HL Deb 19 October 1981 vol 424 cc623-6

123 Clause 56, page 48, line 36, leave out '3', and insert '2'.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth agree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 123. This amendment reduces the normal restoration period for public rights of way after ploughing from 3 weeks to 2 weeks. We consider that it provides a reasonable compromise between the farming interests who, I believe, would have been happier if we had kept to our original 3-week re- storation period and the path-user interests who have been pressing for restoration on the day that ploughing takes place.

Moved, That this House doth agree with the Commons in the said amendment.—(The Earl of Avon.)

As an amendment in lieu of Amendment No. 123.

123A Page 48, line 36, leave out ("3 weeks") and insert ("one week").

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I beg to move that this House doth disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 123, and I propose Amendment No. 123A in lieu thereof. The noble Earl suggested that two weeks was a reasonable compromise between three weeks and one day. I am not sure if that is typical of the Government's mathematics in general but I do not think that it is a reasonable compromise. We had several long debates in this House about the restoration of footpaths after ploughing. At that stage, I was worried about two aspects of the siuation. The first was the length of time—it was then three weeks and is now two weeks—which is given to the occupier to restore bridlepaths and footpaths after they had been destroyed by ploughing; and, secondly, the exemption which allowed the occupier, in effect, if there was exceptional weather, to make the restoration as soon as practicable.

That exemption for exceptional weather conditions has remained in the Bill and, as the noble Earl has said, the only change has been to change three weeks to two weeks. The original concern about this provision from those interested in access was that in practice the existing law has turned out to be unenforceable. That, I understand, is the advice given by the local authority associations who are involved in enforcement. I should be grateful if the noble Earl could confirm whether the provision is thought by the local authority associations to be unenforceable—because that is what they said to Mr. Michael Spicer on the Spicer Committee which considered this.

More importantly, it may be that the noble Earl could say whether the Government have any information from the local authority associations which suggests that they think that the change from three weeks to two weeks will make this provision enforceable. I do not believe it will; and they are the people who are meant to enforce it. If that is the case, I should have thought the Government should welcome my amendment which reduces the period to one week. Whatever period of time is chosen could be open to question and I accept that it was felt by those who represent them that to do it on the day or within a day of ploughing was unduly onerous on the farming community. As a farmer myself, I could not see why that argument was advanced, given that there was the exceptional weather conditions let-out. I think that the insertion of "one week" will make the provision more enforceable and more understandable and would be a marginal improvement in what is otherwise likely to be a very weak provision.

Moved, That this House doth disagree with the Commons in their Amendment No. 123 but doth agree with Amendment No. 123A in lieu thereof.—(Lord Melchett.)

Lord Gibson-Watt

My Lords, may I say that this is a matter of debate but also of balance. This is a Bill of balances and compromises which has been followed throughout with great difficulty by the Government. There are still some who say that two weeks is not long enough. The noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has said that two weeks is too long. I suggest that the Government stick to their amendment.

Lord Monk Bretton

My Lords, I feel driven to say a few words in opposition to this amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, on the view that one week appears to be an unreasonably short time. When the Bill left here to go to another place the time allowed for reinstatement of paths had been three weeks. The time for restoring paths at the moment is three weeks normally unless notification to the highway authority has been made. The Spicer Committee had also recommended three weeks as being a suitable period. That committee was set up to get agreement between interested organisations about these things. Then a political deal was made and there was a reduction to two weeks—

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I do not want to prolong the debate but I wonder, if the noble Lord is leaving what the Spicer Committee recommend, whether he can remind the House of what they had to say about the exceptional weather conditions let-out and what the local authority representatives on the Spicer Committee had to say about enforcement of all this.

Lord Monk Bretton

My Lords, I am not sure, but I think that all this was dealt with on a previous occasion. I wanted to say that the reduction from three weeks to two weeks is considered by farmers to be likely to increase the demand for them to do things which are likely to be difficult and which will add to the arable farmer's life a degree of inconvenience, wasted effort and cost. But farmers' organisations have accepted this particular part of the package in any case and therefore I am sure they would not want to disturb the balance achieved now. I should not like to see the truce broken. I think it is most important that this House should approve the Commons amendment without further alteration.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, may I support the amendment moved by my noble friend? I recognise that public paths may have to be ploughed up of necessity; but many of us walk in areas where we have not walked before and—as I have had in recent weeks—experienced situations where a path has gone across a field which has been ploughed up. Where does one go in order to pick up the path on the other side? It is becoming a problem. One can have a situation where one takes a path around a field which has been ploughed up. It may be argued that one can easily find where to pick up the other side. But that is not so where the field next door has always been ploughed. Therefore, there are real difficulties. While accepting the position of the farming community in carrying out their operations, the path should be restored as quickly as possible, and one week seems to be reasonable.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I should like to stress that under existing legislation a farmer has up to five weeks—we are talking about maximums and not minimums—in which to restore a path after ploughing, after giving seven days' prior notice of his intention to plough; or three weeks where no notice is given. The amendment which I moved at Report stage last March provided for restoration within three weeks, with an exceptional weather conditions proviso which the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, has mentioned.

The Government believe that three weeks is a reasonable period bearing in mind the other husbandry operations which have to be carried out after the initial ploughing operation. However, in a spirit of compromise we agreed to reduce this period to two weeks, this being one of the concessions agreed to in the other place. It is true that the local authority representative on the Spicer Committee said that three weeks would be difficult to enforce. So far as we are aware, they have not commented on the two-week period. We believe to reduce that period still further to only one week would mean that there would be hardly any time for the other husbandry operations, and could involve the farmer in restoring the path more than once. We do not believe that it is reasonble to expect farmers to do this, and the Government cannot therefore accept this amendment.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I do not intend to press this amendment but I think it is worth making two comments. First of all, it might have been a little more responsible of the Government to check with local authority associations what their attitude was to the change that was made and the further changes which were being proposed. They are the bodies which are going to have to enforce this law. It is regrettable that the Government did not check. Secondly, I would say to the noble Lord opposite who suggested that this Bill was the result of a careful balancing act by the Government between competing interests that it is strange that all the interests on one side see the balance as having swung against them in every single case where there has been any conflict. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment to the amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, perhaps with the leave of the House this would be a good moment to adjourn for dinner. I beg to move that further consideration of Commons amendments be now adjourned until

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.3 until 7.50 p.m.]