HC Deb 14 June 2000 vol 351 cc1058-75

Amendments made: No. 220, in page 97, column 3, leave out lines 8 to 42 and insert—

'Sections 61 to 63. Section 88(1)(c). In section 111A(3)(a),the words "61 to 63,".'.

No. 221, in page 97, line 43, leave out from beginning to end of page 98, line 17.

No. 222, in page 98, line 20, column 3, leave out "paragraphs 6 and 7" and insert "paragraph 6".

No. 223, in page 98, leave out lines 23 and 24.

No. 224, in page 98, line 27, column 3, leave out "paragraph 1(8) and (9)" and insert— 'in paragraph 1(8), the words "62(1) and".'.—[Mr. Meacher]

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, and Prince of Wales's Consent, on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall, signified.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I must inform the House that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

9.51 pm
Mr. Meacher

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

As we come to the end of our debates on the Bill, may I say again how much I have enjoyed them? Our debates have, on the whole, been positive and constructive, and all parties have improved the Bill in the process. I should like to thank the Clerks, the Hansard staff, and all the other staff of the House on whom we rely so much. I should like to thank parliamentary counsel, who have produced some complex provisions in a short time. I should also like to thank my Department's officials, who have dealt, as I well know, with amendments extremely promptly and efficiently and have provided comprehensive back-up support.

Making the provisions work well will involve a wide range of people, including the staff of the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales, and I am grateful to them for all the work that they have been doing to advise on the provisions and to prepare for their implementation.

My thanks go wider. There has been a tremendous input to the Bill—I cannot remember a similar impact on any recent Bill in my experience—from a large number of non-governmental organisations representing a wide range of interests concerned with the use, protection and enjoyment of our wonderful countryside. Even without the massive amount of correspondence with which members of those organisations have flooded my postbag, I know full well how strongly people feel about the issues dealt with by the Bill.

I pay a warm and genuine tribute to my colleagues, and extend that to right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches for the balanced and thoughtful manner in which they have represented their views and for the generally constructive approach taken throughout our debates.

It would, of course, have been impossible to satisfy everybody on every issue on which strong and opposing views are held, but I believe that we can claim that we have been a listening Government and that we have considered the issues carefully.

The Bill is, by any standards, historic. It increases everyone's ability to enjoy the countryside and enhances the protection of our hugely valuable natural heritage. Our debates have inevitably concentrated largely on areas of controversy, but there is a great deal in the Bill that is supported by everybody. This is a good Bill. It has something in it for everybody who loves our priceless countryside and wants to enjoy the many benefits that it brings to the nation. In that inclusive spirit, I commend it to the House.

9.54 pm
Mr. Green

I beg to move, That this House declines to give a Third Reading to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill because the Government has rejected proposals which would reduce the impact of the proposals for a right of access to open country upon land management and other users of the land, because the liability placed upon land owners arising from any man-made features of that land contains no exclusions for ancient or historical features, because there are no provisions for compensation for those affected by the Bill in this way, and because, whilst there are welcome improvements to rights of way legislation and wildlife protection, the Bill fails adequately to protect biodiversity. Special Protection Areas and local wildlife sites. Let me start by being as generous as possible to the Government. The Bill is not as bad as it was when it started its journey from Second Reading. In a few particulars, it is less messy than it was when the Minister, incautiously but with devastating candour, so described it in Committee. While I am being generous, I thank the Minister and his colleagues for their unfailing courtesy and apparent willingness to listen to the many deficiencies that we pointed out during the Bill's progress.

Having said all that, I must also say that the Bill falls lamentably short of the Minister's desire, which he expressed on Second Reading and again tonight, to enact an historic measure. Its three parts contain serious deficiencies. I shall spend a short time detailing them.

On the access provisions in part I, let me say that we oppose unrestricted compulsory access to private land, but we recognise the reality of the Government's majority. We have therefore sought to make the regime as practical as possible. In doing that, we are selflessly trying to prevent the Government from digging themselves ever further into the hole of profound unpopularity in rural areas. However, the Government are determined to resist our efforts.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Last night, we discussed one of the holes in the measure and in the Government's thinking: the complete absence of provision for proper compensation for those who will be adversely affected by the Bill. The Minister regrettably failed to understand, or respond to the arguments that we presented—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot make a meal of an intervention. That is my way of saying that he has finished.

Mr. Green

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his brief intervention. He is right about compensation. That affects not only those who own land in the countryside, but poses the question whether the Bill breaches the Human Rights Act 1998. I suspect that the measure will be tested in the courts before long.

The Government have determinedly resisted our efforts to stop them becoming ever more unpopular. Despite our efforts, part I constitutes further confirmation that those who live and work in rural areas are no priority for the Government. I shall list part I's manifold failures in no particular order. It is unfair. The penalties for transgressions by farmers and landowners are wildly out of kilter with those for walkers. Walkers can become trespassers, who are taken off land for a few hours, whereas farmers and landowners can be criminalised.

