believe that it can. The hon. Gentleman will also know that in that part of Scotland there has been little difficulty in getting access. I used to live at the end of Glen Clova and I used to walk regularly over the top of the hills. There were never any problems. In those days, it was not unusual to bump into members of the royal family. They did not know me, but I knew who they were, so I had the advantage over them.

Let me make it clear that I was speaking largely to the interests of my own constituency and drawing the attention of the House to the importance of balancing rural interests with those of tourists and leisure and recreation activities. People who use the countryside extensively understand that balance. I find that the only people who give trouble are those who have an axe to grind for some reason or another. People who are interested in that balance and interested in the use of the countryside rarely have difficulty in being accommodating, either in their interests or their activities.

8.15 pm
Mr. Galbraith

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) for moving the amendment, and to all those hon. Members who have spoken and have covered the ground fairly well, making it easy for me to be brief.

I cannot claim, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West can, to have run up and down Ben Nevis in the Ben Nevis hill race. I am not a masochist. Nor can I claim, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) can, to have climbed all the Munros. I am not a Munro bagger, with or without a beard, as Muriel Gray would have it.

I can claim to have spent the largest part of my life in the Scottish mountains—or at least most of the weekends of my life. I started initially with the Renfrewshire hills and moved on to the Scottish mountains, the Alps and then to the Himalayas. I shall repeat what I said in Committee, which the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) obviously noted. Throughout that time in the mountains and on the many trips that I have made to climb their rock and ice faces, I have never had any difficulty with access.

I do not have any experiences such as those that have been recounted by my hon. Friends. I have sometimes had to change my plans because of stalking or for other reasons, but that was always easily accommodated by a discussion with the keeper who would give me directions to go elsewhere. Perhaps I am fortunate, but that is my experience. That is due to the traditional nature of access to the Scottish mountains, from which we have all benefited.

The traditional right of access is best summed up by Lord Thurso, one of the ogre figures mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson). We do not often agree with the noble Lord, but I think that we should again quote what he has said about access to his land: I'm perfectly content with the Scots law of trespass which is that you can walk across my land but you can't stop and use it …Everybody has a right of passage, but only the owner has a right of use. This approach suits me perfectly well. It works very well and always has done. I accept that that is the way that access has traditionally worked. In my case and for many other people, and even for my hon. Friends, it has worked very well, apart from a few exceptions.

However, we must recognise that the position in the Scottish mountains is changing, for whatever reasons. It might be due to a change in landowners' use, although I am not necessarily sure that that is the case as there were always troublesome landlords in the past and some new ones may or may not be more troublesome. There is also the question of forestry land which has been sold to private owners, which will obviously affect access.

Whatever the reasons for a change in attitude, there is no doubt that it has changed. It came home to me only at the weekend. As many hon. Members will know, for obvious reasons, I have been away from the mountains for about three years. I was in Glen Coe once again at the weekend, at the Kingshouse, from where one can gain access to the Black Mount estate. When I passed by there I noticed the increased hassle factor, as we would describe it on the mountains. A road leads up towards Ben Alder from just beside the Kingshouse. It had always had open access, but now there is a closed gate and a rather large sign pointing out that it is private land and listing all sorts of stipulations. None of the signs has any legal basis, but if one is unclear about whether one can gain access and about one's rights there is no doubt that notices saying "Don't trespass" and "Private land" are intimidating. The hassle factor is increasingly occurring on Scottish land. Unless it is dealt with now, it will cause further disturbance as more and more people seek access to the Scottish mountains.

There is no doubt that more and more people are frequenting the mountains. In the early 1960s, if one went to the north side of Ben Nevis to do one of the climbs on an August bank holiday, one might have been the only person there. I remember one bank holiday when I was the only person on the face of Ben Nevis. I was climbing an observatory buttress.

Now, although not in the Lake District proportions where one has to queue, more and more people are seeking access to the mountains in Scotland. There is a climb known as Point Five. Aficionados among us will know that that is a nice, high-standard, popular climb. It was climbed for the first time only in the 1960s, yet by the late 1960s to early 1970s, we had to start queuing at 3 o'clock in the morning to gain access to the mountain, almost as one does in the Alps.

