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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
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
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 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.
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