The Bill is impractical. The Government have insisted that access can be restricted for only 28 days and that the restriction cannot apply to weekends. We will therefore have to breed new sheep, which know not to have lambs at weekends. After we get used to that, we will have to train them not to lamb on bank holidays. I look forward to hearing the Government's strategy for achieving that.

The Bill is confusing for farmers. For what are they liable if walkers injure themselves on their land? If a walker is injured climbing over or through a hedge, the occupier is not liable. However, if a walker is injured while climbing over a wall, there is liability. Indeed, if a walker damages a wall when climbing over it, the farmer is responsible for repairing not only the wall but the walker. That is not sensible proposed legislation. NFU News stated: Gilbert & Sullivan would have enjoyed writing a satirical operetta about the absurdities … including the charming point that an occupier will not owe a legal liability to a visitor who falls in a natural lake—but would do so if it was a reservoir! The restrictions on dogs are wildly inadequate. Dogs do not have to be kept under proper control for the right amount of time. That poses a severe threat to ground-nesting birds. Part I contains many other examples of the Government's signal failure to take the advice given in Committee, notably by several of my hon. Friends who have great experience in country matters, to make practical improvements to the Bill.

Part II, which deals with rights of way, is not as bad. However, although it has been radically revised, it still contains glaring errors. Members of the Green Lanes Environmental Action Movement—GLEAM—who wish to protect green lanes from the inappropriate use of motor vehicles, will be unhappy about the Government's rejection of the cross-party amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) moved. I think Ministers will also find that the horse world is not happy with them.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

That, at this day's sitting, the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Jamieson.] Question agreed to.

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Mr. Green

The many people who have problems driving to their own front door across a common will be fearful that the Minister's failure to give any commitment to rectify that problem in the other place will condemn them to years of uncertainty and misery.

Part III on wildlife protection should be the heart of the Bill. For many months, we argued that we would give a fair wind to a decent wildlife protection Bill. The SSSI protection is welcome, but it is not enough. We should have better protection for local wildlife sites, and proper backing for biodiversity action plans. We should also have proper protection for our wildlife outside the SSSIs. There should be better protection for areas of outstanding natural beauty. That is in many ways the most important area for Government action. The Government's response was to issue a press release yesterday.

While our deliberations on the Bill have been going on, I have been able to read on the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions website what the Minister proposes, and I have been able to read in the press what he proposes, but the one place I have not been able to get any information about what he intends is on the Floor of the House of Commons when we debate the very Bill in which he proposes to introduce these measures. That is a scandal, and it is not the way to promote decent legislation.

I am not clear why the Minister is so afraid of the House. On Second Reading, he referred to additional funding for areas of outstanding natural beauty and said: I promise to make a statement soon about further measures.—[Official Report, 20 March 2000; Vol. 346, c. 731.] He has made that it statement, but he has deliberately chosen not to make it to the House when we discuss the Bill. That is regrettable.

The Bill misses its most important targets. It is too timid when it should be bold on wildlife protection, and it is too dogmatic when it should be practical on access measures. If it is in any way historic, it is an historic missed opportunity.

10.2 pm

Dr. David Clark

I am pleased to take part in the Third Reading of this historic Bill. It may not be the Bill that certain Conservative Members would like, but it is historic because it charts new waters for this country and its people. I am indebted to the Minister for the Environment and to the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), for all their work and for the way that they have kept an open mind on many of these issues.

Everyone in this country who is interested in outdoor recreation, nature conservation or wildlife feels that the Bill is a step forward. Every 20 years or so we have such a Bill, we move forward and then events in nature overtake us and we have to take action once again. The measure in the Bill that pleases me most is that on access to open spaces.

Ever since I entered the House, almost 30 years ago to the day, alongside my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment, I have been pressing for such a measure. It was not only me: I was just one of a long line of socialist politicians. I am a politician, and I do not think that any of us, in this Chamber of all places, should apologise for being politicians. We believe in this measure, and, ever since the Labour party's inception, people have been striving to achieve it. We finally have a Labour Government who have done so. I am proud of the Labour Government and of the fact that they have delivered this manifesto promise. I am conscious of the fact that, in my constituency stretching back over 70 years, its three Labour Members of Parliament have all introduced private Members' Bills to achieve this measure. We all failed, but it looks like the Government may now be succeeding.

I shall move on from that issue to make a point about national parks, which were discussed by Conservative Members. I recognise that many of them have experience of the countryside, but I hope that they will recognise that many Labour Members have equal experience. Indeed, I might even suggest that our experience is more relevant than that of many Conservative Members as we live in, and represent, the upland areas, which will be particularly affected by the Bill's access arrangements.

I look forward to national park status being extended to the New forest, and perhaps to the downs, but we must take local people with us if we can. National parks have many pluses for them as well as for business and we must build a consensus and co-operation in that respect. National parks are not only areas of outstanding natural beauty, but places to go to enjoy quiet recreation. That makes them stand out. However, because of the development of the internal combustion engine and of four-wheel drives, motorised vehicles represent an increasing threat to rural Britain, especially national parks and affluent areas.