The Countryside Commission for Scotland recently asked System Three to carry out a poll on access to the countryside. It was found that 61 per cent. of the people sampled—almost two thirds of the respondents—claimed that they walked in the countryside of Scotland. Almost two thirds of the population claim to climb or walk in the countryside of Scotland. That is the extent of the problem.

The recent Munro book by the Scottish Mountaineering Trust almost instantly sold 50,000 copies. We can extrapolate from that that between 10,000 and 15,000 trips are made to the mountains each year. Of the people who went into the mountains, 61 per cent. had difficulty knowing where they were going and what their rights of access were. Three quarters of the sample—almost 72 per cent.—agreed that people should have freer and better access to the mountains.

The survey showed how public opinion regards the problem. The problem must be set against the ever-increasing number of difficulties. I do not have any personal anecdotes of difficulty with access, but many examples are coming into the public domain. We have all heard about the troubles of the Kintail mountain rescue team. It wanted to produce a booklet on walks in the Kintail region in order to raise funds. The local landowner threatened to prevent the team from gaining access to his land, even for mountain rescue purposes.

In fairness to the Scottish Landowners Federation, it disowned the position taken by the landowner. It has always been reasonable and I commend it for that. It regards the traditional approach as the correct one. It wishes to negotiate access and achieve a balanced approach. It did not support its member in Kintail. The letters column of the West Highland Free Press contained a letter from one member who was threatened with prevention of access. That is a most excellent journal run by an extremely able individual, although I am not sure who he is. Sometimes I am not sure whether he knows who he is. The member said: I have enjoyed hill walking for over 20 years and have always attempted to co-operate with the estates over stalking etc. Increasingly, however, I have had blanket refusals of access, even though there is no stalking in the immediate area. There is a nice wee footnote at the bottom which says: Donations to Kintail Mountain Rescue Team funds should be sent to Sergeant Charles Gillies, Police Station, Kyle of Lochalsh. I read that out for the benefit of hon. Members.

That is one of the incidents which have arisen. A more recent one took place on Saturday 13 April 1991 on the lands of Lord Pearson of Rannoch.

Sir Hector Monro


Mr. Galbraith

The hon. Member for Dumfries obviously knows Lord Pearson.

Sir Hector Monro


Mr. Galbraith

The hon. Gentleman wishes to dissociate himself from Lord Pearson of Rannoch. I realise why. Lord Pearson was the famous individual of the sites of special scientific interest amendment in the Lords.

Four hill walkers were on open hill on Lord Pearson's land, 3 km from Rannoch station, when they were told to get off by two men wearing military garb. The men said that it was a shooting area and gave no other explanation. They said that the owner of the land was Lord Pearson.

Mr. Bill Walker

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that from time to time the military make use of that part of his Lordship's estate. It is possible that the men were in military garb, and properly entitled to be so.

Mr. Galbraith

As far as I know, the area is not under the control of the Ministry of Defence, so, whether shooting was going on there or not, the men had no right to ask others to remove themselves from the area or to do so on behalf of Lord Pearson.

I hope that the Minister will comment on another worrying development on access to the land. I hope that he will dissociate himself from it. Professor Sir Frederick Holliday, the chairman of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, was reported in the Press and Journal on 22 January as saying that there should be a system of tradeable permits for public access to the countryside, with prices set by the government or the landlords. That is a most worrying development. Access to the countryside would be restricted and controlled by permits which would be sold.

Not unnaturally, the Ramblers Association was somewhat upset by that limitation of access to the land. It wrote to Professor Sir Frederick Holliday. He replied: The report in the Press and Journal was only partly correct. I have long held the view that access to certain parts of the countryside will have to be restricted and paid for. That was said by the chairman of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. That is a Government body. Does the Minister agree with that? Will he take this opportunity to dissociate himself and his Government from that statement?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West for introducing the amendment. It deals with access to the countryside. I would like the traditional method to continue. I have had no problems with it in the past. However, there are increasing difficulties. We seek simply to provide a right of access to mountain areas—not to allow use or abuse of the mountain areas. We seek simply a right of access and clarification of the law. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will look favourably on the new clause.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I agree with what the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) said earlier. There is no common law of criminal trespass. The hon. Gentleman asked me for my legal opinion. He was also correct in saying that an interdict, which can be granted, can take effect only against a named person. Civil liability exists only for damage caused by trespass—for example, if someone took a dog into an area in calving or lambing season and upset the animals. Trampling of a cornfield could also be considered unreasonable.

