HC Deb 26 March 1999 vol 328 cc629-48

Order for Second Reading read.

9.33 am
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

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

I shall not speak for long because the Government have already spoken for me and for millions of our fellow citizens who wish to enjoy their countryside. The Government are now pledged to introduce a statutory right of area access to more than 4 million acres of some of the most beautiful countryside in England and Wales. There is no difference between my objective and the Government's policy objective. What is about to happen is long overdue.

The Government recognise that the voluntary approach has been tried for half a century and that it has not worked. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, speaking memorably in, admittedly, a different context, said: We have been there, we have done it, we have got the tee-shirt; it is time to move on. That is the position with countryside access.

There is huge public and media interest in this issue because, I suppose, the voluntary approach was pitched against the statutory. In the media supplement of The Guardian of 13 March, shortly after the Government's announcement on 8 March, the supplement, known as "The Editor"—it measures the stories that are judged to be most important by Britain's main newspapers—put the right to roam right up there behind the banana trade war. The right to roam merited 350 column inches and was just behind bananas, with 359, although the Budget did have an edge.

However, the press got it completely wrong. I remember that, on the afternoon of 8 March, after my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment made his announcement in the Chamber, I was having a cup of tea with my good friend the chair of the parliamentary Labour party, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley). He looked me straight in the eye and said, "Gordon, the Government were always going to go down the statutory route." He added, "Never believe what you read in the papers, especially The Guardian."

In new Labour, we never believe what is in The Guardian, but we all read it. No. 10 wants us to read the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph, and other newspapers further to the right, and I do. However, I do not believe what they say either.

The press got it wrong, the PLP got it wrong and I got it wrong. I laboured with my Bill, confident that I had the answer to the conundrum and did not realise, in my innocence, that there was a third way, which has been revealed to us, has it not? When I was working on my Bill, I thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would be pleased with me, because it was and is classic new Labour. On the one hand, rights, on the other, responsibilities. That is just the sort of language that appeals to my right hon. Friend. We know that because he believes in consensual politics—big-tent inclusive politics.

As the House will know, I have offered my Bill to the Government, to take it and to amend it as they think fit. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment has told me that, at present, the Government are not minded to use it as the vehicle for introducing the right to roam. Two reasons were advanced by him. One is that the Government want to introduce a measure that goes beyond my Bill and that will encompass other matters such as the protection of wildlife. Secondly, the Government are fearful of what would happen to my Bill, even if they embraced it, once it went into the other place. There are a lot of wreckers in the other place who might act out of self-interest and not in the wider public interest. They might seek to damage my Bill, and that would never do.

Before I go any further, I shall thank some people for the help and support that they have given to me with my Bill. First and foremost, I want to thank Helen Ingham and Ruth Wilkinson, who worked with me in my constituency office. They did all the background and back-breaking work—they were responsible for the letters that went to Members, the press releases that were churned out and much of the campaigning stuff. My thanks are due also to all the officers and staff of the Ramblers Association, who worked tirelessly to promote my Bill. I shall not single out any individual, save one—Jerry Pearlman, who helped me with the complexities of drafting the Bill.

I thank my colleagues, the 190 Members of Parliament who pledged that they would be here to support the Bill, had the Government taken a different route.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

indicated assent.

Mr. Prentice

I see an hon. Member on the Liberal Democrat Benches nodding. Seven Liberal Democrat Members, of whom I think he was one, supported the Bill—seven out of 47, but I welcome that none the less, in the spirit of the times. It is good to co-operate in areas where co-operation is sensible, we are told, so today I feel warm towards the seven Liberal Democrats.

I thank the hundreds of people who have written to me. I do not have the time to answer all their letters individually, but that was a tremendous boost to my morale and convinced me that I was doing the right thing. A National Opinion Poll survey published recently showed that 85 per cent. of the public want a statutory right to roam, with commonsense restrictions to protect the environment, crops and animals. The Conservative party is backing the 15 per cent. of the population who think that that proposition is outrageous.

What we are asking for is not outrageous. We should not be afraid to articulate our demand. Access legislation is commonplace in other countries in Europe. In Sweden, Finland and Norway, people have enjoyed access to all land for hundreds of years. That is the case in Switzerland too. In Germany, where people have a mystical attachment to the forest, they have the right to wander freely through the woods. That is what they do in Germany, and why not?

We in Britain have waited more than a century for a statutory right to roam. It has been a century of struggle, with the people pitted against the land-owning interests, who want to keep the land exclusively for themselves.

There have been many attempts to legislate to open up the land, from the Access to Mountains Bill, which was introduced by James Bryce in 1884 and re-introduced every year in the Commons until the outbreak of the first world war, right through to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, a landmark measure introduced by the post-war Labour Government. Although its intentions were correct, it did not produce the goods. That is why, after half a century, we are revisiting the issue that Attlee and that Labour Government thought they had successfully addressed.

Between the wars, mass trespasses took place. People took direct action to walk on the land of their birth—a land fit for heroes after the first world war, but the soldiers who fought for this country in that great war could not walk on vast tracts of this country. That produced a festering resentment that still exists. I feel it. Now, as we approach the millennium, it is an astonishing fact that we are still strangers in our own country.

In my constituency, Pendle in the Pennines, we are surrounded by thousands of acres of open countryside that is out of bounds. To the west, the Duke of Westminster owns 26,000 acres of open countryside. To the east is Boulsworth hill, which looks down towards Haworth and the parsonage where the Bronte sisters lived. They walked on the moors at Boulsworth. That was the inspiration for "Wuthering Heights" and Heathcliff, yet it is off limits. At some point in the past we, the public, lost the right to walk on that moorland.

