HL Deb 08 March 1999 vol 598 cc40-53

5.19 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for the Environment. Documents referred to in the Statement as being available in the Vote Office are available in the Printed Paper Office. The Statement is as follows:

"In our manifesto we gave a commitment to give people greater freedom to explore our open countryside, balanced by the need to protect the environment and avoid any abuse of greater access. I am pleased to announce to the House today the Government's plans—for England and Wales—to honour our commitment. A number of documents, including our Framework for Action, will be available in the Vote Office when I have completed this Statement.

"Securing greater access to open countryside will bring new opportunities for improving people's health—physical and mental. It will enable everybody to experience the wonders of wildlife and beautiful landscapes.

"Over the past 50 years a voluntary approach has delivered relatively little and, despite some commendable initiatives, there is little prospect of much new access being provided voluntarily in future. Even if much more access could be secured by voluntary means, the access would not be permanent and the costs would be high. Only a new statutory right will deliver cost-effectively the extent and permanence of access we are seeking. There has been much ill-informed speculation that the Government would not introduce a statutory right of access. Today I can confirm that we have decided to bring forward legislation, as soon as parliamentary time allows, to provide for a general statutory right of area access, coupled with responsibilities for walkers to respect the rights of landowners and managers.

"The legislation will include improvements to the rights-of-way system. This comprehensive package will provide fresh opportunities for walking and other recreational pursuits, while taking the legitimate interests of land managers fully into account.

"The new statutory right of access will apply to mountain, moor, heath and down, subject to mapping by the new countryside agency and Countryside Council for Wales, and to registered common land. That amounts to about 4 million acres. The right may be extended to other types of open country, such as some woodland. It will apply to access on foot for open-air recreation.

"The Government studied over 2, 000 responses to our consultation document; we talked to a wide range of organisations; we visited key sites; and we commissioned research into the costs and benefits of different approaches. We are now convinced that legislation is the only way to make sure people will be free in perpetuity to explore open countryside.

"But we accept that there are real concerns about the impact of a new statutory right. The statutory right will therefore be subject to proper and reasonable limitations and there will be codes of practice. It will not apply to developed land or to agricultural land, except that used for extensive grazing. There is no question of giving people a right to trample over crops or through other people's gardens. There will be strict restrictions on dogs. Land may be closed when necessary for health, safety or defence reasons. Further, the new countryside agency, the Countryside Council for Wales and national parks authorities will be able to authorise closures or restrictions to protect wildlife or historic interest or for land management reasons, as long as the landowner can demonstrate that restriction is necessary.

"We attach considerable importance to local agreement being reached whenever possible and will be promoting local access forums, with all the main interests represented, to advise on the details of any local limitations before the right comes into force. The aim of the forum will be to achieve consensus. But no member of the forum will have a final veto. The forums will be advisory; the decisions will be for the statutory agencies.

"In addition, land managers will be able to close land temporarily without prior consent for a number of days each year. We propose to set the annual limit initially at 28 days, primarily for land management purposes, though landowners will also be able to close land for other reasons for up to 12 of the 28 days. If necessary, provision will be made to ensure that access is not restricted unreasonably at peak times.

"I now turn to rights of way. We want to strengthen and develop the rights of way network to enable it to respond to the changing requirements of recreational use and the needs of land managers. Before concluding on the detail of new legislation, we will consider recommendations from the Countryside Commission and seek further views. There is no question of failing to secure the proper recording and maintenance of rights of way, or of reducing the overall value of the rights of way network.

"Experience in Scotland and in Wales has shown that much consensus can also be achieved at national level. We therefore propose to ask the countryside agency to establish a national access forum in England. In Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales will be asked to consider how best to develop its existing informal arrangements.

"It will be clear from what I have said so far that the new countryside agency will play an important role in implementing the new statutory right, as well as promoting sustainable rural development and protecting our finest landscapes. I can today announce that Ewen Cameron has been appointed to chair the agency. He has made clear that he enthusiastically supports the Government's access proposals. We have also appointed Pamela Warhurst, currently leader of Calderdale Council, as deputy chair. She will be playing a leading role in the agency's implementation of the access package.

"Though there will be some extra costs for local authorities and statutory agencies, for which we will make provision, we do not expect our legislative proposals to have major financial consequences. Nevertheless, the benefits of the basic statutory right and of the rights of way network will be much enhanced by further expenditure on, for example, the provision of additional routes and readily available information. The lottery has already made a considerable contribution to improving access to the countryside. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Spoil will be asking lottery distributors to look at how their funding might contribute further. We are also considering what part the New Opportunities Fund, through the proposed green spaces initiative, might be able to play. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will make sure that the targeting of the access elements of agri-environment schemes contributes to the overall strategy. In Wales that will be a matter for the National Assembly for Wales.