Speaking from experience of the Lake district and with the consent of the Lake district planning board, I plead with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment: I hope that we will reconsider whether we can do anything to alter the traffic regulations to allow us to control the use of motorised vehicles off the metallic roads in the national parks. That is very important, as is the issue of quietness in this modern world. Only last weekend, I came down off Helvellyn, looked over Ullswater to see the sailing boats there and quietly blessed the Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South, for his decision to ban speedboats on Windermere.

The 10 mph speed limit on Windermere was long overdue. It was introduced by the local authority and the planning authority and then considered by the planning inspectorate, which upheld it. The previous Government could not go along with it, but my right hon. Friends called it in again and reconsidered. Most of those who know the Lake district will applaud that example of trying to get a bit of quiet in these areas.

During these two days of debate, it has been interesting to hear Conservative Members make a case against access, but they did so as if there was no previous experience. I do not want to repeat what I said yesterday, but there is 75 years of experience of open access in that huge area, the English Lake district. Of course there have been difficulties. The Lake district planning board has had problems, but it has learned to work with the farmers who keep the landscape as we want it. I shall not pretend that things will be easy, but we have to learn from that experience and transfer it to other parts of the country in which we have access.

In our debates, we inevitably cite extreme cases to make our points, but I say to Conservative Members that the situation will not be anywhere near as difficult as they think. I believe that, if we can work one side with the other, we can achieve what we all want: allowing all our citizens to enjoy more and more the beautiful countryside in our United Kingdom.

10.9 pm

Mr. David Heath

I join the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and others in thanking everyone connected with proceedings in Committee, including the Clerks, our four Chairmen and the members of the Committee. It was a delight to serve because the Committee handled its business constructively. Most importantly, Members from both sides of the House engaged in the debate. Sometimes, Government Back Benchers do not have the opportunities, to express their views. That did not happen in the Committee. They played an important and constructive role. I am grateful to them for that.

The right hon. Gentleman said that it was a good and perhaps historic Bill. I agree. It is potentially historic. It is certainly important. It is, in essence, a good Bill, but it is flawed. That has been my concern throughout the proceedings.

We have an important vehicle for conservation legislation. As has been said many times, such Bills do not come along very often, yet some areas of conservation reform have not found their way into the Bill. We have discussed biodiversity action plans, which are an essential element. No one is looking for a uniformity of approach, but we are looking for a commonality of intent. That is missing.

We still await the proposed changes on areas of outstanding natural beauty. I agree with the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green): we in the Chamber should have been told what the Government intended. By all means let it then be considered in another place and returned to us, but the announcement should have been made here during consideration of the Bill.

There have been less important—although they are still important—areas of consideration, such as the hon. Gentleman's amendment on invasive aquatic species. That should be in the Bill.

Again, the provisions on rights of way are important. There are important improvements, but there is a lack of provision for recreational riding, which is a missing component. The proposals lack clarity. The most important element of all is the resources that will underpin effectiveness of the rights of way improvement plans, which we hope will succeed.

On access, the thing that has bedevilled the Bill is the expression "right to roam". It has raised the expectations of both those in favour of the Bill and those against—expectations that it does not for one moment meet. People have the idea that, as a result of the Bill, they will find people with bobble hats in their chrysanthemum beds. They will not. It is essentially a modest move to increase access to upland areas and open countryside. We wholeheartedly support that.

Where we differ from the Government is that we see that there are difficulties with the definitions within the Bill; with the effect on agriculture—there is an apparent lack of understanding of agricultural practice—and with clarity, which will be essential if the thing is to work properly in practice, so that walkers, landowners and those who work the land know what their rights are. The provisions on liability and compensation lack clarity. All those are essential elements that will need to be debated in another place. They will have to be resolved before the Bill comes back to us.

We have ranged wide in our discussions on the Bill. We have gone from the floating pennywort to the prevalence of llamas in Llanberis. It has been an interesting journey. We must decide today whether, on balance, the Bill sufficiently covers the various points that we have raised to give it support. The view of the Conservative Opposition is that it does not. They have tabled a reasoned amendment stating some of the deficiencies of the Bill; I agree that there are deficiencies. In their view, on that basis, they should reject the Bill tonight.

I do not take that view and will advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to support the Bill. However, that does not alter the fact that substantial improvements need to be made in another place before the Bill becomes law. We will seek those amendments elsewhere and when the Bill returns to the House.

10.14 pm
Mr. Kidney

I realise that the Bill has reached the halfway point, in that the whole process will now be repeated in the other place, but I think that I am entitled to talk of successes at this stage.

There is the success represented by Labour's delivering on a manifesto promise, and translating the right of access to open countryside into legislation. There is the success involved in the attempt to modernise our complex law of rights of way, and the delivery of new entitlements for which landowners have waited for many years—entitlements to divert and close rights of way that, over many years, have become out of date and inconvenient, and have got in the way of businesses that want to make money. All those developments are welcome, although the subject is so complex that further refinements will be needed before the Bill completes its passage.