From the top of Boulsworth hill, which is in my constituency, on a clear day one can see for 25 miles. One can see way over to Huddersfield. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yorkshire."] I go into Yorkshire occasionally; I do not need a passport yet. Standing there on a clear day, seeing for so many miles, I am reminded of what the Bishop of Blackburn says. He is a member of the Countryside Commission and has newly been appointed to the Countryside Agency. He speaks about the feeling of spirituality, of being up there, in the clouds almost, and seeing the land spread out all round.

If I stand on top of Boulsworth hill or Pendle hill, I can see my entire constituency—85,000 people in seven towns. I can look down there, and in some of those towns, people can gaze at the hills, but not walk there. [Interruption.] Yes, they can gaze up and see me, and say, "There he is again, rambling." I am enjoying this, but let me be serious.

Millions of people are fed up with sneaking and creeping round the countryside, afraid to upset others. We have been brainwashed into believing that we cause damage wherever we go. We apologise for the harm that we allegedly cause by our very presence. A few weeks ago, in the Grand Committee Room on 10 March, at a meeting called by the Socialist Environmental Resources Association—SERA—to discuss the right to roam, the Earl of Macclesfield told the astonished audience, "The countryside cannot accommodate humans on the loose." That is what he said; I jotted it down.

That is a man who owns thousands of acres in the Chilterns, which he insists remain off limits to humans on the loose. He does not want people to have the right to roam, but apparently it is okay for a tiny number of people dressed in red outfits to have the right to rampage across the countryside with dogs. Rampaging across the countryside with dogs is okay for the noble earl, but the right to roam quietly and peacefully on foot is apparently an outrage.

We are told that we cannot have the right to roam because of the terrible damage that we would do. We are also told that the landowners are the true guardians of the countryside. They are holding it in trust for tomorrow, and the rest of us are all wreckers. However, walkers and ramblers have not poisoned the countryside with pesticides. We have not polluted the water courses. We have not silenced the countryside as the birds have perished. We are not responsible for grubbing up the hedgerows and damaging biodiversity. But the landowners point an accusing finger at us and say that, if the measure goes through, we would damage or destroy the delicate ecology of the countryside that they maintain and preserve. The landowners, who say that they protect the countryside, sell green-field sites for building. They sell those sites to developers and then complain about encroachment on the countryside by townies.

The countryside is not the personal fiefdom of country landowners and they had better get used to that. The Government are addressing the concerns of people living in rural areas—people who were neglected by the Conservatives. That is why I welcomed the consultation paper on rural England, published by the Government in February this year, which set out our vision for the countryside. That vision is not of people in red outfits riding about with dogs, but of jobs and strong, vibrant communities in our rural areas; it is of access to transport in the countryside and of services, such as village shops. We want a living, working countryside.

That vision is parodied by the Conservatives, who tell us that we are the wreckers. The land is ours; it is for all of us to share and enjoy, but the landowners want it for their exclusive use; they do not want to share it. That is why we must legislate to give people that right.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

When I appeared on a television programme with the hon. Gentleman, it became clear to me that he had a preoccupation with the Duke of Westminster. However, experience in other parts of the country suggests that there is no serious problem. In Shropshire, we have more rights of way than roads: there are 3,625 miles of footpaths and bridleways against 3,000 miles of roads. During the 12 years that I have represented the area as a Member of Parliament, no one has ever told me that there is an unfulfilled demand for the right to walk, roam or ramble across the countryside. We have some marvellous countryside; it is open to the people and they use it.

Mr. Prentice

Well, if that is the case, legislation will not bother the hon. Gentleman.

It is not true that I have a fixation with the Duke of Westminster—exclusively. I mentioned the Earl of Macclesfield; I am developing a fixation with him as well.

Mr. Phil Sawford (Kettering)

The Duke of Buccleuch.

Mr. Prentice

As my hon. Friend says—the Duke of Buccleuch. I probably have a fixation with them all.

There are many good reasons for keeping people off land, and I shall turn to them in a moment. However, ownership is not of itself a sufficient reason and that is what sticks in the throat of the Conservatives. There are good reasons for keeping people off the land: furry animals might be breeding or birds nesting there; there could be delicate habitats or archaeological remains. However, the mere fact of ownership is not a sufficient reason.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

If ownership is not a reason for preventing someone from coming on to land, why could the Duke of Westminster not enter the hon. Gentleman's garden in his constituency?

Mr. Prentice

I should not have given way to the hon. Lady. The main difference between us is that I do not have a back garden that extends to 26,000 acres.

Mr. Stephen Pound (Ealing, North)


Mr. Prentice

Yet. If I did, I should be the duke of something I suppose. [Interruption.] My hon. Friends suggest that I should be dubbed the Duke of Pendle, which has a certain ring to it.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

The hon. Gentleman's response to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) sheds a little light on the rest of his speech, which has, so far, been typified by class hatred and class warfare, rather than by any real interest in rambling in the countryside. In that response, he suggested that what was important was the size of the land owned and that if one had a reasonably small garden, it would be protected. At what stage does that protection for his garden become the right to roam on a farm?

Mr. Prentice

I am tempted to say that size is not important.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned class hatred. A number of Conservative Members paint me as an unreconstructed class warrior. My hon. Friends know that that is not the case and they will tell the Prime Minister so. I gave notice to the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) that I would mention him in the debate, and I see that he is in his place in the Chamber. During the debate on Second Reading of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Bill, the right hon. Gentleman said that he supported the principle of the right to roam, but had grave reservations about the Member presenting the Bill—me. He said that whenever he heard me, I was usually recommending to the House that one or other Tory Member should go to prison". That is true, but I take the rather old-fashioned view—clearly, one with which Conservatives have to wrestle—that, if one does not break the law, one does not go to prison.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to describe me as a "down-market Leninist"; I say, better to be a down-market Leninist than an up-market Stalinist. I then considered Leninism and its place in new Labour. If I am a Leninist, new Labour is a vanguard party where policies are decided by the few, not by the many—and, of course, that is an absurd proposition.