"Almost exactly 50 years ago, a Labour government introduced legislation to safeguard our finest countryside and to open it to the nation. The largely voluntary approach to access of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 has proved inadequate. Glorious parts of our heritage are still the preserve of the few, not the delight of the many. As soon as parliamentary time permits, we will bring forward legislation to remedy that. We look forward to discussing widely the details of this package, but we are firm on the principles. This balanced package fully meets the commitment we gave in our manifesto and will be a lasting tribute to the memory of John Smith. I trust that Members on both sides of the House will support it".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.17 p.m.

Lord Luke

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made today by his right honourable friend in another place.

We on this side of the House are disappointed in the Statement, which seems to confirm that the Government's intention is to ramrod through legislation which, if the Statement is a guide, will be ill-considered, misguided, contradictory and likely to cause an even greater divide between town and country. While we accept that the national parks authorities generally welcome the announcement, their position is different from the everyday practice of farmers and landowners.

Our primary concern at this stage is that the co-operation between many private and public bodies to provide more access for the public to the countryside in recent years is put in jeopardy. One could ask many questions, and I must first ask how it was that the BBC radio seemed to be so singularly ill-informed this morning, though I know that the Government are not responsible for BBC radio?

Four million acres was mentioned by the Minister, and he suggested that the right might be extended to other types of land, such as woodland. That is conveniently open-ended. Will the Minister define how much other land and what sort of woodland is being considered? What is "extensive grazing"? How does the Minister define "extensive", and what are the classes of grazing? What about deer and other wild animals? Another problem has been raised by those who farm on downland. How will the public be expected to tell the difference between land on which they can roam and land on which grass is being grown for silage?

I am glad to read about the proposed strict restrictions on dogs. Are the Government aware that it must apply to dogs on short leads only—not long ones—as ground-nesting birds often make their nests close to the sides of paths? Who will finance the insurance required for personal and public liability? The Statement refers to access being available at peak times. What is considered a peak time? How will people get to these places? They are way out in the wilds. Will vast car parks be created? Who will be responsible for cleaning the sites and enforcing the regulations? There seems to be the opportunity for a lot of pollution to be created in places where there is little, if any, now.

The Statement refers to the need for land managers. Will the Minister expand on that? It is said that much consensus can be achieved at national level. To a great extent that has been done already in the past 10 years, in the present provision for access, but that is now at serious risk. The Statement also refers to "some extra costs". We believe that there will be many. Have the Government taken into consideration the possibility that they may be faced with court challenges and legal costs?

If the Government intend to use lottery money, as the Statement seems to say, I understand what they mean by the lack of major financial consequences. Is the Minister committing money to extra access provisions when such money may not be there? He referred to monies from agri-environment schemes but they may not yet be available and could be subject to the outcome of common agricultural policy reforms that have yet to be agreed. In a recent survey about access, a large majority stated that they wish to walk within a short distance of their homes and along well-marked linear routes. I fear the result will be no co-operation and no compensation. The message to farmers and landowners is clear. The Government are not interested in their views. I fear that the result will be most unsatisfactory from all points of view.

5.31 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, which is about the extent to which I agree with the noble Lord who spoke for the Official Opposition. The Liberal Democrats will support legislation provided—I emphasise that word—there is a fair deal for all stakeholders. I was pleased at the use of word "balanced" early in the Statement. It seems that the debate has suffered from the language. Talking about the right to roam suggests an extreme right. I am glad that in their proposals the Government are endeavouring to bring the pendulum back somewhere near the centre.

My first question follows from the Minister's comment that there will be legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. The whole House would be glad if he could say more this afternoon. If the Government cannot state that they anticipate legislation within the lifetime of this Parliament, the Statement is less of a commitment than we would like.

The Statement makes reference to the need for the new countryside agency and the Countryside Council for Wales to undertake mapping. It would be interesting to know the extent of that exercise. It sounds ambitious and detailed and may delay the effects of the legislation once enacted.

The Statement also refers to codes of practice and we will undoubtedly spend time considering how the legislation can be policed and enforced. I anticipate that it may be easier to enforce the legislation against a landowner who blocks a right of way than against a walker who deliberately or carelessly defaces the countryside. I do not suggest that the problems created for landowners by careless or thoughtless walkers should be ignored or underestimated. In both cases, funding enforcement will be an important part of the legislation.