My hon. Friend the member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) correctly stated the position in law. The hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) also gave a clear definition of the position. I am glad that the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) spoke in the debate. We welcome hon. Members, who, although they represent other parts of Britain, greatly enjoy the countryside of Scotland. He said that the natural heritage of Scotland was unsurpassed and should be for all to enjoy. I am wholeheartedly in agreement with that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) stressed the importance of a balance in the use of land. That is absolutely correct. In Scotland, we have traditionally enjoyed the freedom to roam, derived from a mutual respect and understanding between those who own and manage the land and those who wish to use the land for recreation. In the eyes of the majority of commentators, this relationship has worked well and it is one that we are determined to see continue. We do not believe that the simple solution proposed by the new clause is the right solution. It not only ignores the many complex issues that surround access but introduces its own particular difficulties. For example, I do not envy the person asked to adjudicate, under the terms of subsection (1) whether the restriction or denial of access was reasonable.

Even if one gets over that hurdle, the new clause is unnecessary. Where Scottish Natural Heritage identifies a need for a particular track of land to be accessible, it will have a range of powers to negotiate means of securing that access. It will, under clause 12, be empowered to negotiate access agreements and, where appropriate, seek the Secretary of State's approval for an access order.

8.30 pm

Scottish National Heritage will also be able to negotiate management orders under section 49(a) of the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967, as amended by schedule 10 With those powers, the SNH will be able to negotiate the means to protect the national heritage where necessary. Those powers are more flexible than the specific legislative provision in the new clause and would allow for a clearer focusing of priorities as to where access is necessary.

I accept what has been said about more needing to be done. Indeed, it is for that reason that a thorough-going review is currently being carried out by the Countryside Commission for Scotland. The commission has been involved in opening up access among many waterways in Scotland. The Clyde Calders initiative is one near a centre of population, so a great many benefit from that, and that is a good use of public funds.

In carrying out this review, we are also involving the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, but it would be premature to take any action before the review is completed. There will, of course, be full consultation and decisions should not be made before that has been carried out. We welcome the initiative and look forward to an early report. We feel that at this stage it would be inadvisable to cut across the detailed consideration of the review by introducing a new legislative provision of this type, bearing in mind that access agreements can, and we very much hope will, be forthcoming.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) spoke about Mar Lodge. It is premature to make any decisions. Negotiations are under way concerning the purchase, and the means to finance the management, of the estate. Until they are concluded and the proposition is put to the Secretary of State, it would be unreasonable to expect the Government to make any commitment. The hon. Gentleman will see in Hansard precisely what I said this evening in response to the hon. Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden.

Mr. Dalyell


Mr. Galbraith


Madam Deputy Speaker

Is the Minister giving way?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton


Madam Deputy Speaker

Mr. Dalyell.

Mr. Dalyell

It may be premature, but I think that what we can sensibly ask for tonight is that, before any irrevocable move is made, there will be at meeting of Ministers to discuss matters. Once the sale starts, without compensation and all sorts of legal entanglements, it will be a juggernaut that cannot be stopped. I am asking a straight question of the Secretary of State and the Minister. Can we be certain that, before any procedure starts, there will be a meeting of Ministers at which the excellent and powerful leader in The Daily Telegraph will be taken into account? It says: Now there is the chance to demonstrate how to conserve nature on a large scale, while achieving income from sporting interests and restricting access to those who are prepared to make the long walk in. All depends on Mr. Lang, the Scottish Secretary. Well, for his own house journal—no, I must not say that. If a distinguished newspaper such as The Daily Telegraph, a newspaper that I respect very much, in a clever article, says that, surely it is time to step back and think.

Lord James Douglas Hamilton


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I thought that the Minister was giving way.

Lord James Douglas Hamilton

I thought that I had finished, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I will just say——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I asked the Minister if he was giving way and he indicated that he was.

Lord James Douglas Hamilton

I was not aware that I had given way but, if that is your ruling, I can respond in one sentence by saying that I will keep in touch with the situation but I cannot go further than that at present.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Let us be quite clear. Is the Minister giving way or is he not?