The right hon. Gentleman continued: He is the worst possible person to promote a Bill that has, in principle, much to be said for it and that should enjoy the support of the whole House."—[Official Report, 5 March 1999; Vol. 326, c. 1384.]

I have spies everywhere. The right hon. Gentleman wrote to one of his constituents about my Bill, and the letter came to me. He said, in a handwritten postscript: Unfortunately, Gordon Prentice is an unpleasant man—unreconstructed SWP. That is, the Socialist Workers party. The letter continued: When I asked him in a perfectly friendly way how he was getting on, he said: 'We intend to expropriate your land in Kent'. I have no recollection of that. He continued: Loopy, as well as highly counter-productive. When I read the right hon. Gentleman's diaries, I thought he might be a fantasist—now I know—but even if I wanted to expropriate Saltwood in Kent, the Prime Minister would not let me.

The violence of that language is not unique. On 18 March, an editorial in Shooting Times and Country Magazine stated of my right hon. Friend the Minister: Michael Meacher's open invitation for anyone to gate-crash and traipse over the countryside is astounding. His proposed decision to ignore the country's property laws and, in effect, nationalise privately owned land, with no compensation…is a relic of the worst of old Labour. His class war instincts have prevailed.

On 12 March, the Farmers Guardian said: Farmers have been happy to have walkers and others on their land. That is good, because I have told "Farming Today" on a number of occasions that I am the farmers' friend. They do not believe that, but I am. The Farmers Guardian continued: What Farmers have not been happy with is the type of rambler who masquerades as a country loving individual while at the same time harbouring political and class fuelled resentments about the ownership of land…Some of these resentments have been carried down the generations and in some ramblers they amount almost to religion. Mr. Meacher has recognised this and has given it his blessing.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Only he and the House can judge the propriety of revealing the contents of a letter from a Member of Parliament to his constituent. [Interruption.] I do not criticise that; I am content for the House and his colleagues to judge. I must tell him that not one single thing that he has said so far in any way invalidates my criticisms of him or the serious reservations that I have expressed about an issue on which I feel supportive.

Mr. Prentice

The House has heard the right hon. Gentleman, for what it is worth.

I say to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) that the argument is not about class; it is all about citizenship. There are 60 million people crowded and crushed together on this tiny little island of ours, and 12.5 per cent. of the land area of our country is off limits. That situation is simply unacceptable and it has to change, which is why we need legislation.

The Country Landowners Association has gone completely over the top. When my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment made his announcement on 8 March, it said that the Government's decision has destroyed the goodwill of the countryside and confirmed the worst fears of all those who took part in the Countryside March last year. So it is okay for members of the CLA to exercise their right to roam on Hyde park, but it is not okay for me to exercise my right to roam in open countryside. That is an absurd proposition.

Ian McNicol, the CLA president, said that the Government have deliberately misled the electorate and the press, adding: Where we have offered co-operation. they have chosen confrontation. Berkshire CLA said: It is a victory for bigotry over reason, for hard left dogma over pragmatism. For old style socialism over new Labour. I have a fistful of quotes in similar vein and those views are all familiar to me.

In January 1998, I was fortunate enough to secure an Adjournment debate on access to land and I quoted the CLA's spokesperson in the east midlands. The quote bears repetition a year later: The right to roam would apply to everyone, including the minority of vandals, sheep stealers, badger baiters, horse slashers, illegal hare coursers, poaching gangs, birds' egg thieves and those responsible for the rising tide of crime in rural areas, many of them forced out of the towns and cities by improved policing and surveillance techniques. That is the CLA's vision: as a consequence of the Bill, people will be terrorised in the countryside, with people running around slashing horses and stealing sheep. What an absurdity!

As the CLA said in its submission to the Government consultation paper, it really wants to give people a right of visual access to the countryside. That is unacceptable.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Is my hon. Friend aware that I visited the estates of the chair of the CLA in Berkshire? The Benyon family are well known to Conservative Members and theirs is one of the few estates that is growing. Their problems are caused not by walking or rambling, although the estate is a few miles from 250,000 people in greater Reading, but by off-road vehicles, motor bike scrambling and picnicking by the roadside. In their submission to the Government, they said that voluntary access agreements had produced more open access to the countryside through caravan sites and pick-your-own strawberry farms. Does my hon. Friend agree that they talk absolute nonsense?

Mr. Prentice

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. It is astonishing that my modest Bill, which simply seeks to give people the right to roam on foot, is apparently not enough for the CLA. One of the criticisms that it has levelled at me is that I am ignoring people with four-wheel drives, cyclists, canoeists and, for God's sake, hang-gliders. That is absurd, and the CLA is constantly moving the goal posts. The National Farmers Union is only slightly less hysterical, but it, too, has got the wrong end of the stick.

I am minded not to pursue my Bill, because of the Government's statement of 8 March, but I want to listen carefully to what my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment says. For the record, my Bill has three legs which I shall describe, but not necessarily in order of importance. The first is clause 12, which is a stand-alone clause dealing with cross-compliance. It would stop European Union and United Kingdom Treasury grants going to farmers who block footpaths. If a landowner cannot show that footpaths are unobstructed, he or she will not receive a grant. If footpaths are unobstructed, but become obstructed within five years, he or she will not receive a grant or will have to repay it.