Increasing access will undoubtedly have an environmental impact and cost implications for the owners of land. We support local forums and agreements, although we are well aware that with difficult issues such as access, consensus is not necessarily achieved by legislation. We will need to consider the detail of land closure—how it will work, what indications will be given to the public and what alternative routes will be provided.

To return to that part of the Statement dealing with rights of way, I welcome that there is no question of failing to secure the proper recording and maintenance of rights of way, but the Government should be in no doubt that such will be a costly exercise for local authorities. I have seen that at local level and know how temperatures are apt to rise over small details.

We note the appointment of the chair of the new agency. No doubt the Government have given careful thought to the signals that that particular appointment will send.

Returning to the financial consequences, I was surprised that the Government confidently state that they do not expect major financial consequences. I was concerned to read of the role of lottery funding. The question of additionality is one in which the House will no doubt be most interested. The Government are right to observe in the Statement that, Glorious parts of the heritage are still the preserve of the few". We hope that legislation will provide the opportunity to ensure access for disabled people and others to all country parks and heritage sites that are maintained with public funding. We look forward to the legislation. We realise that the well-known devil who makes life so difficult for the Government will be in the detail.

5.37 p.m.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luke, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for their comments. I regret that the noble Lord was unable to give even a qualified welcome to our approach and that the official Opposition are stuck in an argument that the facts do not justify. I welcome the qualified support from the Liberal Democrat Benches, which more accurately reflects the feeling of the country—both the nation as a whole and the countryside itself.

I shall briefly repeat the arguments against a purely voluntary approach. We have not only made our manifesto pledge clear but promised action because of the unsatisfactory nature of the voluntary approach over the past 50 years. It is also true that since the Government's approach and intent have been known, the voluntary alternative has not delivered significantly further progress. Research confirms that a voluntary approach, even with high incentive payments, is likely to produce less than one quarter of the additional area of access that would be obtained by a general statutory right. To achieve more would require such a dramatic change of behaviour on past trends that, we believe, the voluntary approach would not work or would work slowly.

The quality of access available under existing voluntary agreements varies enormously. Hours of access can be limited, access can be confined to linear routes or allowed only to certain groups of people. Under a general statutory right, everyone will be clear that is their right to roam on the open part of our countryside. It will also give greater clarity to the confusing plethora of voluntary arrangements, which are difficult to map or otherwise record. A statutory right will make mapping nationally easier and cover all open countryside. People need to know that they have the right to walk over certain types of countryside in most types of circumstances. The limitations of that must be clearly set out; for example, for limited periods they will be required to have consent from the statutory authorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Luke, asked a number of questions in that respect. It may well be important for me to repeat that this right of access does not cover agricultural, cultivated land; it covers mountain, moor, heath and down and registered common land. The reference to extensive grazing means essentially that— in other words, rough grazing on open countryside. The noble Lord also asked what the reference to "extension" meant. We have asked the countryside agency and the Forestry Commission to look at the possibility of including access at a later stage to other land, especially woodland. Indeed, cliff land also probably falls into that category. However, the manifesto commitment was to the areas defined and the statutory right will extend to those areas in the first instance.

The noble Lord appeared to believe that the latter would lead to vast numbers of charabancs turning up in the remotest part of our countryside. A large proportion of this land is, as other speakers have said, not particularly accessible. It will require a serious dedication to walking and rambling to gain access to most of it. We expect the level of usage to be low in most areas. The impact will be limited in terms of damage to the land, or whatever.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness both asked whether facilities would be provided. The noble Baroness also referred to the role of lottery money. We shall be looking at those areas where there might be some pressure of demand for lottery money to be used for non-statutory facilities, in order to ease any pressure that might arise. However, as I said, that will arise in very limited areas.

We were attempting to achieve a fair deal on the proposals. Therefore, we are looking to local fora—or, "forums" as set out in the Statement—to consider mapping the totality of England and Wales so as to make it clear which areas are covered by the definitions in the statute. We are asking the countryside agency and the Ordnance Survey to look at this area in order to produce a comprehensive mapping system so that everyone will be clear in that respect.

Reference was also made to dogs. It is clear that these rights relate to walkers. They do not relate to motorcyclists, bikers, cyclists, horses or anyone letting a dog off the leash. If there are problems in relation to access and the detailed application of it, we believe that the local forums that we propose to establish will help meet them. They are all stakeholders there; they will be local and the local authority will have a major role in the process. I agree with the noble Baroness that offences created under the legislation and those which are already on the statute book can apply to the ramblers themselves, as well as to landowners prohibiting access. There is a responsibility on everyone to ensure that these rights are not abused. However, they should be genuinely open.