Lord James Douglas Hamilton

I think that I have finished now.

Madam Deputy Speaker

The Minister is not giving way. In that case, do I have another speaker? Mr. Galbraith.

Mr. Wilson

I will take over where my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) left off. I think that my hon. Friend wanted to point out to the Minister that he had not replied to the important question about the letter from the chairman of the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Professor Sir Frederick Holliday. In it, the professor came up with the remarkable statement: I have long held the view that access to certain parts of the countryside will have to be restricted and paid for. I hope that the Minister will come in at the end of my brief remarks in order to respond.

Mr. Maclennan

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes his brief remarks, will he agree that the attitude expressed by Professor Holliday must make some of us pause before putting into the hands of SNH the power to determine whether public access should exist that is provided for in this clause. Although we understand and welcome the desire to increase public access, many of us do not think that this is the way to do it.

Mr. Wilson

The point is extremely well taken and I will come to it in a moment.

I do not want to delay the House at all but there is a wider perspective to the access question. What worries me about the debate is this. Everything that has been said by the Opposition parties is correct. There is always concern for the use of walkers and climbers and all the other people who go into the countryside for leisure purposes. The deprivation of access to the Scottish countryside and to huge areas of the natural terrain of Scotland has a much longer history than that. It affects communities that once lived and worked there and are now denied access in that broader sense.

What we are now down to in many areas is the margin of the debate. When there are people out with guns frightening off the odd individual that comes along, that is the last stage in the process. The major work of denying access was done by past generations, who got rid of the bulk of the people who lived and worked and had a right to be in that area.

I am conscious of the argument that this is all due to a new breed of landlord, people who do not understand the Scottish countryside, and so on. In the days of the old breed of landlord, Jock was as good as his master and everyone lived happily in a sort of Caledonian Valhalla. It is rubbish. These problems have been created by the old breed of landlord, the people who removed the vast bulk of the people from the land in the first place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) referred to the Glen Tilt case. There we had a fine Scottish figure of a man—the Duke of Athol of that time—driving people off the land. He told the Cambridge students, "It is not a public way. It is my private drive. You shan't come down. The deer are coming. The deer are coming."

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow has been quoting from The Daily Telegraph editorials of 1991, but we can go back 100 years to the editorial in The Times based on that incident. The Times devoted a long leader to the incident in which it said: The public have as perfect a right of way through the Vale of Glen Tilt as the Duke of Athol has to the possession of any acre of the property which constitutes his estate. The right in the one place, as the title in the other, is the mere creature of law. The leader concluded as follows: The two Cambridge students would have an easier remedy against the Duke of Athol if they cared to bestir themselves in the business. Certainly it would be rendering the public a service to bring this hotheaded foolish man to his senses. I should be quite interested to know now whether the right of way in Glen Tilt—

Mr. Bill Walker

The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that Glen Tilt is also in my constituency and there is no problem today getting into Glen Tilt, and I regularly picnic there with my family. In fact, there is only one shepherd living there now. However, 20 or 30 men from Glen Tilt went to the Korean war. That gives some idea of the change that has taken place in that glen.

Mr. Wilson

I am delighted to hear that. If it is so, it is only because, over the generations, the right of access has been asserted on a regular basis.

The great causes celebres concerning access in the highlands and islands have not involved individual hill walkers. Consider the pet lamb case in Kintail, about which my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) will know. It was absolutely crucial from the point of view of asserting the right of the people who lived there to put their stock on to estates. The pet lamb had wandered into a deer forest owned by a man called Winnis. He invoked the whole majesty of the law to deny the right to put even one lamb on the land. That case was not about individual access; it was about the right of a community to access to huge swathes of land that had been taken from it.

This is not some new phenomenon. Consider the last land raids in the highlands and islands, which took place after the second world war. The Nazi collaborator Lord Brockett was the owner of a large estate. The men coming home from the war, who had fought against the side that the noble Lord had supported, were denied the right to establish themselves in smallholdings. He, too, invoked the majesty of the law to remove them. At present, issues of access concern individuals, who might be told by some latter-day charlatan, "Get off. This is my land." The reason the conflict has been removed is that the mass of the people have been removed. That is the historic background.