In its briefing for hon. Members, the NFU says that it wants people to stick to paths. It does not want area access. The NFU refers to clause 12 as the "politics of punishment". Again, the language is extreme and over the top. We do not want a "something for nothing" society in Britain—that is what we are told—yet public money can go to farmers and landowners, although we get nothing other than a slap in the face in return. That is astonishing.

If paths are blocked, the cash should stop. In a written reply earlier this month, the Minister, using figures produced by the Countryside Commission in 1994, told me that 26 per cent. of footpaths were blocked or difficult to use. That 26 per cent. represents 25,000 miles.

Mr. Gill

I wonder whether we could explore the principle that is at stake. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, and the whole House will have noted it, but surely the principle that he is discussing extends far beyond this issue. For example, is he saying that anyone entitled to benefit under the social security arrangements who committed an offence would thereby be deprived of those social security benefits?

Mr. Prentice

The hon. Gentleman should catch up. I support the Government, like all my hon. Friends, although that caused me some difficulty when the Government controversially proclaimed in the context of welfare reform that they were against the "something for nothing" society.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned welfare reform. Landowners in the UK receive £2.5 billion a year from the common agricultural policy; the poorest hill farmers receive more modest sums, such as £148 million a year through the hill livestock compensatory allowance. If public money is to be used in that way, it should have strings attached. We want something for that. It is only the Conservative party that says that bucketfuls of public money can be poured into landowners' pockets, but that the public can expect nothing in the return. That must change.

The second leg of the Bill refers to conditional exemption from inheritance tax. I have a fixation about that as well. Clause 15 requires a person who has been granted conditional exemption from inheritance tax because the public allegedly have access to his or her land to publicise that access. Is that asking too much?

Some 350 super-wealthy people in this country get conditional exemption. They tell the Inland Revenue that they need not pay inheritance tax when the owner dies because the public have a right of access to the land, even though the public do not know that they have a right of access because it has never been publicised. It is absurd.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer took a major step forward in last year's Finance Bill, which expressly prohibited landowners from requiring advance notice of visits. Those who take the trouble to find out where the land is could not just turn up and exercise the right to walk on it, but had to give the owner advance notice that they were coming. It was absurd. That is changing under this Government. The Inland Revenue is now revisiting all 350 agreements, and insisting that access is publicised and put on the world wide web.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

The hon. Gentleman is personalising this issue to a considerable degree, but I understand that the majority of acres in this country are owned by organisations such as pension funds and insurance companies, which presumably do not enjoy the same benefits. Will he assure us that the Government are equally interested in ensuring that those organisations publicise access to their acres?

Mr. Prentice

I would be interested in the evidence for that assertion. I know that six landowners in Lancashire get conditional exemption from inheritance tax, and I tried to find out who they are. The Table Office would not accept my question and the Inland Revenue would not tell me because, it says, to do so would breach taxpayers' confidentiality. I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman again if he can tell me how he knows that those organisations are conditionally exempt and if he can name them.

Mr. Rowe

That was not the point of my question, which was quite straightforward: the majority of acres are owned by public companies, pension funds, life assurance companies and other such corporate owners—that is certainly the case in my area—which presumably do not have those inheritance tax problems. I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman should be equally interested in ensuring that people know that they can roam those companies' land. Publicity should be an obligation on them as much as on a private owner.

Mr. Prentice

That does not take us much further forward. The Channel 4 "Dispatches" programme broadcast a two-part series entitled "The Lie of the Land", but it listed none of those companies and institutions that the hon. Gentleman referred to. However, I shall make inquiries about that. I do not intend to personalise this issue in a nasty way. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh?"] It is true. We want land to be identified so that people can have access to it. The issue is simple.

The third and final leg of my Bill deals with access to the open countryside, which is covered by the Minister's statement on 8 March. As I said at the beginning, there is no policy difference whatever—not a cigarette paper of a difference—etween me and my Government on this, but there are a number of questions which I hope that the Minister will pick up when he speaks later.

Mapping is central to the Bill and to the Government's proposals. Common land is already identified. Apparently, the Agricultural Development Advisory Service maps the moorland areas of England. I learned that just a few days ago when I was at a meeting called by the Countryside Commission in the House of Lords. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), a former Environment Secretary, was there, and a look of surprise crossed his face when he heard that the moorland had already been mapped. Clearly, however, a lot of work remains to be done.

First, will the Countryside Agency have the resources that it needs to map the land quickly? Secondly, if it takes time, can the mapping and the commencement dates for the legislation be done in stages so that easy terrain, such as mountains, can be mapped first and more difficult terrain, such as downlands, can be mapped later

I am also interested in the role of local access forums. The wreckers in the Countryside Landowners Association have already said that they are sceptical about the usefulness of local access forums. I thought that they would embrace them. When will they be set up, and can the Minister say more about their membership? We also need a consistent approach across the country, with no capricious decisions, so that a decision taken in North Yorkshire is not massively different from a decision about the same kind of terrain taken in another part of the country.

Finally, we need assurances about timing. I appreciate that I cannot write the legislative programme for the Government, unfortunate though that is, but we all expect a Government Bill in November in the next Queen's Speech. I speak for all my colleagues—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] in that respect. I have referred in glowing terms to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister many times in my speech. We hang on his every word. He told us that 1999 is Labour's year of delivery. On the right to roam, it really is time to deliver.

10.18 am
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

It is conventional on such occasions to congratulate an hon. Member on having the good fortune to have drawn a high place in the ballot. I congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), because he has an opportunity that not many hon. Members get, however many years they are in this House. I also congratulate him on having the courage to choose an issue that is clearly as controversial between parties as it is, I suspect, within his own party. We know that from the fact that one of his colleagues intends to introduce a 10-minute Bill with a wholly different approach to the same issue.