The noble Lord referred to assessment as regards where people wanted to walk. It is true to say that the desire to walk is not universal among the majority of our citizenry—indeed, if they perambulate at all. I have in mind my experience in my other capacity of trying to get people off the roads. However, there is now a growing and important element who want to walk in our countryside and enjoy its facilities. In fact, surveys carried out by both landowners and the Ramblers' Association show over-80 per cent, support for a right to roam in open countryside. Therefore we are doing the nation's will in this respect. We believe that the legislation can be introduced with some understanding, with a degree of local consensus and without, I hope, obstruction.

As far as concerns rights of way, there are indeed some problems about the present network. We do not envisage a massive extension in costs to local authorities in mapping properly the rights of way, but some degree of flexibility may be needed on all sides. It is not true that the Government have taken no notice of the views of landowners in that respect; indeed, we have taken them on board. As the noble Baroness said, we wish to reflect the interests of landowners as we do in regard to the countryside agency. In the machinery that we are setting up for this, we believe that the views of everyone need to be taken into account. However, we cannot compromise on what we promised in the election; and, indeed, what the statute will provide is a right to roam for the majority of our citizenry, albeit that only a relatively small minority will take advantage of it. The benefit to them and to the well-being of the nation as a whole, together with a feeling that the countryside does not just belong to a few people, represents an important democratic step and one that I hope will receive at least some support from all sides of the House.

I turn now to the query of the noble Baroness regarding the legislation. Of course, I cannot pre-empt any future declarations in the Queen's Speech, or anywhere else. No doubt my colleague Michael Meacher, and other colleagues, will be considering when best we can introduce it. In terms of implementation, there will be a slight delay in that the requirement for mapping will provide some technical problems. They will no doubt be dealt with as rapidly as possible, but it will not be instantaneous. I trust that I have answered most of the questions raised by both Front Benches.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Denham

My Lords, the Minister set out to answer a question about the legislation put by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, but did not give a very thorough answer. However, did not the manifesto commitment refer to this Parliament?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, yes, it was a manifesto for this Parliament. But, of course, all manifesto commitments are subject to parliamentary time and to decisions regarding the Queen's Speech. I therefore simply maintain the convention of stating that any announcement on legislation should be left to the Queen's Speech.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, is it not clear that the Government are seeking to marry their social commitments and political obligations with their environmental responsibilities? Would it not be appropriate for the Government to accept that all the local forums to which my noble friend referred will be fully aware that the Government accept their continuing obligations to the conservation of species and the adequate protection of habitat? Further, does my noble friend accept that while the majority of ramblers are caring and act responsibly, a minority of them will not do so? Surely, therefore, the code of practice will have to be observed. Will the Minister ensure that the Government seek to harness the responsibilities and energies of those who are responsible? Will they seriously consider the role and capacity of the police to take action where that code of conduct is seriously breached?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I said earlier that it is most important for us to recognise that there are responsibilities on those who take advantage of the right to roam, as well as responsibilities on landowners. That clearly includes the need to protect wildlife and the environment. As I indicated when repeating the Statement, where there are serious problems in relation to potential environmental damage or threats to wildlife, the countryside agency and the other authorities will be able to authorise restrictions or closures in order to protect wildlife or areas of historic interest. The provisions that we propose will meet the conservation and wildlife protection objectives that my noble friend seeks.

Lord Redesdale

My Lords, I must declare an interest as a landowner in Northumberland whose land would fall directly within the criteria that has been established. I should point out that I, and many of the landowners in Northumberland, would support the legislation. One of the problems experienced so far is the fear regarding how wide this legislation will be. However, consultation about the legislation and, indeed, the legislation itself will clear up some of those difficulties.

There appears to be no mention of compensation in the Statement. It seems to be implicit that no economic damage can be done to such areas. Two years ago I spent a very uncomfortable afternoon fighting a fire on heatherland which wiped out a large amount of heather. That fire had been started by walkers on the Pennine Way who had knocked over a burner which had caught fire. Those walkers were never found and much economic hardship was caused to the farmers concerned. Is compensation being considered in this legislation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the answer to that is no. Opening up the countryside is not considered by this Government to be subject to compensation. Clearly it remains important to enforce existing statutory offences of trespass and causing damage to property. It will possibly be more important to enforce them once there is more general access to open countryside. However, no new compensation is provided.

