Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Chorley: My Lords--

Lord Whitty: I am sorry, my Lords, I cannot take any further questions.

Lord Chorley: My Lords, occupiers' liability is a concern of the National Trust.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I will take the noble Lord's word for that. However, I have outlined the record as I understand it. I believe that that indicates that there should not be enormous pressure on insurance premiums.

I move on now to the rights of way aspect of the White Paper and of the announcement. My noble friend Lord Grantchester asked whether the local access forums would have a role in defining rights of way. The answer is, yes, they would. We expect the forums to discuss all access issues, including a new approach to rights of way. What we are seeking under the rights of way element of this Statement is to ensure a greater degree of flexibility. I am sure that that will be welcomed by both landlords and local authorities and that it will be recognised as necessary by ramblers' associations, and others, which advocate maintaining every right of way, come what may.

We shall shortly be consulting further on the matter and will be issuing proposals. However, it is important that those who feel they are affected by rights of way, whether positively or negatively, should have more flexible means of resolving such issues. Having revealed that he had engaged in criminal activity on other fronts, my noble friend Lord Peston asked what the maximum penalty would be for obstruction of rights of way. As applies to other highways, the answer to that question is £1,000, although I am not sure what it would be for picking bluebells.

19 May 1999 : Column 356

We must recognise that there is a background to this issue. For example, in Wales a survey was recently conducted on rights of way which showed that there are serious obstacles to 40 per cent of the rights of ways and that 23 per cent of those rights of way are impassable. It is against that background that we have to consider these matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, referred to the South Downs and also advertised his debate on Friday, to which my noble friend Lady Farrington will be replying. It is important for us to recognise the special status of the South Downs and we are considering a recommendation from the Countryside Commission on that front.

A number of speakers referred to the issues of mapping, both in relation to rights of way and to the mapping of areas of open countryside for the purposes of the proposed legislation. On the rights of way side, I was asked whether local authorities would reach the target set for them of defining all rights of way by the year 2000. I regret to say that I think it is unlikely that all local authorities will do so. However, we are increasing the pressure on them to provide as much information as possible and to complete their surveys as rapidly as possible.

As far as concerns the bigger mapping definition, as the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, will be well aware, some of the problems involved are quite complex. For example, the mapping of downland may present a number of complexities. Nevertheless, we are asking the authorities, and others, to engage in the mapping process as rapidly as possible. The countryside agencies are undertaking their work on the identification and mapping of access land. They will be producing draft maps on which we can then consult affected parties.

For this process to work, mapping is important. Local discussions are vitally important; indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, indicated, the details of the kind of codes and safeguards that we need are most important. It is possible that details like signing, recognition and advertising of both rights of way and of access to land may also be very important. But the basic right is also important. We announced in March that we intend to proceed down the legislative road. I cannot be tempted into pre-empting the Queen's Speech, but I can tell noble Lords that we are putting substantial resources into ensuring that we get this right both in the consultative phase and in the legislation itself. We are doubling the number of staff dealing with access issues. We are also allocating to the Countryside Agency an additional £2 million to spend on access and recreation. Indeed, during the very first meeting of the new agency last week the board considered detailed proposals on how the agency might play its part in mapping and in the establishment of access forums. Therefore we are moving forward on all those fronts.

The noble Earl, Lord Stair, said that we should not legislate simply on the basis of a manifesto commitment. However, we on this side of the House believe in implementing our manifesto commitments through legislation. We believe in doing so in a sensible and constructive way with the maximum possible degree

19 May 1999 : Column 357

of consensus. The Statement takes that commitment further; further consultation will refine it. I assure your Lordships that we intend to legislate and to legislate soon.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he has not dealt at all with the question of damage caused by unidentified or impecunious walkers. Will he undertake to write to those of us who raised that question?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I have one minute left in which to speak. Clearly there will be irresponsible walkers, as the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, said. I have also failed to mention Scottish issues. I shall write to the noble Earl on those matters. One out of 100 walkers may cause some damage, either accidentally or with criminal intent. There are laws to cover that situation but the problems of detection in the countryside are difficult, as noble Lords will appreciate. Nevertheless, I do not believe that it is sensible to introduce new laws or new compensation in this area. After all, we do not provide such compensation to the owners of other properties when they suffer criminal damage. That damage should be covered by people's usual insurance. In this respect I do not believe that countryside landowners are different from owners of other properties such as factories, offices and buildings throughout the country. The Government do not believe that compensation is an issue in this matter.

6.41 p.m.

Lord Gladwyn: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply responding to many of the questions that have been raised in this debate. I thank all noble Lords who have participated in it, with their specialised interests covering the whole of England from Carlisle to Kent and further afield. I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, on his maiden speech. The debate has shown how much still needs to be thought out and worked out before legislation is provided. I am glad to hear that the Government have set this in hand and are working away at it now. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Trials by Jury

6.42 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I beg leave to repeat an Answer given by my honourable friend Mr. O'Brien in another place earlier today.

    "My right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced this morning, in response to a Written Question that appeared on Tuesday's Order Paper, the Government's proposals to change the way in which the mode of trial was determined for those cases that are triable either-way.