The Bill has achieved a further success in protecting wildlife. It has strengthened the protection of sites of special scientific interest, strengthened police powers to gather evidence of crimes against wildlife, and strengthened the powers of the courts to punish those who are caught committing such crimes. Nevertheless, I hope that there will be further developments in part III before the Bill returns to the House of Commons.

The final success that I want to cite is one that many Members have already mentioned: the success of the parliamentary process. In that context, the Bill has given us a model to follow in future. Even before its publication, there was full consultation. As all Members who have taken part in our deliberations know, the Government received many responses, and responses of good quality. I think it fair to say that they developed policy and changed decisions as a result of some of those responses. We also conducted ourselves well in Committee. The official Opposition had a forceful, although principled, objection to part I. They presented their arguments with reason and certainly with vigour, but never with excess verbiage. I congratulate them on that.

Let me also draw attention to the contribution of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Acting single-handedly on behalf of his party, he not only followed proceedings throughout the Committee stage but was one of the main movers in Committee. Despite having no support, he tabled detailed amendments, to the extent of proposing improvements in the wording of parts of the Bill. He spoke with authority about his amendments and those of others. I think that he can claim credit for improving the legislation.

The Government also deserve credit for the number of promises made in Committee that were redeemed on Report. That is thanks to the Ministers who have seen the Bill through this part of the parliamentary process.

Lastly, I give a pat on the back to myself and to my Labour colleagues who took part in the Committee stage. As both the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome and my right hon. Friend the Minister said, we were not silent. We were not mute. We did not simply vote at the right times when required to do so. We contributed fully to the debate; we spoke, and moved amendments. I have been pleased to note the number of amendments proposed and spoken to by me which, yesterday and today, have been translated into the Bill as a result of Government amendments.

So far, the whole thing is a success, although it has some way to go in the other place. I hope that Members of the other place will take account of the detailed process that has already taken place. I hope that they will respect what has happened so far, that they will interpret the clues they have been given about ways in which the Bill can still be improved, and that we shall end up with an Act of which the House of Commons can be proud and which will survive for many years.

10.18 pm
Miss McIntosh

Let me, in the same spirit as the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), congratulate those on both Front Benches on having conducted the Committee proceedings with such good humour. At least we all know now where Somerton and Frome and Merionnydd Nant Conwy are.

There is a certain irony in today's debate. In a week in which the introduction of the right to roam was introduced, it was also announced that the ancient right to hunt was to be abolished. There is a further irony. Why—the Minister has not satisfied me in this regard—is it appropriate to provide a statutory right of access when it is thought that a voluntary arrangement is not appropriate, when the Government fall short of providing statutory protection for local wildlife sites? There is a certain lack of logic in the Government's thinking.

I shall certainly find it very difficult to justify to my constituents night-time access, which will be the most difficult part of the Bill to administer. Equally, the lack of compensation for those who will be adversely affected will detract from the many positive elements of the Bill. I shall therefore support the reasoned amendment.

10.20 pm
Mr. Hogg

I support the reasoned amendment and shall concentrate on part I of the Bill, for whose provisions I very much doubt that there is a need.

I have been a walker all my life. Walking is my chief recreation. I have never felt constrained in my access to the countryside. The existing network of footpaths is largely adequate for the purpose. Where it is not, it can be improved by Voluntary agreements.

Part I of the Bill is cavalier about private property. I deeply regret that. The business of the House is in part to defend private property, on which the Bill intrudes to an unwarranted extent. Moreover, the Bill imposes unreasonable costs and obligations on landowners and farmers. That is wrong in principle, and especially wrong at this time.

I deeply regret the absence of proper compensation. The Minister for the Environment yesterday referred the House to clause 33, but I shall remind him of what I told him last night. The compensation payments under clause 33 depend on the existence of a voluntary access agreement, in the absence of which there would be no payment. In any event, clause 33 does not entitle the landowner or of hers affected to require provision of payment to be incorporated into an access agreement. In reality, therefore, there are no statutory rights to compensation.

I am against part I of the Bill. It is wrong in principle, and I am sorry that it will become law. I hope that it is looked at further in the other place.

10.22 pm
Mr. Swayne

The reasoned amendment is cogent and sums up my feelings about the Bill, but I want to air one other issue very briefly—namely, the opportunity missed by the Bill in respect of national parks.

Under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the Minister has power to create a national park without creating a national park authority at the same time. Ministers have received representations from the local authorities in the New forest asking for him to do precisely that. The Minister could have used the Bill to lay new responsibilities on local authorities to discharge the duties otherwise discharged by the national parks authority.

When I asked the Under-Secretary whether new clause 4 offered the appropriate vehicle for that, I did not even get an answer. I intervened on him later, and his response then was that I had not been in the Chamber for the debate. Perhaps he suffered a momentary lapse of attention when I made my contribution, or perhaps it was so unmemorable that he missed it. Strange though it may seem, he is uncharacteristically absent from the Chamber at the moment. However, I hope that the question will be revisited in the other place, as I think that it deserves proper attention.