I am interested in rights of access and in legislation on rights of access, but I am not concerned simply with the protection of hill walkers and mountaineers. All these people are perfectly worthy, but my concern is to assert the right of people to have access once again to all the land that can make a community more viable. The greatest obscenity in the highlands and islands is that tiny communities have to cling for their very existence to a peninsula or island, while the vast area behind them is denied to them as it is still held for deer, or for some other useless purpose for which it was taken a century or a century and a half ago. Until that historic wrong has been righted, the whole issue of access to land in Scotland, particularly in the highlands and islands, will not have been addressed. The issue should have been addressed, politically and legislatively, a long time ago. There is much unfinished business.

I accept the remarks of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) about the other side of this argument, about the danger of putting the power in the hands of conservation bodies or of defining too tightly the areas to which people should have access. If areas are defind too tightly, it may be inferred that areas that are not defined are not open to people. This is the argument against rights of way. The balance has to be maintained. This matter will be considered by a Labour Government. It is necessary to get the balance right and, where necessary, to enshrine rights.

In this context, it is appropriate to quote Bill Murray, a respected mountaineer and writer on mountains. He said recently: There is now too much uncertainty about the legal situation regarding public access to land. That is one side of the coin. The other is that we should not, for the sake of giving a liberal freedom, over-restrict by defining a liberal freedom. That is the balance we must get right.

In conclusion——

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Alan Clark)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Wilson

The Government Whip should not come in at this point to say, "Hear, hear."

Mr. Clark

I said it.

Mr. Wilson

Maybe the Minister should watch his tongue. We know something about his activities in the part of the world about which we are talking. If he wants to have the debate turned in that direction——

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will oblige me by returning to the amendment.

Mr. Wilson

If the Minister does not desist, he and his hon. Friends will be here for a very long time tonight. We shall be delighted to get into a debate about the stewardship of land in the highlands and islands and about his right to hold so much land there. If he wants to have a debate, let him come to the Dispatch Box. Many hon. Members would say that lie has no such right and that he is an impediment to the lives of, and a parasite upon, the people of the highlands and islands. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker


Mr. Wilson

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to intervene? Can he speak only from his backside position? Does he want to enter into the debate?

Sir Hector Monro

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will you please ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the word "parasite"? Surely it is quite improper.

8.45 pm
Madam Deputy Speaker

I should be obliged if the hon. Gentleman would withdraw the word "parasite" so that we may get on with the debate in an orderly fashion.

Mr. Wilson

I shall alter it to say that the whole breed of landlords, particularly absentee landowners in the highlands and islands, are parasites. I say so with absolute confidence. This is not peculiar to the Minister. He is one of that breed. Let me remind you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it was he, with his remarks from a sedentary position, who introduced this note into the debate. These issues matter to the people who live in the region. The Minister is an irrelevance at best, and a parasite at worst.

Mr. Alan Clark

The hon. Gentleman should not make accusations of that kind. I do not give a damn whether this may be thought to be extraneous to the debate. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] I withdraw the word "damn". I do not care a fig for the niceties of this procedure. The hon. Gentleman has made accusations against me. He should justify those accusations. I suspect that he does not know anything about the way in which my family administers its land in Sutherland. We believe that we administer it as responsibly and decently as possible. The hon. Gentleman should flesh out his accusations. He need take only a minute and a half to do so. I should be glad to listen to any charge in support of his serious allegations. Some would say that such allegations against a parliamentary colleague are improper.

Mr. Wilson


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. I am more interested, and the House is more interested, in hearing a debate about the amendment that is before us than in hearing a debate about personalities. I shall be grateful if hon. Members on both sides of the House would deal with the amendment.

Mr. Wilson

I shall be very happy to get back to the subject under debate. May I say, for the record, that I was totally unaware of the hon. Gentleman's presence in the Chamber until he chose to intervene?

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The record will stand.

Mr. Wilson

The record will stand, as will my remarks.

This is a debate about access to land in Scotland. It is about the need for legislation to assert the historic right to roam. It is about freedom of access to land and about the redevelopment of communities which have been excluded in recent times. These are proud clauses with a very long history, and I am very pleased to associate myself with them.

Question put and negatived.

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