HL Deb 15 July 2003 vol 651 cc759-63

2.47 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will introduce a Bill to control high hedges.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the Government remain fully in support of the two high hedges Bills introduced this Session, first, by the noble Baroness, and, in another place by Stephen Pound MP. We are very disappointed that neither Bill has so far managed to complete its consideration within the time allotted for Private Members' Bills business. The Government remain committed to legislation to deal with cases that neighbours cannot resolve and will make every effort to get it on to the statute book.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Is he aware that, when the consultation document, High hedges: possible solutions, was published in 1999, there were more than 3,000 replies? That is a very large response; usually the number of replies is in the hundreds. Of those, 94 per cent wanted legislation to deal with the high hedges problem. Of the 94 per cent, 77 per cent of local authorities that replied strongly supported it.

When the Minister mentions the loss of the Private Member's Bill this year, is he also aware that we lost similar Bills previously, and that the issue has continued since 1999? When does he really see something happening to deal with the problem?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, as soon as possible, I hope, because, to be honest, the public will think that this place is a joke. There is overwhelming support for legislation to deal with what is a very difficult subject. I suspect that if it were on a free vote on a Monday to Thursday in the other place, the Bill would sail through. It just falls foul of the archaic rules on Private Member's Bills in the other place. On a free vote, of course, the other place has chosen to send us the Hunting Bill instead of the High Hedges Bill.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, if this Bill is so important, why cannot the Government give it time?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, my noble friend asks a very good question. It is one that I have asked myself as well as several ministerial colleagues. To take over a private Bill or give a private Bill time is a sensitive issue for the Government, because it may set a precedent. On the other hand, life is about setting precedents. Some things are good to do and some are bad. If both Bills fail this Session, the conclusion may be drawn that the Private Member's Bill route is not the correct one to take to deal with this issue. It is a thoroughly antisocial problem as far as many neighbours are concerned. There may be other routes that can be explored.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, did the Minister inadvertently make a slip of the tongue when he said, "If they don't produce a Bill people will think this place is a joke"? Did he not mean that people would think that the House of Commons is a joke?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, this place is part of Parliament: both Houses are required to pass legislation. This place has thoroughly debated the High Hedges Bill and time was made available for people to come in on a Friday to discuss this important issue. We have considered the Bill, scrutinised it properly, looked at it and sent it to another place. We have done our job and another place has let the public down.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, do the Government agree that this subject would be ideal for local mediation rather than using the relative sledgehammer of legislation?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I say with all due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, that mediation is all right in many circumstances involving high hedges, but in several cases people's lives have been made an absolute misery and no attempt at mediation would succeed. A fortune has been spent in legal fees in those cases and the lawyers have made money out of them. Therefore, the decision was taken that we needed to change the legislation to get local government involved in the problem, so that orders could be given to reduce the height of hedges.

Something must be done. Things cannot be left as they are, so we must make every effort, as I said. The Private Member's Bill route may fail completely. At the end of this Session both Bills may fail. The Session ends in November so both Bills are still before Parliament.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I declare an interest as a Member of the other place who managed to secure a day of government time to get a change in the law relating to rape through both Houses. Why did a member of the same party as the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner of Parkes, see fit to scupper the Bill?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I met the said Member on the escalator the other day and I asked him the same question. His view was that, "It went a bit too far". Therein may lie a solution.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords, is the Minister's comment not a classic argument for self-regulation in this House? If he had made that comment in another place, somebody would have felt it necessary to remind the Speaker to rise to his feet and say that criticism can only be made of the other place on a substantive Motion. There is no need for that to be said here. This House takes the comment in the spirit in which it was offered. Thank God for self-regulation.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I realise I probably have gone too far, but I am speaking from experience. I know that I am new—I have only been here for two years, so I am a young one—but, as I said to two of my colleagues from the House of Commons in the Select Committee this morning, the level of scrutiny in this place is superior to the other place. That is a fact, and I will defend it whether I am here or next door.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, may I remind the Minister that, when he said that the takeover of Private Member's Bills by the Government is a sensitive issue, many years ago, I introduced a Private Member's Bill for the regulation of the osteopath profession into this House? The Government were so persuaded of the strength of the case that they took the Bill over as a government Bill.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I accept what the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, says. There are other examples—the original Abortion Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, was originally a Private Member's Bill that was given government time, although it was not taken over by the Government. However, we all know what happens. If a Bill is given time from Monday to Thursday, if there is a majority there are enough people for the Bill to pass. On a Friday the troops do not need to be there, but one person can shout "Object" at 2.30 p.m. and the Bill is scuppered. That is not a good way to proceed. It is fairly archaic and unfortunate when a similar Bill—in reality it is exactly the same Bill—has received full scrutiny in this place, for the other Bill to be objected to in the way that it was.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords—

Baroness Strange

My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats and we have at least another five minutes.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I intend to ask a short question. Have the Government considered whether they could deal with this issue through the Anti-social Behaviour Bill that is still going through our House?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, part of my note says, "Pressures are mounting on the Government to find time in this Session to get the high hedges legislation onto the statute book." The same question has been asked about the Anti-social Behaviour Bill in another place. As I said, as far as neighbours are concerned, the problem relates to anti-social behaviour when disputes cannot be solved. I do not know whether such a route is suitable, but that Bill is due to receive consideration in your Lordships' House this Friday.

To avoid another question, if noble Lords are wondering about the planning Bill, the matter is not a planning one—high trees are not development—so such a route would not be suitable. However, I can tell the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that these matters are being actively considered by the Government.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware how very welcome is his robust defence of your Lordships' House and the way in which he handles Private Member's Bills? I took a Private Member's Bill through this House in the last Session, and, after a great deal of debate, found it sinking without trace in the other place. I can assure him that it is an extraordinarily frustrating experience for Members of this House.

Is it not the case, however, that there is a much more recent precedent for the taking-over of a Private Member's Bill than some that have been quoted this afternoon? The Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, started life in and went through this House as a Private Member's Bill. It was then taken up by the Government in the House of Commons as a government Bill in the last Session.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I understand that there are precedents galore. Hopefully, one of them can be used to help stop this Bill becoming the wrong type of Bill.

Bills will have opponents. There are always two views on the subject. There is a libertarian argument that people should be allowed to grow trees in their gardens as high as they like and that nobody should tell them otherwise. That is an argument that some people may forward. One cannot assume that there is 100 per cent support, but I understand that support for legislation on this issue is overwhelming.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Meikleour hedge in Perthshire is a considerable tourist attraction in Scotland and has been growing steadily higher since 1745?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I will not be the one who chops it down then.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, would my noble friend the Minister agree that this Question has caused so much interest that there is almost a case for calling in the Special Branch?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I cannot think of an answer to that.

Forward to