HL Deb 25 February 1998 vol 586 cc723-7

5.35 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend Michael Meacher MP in another place. The Statement is as follows:

"The House will be aware that we have published today our consultation document Access to the Open Countryside in England and Wales. I held meetings with four national organisations yesterday in order to outline the Government's thinking in broad terms. In view of the complexity and detail of the issues, I allowed each organisation to have a copy of the document to examine overnight.

"I emphasised that it was for personal use only and that the contents were not to be disclosed to anyone else. The organisations concerned were the Country Landowners' Association, the Moorland Association, the National Farmers Union and the Ramblers' Association, all of which have been involved in extensive discussions with my department on this issue.

"I completely understand the honourable Member's concern that non-governmental organisations should have seen the document before it was available to the House.

"I have discussed this matter with the Deputy Prime Minister and apologised to him. He made clear that he regarded this as unacceptable, and I share that view. He accepted my wish to make a full and unreserved apology to the House, and that I now do".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.37 p.m.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, before making a few substantive remarks, I should tell your Lordships that I have some land in Cumbria and some of it is above 600 metres.

The noble Baroness, in her charming way that we all respect, has repeated to us one of the oldest stories in the world: "I told him a secret and then he talked". I hope the Government will not mind me offering a piece of advice which I believe is a dictum of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge, in one of his law cases which was that the trouble with gentlemen's agreements is that there are not enough gentlemen to go round.

What has occurred is regrettable. There are too many occasions when Parliament has not been told when it should have been told. But of course, on behalf of these Benches, I accept the apology.

The document which is at the centre of this little storm is called Access to the Open Countryside in England and Wales, a consultation paper. The problem is that it is not a consultation paper at all. I knew that even before I read it because as I was getting up this morning and listening to the "Today" programme, I heard the right honourable Member, Mr. Meacher, explain to me and much of the rest of the nation what it was all about. He said: If we cannot achieve our full objectives by voluntary means we will resort to other means and that certainly means legislation. We are absolutely clear about that. I repeat again we arc going to achieve the increase in access we set down in the consultation paper. If we can achieve it by voluntary means that is far and away the best way to proceed in this as in other areas. But if we can't, then we will bring in legislation". That is not consultation; it is an ultimatum. It is no more a consultation document than the recent agreement made between Kofi Annan and Tariq Aziz was a voluntary grant from Saddam Hussein to UNSCOM to have the right to roam over Iraq.

This is Hobson's choice. The document is effectively the briefing pack for the Second Reading speech that the noble Baroness will use if she introduces this legislation; that is, unless the Government's aspirations are achieved voluntarily in double quick time. The Government here are threatening landowners with legislation before proposals have either been placed before Parliament or considered by it. I always understood that it was Parliament that made the laws in this country, but perhaps I am out of date. I am just an old Tory and not a new Labour man.

In short, I believe this document represents poor governance. The Government should first have told Parliament of their legislative intentions. That is what this document sets out. It threatens citizens with legislation as if it and not Parliament made the laws. Given the substance and the content of this document, we believe that it should have been given to Parliament first and not just issued after an interview on the "Today" programme and, I assume, a press conference at the department.

5.40 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, the breach is one that often occurs, apparently, and something should be done to stop that. I was a little perturbed at the inference that one of the four bodies leaked this to the press. From past experience I should think it is just as likely to be someone from within the government department than from these respectable bodies. I agree that what has happened is regrettable. I agree with most of what the noble Lord on the Conservative Benches has said. I have read an article in the Evening Standard, although I did not hear the programme this morning.

However, the proposal we are discussing seems quite sensible in that the Ramblers' Association and other interested bodies will be in a far better position if landowners enter into voluntary agreements. I do not know many bad landlords but I know that many good landowners already allow the public access to see the beauties of the countryside. I have found that where a bargain is drawn up as regards the shooting season for deer or grouse in Scotland, people keep to their promise to stay off the land and not spoil the income for the estates which is necessary to maintain those estates. That appears to me to be quite a sensible approach. I do not think that legislation is such a great threat; I believe that might be quite sensible. The noble Lord referred to the United Nations negotiations with the dreadful Hussein. I think that the Government have been a little incompetent but their intentions are good. However, I would not like to agree with the saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

5.43 p.m.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am grateful for the courtesy with which the Statement was received by both Front Benches. It comprises a full apology from the Minister. Sometimes it is right not only to make an apology but also graciously to accept it. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, for doing that. A judgment was made by Mr. Meacher. He has made it clear that that judgment was not correct and has apologised for it. The relevant document is now in the Libraries of both Houses. I have compiled a Written Answer on this matter in your Lordships' House this afternoon.