19 May 1999 : Column 358

    "The Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in 1993, and more recently the Narey Review of Delay in the Criminal Justice System in 1997, recommended that defendants should not be able to choose to be tried in the Crown Court in either-way cases where magistrates have indicated that they would be content to hear the case.

    "We have considered this recommendation along with the responses to the consultation paper my right honourable friend issued on 28th July last year. The answer to the Parliamentary Question today indicated that we will be bringing forward legislation when parliamentary time allows to abolish the ability of defendants to elect for Crown Court trial in either-way cases.

    "Some believe that to remove the defendant's veto on the magistrates' decision that they should hear a case would erode fundamental individual liberties established in the Middle Ages, if not by Magna Carta itself. However, while trial by jury is indeed ancient, a defendant's ability to choose to be tried by a jury rather than by the justices was brought in in 1855.

    "The Government agree that jury trial is right for certain sorts of case. The question is whether it should be available on demand, or restricted to business which objectively warrants it. In the same way that defendants do not have a choice of which magistrate, or which judge and jury hears their case, we believe that defendants should not be able to choose where their case is tried. In Scotland there is no ability to elect for trial; indeed the prosecution decides the venue. I know of no other country in which such an ability to elect is allowed.

    "The majority of cases in which the defendant elects for Crown Court trial result eventually in guilty pleas, but only after greater inconvenience and worry to victims and witnesses, and at considerable extra cost and using police time to little effect. Home Office research indicates that nine out of 10 people who elect to be tried at the Crown Court have previous criminal convictions. It is clear that persistent offenders are abusing the system of election. This Government's proposals will end the practice that many rightly regard as a manipulation of the criminal justice system by defendants demanding Crown Court trial for no good reason other than to delay proceedings.

    "But there will be safeguards. When determining the mode of trial magistrates will be required to have regard not only to any defence representations but also to such factors as the gravity of the offence, the complexity of the case--as legislation already requires--and the effect of conviction and the likely sentence on the defendant's livelihood and reputation. In addition to the automatic right of appeal to the Crown Court against conviction, defendants will also be given a right of appeal to the Crown Court against the magistrates' decision on mode of trial".

6.45 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, your Lordships' House will be most grateful to the Minister for making

19 May 1999 : Column 359

this Statement to the House today which the Home Secretary declined to make to another place. Of course I realise that the Home Secretary is today addressing the Police Federation in Belfast. But, after all, he chose the date for this announcement. There is no urgency about it. All it does is to anticipate the Queen's Speech. No doubt the Home Secretary chose to make the announcement today in order to "pad out" his speech to the Police Federation and avoid speaking about police numbers, police resources, the threat to police pensions and those kind of matters.

I agree with one Labour Member of another place who said that it was a disgrace that this announcement should be made first to newspapers and on the radio this morning and then later presented to Parliament as a Written PQ. However, we in this House have been more fortunate in that we have the Minister to explain the matter to us. Will the Minister confirm that this proposal was considered by the previous Home Secretary following the recommendations of the Royal Commission and was shelved by him? Now the Home Office, or more likely the Treasury, has taken it out of its pigeon-hole and the present Home Secretary has accepted it in spite of the opposition of civil rights groups such as Liberty and Justice. It is opposed particularly by those working with the ethnic minorities. It is opposed by the Minister's own professional body, the Bar Council, as well as by the Law Society, many Labour MPs and indeed by my colleagues and I. It was, of course, opposed by the Home Secretary until comparatively recently. He was particularly virulently opposed to it when he was in opposition. The Minister mentioned Scotland. But, of course, in that part of our kingdom legally qualified justices are involved, not lay magistrates.

I have a couple of questions to ask which flow from the reasons given for this proposal. My first question concerns finance. Will the Minister confirm that the expected saving--which is suggested in the newspapers at any rate which seem to be well informed on this matter--is about £70 million? If that is the case, does part of that saving arise presumably from the fact that lay magistrates are cheaper than paid judges for the simple reason that they are lay people? Does any of that saving arise from the shorter sentences which tend to be passed by magistrates than are passed in the Crown Court? Does the calculation take account of the fact that there will now need to be additional hearings? As I understand the position, many cases will now need to be heard first by a bench of magistrates to consider where the case should be tried. When they have made that decision there will sometimes be an appeal on it--as the Minister said--to the Crown Court. There will then have to be a second hearing by a different bench of magistrates--as they will not have heard all the particulars of the defendant and so on that may have emerged in the first hearing--in order to decide the case.

Then of course sometimes there will later be an appeal to the Crown Court against the decision in the case. I realise that so far as concerns the first appeal and the question of where the case should be heard, some lawyers take the view that appellate courts rarely interfere with matters which are within the discretion of

19 May 1999 : Column 360

the junior court. So an appeal of that kind is likely to prove largely illusory. That of course helps the Home Office's financial arguments and savings but it goes against the fairness arguments advanced by the Minister.

Lastly, may I ask the Minister about the relationship of this proposal to proposals in the European Community. The Minister in another place drew attention to European comparisons. He implied that this was a proposal in the direction of European harmonisation. Can the Minister say whether this is part of the preparations for the so called corpus juris in the European Community?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page