The hon. Gentleman's speech was tinged with dry sarcasm and sardonic humour, which his hon. Friends all found highly amusing. However, it underlined the fact that the Bill and this whole proposition serve to demonstrate the divide between socialism, and capitalism and property ownership. It is a totally socialist measure. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take that as a compliment.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice

No, not for the moment.

The right to roam is based not on a putative enjoyment of the countryside, but on one thing and one thing alone: that most evil of human traits, envy. It is based on envy of private property and a belief that land should be available to everyone and that no one should have the right to restrict access to it.

I have talked to many ramblers—my constituents and others—I challenged Kate Ashbrook, who had the courage to speak to a Conservative party meeting in the House last year, and I challenged the Minister when he made his statement earlier this month. I asked them what extra benefits of enjoyment of the countryside can be obtained from the right to roam that cannot be obtained from a comprehensive network of footpaths. They had no answer. They either evade the issue by saying, as the Minister did, that there is no comprehensive network, or they resort to the truth and say that they should have a right to go wherever they want.

The Minister took refuge in the absence of a comprehensive network of footpaths as a justification for his policy, which I accept is not 100 per cent. the same as that proposed by the hon. Member for Pendle, although it is pretty close to it. The fact is that, despite what the hon. Gentleman said, little effort has been made to create a comprehensive network of footpaths. A great deal more could be done, and I accept that further statutory measures may be required to achieve that network. If that were done, far more people would gain.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the proximity of his constituency to a large area of open land, but most people live in parts of the country where there is no conveniently placed open land. They may not be able to go out of their back door and have access to such land, but they want to be able to get to a good walk within a few short minutes or a short drive. No one in my constituency could access any open land in less than an hour and a half or two hours. Many other people are faced with the same problem.

I was born and brought up in the country but, before anyone suggests that I am a massive landowner, I should tell the House that I am not: I own the grand sum of 10 acres, so I am not speaking from self-interest. I want people to enjoy the countryside, because it has so much to offer, but that enjoyment can be obtained from walking along footpaths and does not require this draconian measure.

Mr. Derek Twigg (Halton)

I have a letter from a mountaineering organisation in my constituency. It says that the Country Landowners Association suggested limited access to recognised paths only, but to adopt that approach would deny access to the crags and open countryside on which mountaineering depends, and would make a complete mockery of the concept of freedom of access.

Mr. Paice

We do not have many mountains or crags in Cambridgeshire. My point is that the vast majority of people would gain far more from a comprehensive network of footpaths than they would from open access. There is no reason why negotiations could not obtain opportunities for mountaineers to find the right rock face and to come to an agreement with the landowner. That is wholly different from this proposed wholesale right of access. People want to be able to walk on a Sunday or at any other time and have access to the countryside near to where they live. Most people do not live near open land with mountain, moor, heath or down: they live near managed agricultural land.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that millions of people live near the Peak district either on the wrong side, the Lancashire side, or on the right side, the Yorkshire side, and they regularly access that land, but there is a major problem because certain areas are still out of bounds? We need genuine open access, and the Bill will do something to achieve that. It may not help the hon. Gentleman in Cambridgeshire, but it will help millions of people in the major conurbations in the north of the country.

Mr. Paice

The hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong. It may not be possible to access certain areas, but that is not a reason to have open access. It is a reason for developing a more comprehensive network of footpaths—that is the point that I am making.

I am sure that it is impossible to convert the hon. Member for Pendle, so I shall not try to do so. However, if we take the Government at face value, they should be seeking the large tent—the hon. Gentleman referred somewhat sardonically to the inclusive nature of their policies. They should consider the needs and interests of the vast majority of people, which I believe would be served by creating such a network. They should work with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and should create links with support measures. They should simplify and speed up the diversion process, and remove the absurdity that enables a person to object to, and to obstruct, that process. We could then move towards a much more comprehensive network.

Many farmers have already opened up permissive footpaths, which ramblers reject for political reasons, because they are obsessed with rights. They believe that a footpath should exist for ever and a day, but that is not a necessary requirement. As long as there are plenty of footpaths in the countryside, the people who use them will have access to, and the benefit of, the enjoyment of the countryside.

Mr. Bob Russell

The hon. Gentleman wants a network of footpaths, and I have considerable sympathy with his points about farming in relation to East Anglia and other parts of the United Kingdom where open access would not be applicable. What measures were taken in the past 20 years to create the network of footpaths that he advocates?

Mr. Paice

I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has asked me that, because it allows me to tell him. The previous Government introduced the countryside stewardship scheme and the countryside premium scheme, both of which require access to the land. The farmer who farms land adjoining my property is in one of those schemes and has such an arrangement incorporated into his agreement. He has to provide access. The previous Government took steps to enable access, but I am the first to recognise that more could be done.

I have no time for landowners who wilfully obstruct and prevent people from having any access to their land. However, the ill-judged views of a few is no justification for this huge legislation and the cataclysmic effects that it would have.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice

No, I shall not give way any more, because many other hon. Members want to speak and I have other duties in half an hour.

I want to deal briefly with the detail of the Bill. Occupier's liability and insurance are mentioned in the Bill—and get a mention in the Government's latest document—but only extremely briefly. We cannot get away from the fact that the Country Landowners Association believes that landowners often consider the current arrangements for public liability insurance to be costly. To extend the arrangements as proposed would lead to greater public liability risks and insurance. The Government should carefully consider what level of liability it is reasonable to expect if people are to have access to open countryside.