10.23 pm
Mr. Gray

Those of us who live and work in the countryside, and who love it, have always been keen that as many people as possible can be found room for to enjoy the countryside as we do. It is for that reason that many people have worked so hard for so many years to arrange managed access to the countryside.

That was achieved successfully on the Templars Firs estate, just outside my constituency. Over a number of years, everything possible has been done—including redirecting rights of way and promoting horse riding—to encourage people from Swindon and Bristol to visit the estate. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Ramblers Association have acknowledged the estate as an exemplar of all that should be done to open up access.

However, the Templars Firs estate has succeeded because it has achieved a balance between, on the one hand, the rights and interests of the landowner and of the farmers who grow our food, and of the walkers on the other. That is a very delicate balance and only by getting it right could the Bill possibly work. In a variety of areas, the Bill fundamentally upsets that delicate balance.

Instead of providing a way in which landowners and walkers can get together to arrange proper access to the countryside, the Government have set up a confrontational approach. The walkers' approach is to say from the start that they believe that landowners will prevent access, and the walkers want access despite the fact that landowners have their farming interests at heart. What is more, the walkers want that right by law.

There is no requirement for a provision that will allow walkers to do what otherwise they would not do. I am not aware of vast hordes of walkers ready and determined to go on to the moorlands, uplands and commons mentioned in the Bill and I would be very surprised if they existed.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

If there are no vast hordes, why have Opposition Members made such a fuss about the provision on access?

Mr. Gray

If there are no such vast hordes, why are we wasting parliamentary time passing a law to allow them access? There is no demand for that right. The Bill is more about ideology. It is about saying, "These landowners will not give us what we want, so we will show them." This week, the Government have taken steps towards banning fox hunting, but that has nothing to do with animal rights or the countryside. It is about saying, "We are going to show the landowning classes that we are still the old Labour party." That is also what lies behind the Bill. If that were not the case, the Government would have considered various issues more carefully, such as the 28-day exceptions, which appear wildly inadequate to anyone who knows anything about the countryside. They would take the lambing season more seriously, but they have dismissed it airily. It is in fact vital, but it will be disrupted in the areas involved. The Government would also consider how we can keep our uplands going through shooting. They do not understand shooting, but it is the only way to preserve the uplands as they are at the moment. [Interruption.] Labour Members find that humorous, and the Minister laughs, but it is true.

The Government do not understand the countryside. They do not understand the areas to which they will give people access. The Bill is driven by ideology. For example, several hon. Members have described this as a historic day. If what we were talking about was a few people going for a walk in the countryside, it would not be historic. Labour Members say it is historic because they view it as an ideological triumph of the left over the landowner.

The Bill is badly drafted and the Government have missed opportunities in what has been the first countryside Bill for many years. The Minister has also admitted on several occasions that much more work needs to be done on the Bill, and I hope that that will happen in the other place. The reasoned amendment makes sense because it shows up the Bill for what it is. It has nothing to do with encouraging people to enjoy the countryside and much to do with an ideological hatred of those of us who are lucky enough to live there.

10.28 pm
Mr. Paice

I am always pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray), because it makes me seem so moderate. However, I do not disagree with some of his views. I concur with all the thanks and plaudits that have been expressed, but nobody has yet mentioned the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who astounded me and many others in Committee with his incredible knowledge of countryside issues and legislation. He was of great benefit to the Committee.

From the outset, we have welcomed the changes to the rights of way legislation, and I was interested to note that the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) referred to outdated legislation and the need for the ability to divert footpaths. I agree with him, although his view was not shared by all his hon. Friends or the organisations which have supported the Bill. They feel that every footpath should be sacrosanct for ever and a day, and that no account should be taken of changing needs.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) said, it is part I that has caused immense concern in the countryside.

I suspect that the Minister for the Environment regards the Bill as his big political memorial, but I do not criticise him for that. The Bill is his great opportunity to put a significant piece of legislation on the statute book, and it is right that he should take credit for it. It is just a great shame that the Government did not seek to create a much more comprehensive network of footpaths across the country. Such a network would have been closer to people's homes, and would have increased accessibility for them much more than open access will.

In Committee, the Minister asserted—he has kindly done so again today—that the Opposition have approached the Bill constructively. At times, so did he, and I am grateful to him for that. I make it clear that the Opposition do not want to deny any responsible person the opportunity to enjoy the countryside. However, we believe that that could have been achieved in a different and better way, making access more convenient for constituents such as mine and those of many other hon. Members representing constituencies in the south-east who do not live close to open country.

There is a great difference between linear access and open access. Many problems that do not result from linear access—such as landowners' liability—most certainly will result from open access.

Many Labour Members have demonstrated a mindset that is against the interests of landowners and land users, and which is indifferent to the legislation's impact on agriculture, on wildlife—especially ground-nesting birds, including our waders in the uplands—and, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire said, on sporting use and landowners' ability to use their own land without encumbrance.

As I said in earlier debates, there are also serious clashes between the Bill's provisions and the Government's own action plan for farming policy document.

