HC Deb 28 June 2001 vol 370 cc764-6
3. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

What advice has been given to local authorities about reopening the rights of way network. [572]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs(Margaret Beckett)

In my statement last week, I said that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs would review the powers of local authorities to impose a blanket ban on footpaths in an area. He has now announced the intention to lift this general power except where a specific local authority shows that it needs to continue the power for a further period.

Paddy Tipping

Has not the foot and mouth crisis and the consequent closure of the footpaths shown the economic value that walkers, climbers and birdwatchers contribute to the rural economy? Given that, is it not ill-conceived and short-sighted for councils such as those in Lincolnshire, the East Riding of Yorkshire and Hertfordshire to have made so little progress in opening footpaths? Will my right hon. Friend introduce proposals to get rid of the blanket ban as quickly as possible?

Margaret Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point. It has been a revelation to people in many areas of the countryside to realise the sheer value that walkers and hikers contribute to the local economy. It has been a surprise for people to find how much difference the lack of walkers has made. In the longer term, that can only be worth while.

I understand my hon. Friend's concern that some authorities have been particularly resistant to or ultra-cautious about opening footpaths. We wanted to wait and see how much progress could be made without revocation of the ban, but officials are now in discussion with local authority representatives, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State hopes to make a further announcement in about two weeks.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Does not the issue illustrate the need for a proper public inquiry? Does the right hon. Lady accept that what should be of paramount concern is the safety and the future of British agriculture? That is all that matters at the end of the day. Cannot all those issues be properly examined only if there is a full public inquiry when the outbreak finally comes to an end?

Margaret Beckett

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his ingenuity in working into this question, a request for a full public inquiry, as there is no evidence that any walker or hiker has made contact with foot and mouth disease. As I have said on many occasions, and as my predecessors have said, the Government have every intention of holding an inquiry, but we do not wish to be bound to a specific legal form at this time as we want to find the most effective way of carrying one out.

Andrew Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I welcome the Government's decision to consider the blanket ban on footpaths. As we move towards the school holidays and the holiday season generally, does my right hon. Friend accept that it is most important that clear and accurate information is available across the country to people thinking of visiting the countryside about how many footpaths and how much access land will be available to them?

Margaret Beckett

I accept that, and I take my hon. Friend's point. We are doing everything that we can to make available information that is as up to date and accurate as possible. My hon. Friend will know that a code of conduct for users of rights of way is available on the former MAFF website. We are endeavouring to make available as much information as possible so that people can use the footpaths in the summer holidays.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

Will the right hon. Lady seek a case study from the devolved Stormont Department responsible for agriculture and read it carefully to learn the lessons from the more effective, efficient and competent handling of the foot and mouth crisis evident in Northern Ireland? As someone who lives on a farm there and knows England, I think that there are many lessons to be learned.

Margaret Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. We keep in touch with the devolved Administrations and endeavour to learn what we can from each other. However, the sheer scale of the problems that were faced by the authorities in other parts of the United Kingdom were not quite matched by the problems in Northern Ireland.

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