The National Union of Farmers argues that increased access would involve costs to the landowner. I welcome the fact that the intention is not to extend open access to all agricultural land yet, although many people are worried about that. On the open countryside, where greater access is proposed, there is grave cause for concern about costs, and there is also concern about the definitions in the Bill. Clause 7(2) states: agricultural land shall not include land which is agricultural land by reason only that it affords rough grazing for livestock. How will the average person who is not particularly versed in agricultural ways or even in the ways of the countryside be able to tell the difference between intensively or extensively managed grassland? There is a real danger that people will start their walk on a piece of open countryside, but will then find their way on to farmed land and will interfere with what is described as a legitimate use of the land.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice

No, I have already said that I shall not give way any more.

It is all very well to list actions that are not allowed. The hon. Gentleman referred to responsibilities, and it is true that those who walk on land must have a sense of responsibility, but how on earth is that to be enforced? The Government cuts in the police force that we have discussed on other occasions will make it even harder to do so. For one thing, unless a landowner is patrolling his land or his staff are doing so, how is he to know who damaged his property, or committed some other offence? Who will be the independent witness, and who will pay for enforcement? In short, is this part of the Bill enforceable?

The CLA has taken legal advice—I shall not go into all the details, as I am sure that others will do so—and the suggestion is that there would be a case for compensating landlords for any costs incurred or losses sustained. I think that the Government should respond to that point.

Both the Bill and the Government's proposals refer to an owner's right to close open access for certain reasons. How is that expected to happen? It is possible to close a footpath temporarily, but it is very difficult to close a moor when a public road runs through it.

Mr. Levitt

It happens now.

Mr. Paice

The hon. Gentleman may say that, but we are starting from the premise that open access is not allowed in the first place.

Mr. Levitt


Mr. Paice

No, I will not give way.

Under open-access arrangements, anyone would be able to walk on to a moor at whatever point they chose, as long as they did not cause any damage. Given that some event may be happening out of sight of the point of access, one wonders how access could be prohibited. We could end up with serious problems involving liability and the risk of accidents.

I shall end as I began. I consider the Bill evil and objectionable. As I said at the outset, no one has given any just reason for it. No one has specified what can be gained from open access that could not be secured through a comprehensive network of footpaths. That should be the Government's aim: to provide opportunities for people throughout the country to enjoy a good walk in the countryside near where they live. This draconian measure will benefit a small minority, will apply only to certain parts of the country and will be of no value whatever to the vast majority of people.

10.33 am
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

First, I declare an interest: I have the honour to be president of the Ramblers Association, although I gain no financial benefit from that. Secondly, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on his entertaining speech, and, more important, on choosing this subject after having the good fortune to be highly placed in the ballot. He has enabled many people to demonstrate their wish for legislation by writing to Members of Parliament and to campaign. I am also delighted by the Government's response to the good case that my hon. Friend and others have made for access to the countryside, in the form of "The Government's Framework for Action" document. I thank my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister and, in particular, the Minister for the Environment for the fact that we have made so much progress. I hope that, by next year, we shall be dealing with the Third Reading of an access measure, or that such a measure will have completed all its stages in the House of Commons.

Opposition Members have suggested that there is something revolutionary about the Bill, but the right to roam, and to freedom of access, has been exercised in many parts of the country throughout this century. That is true of almost all the upland areas of the Lake district, and many parts of Snowdonia, especially around Snowdon itself. People have been able to wander freely over the Glyders and the Carneddeu. They have also exercised their right with responsibility on many downs and heaths in southern England, and no problems have been caused. We do not suggest that something totally new, unexpected and revolutionary should happen; we are merely saying that good practice in some parts of the country should be extended to much larger areas.

A vast number of people enjoy walking. About 18 million people list it as one of their leisure activities. In some cases, that means a stroll of a few hundred yards or perhaps a couple of miles, while in others it may mean walking 25 miles or more a day. Some people who do not particularly enjoy walking for its own sake may walk in order to enjoy other leisure activities, such as bird watching, observing flowers and observing nature generally. People walk in order to go fishing, or to take photographs. But, contrary to popular belief, since 1948, the amount of countryside on which people can walk has steadily declined as a result of the growth of the urban sprawl into the countryside and the building of motorways.

Mr. Gray

The hon. Gentleman is probably right in saying that the amount of land has diminished since the war, but it is it not true that, since 1991–92—these are the latest accurate figures—the length of the paths available to walkers in England has increased by 12,450 miles?

Mr. Bennett

We accept that the number of footpaths has increased. When I was a child in Greater Manchester, there were a huge number of Cheshire lanes linking the footpaths where my parents and I could walk safely. Now, all those lanes have been polluted by fast-moving motor cars, and it is the same in most parts of the countryside. Whatever we may have gained from footpaths, I fear that we have lost more as a result of the disappearance of country roads.

Of course, some progress has been made in the form of the stewardship and death duties schemes, although I wish that there was more publicity to make clear what opportunities are available. However, there are still large parts of the countryside where no problems would be caused if the arrangements that exist in the Lake district were extended.

Because so many people enjoy going into the countryside, there are problems of overcrowding. Anyone wanting to enjoy peace and quiet on the Snowdon horseshoe in the summer must get up almost at the crack of dawn and finish the walk before breakfast, because nearly as many people walk on Snowdon in the summer as can be found on the beaches in Blackpool and Brighton. For most people, however, going into the countryside means an opportunity to enjoy peace and quiet. We should be trying to spread out the crowds of people who congregate in some of the "honeypot" areas—not just Snowdon, but Dovedale and Coniston Old Man. Would it not be far better if we could open up places like the Forest of Bowland, which used to be open to the public in the 1930s, so that, instead of going up the motorways to the Lake district from Greater Manchester, people could stop there, or in some of the places referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle?