Many amendments were tabled to the Bill. In Committee, many amendments were supported by all the Opposition parties but were rejected. My noble Friends will have to address the issues dealt with in those amendments in the other place. Yesterday, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) moved an amendment on the issue of compensation, but the Minister dismissed it as legalistic. Not only would I expect an eminent lawyer to make a legalistic speech, but we are talking about making a law. It seems odd to say that one should not be legalistic in passing legislation.

The Bill's most serious default—on top of all those described by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) in opening our first debate today—is perhaps its failure to provide for information to walkers. Much information will have to be conveyed to those who want to use the rights provided to them in the Bill—such as which parts of a moor are closed, and, for those who do not have an appropriate map, the limits to the open country.

Walkers will also have to know the boundaries of land owned by different individuals, as they will be subject to the absurd notion that, if they transgress schedule 2 provisions, they would have to leave that specific land for 24 hours. As those who are familiar with open country will know, the boundary between the land of different owners may not be easy to perceive. People may also have to know the rules on dogs, such as the dates on which they have to be on leads. The Government, however, rejected the eminently sensible approach of creating access points to the open country at which such information could be displayed.

Labour Members seem to think—the attitude has come through again in the past two days—that all walkers are responsible people and that all landowners will seek to thwart the legislation. I do not believe that either group can be so characterised. Sadly, some people will try to abuse the rights being provided to them, and some landowners will probably—because of the Bill's compulsory elements—be less than enthusiastic about those rights.

Despite what the right hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) said—with respect to him, he has not been in the Chamber for most of the debates—in our consideration of the Bill, including in Committee and in the past two days, we have seen at best an ignorance of countryside and land management activities, and at worst a barely concealed contempt on the part of some Labour Members for those who earn their income from the land or enjoy their sport, quite apart from those who own the land. It is not jut the wealthy landowners who will be affected, as Labour Members have sought to portray, but countless thousands of men and women who work on the land in the countryside, in all manner of ways, will find their occupations affected by these rights. Those effects have not been countered by measures in the Bill.

It should not surprise us that there is this ignorance and intolerance of farmers and landowners from a party which is essentially urban. Labour Members may claim to represent rural seats—they may, temporarily, actually do so—but there is a gulf between representing rural seats and the countryside, and understanding what it is all about.

I commend our amendment to the House.

10.36 pm
Mr. Meacher

Before we conclude our proceedings, I want to respond to the churlish and curmudgeonly reasoned amendment put down by the Conservative party. In my opening remarks on Third Reading, I rather unwisely praised Conservative Members for their thoughtful and constructive contribution to the debate. However, from their remarks on Third Reading, it is plain to all in the House that the mask is beginning to slip.

When I first made the statement to the House on 8 March last year, Conservative Members' reaction was one of spluttering rage and outraged repudiation. A further year of considered reflection, and the realisation that the Bill is hugely popular, have tamed their response. We are now down to four relatively small matters of outstanding difference between us. Even on these, their reaction is biased and unbalanced, as I will show.

I accept that the Bill does not do all that the Opposition would like it to do—for very good reasons. Were we to accept all the amendments tabled by the Conservative party on Report, open countryside could be closed for more than half of all Saturdays throughout the year, and would certainly be out of bounds at night, with people becoming criminals for the heinous offence of swimming in a lakeland tarn.

Conservative Members have chosen to overlook just how far the Bill goes in meeting the genuine concerns of those who own and manage the land. In the run-up to the introduction of the Bill, we had many genuinely constructive meetings with representatives of landowners, particularly the Country Landowners Association. I do not for one moment pretend that they are happy with all the access provisions, but I know that we have reassured them on many important issues about how the right of access will operate in practice.

The Opposition's reasoned amendment complains that the provisions on occupiers' liability placed upon landowners arising from any man-made features contain no exclusions for ancient or historical features. It totally ignores the fact that the Bill already introduces a key change of principle by removing all liability of occupiers in respect of natural features of the land.

Mr. Paice


Mr. Meacher

I think that the hon. Gentleman knows full well what I am saying. Although we had originally proposed that the liability owed to those exercising the new right would be the very low level owed to trespassers, we have agreed to lower it further still and to remove all liability. It would help if there were some acknowledgement of that in the so-called reasoned amendment.

Mr. Paice

Of course I acknowledge that there has been a change, but the fact is that is only to do with natural features. In open country there are countless features which, at some stage in history, were made by man. Iron age forts, ancient peat diggings, and dry stone walls which may have been there for hundreds of years cannot possibly be the responsibility of the land's present owner, yet landowners remain liable for an accident that may occur on them.

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman continues to refuse to acknowledge that we have removed all occupiers' liability in respect of natural features of the landscape—[Interruption.] Yes, he is referring to man-made features. We believe that a measure of liability in respect of farm equipment and other man-made features of the landscape is only right and proper.