I should make it clear that, as I understand the Companion, I should give details and elucidation on the Statement in response to the PNQ rather than engage in a substantive debate on the issues contained in the consultation document. However, I shall comment on the status of the consultation because I believe the accusation has been made that it is not genuine because there is the possibility of legislation. I refute that accusation. We made it quite clear in our manifesto that our policies included greater freedom for people to explore our open countryside. We intend to keep to that commitment. In a sense that commitment is not open to consultation. What we are prepared openly to examine in all its forms is the means by which we achieve that aim. The document makes it quite clear that it would, to say the least, be quicker and more effective to achieve that aim by voluntary means rather than to adopt the legislative route. We are open-minded about the means we adopt to fulfil that obligation. That is what the consultation document is concerned with. I am sure that many noble Lords will want to participate in that debate at the appropriate time.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, I first heard about this matter last night when I attended a meeting with the chairman of the ramblers who had a copy of the document. I have only just received it and therefore I have not read much of it. The thrust of it seems to be that if landowners allow public access to their moorland there will be no legislation. I must declare an interest in this area. However, I do not think landowners will allow open access to their moorland as no one wants to see his land ruined, and that is what I think will happen in many cases.

If the Government were prepared to consider increasing the number of footpaths, rather than increasing open access, on the basis that 90 per cent. of walkers use footpaths and few stray from them, they could expect and demand complete co-operation. Many moorland owners have already offered such a facility. If the Government were to demand, for example, a mile of footpath per 1,000 acres, they could expect full co-operation. However, if open access is allowed, vandals will take advantage of that, not just walkers. That would be terrible. I also hope the noble Baroness will note how many people demonstrate on Sundays not just against hunting but also for the right to roam and in favour of many other countryside activities.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I note the comments made by the noble Lord opposite. Given the nature of the Private Notice Question to which this Statement refers, I think it would be inappropriate if I responded in detail to all the points the noble Lord has made. We are discussing the nub of the consultation and the debate that is now taking place. I am sure there will be opportunities in your Lordships' House for us to discuss these matters.

Lord Lofthouse of Pontefract

My Lords, I understood that we were discussing the Statement made by Mr. Michael Meacher in another place which is purely and simply an apology. While such mistakes are regrettable, they happen; they are not uncommon. This afternoon Mr. Dennis Skinner has pointed out that on 41 occasions—at the last count—the previous government made similar errors during their years in office.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his comments. I am sure he is right to say that this is not the first government to have sinned in this way. However, I repeated the apology because it arose from behaviour that was not appropriate, as my right honourable friend made clear.

Earl Peel

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister that I was not present when she repeated the Statement as yesterday I was told there would be no government Statement on the Floor of either House. However, that is as may be. I agree entirely with what my noble friend Lord Gisborough has said. I declare an interest not only as a landowner, but as someone who will be—

Lord Burnham

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for giving way. I believe I am right in saying, with respect, that this is a debate to discuss the Government Statement. We should he wrong to involve ourselves in any way in what might be considered to be a Second Reading debate. My apologies to my noble friend.

Earl Peel

My Lords, perhaps I may simply ask the Minister a question which I believe is fundamental to the way in which these discussions go forward. Will she tell the House who is to facilitate the negotiations? When there are two sides, on the one hand the Ramblers' Association, it would be helpful to those of us who will be involved if there were clear guidance as to how the negotiations are to take place. If there is not, it will lead to all sorts of difficulties.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we are in the realm of consultation rather than negotiation, and the consultation document makes clear the areas on which the Government are seeking the views of all those with an interest, from either side, indeed from the many sides in the debate, as to how we square the circle of extending the rights of people to explore the open countryside with the responsibilities which clearly go with that extension.

So far as making a statement is concerned, perhaps it might help for clarification. The document is not being launched by an oral Statement in either House but, as such documents often are, in response to a Written Parliamentary Question. The Statement that I have repeated today is in response to a Private Notice Question referring to the availability of the document to non-governmental organisations before it was available to Members of either House.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that she has frankly admitted on behalf of the Government that an error of judgment was made on this occasion? We welcome the fact that an apology was made. In my view, and I suspect that of others, one should welcome that and leave the issue altogether. It contrasts extremely favourably with the record of the previous government. Mr. Michael Howard lost case after case in the courts and never expressed a single word of regret.

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