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I sympathise with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument. Indeed, I think that he is making a much better speech than the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). However, speaking as someone who walks a great deal in the countryside—certainly more than 1,000 miles a year—I have to say that I find his suggestion that the Bill will suddenly depopulate Snowdon horseshoe and other beautiful parts of the country wholly implausible. It is a fatuous argument.

There is a more important argument. If it were true that those of us who walk on the paths most weekends found ourselves crowded on those normal paths, the hon. Gentleman may have had a point, but that is not true either. The real problem that most of us who pursue walkers' practical interests face is that paths in the countryside are being blocked or not being kept properly open. That is the most important part of the Bill, and should receive some support.

Mr. Bennett

I do not believe that the Bill will suddenly solve the problems of overcrowding on the Snowdon horseshoe, but it will help. In Wales, walkers, particularly stronger ones who like to go further, would go to substantial areas such as the Rhinogs and parts of the Arrans, so that would lighten the load a little.

In fairness, farmers in the Lake district and in parts of north Wales have had a huge number of people going over their land. Why should not other farmers share what may be perceived by farmers, at least, to be a burden? There is a strong argument for trying to spread people out throughout the countryside.

I do not believe that a huge number of people will go from the popular routes and wander across, but I know lots of other people who, if they get the chance, go to mountains—for example in the west of Ireland—where there is no beaten track up to the top. It is much more exciting finding one's own route up such a mountain than it is having to stick to a footpath, so some people will go to mountains and moorland that they are kept off at the moment. They will enjoy it and lighten the load on some other parts of the countryside.

It will be important to get people on to mountains and moorland, but it will probably be of more significance to open some of the downland and heath in southern England; even more people would like the opportunity to go out on to those areas. Although the Government have not, so far, put it into the proposals, we need to look at forestry, particularly upland forest. I see little problem in people going into those areas. We also need to look at the foreshore.

I hear the case that is being made by Conservative Members about the linear routes. It should not be one or the other; it should be both. It is important that linear routes are free from obstruction, but, in some places, linear routes are a disaster.

I accept that ramblers and other walkers have campaigned hard to get the Pennine way. The mistake was that it was decided that a footpath had to be marked on the map all the way. Anyone who has walked on the Pennine way in recent years will know that, by making one route, we have changed the nature of that expedition.

In the early days, when setting off from Edale and heading for the Cheviots, one more or less made one's own way across open moorland. It was a very exciting, hard challenge. Because of the amazing amount of people who have used the path and the erosion that has taken place, the national parks, more or less all the way, have had to pave the route.

In some senses, I am pleased when I see someone up there now with a buggy and a small child, or someone tottering along the path in high-heeled shoes because it means that other people are getting out to enjoy the countryside, but, at the same time, the whole nature of that walk has been changed from a serious challenge to just an interesting route.

Mr. David Davis

I apologise for intervening again, but it is a serious practical problem. I agree about the Pennine way; I do not like walking in a trench. In the part of the coast-to-coast walk that is just beyond Nine Standards Rigg, the organisers of the area have tried to vary the path all over the moor. When I go there, I watch lots of people who are not used to navigating in high country walking in all parts of the moor, not on a path at all. The result is that, almost in its entirety, the moor is wrecked.

One of my concerns—I speak as someone who walks the Kinder Scout walk every year in memory of the 1930s—is that serious damage will be done to parts of the open countryside, particularly those near urban areas, which the hon. Member for Pendle mentioned, not just because of a linear route, but because of the sheer mass of population that will come on to it.

Mr. Bennett

It may be a problem. That is one of the things that we have to consider in examining access agreements. How can we manage access, so that we do not destroy the things that people go out to? However, I caution Conservative Members who say that linear paths are always the answer.

In some places, good linear footpaths will be important. I do not think that ramblers object to permissive paths where they are extra to the network. Where many country lanes have been lost, there are strong arguments for people to put a footpath along the field margin, away from traffic. That can be helpful. There are some good landowners who look to save field margins, so that they can encourage wildlife. Relatively few people are likely to walk them. They should be able to walk some of them.

We should not see the matter as us and them. We have to accept that the town and country need each other and that there needs to be a uniting of activity between the town and countryside.

Inevitably, if we are going to retain the carefully nurtured upland landscape, someone has to pay for it. It will no longer be paid for as a by-product of food production. We need changes to the common agricultural policy that will enable farmers to go on looking after the landscape that they have looked after for many centuries. That is important but, if townspeople are going to contribute towards that maintenance by farmers, why should they not be able to go out and enjoy the countryside?

We need to remember that little of Britain is wild landscape. Even on top of mountains, there tends to be a wall. When we look down into the countryside, we see carefully nurtured field boundaries. We have to find a way in which to keep that and to ensure that the land is enjoyed not just by farmers or landowners, but by everyone. That is why I welcome many of the Government's proposals. I hope that there will be a spirit of co-operation, so that we can start to work out some of those difficulties.

There is the question of compensation. I do not believe that a vast sum of money should be paid in compensation, but the example in the Peak district is clear. Where we have access land, on occasions, people have to get to that access land. Extra stiles and gateways may have to be put in place for people to get to it. That is something that the nation should pay for, either through national parks or local government, so that the farmer or landowner is not out of pocket.

Accident liability is a serious issue. It is clear that the landowners must meet their obligations under health and safety rules, but, where people go on to land to enjoy it, they also have a responsibility and should not expect to be able to sue the landowner for accidents that they have caused. That matter needs sorting out.