The reasoned amendment complains of the absence of provisions for compensation. I repeat that the Bill includes a range of provisions specifically to safeguard the interests of landowners and managers. We do not expect the Bill to impose significant costs on landowners. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions signed a certificate of compatibility with the Human Rights Act 1998, after careful consideration and based on legal advice.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said that part I was controversial. I acknowledge that. However, we have gone out of our way to put in place management arrangements that will ensure that the right of access and the proper use of land can co-exist. A short time after the new right has come into effect, people will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

On part II, the reasoned amendment welcomes the rights of way provisions of the Bill. The Opposition should remember that they cannot cherry-pick. Certainly, those provisions stand in their own right, but they form part of the measure's overall package. We have done much that the Opposition welcome, but my concern throughout was to benefit everyone involved—users and landowners alike—and not just the narrow sectional interests that the Opposition have been promoting.

Finally, I recognise and welcome the general support throughout the House that the wildlife provisions of the Bill have received. We can justly claim that the strengthening of the protection and management of sites of special scientific interest represents a major step forward in the conservation and enhancement of our wildlife. The Bill forms only part—although a vital and essential one—of the steps we are taking to demonstrate our commitment to biodiversity and nature conservation. That commitment will continue.

We will ensure that we fully comply with our obligations under the birds and habitats directives—including the completion of our contribution to the Natura 2000 network; we will develop the agreed recommendations of the local sites review group that we discussed this evening, so as better to deliver wildlife conservation locally; and we will continue to give our fullest support to the delivery of the UK biodiversity action plan.

To sum up, the reasoned amendment is distinctly churlish in its response to the Bill; it looks solely and excessively at the sectional interests of only one of the many groups of people who will be affected. The Bill will benefit all who love our beautiful and priceless countryside and our rich natural heritage. I urge the House to reject the amendment and to send the Bill on its way.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 130, Noes 323.

