HL Deb 16 July 2004 vol 663 cc1528-9

12.29 p.m.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This short Bill seeks to reinforce the citizen's right to use public rights of way without obstruction. It refers to "highways" obstruction but. of course, as noble Lords are well aware, "highways" covers footpaths, bridleways, byways and so on as well as roads.

Under Section 137 of the Highways Act 1980 it was an offence wilfully to obstruct a highway without authorisation. If somebody was found so obstructing and did not remove the obstruction, a magistrate could issue an order under Section 137ZA(1). If they persisted, there could be a fine up to level 5.

A loophole has been exploited by some people. They set up corporations—paper companies with no assets—which then obstruct the highways. If the corporations are pursued in the courts, they cannot pay as they have no assets. Other paper corporations are then set up.

The Bill, which was introduced in another place by my honourable friend Michael Foster, MP for Hastings and Rye—I should declare that I also have a residence in Hastings—seeks to plug that loophole. It provides that if officers of a corporation which is so wilfully obstructing can be pursued in the courts, not just the corporation itself, Section 314 of the Highways Act will be applied to offences under Sections 137 and 137ZA.

Clause I makes it clear that Sections 137 and 137ZA will be inserted in Section 314 of the Highways Act. The effect, as subsection (2) provides, is that for any offence under Section 137ZA(3), not only the corporation but the officers of that corporate body will be pursued. That makes evasion of the law that much more difficult.

It is a simple law, which contains no retrospection. I hope that it will find favour with noble Lords.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Desai.)

Baroness Harris of Richmond

My Lords, when I was a county councillor, one of the most contentious items with which I had to deal was public rights of way and obstructions to them. This short Bill, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Desai, closes the loophole in the law which unscrupulous people were able to exploit.

The Bill enables obstructions of a highway to be removed if they have been placed by a body corporate. I am very grateful for the Explanatory Notes which tell us exactly what a body corporate is. Paragraph 4 says: Section 314 of the 1980 Act provides that a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of a body corporate that has committed particular offences under the 1980 Act will also be guilty of those offences if it can be proved that the offence was committed with the consent or connivance of that officer or is attributable to the neglect of the officer". I beg your Lordships' pardon for reading that out, but I felt it would be useful to have it on the record.

This is a very clear, unambiguous Bill, with which these Benches wholeheartedly agree.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Desai and to my honourable friend Michael Foster for bringing this Bill forward for consideration. I wholly endorse the comments made by my noble friend Lord Desai on the need for this Bill and the measures he has proposed to remedy this apparent loophole in the law. I am also grateful for the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond.

There is clearly scope to frustrate the application of the relevant legislation by operating behind what amounts to a shell company. It is essential that local highway authorities should be able to initiate legal proceedings against an officer of a corporate body, as well as the corporate body itself, where the officer can be shown to be personally responsible for obstructing a right of way or other highway.

We should not lose sight of the fact that in the vast majority of cases in which obstructions on rights of way occur the obstructions will be removed through negotiation. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, I know that this can take time at local level on county councils. If necessary, the threat of action can cause results to be achieved through negotiation. This is, of course, the most common and preferable course of action for local highway authorities. However, as the Bill recognises, where, as a last resort, prosecution is necessary, local highway authorities need to be confident that they can act decisively to secure removal of the obstruction from the right of way.

I am able to give the Government's full support to this Bill.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, perhaps I may make it clear, as was made clear in another place, that my party thoroughly supports this measure. It is a short, modest, useful measure, reflecting its sponsor, and we welcome it.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, the noble Lord, in referring to shortness, is referring indirectly to other dimensions.

Lord Desai

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for taking part in this short debate. I welcome what the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said about his party's support for the Bill. I hope that noble Lords will give the Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.