We should make progress through the local forum on access to the countryside. We need to get the mapping going. I do not want to see a lot of policemen in the countryside, but there is a case for using rangers, particularly in some of the more popular areas. Some of the national parks rangers have done an excellent job in interpreting the countryside rules and in helping with safety. We need to expand that.

Out of the legislation—I hope that it comes soon—we want a partnership between country landowners, the National Farmers Union, ramblers, the British Mountaineering Council and the tourist boards to ensure that walkers are welcome in the countryside. We should all be involved in showing walkers the beauty of the countryside, and in telling them that they have a responsibility in the countryside.

Our green and pleasant land should be something that everyone can enjoy. Everyone should contribute to ensure that we and future generations can go on enjoying it. Access to the countryside is very important. It should be in legislation soon.

10.50 am
Mr. Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on securing this debate and on his boisterous, knockabout speech. His choice in private Member's Bill was a happy one, even if he has chosen to go out with a bang rather than a whimper. Whichever side of the argument they are on, people care passionately about the right to roam. However, the issue is not, as some Conservative Members have suggested, about class war. The right to roam is not evil, but involves fundamental freedoms. Nevertheless, the right to roam issue leaves me in a quandary.

I strongly support the principle that land should be accessible to all. There is no justification for placing off limits to all but a small minority vast tracts of our memorable countryside.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

But, on the other hand.

Mr. Brake

But, on the other hand: the right to access must encompass only low or no-impact access.

I believe that the Right to Roam Bill does not quite get the balance right. Therefore, I told my constituents that I would attend and speak in today's debate on the Bill, but that I would abstain in a Division on it. I was therefore relieved when the Government made their own, more limited access proposals, which I think that all Liberal Democrats can support.

The hon. Member for Pendle can rightly be proud of the part that he has played in forcing the Government's hand. However, as his Bill has now been overtaken by events—by the Government's proposals—we should be scrutinising the Government's proposals. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will answer some simple questions.

When will the Government's access proposals become law? The Minister for the Environment has said that, in this Parliament, a wildlife Bill will be introduced. Will the Government's access proposals be linked to that wider wildlife Bill?

How will the Government ensure protection of sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty? What impact will their plans have on nature reserves managed by organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds? What will the Government do to open up their own land, such as Ministry of Defence land?

What additional research will the Government be commissioning to examine the costs to farmers caused by the access proposals? I do not think that the proposals will have no cost implications, so Ministers should revisit the cost issue.

Liberal Democrat Members' support will remain conditional so long as those and other questions remain unanswered.

As the hon. Member for Pendle said, the right to roam is about not only rights but responsibilities. We shall soon have the rights—which Liberal Democrat Members welcome—but we must consider more carefully the responsibilities.

10.53 am
Mr. Tom Cox (Tooting)

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides the House, and people across the country, warmly support my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) in promoting and presenting his Bill. I pay tribute also to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment for all his work on, and his commitment to, the Bill.

The British people's belief that they should be able to walk through our countryside—so that they might enjoy its beauty and life—has long been one of the Labour party's deep commitments. In my years as an hon. Member, and even long before, Labour Members have sought to introduce legislation on that commitment. We have always—today is no exception—encountered difficulties and objections in those attempts. However, we have had to fight for many of the rights now enshrined in our legislation. The difficulties of introducing legislation for the benefit of the British people have always been—and always will be—emphasised by those who, despite what they might say, do not really support the principles enshrined in the Bill.

Hon. Members may remember Arthur Blenkinsop—the distinguished former Labour Member of Parliament for South Shields, who, sadly, died some years ago.

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

indicated assent.

Mr. Cox

I see that my right hon. Friend remembers him.

Arthur Blenkinsop was a great believer in people's right to be able to enjoy the countryside, and, in his years in the House, he campaigned vigorously on the issue. However, like many other hon. Members, he repeatedly encountered objections to such legislation—such as people's supposed lack of respect for the countryside, which they would only damage. Although we still hear such objections, I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have noticed that, happily, most people's attitude to the issue has changed enormously. Now, there is undoubtedly enormous support among the British people for the measures that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle is seeking to introduce in his Bill.

I am sure that all hon. Members in the Chamber have received cards and letters from constituents, calling on us to attend this debate and to support the Bill in a Vote, if there were one. In recent weeks, I have received 393 cards and letters on the Bill, and every one of them supported it. I did not receive one letter from anyone in my constituency saying, "Don't support the Bill. Parts of it are okay, but we don't really need it."

Mr. Peter Atkinson

How many country landowners does the hon. Gentleman have in Tooting?

Mr. Cox

That intervention was typical of the Conservative Members' remarks to which my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle was subjected. When the House debates people's right to enjoy our countryside—which should be the only criterion for speaking in this debate, and which my hon. Friend seeks to guarantee in his Bill—surely it should not matter which part of the United Kingdom an hon. Member represents.

As I said, I have received 393 cards and letters supporting the Bill. One letter, dated 17 February, was from Mr. Ralph Stephenson, who said: At 88 I keep active and well by regular country walking, belong to four clubs and consider that everybody should be allowed to enjoy…the countryside. I understand there is to be a private bill introduced by Mr. Gordon Prentice on the 26th March to promote the right to roam the…common land subject"— as my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle has said repeatedly— to sensible restrictions.

Whatever Conservative Members say, a sensible approach to providing that right is the Bill's keynote. Mr. Stephenson's letter sums up what the issue is all about. It was from someone who loves our countryside, makes use of it and respects it.

We are talking about 4 million acres of land.

It being Eleven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings pursuant to Standing Order No. 11 (Friday sittings).

Forward to