Division No. 234] [10.43 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Faber, David
Amess, David Fabricant, Michael
Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James Fallon, Michael
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Flight, Howard
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Forth, Rt Hon Eric
Baldry, Tony Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman
Beggs, Roy Fox, Dr Liam
Bercow, John Fraser, Christopher
Beresford, Sir Paul Garnier, Edward
Blunt, Crispin Gibb, Nick
Body, Sir Richard Gill, Christopher
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Brady, Graham Gray, James
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Green, Damian
Browning, Mrs Angela Greenway, John
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Grieve, Dominic
Burns, Simon Gummer, Rt Hon John
Cash, William Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Hammond, Philip
Hayes, John
Clappison, James Heald, Oliver
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David
Clifton—Brown, Geoffrey Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Collins, Tim Horam, John
Cormack, Sir Patrick Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Cran, James Hunter, Andrew
Curry, Rt Hon David Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Day, Stephen Key, Robert
Donaldson, Jeffrey King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Duncan Smith, Iain Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Evans, Nigel Lansley, Andrew
Leigh, Edward St Aubyn, Nick
Letwin, Oliver Sayeed, Jonathan
Lidington, David Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Shepherd, Richard
Loughton, Tim Soames, Nicholas
Luff, Peter Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Spring, Richard
McIntosh, Miss Anne Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
MacKay, Rt Hon Andrew Streeter, Gary
Maclean, Rt Hon David Swayne, Desmond
McLoughlin, Patrick Syms, Robert
Madel, Sir David Tapsell, Sir Peter
Major, Rt Hon John Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Maples, John Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
May, Mrs Theresa Townend John
Moss, Malcolm Tredinnick, David
Nicholls, Patrick Trend Michael
Tyrie, Andrew
Norman, Archie Waterson, Nigel
O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury) Wells, Bowen
Ottaway, Richard Whitney, Sir Raymond
Page, Richard Whittingdale, John
Paice, James Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Paterson, Owen Willetts, David
Pickles, Eric Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Portillo, Rt Hon Michael Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Prior, David Yeo, Tim
Randall, John Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Redwood, Rt Hon John
Robertson, Laurence Tellers for the Ayes:
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Mr. Keith Simpson and
Ruffley, David Mrs. Eleanor Laing.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Caborn, Rt Hon Richard
Ainger, Nick Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Allan, Richard Campbell—Savours, Dale
Allen, Graham Casale, Roger
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Caton, Martin
Armstrong, Rt Hon Ms Hilary Cawsey, Ian
Atkins, Charlotte Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Austin, John Chaytor, David
Ballard, Jackie Clapham, Michael
Barron, Kevin Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Battle, John Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Bayley, Hugh
Beard, Nigel Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)
Begg, Miss Anne Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Benn, Hilary (Leeds C) Clelland, David
Bennett, Andrew F Coaker, Vernon
Benton, Joe Coffey, Ms Ann
Bermingham, Gerald Coleman, Iain
Best, Harold Colman, Tony
Betts, Clive Connarty, Michael
Blackman, Liz Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Blizzard, Bob Corbett, Robin
Boateng, Rt Hon Paul Corbyn, Jeremy
Borrow, David Corston, Jean
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Cotter, Brian
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Cousins, Jim
Bradshaw, Ben Cox, Tom
Brake, Tom Cranston, Ross
Brand, Dr Peter Crausby, David
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr Jack (Copeland)
Browne, Desmond
Buck, Ms Karen Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Burden, Richard Darvill, Keith
Burnett, John Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Burstow, Paul Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Byers, Rt Hon Stephen Davidson, Ian
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Davis, Rt Hon Terry (B'ham Hodge H) Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Jowell, Rt Hon Ms Tessa
Dawson, Hilton Keeble, Ms Sally
Dean, Mrs Janet Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Denham, John Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)
Dobbin, Jim Kemp, Fraser
Donohoe, Brian H Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Doran, Frank Khabra, Piara S
Dowd, Jim Kidney, David
Drew, David Kilfoyle, Peter
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Kirkwood, Archy
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) Kumar, Dr Ashok
Efford, Clive Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Ellman, Mrs Louise Lawrence, Mrs Jackie
Ennis, Jeff Lepper, David
Etherington, Bill Leslie, Christopher
Field, Rt Hon Frank Levitt, Tom
Fisher, Mark Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Fitzpatrick, Jim Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Flint, Caroline Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Flynn, Paul Linton, Martin
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Foster, Don (Bath) Lock, David
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) McAvoy, Thomas
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) McCabe, Steve
Foulkes, George McCartney, Rt Hon Ian (Makerfield)
Fyfe, Maria
George, Andrew (St Ives) McDonagh, Siobhain
Gerrard, Neil McDonnell, John
Gibson, Dr Ian McGuire, Mrs Anne
Gidley, Sandra McIsaac, Shona
Godman, Dr Norman A McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Goggins, Paul Mackinlay, Andrew
Golding, Mrs Llin Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Gordon, Mrs Eileen MacShane, Denis
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) McWalter, Tony
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Grocott, Bruce Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)
Grogan, John Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Gunnell, John Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) Marshall—Andrews, Robert
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Martlew, Eric
Hanson, David Maxton, John
Harvey, Nick Meacher, Rt Hon Michael
Heal, Mrs Sylvia Meale, Alan
Healey, John Merron, Gillian
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Henderson, Ivan (Harwich) Milburn, Rt Hon Alan
Heppell, John Miller, Andrew
Hesford, Stephen Mitchell, Austin
Hill, Keith Moonie, Dr Lewis
Hinchliffe, David Moore, Michael
Hoey, Kate Moran, Ms Margaret
Hoon, Rt Hon Geoffrey Morley, Elliot
Hope, Phil Mountford, Kali
Hopkins, Kelvin Mowlam, Rt Hon Marjorie
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Mudie, George
Howells, Dr Kim Mullin, Chris
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Humble, Mrs Joan Murphy, Rt Hon Paul (Torfaen)
Hurst, Alan Naysmith, Dr Doug
Hutton, John Norris, Dan
Iddon, Dr Brian O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Illsley, Eric O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) O'Hara, Eddie
Jamieson, David Olner, Bill
Jenkins, Brian Öpik, Lembit
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) Organ, Mrs Diana
Osborne, Ms Sandra
Jones, Rt Hon Barry (Alyn) Palmer, Dr Nick
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Pearson, Ian
Pendry, Tom Stuart, Ms Gisela
Pickthall, Colin Stunell, Andrew
Pike, Peter L Sutcliffe, Gerry
Plaskitt, James Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Pollard, Kerry
Pond, Chris Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)
Pope, Greg Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Pound, Stephen Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E) Temple—Monis, Peter
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle) Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Primarolo, Dawn Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Prosser, Gwyn Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Purchase, Ken Timms, Stephen
Quinn, Lawrie Tipping, Paddy
Radice, Rt Hon Giles Todd Mark
Rammell, Bill Tonge, Dr Jenny
Rapson, Syd Touhig, Don
Reid, Rt Hon Dr John (Hamilton N) Trickett, Jon
Rendel, David Truswell, Paul
Roche, Mrs Barbara Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Rooker, Rt Hon Jeff Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Rooney Terry Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Turner, Neil, (Wigan)
Rowlands, Ted Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Roy, Frank Tyler, Paul
Ruddock, Joan Tynan, Bill
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Vaz Keith
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Vis, Dr Rudi
Walley, Ms Joan
Ryan, Ms Joan Ward, Ms Claire
Saltar, Martin Wareing, Robert N
Sanders, Adrian Watts, David
Sarwar, Mohammad Webb, Steve
Savidge, Malcolm White, Brian
Sheerman, Barry Whitehead, Dr Alan
Shipley, Ms Debra Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Short, Rt Hon Clare
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Williams, Alan W(E Carmarthen)
Skinner, Dennis Willis, Phil
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Wills, Michael
Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale) Wilson, Brian
Winnick, David
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Wood, Mike
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns) Woodward, Shaun
Snape, Peter Worthington, Tony
Soley, Clive Wray, James
Starkey, Dr Phyllis Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Steinberg, Gerry Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Stoate, Dr Howard Tellers for the Noes:
Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin Mr. Mike Hall and
Stringer, Graham Mr. Tony McNulty.

Question accordingly negatived.

Bill read the Third time, and passed.