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12.25 pm

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): May I join those on both sides of the House who have congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor) on introducing the Bill? It involves serious practical issues and, as we have heard in our fascinating debate, important matters of principle, philosophy and religion. I was struck by the way in which my hon. Friend opened his speech with the biblical provenance of his endeavour. Where I agree that legislation is necessary, and where I slightly part company with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), is in recognising that behind the Bill is the existence of original sin. We are all attracted to my right hon. Friend's ideal society of freeborn men and women interacting without any interference from the state--but sadly, that is made impossible by original sin and human behaviour.

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) had interesting exchanges about which form of moral philosophy can provide a basis for the legislation. I was struck by their exchange about Berlin, Mill and the utilitarian philosophers. I trust that they both agree that if one accepts a moral philosophy based on deontological, Kantian principles, the Bill has a degree of validity. I therefore hope that the House can bring itself to support it.

Moving from the philosophical to the practical plane, many hon. Members have pointed out the widespread nature of the problem. Clearly, it is serious; anything that embitters relations between neighbours must be deprecated by the House. Many hon. Members have numerous correspondents on this matter and the main pressure group, Hedgeline, has 3,500 members. Hedgeline

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is probably right to say that tens of thousands of people are affected by the problem, so it is legitimate for the House to seek to act.

Many Members have said that they have had letters on the subject. I shall quote from one which I received from Mrs. Lucy Smith, the Devon and Cornwall co-ordinator of Hedgeline. I should be interested to hear the Minister's comments, as Mrs. Smith fears that

In many ways that is the nub of the problem which many of our constituents face and which the Bill seeks to address.

Hedgeline was founded by a constituent of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones), and I am extremely grateful to her for pointing out that some years ago, I said that it would be a long time before the Government took decisive action--if they ever did. It would have been immodest of me to point out that I had been exactly right in that prediction, but as the hon. Lady had the generosity to bring it up, may I say how much I endorse her analysis?

It is worth examining the Government's record. This is the first opportunity that I have had to welcome the Minister to the Dispatch Box since he was appointed, but I am afraid that as the new boy in the team, he has been left with a difficult issue to handle. The Government's record is one of dithering and delaying. They seem to have adopted the principle of consult and ignore, as though they had said, "This is a big problem. We are very concerned, but we do not propose to do anything about it."

I have done an audit trail of the Government's words and actions. Ministers accept that since they came to office in 1997, they have received many thousands of letters and representations. They apparently spent some time thinking about those representations and, after only two and a half years in office, they managed some action: they produced a press release, which no doubt gave much hope to those concerned about the matter.

The press release, dated 12 November 1999 and headlined, "Meacher announces new initiatives to tackle nuisance hedges", begins:

I am sure that those who were concerned about the problem thought that all was well, but after the press release, nothing happened.

Following a gestation period of nine months, another press release was issued--this time in the middle of August, always a time that arouses the suspicion of those of us who are naturally cynical about Government's intentions. The second press release is even more decisive. It is headed, "Nuisance hedges to get the chop--Meacher", and announces:

Anyone reading that would have thought that, three years into their term, the Government were taking action. Sadly, the second paragraph rather gives the game away:

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I am sure that whoever wrote the press release was subsequently promoted for that creative use of the weasel words,

Dr. Lynne Jones: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it has taken a long time to reach this stage. I hope that the next stages will be faster. Nevertheless, does he accept that the Government were at least prepared to put some effort into dealing with the problem, unlike their predecessors, who consistently refused to accept the existence of the problem and did nothing at all?

Mr. Green: I do not accept that. The Government have not yet done anything. We are discussing a private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull. The Government have done nothing to redeem their pledges to take action. The hon. Lady's constituent, Michael Jones, recognised that. After the decisive-sounding press release in August, by November last year Hedgeline was becoming suspicious.

Mr. Bercow: As my hon. Friend is dealing with consultation, and in order to complete the equation, can he offer the House a synopsis of the views of the Association of District Councils and the Local Government Association?

Mr. Green: Local authorities generally have welcomed the idea of legislation, but they have some reservations about the costs that local government will incur as a result. I shall deal with that shortly. The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) read out the statistics of the response to the consultation exercise, which show not only that the overwhelming majority of local authorities welcome legislation, but that they regard it as urgently needed, as does Hedgeline.

Last November, Hedgeline's newsletter stated:

Hedgeline wanted a guarantee from the Government--the article was written before the Queen's Speech last year--that legislation would be introduced before the election and would appear in the Queen's Speech. The organisation was disappointed again. After all its efforts, I am sure that its members are happy that they can rely on my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull to promote this measure, which has been widely welcomed on both sides of the House.

In parenthesis, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is not unreasonable to point out that some of the parliamentary time since the Government's consultation exercise and the announcement of their determination to act has been spent on Bills that should not have detained the House--such as Bills on hunting, for which the Government have managed to find time during two Sessions of this Parliament. Furthermore, one of the differences between that measure and my hon. Friend's Bill is that Hedgeline does not have the resources to make a £1 million donation to the Labour party--as the anti-hunt lobby has done in its time.

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In considering the Government's approach to the matter, I agree with The Times editorial which states:

the Minister for the Environment's--

That is right.

Mr. Pound: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that leylandii planted in the spring of 1979 would have been more than 50 ft tall when the Conservatives left office in 1997? Is he not therefore being a little ungracious in criticising us for aiming to lop our humble four-metre-high growth when he ignored that vast tree during the 18 years of the previous Government?

Mr. Green: I am not sure whether there were that many leylandii around in 1979. I repeat the point that I made to the hon. Member for Selly Oak: throughout this Parliament, the Government have said that the issue was urgent and that they would do something about it, but they have miserably failed to do anything. They have produced consultation documents and press releases, but in the end they are relying on a private Member's Bill promoted by a Conservative Member. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Pound) pointed out that he represents a slice of suburbia, where I dare say hedges are a big problem. The hon. Gentleman will have problems defending his Government's record on the matter.

The broad approach taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull in his Bill tackles a difficult problem seriously. Various detailed difficulties have been described in speeches from both sides of House. I merely add a few comments and questions.

It is right that the action to be taken will have a local authority basis. I suspect that anything more prescriptive nationally would prove inflexible. We need a balance between fairness--so that people know the rules--and flexibility. Those of us who have received letters on the subject realise that each case is different. To try to prescribe rules that are too detailed would lead to unfairness in individual cases.

The issue of costs has been raised, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham. The helpful guidance notes, prepared either by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull or by others--that distinction is not clear--state that the costs will be relatively low, and will fall quickly after the current backlog of 10,000 cases is cleared. It would be worth while if all those who engaged in further discussion of the Bill were to question that comfortable assumption. It is likely that as the Bill proceeds, and consciousness of its existence spreads, more complaints will be made. The comfortable idea of falling costs over time may not be right.

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