Viscount Bledisloe

My Lords, I have two questions about liability. First, will it be possible for an owner occupier to be excluded from normal occupier's liability as regards people being given compulsory access to his land? If not, will the Government recompense owner occupiers for the additional cost of insuring against that liability? Secondly, if damage is caused by a walker or his dog who cannot be identified or is impecunious, will the Government compensate an owner for the damage done by those whom the Government have sent onto an owner's land against his will?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords. Occupier liability applies irrespective of the statutory right of anyone to be present on one's land. Therefore there is no case for compensation. In the latter case there is arguably a default argument for compensation. However, were that to be adopted generally throughout British law, I think the Government would have to provide compensation on a wide front. There is no intention to provide an exception in this case.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, did the Government take advice from the access forum established by Scottish Natural Heritage which persuaded all parties harmoniously to adopt a voluntary code of practice which would be generally acceptable throughout Scotland? That shows that a voluntary system would work if everyone accepted it. Does the Minister agree with Scottish Natural Heritage's prime recommendation that any statutory right of access must be exercised responsibly and must be subject to land use requirements? Will the Government put that into English legislation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, certainly we recognise that the provision is subject to responsible use. Land management requirements will permit access to be restricted subject to the authority of the appropriate statutory authorities, principally the countryside agency. We believe, however, that that provision could be invoked on a relatively limited number of days per year. As regards the voluntary approach, we have certainly taken note of the developments in Scotland and the general consensus on how that system would operate. There is, of course, also an intention to legislate in Scotland on this matter, but this is subject to other developments in Scotland over the coming months. As regards drawing up the code of practice, we hope that we shall reach a harmonious degree of consensus on how that will operate. It is certainly our intention to include in discussions everyone on the landowning side as well as the users of land.

Lord Murray of Epping Forrest

My Lords, can my noble friend give any indication of the Government's thinking on how we can enable disabled people to share the great benefits of the move forward which has been announced today? Does he, like me, welcome the increased emphasis in recent years on the part of the Ramblers' Association and others on improving access for disabled people, through the use of wheelchair walkways, sensory trails and so on? Will he ensure that National Lottery grants that are made in this area are made subject to the provision of adequate access for disabled people? Or, even better, will the Minister ensure that part of the National Lottery grants are ring-fenced for this purpose?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the terms of National Lottery grants are, I fear, beyond the scope of this Statement. I have already indicated that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Culture will consider the way in which Lottery grants could be made to improve access to the countryside, which includes access for the disabled and providing facilities for the disabled. Frankly, it is not possible to legislate to provide general access for wheelchair users. Nevertheless local fora, aided by local authorities and lottery grants, could probably improve significantly access to some of our more beautiful parts of the country where at present access is denied to those who cannot walk. However, there is not a general right of wheelchair access, but we hope that some improvements could be made in certain parts of the country in this respect.

Lord Murray of Epping Forest

My Lords—

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I remind noble Lords that they may speak once only and then briefly in the form of a comment or a question.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, what will the Government's attitude be to the Bill which has been proposed in another place on this matter? Will they encourage the sponsor to withdraw it, or will they block it? Will the Minister give us an undertaking that the Government will not attempt to tag their proposals onto the Private Member's Bill which is pending in another place and turn that into a government Bill?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not at all sure that it would be proper for me to mention discussions which are continuing between the sponsor of the Bill and my right honourable friend as to how we proceed from here. That is a matter primarily for another place. I suspect that all will become clearer at a later stage. As I said, how that Bill is dealt with is primarily a matter for the other place.

Lord Berkeley

My Lords, the Minister said that forestry was included in the scope of the Bill. Does that include areas that used to be owned by the Forestry Commission that the previous government sold off? The Forestry Commission, of course, allowed public access, but many of the new owners have forbidden this. Will that land be included in the open access provision in the Bill?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, not in the first instance. The intention is for open access to apply to mountain, moor, heath and down. We shall consult on extending that to forestry land. There will be consultations between the countryside agency, the Forestry Commission and other forestry owners as to how far open access could be extended to forestry areas. However, that land is not included in the initial definition and the initial mapping. It was not included in our manifesto commitment. Nevertheless we hope that over time we shall see greater access to forestry land.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a burning cigarette end can cause damage to a large area of moorland and even to woodland? Will the Government bear that in mind and prevent people, for example, from making bonfires just because they want to have a picnic?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, substantial bylaws already exist in relation to bonfires. That matter would certainly be a consideration as regards any additional access to woodland.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I think everyone agrees there is a need for more access in general for people. The argument concerns how we achieve that. I would like to be a little clearer on the Government's proposals as to whether or not they believe that there are times during the year when people should not be allowed access to common land, moorlands, etc., to enable breeding seasons to commence without disturbance. That leads me to my next question. At the moment in many cases codes of practice are scarcely followed. There are certain associations which are good at sticking to the codes of practice. However, as a landowner, just this Sunday I had two groups of three people and dogs in a sensitive area where duck breed. Also this weekend, believe it or not, a green 4 by 4 car was driven into a lake some two miles off a public highway. Do the Government expect the landowners to fund these codes of practice—it would be quite difficult—or will they be funded by the Government?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, nothing in the Statement, or nothing that is likely to be in the legislation, gives any greater access to open countryside by 4 by 4 vehicles than is the case now. I repeat: this relates solely to access by foot.

We envisage a national code of practice to be agreed, we hope by consensus, and issued in effect under the statute. There will no doubt be local codes of practice produced by the local forum. It would not be expensive for the landowner to produce such codes or to enforce such codes. We would expect the organisers of substantial rambles to observe those codes and to urge all their members to observe them.

The noble Lord asked about closed periods. As I indicated in the Statement, for land management purposes—that would include the protection of the breeding season in certain respects—application to the countryside agency or the other authorities would be possible and closures could take place. We would not envisage that being a very lengthy period. Short of obtaining prior consent, the landowner would be able to close the area for up to 28 days. That would probably cover most of the situations the noble Lord has in mind.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, that access should be as wide and as reasonable as possible, especially as the landowning classes—I count myself as one of them— seem to be in receipt of vast amounts of subsidies from Europe. In return for subsidies one ought to give something back. I have no difficulty with the concept of the widest possible access. It is what I practice at home.

It is not those who are responsible who make the difference; it is all those people who are irresponsible. It is the people who drive 4 by 4 cars into lochs four miles from a road who are irresponsible. No one in his right mind would give them the right to do that. Not even this Government would do that. But in the upland areas—unfortunately I do not have any—there are large amounts of grouse shooting. Someone may have come over from, say, the United States of America, paid £70 or £80 a brace to shoot grouse, and his whole joy is ruined by a general right to roam of some nerds in anoraks.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, will the noble Earl come to his question? Other noble Lords want to speak.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, even though I support the right to roam, will it be controlled in such a way that other people's interests are not harmed?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as to subsidies to landowners from the European Union, I cannot possibly comment. Access can be limited in the sense that if the landowner has a shoot he could close the land for a limited period of up to 28 days. That would, as the noble Earl puts it, ensure that at that point "nerds in anoraks" would not be present or in danger during the shoot. However, that would be a limited period of closure and would have to fall within the 28 days' closure without prior consent which relates to all purposes.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood

My Lords, will safeguards be placed on very fragile land? I am thinking of heath land in southern England, which is now extremely rare and very fragile from an ecological point of view. Being sandy, when one walks over it one denudes it of growing matter. Will there be special protection for such land; and will the legislation enable owners and managers of it to ensure that access is, as at present, along paths rather than by roaming?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, not in that generalised sense. This is open access; it is not confined to linear paths. We regarded that as too great a restriction on access to the countryside as a whole. However, the statutory authorities and the national parks will be able to authorise restrictions to protect fragile land and the management of it, just as they will be able to invoke the restrictions I mentioned previously as regards the protection of wildlife and other aspects of conservation. But the essential element is that it is open access; it is not simply linear access.

Lord Boardman

My Lords, the Statement relates purely to England and Wales. Can the noble Lord say whether there are similar proposals for Scotland?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there has been an indication that there will be a substantial right to roam in Scotland which will be, if anything, somewhat wider than this. However, the delivery and exact form of that will now be a matter for the Scottish Parliament, not for me.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, perhaps I may add to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Renton, about forestry and fires. Although there may be a 28 day holding period to keep people away from forestry or other land that is likely to burn up in very dry conditions if we have a drought—which we do from time to time— will the Government make sure that there is an ability to keep people away from areas that are likely to catch fire very easily?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, to generalise such a requirement could lead to an abuse of the position. The statutory authorities would be able to authorise closures if there were a serious danger of fire in a drought situation. That would be clear from the statute and from the code of practice. I am sure that the countryside agency would wish to pursue a closure or a restriction if that danger were clear.