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Baroness Byford: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I do not think that any of us on these Benches specifically indicated at any stage that we were looking at the Bill from the point of view of the large landowner. There are many tenant farmers and landowners who have only very small holdings. I should hate the noble Lord to go away with the feeling that the contributions from these Benches were made on behalf of big landowners. It would be totally untrue.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, we shall return to this point. I do feel that there was a certain bias in some of the contributions. I am happy to concede to the noble Baroness that there are many other interests involved which were referred to by Members on all sides of the House. When I return to the matter of access, I think that we shall see that some of the problems are longstanding problems relating to the structure of ownership, as much as they are--

Earl Peel: My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. I hope that the noble Lord will appreciate that land management issues are common to large landowners, small landowners and tenant farmers. The message that we tried to put across related to land management. The size of the holding is, frankly, irrelevant.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not entirely accept what the noble Earl says. I believe that in many cases the interests of country people as a whole and of small farmers are at odds with some of the expressions of concern indicated in the debate. I was going on to say--

Lord Denham: My Lords, will the noble Lord give way once more? Unless he is prepared to concede that we on this side of the House are genuine, there is no point in us having this debate at all.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I certainly concede that noble Lords who have contributed to the debate are genuine. What I am saying, however, is that, first, some of their concerns are not the concerns of the countryside as a whole and, secondly, many of those concerns are an alarmist and over-exaggerated reaction to the propositions put forward by the Government. Those propositions are balanced in relation to the rights of landowners of all kinds and in relation to the rights of ramblers and others who wish to enjoy the countryside. The points raised suggested that part of that balance should be taken away, or at least that it should be seriously diluted, which in my view would seriously unbalance the Bill.

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The Bill does a number of things. It seeks to tidy up rights of way, provide a greater degree of protection for wildlife and deal with problems of access. As I have provoked an immediate reaction, it is perhaps appropriate to delay my further comments on those parts of the Bill concerned with access until the end of my remarks. A number of very important points were made on Parts II and III of the Bill to which I want to reply.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord for one moment. The Minister has been deeply provocative. He appears to be surprised. He said that the Government had produced a wonderfully balanced Bill and that we on this side of the House were unbalanced in our remarks. I believe that the Minister is wrong. The noble Lord must have a more receptive mind to try to understand the problems, which are not just those of the large landowner but of the countryside.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, perhaps I may remind the Minister--I do not mean this offensively--that his noble friend Lord Hardy clearly stated his apprehension about some of the points raised this afternoon. Clearly, the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, would not fall into the category of those to whom my noble friend has just responded.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I fully accept that there are a large number of anxieties. However, I have said that those anxieties are exaggerated and do not represent the short-term or long-term interests of the countryside as a whole. The future of rural development depends on our being able to provide a balance between those who want access to the countryside and those who have land management responsibilities in the countryside. There is a real difficulty if noble Lords opposite continue to say that there should be no dilution of the rights of landowners, when we are trying to present a balanced package which provides very limited, modest rights to ramblers compared with the defensive position adopted by many noble Lords this evening.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, this is most unlike the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, with whom I have always had great pleasure debating matters across the Chamber. Matters are getting a little out of hand. As I indicated, the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, also had reservations. I suggest that we move forward.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I would prefer to deal with the detailed points on Parts II and III before I turn to Part I of the Bill. However, there are one or two issues in Part III in particular which cross-relate to other matters. I do not believe that there is a fundamental conflict between access to the countryside and the protection of SSSIs, as a number of noble Lords, including the noble Earls, Lord Caithness and Lord Peel, suggested. Our aim is to provide a balanced approach to the protection of

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wildlife and develop a constructive partnership with the owners and managers of land who have responsibility for protecting SSSIs and other aspects of wildlife.

One recognises that there may be a particularly fragile area in which there are vulnerable elements of wildlife that need particular provision. We have acknowledged in the Bill the need for exceptional measures to limit or control access in the interests of conservation. There is a balance between access, conservation and management. However, we do not accept that under Part III of the Bill compensation should be paid to those who in effect propose to allow damage to the SSSIs, as has been suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Kimball, and the noble Earl, Lord Peel. That is patently unfair to other landowners who have refrained from what might otherwise have been a profitable exploitation of that land. Therefore, under this Bill there is no obligation to compensate where consent for developments which would damage SSSIs is refused.

However, on the basis of a constructive partnership with landowners, the countryside agencies will be able to direct funding towards positive support for land management practices which achieve conservation and positive management in those important areas. We expect all such new agreements to provide for positive management of that land.

The noble Lord, Lord Kimball, and other noble Lords have objected to what they call draconian powers in relation to conservation agencies. Noble Lords have referred to local autocrats and others who try to represent the need for protection of wildlife. We expect those new powers of entry to be used extremely rarely. We expect the agencies to have taken all reasonable steps to avoid such confrontational situations. The noble Lord, Lord Buxton, referred to custodial sentences, and so on. Again they would be in the extreme circumstances of repeat offences and persistent offenders who are not deterred by financial penalties. The noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and other noble Lords cited ACPO in support of other aspects of their views on the Bill. It is interesting that ACPO supports custodial sentences in this area.

My noble friend Lady Young, the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, my noble friend Lady David, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and others referred to local wildlife sites. Although it is beyond the scope of the Bill as currently drafted, we recognise the importance of local wildlife sites below the level of nationally important SSSIs. We made a commitment in September to set up local sites review groups. A report was presented before Easter and was placed in the Library of the House. There is a great deal of consensus on measures on local wildlife sites but legislative proposals, as a number of noble Lords suggested, are more controversial. For example, the NFU opposes them. Therefore we must ensure consistency with a tiered approach to site protection. There are international sites, nationally important sites and local sites. We need to develop the protection accordingly.

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There was also reference to biodiversity action plans. At local level the Government intend that local biodiversity action plans should be incorporated into the local council's work and integrated into the wider community strategies which have been put in place under the local government legislation.

My noble friend Lord Dubs and others referred to the consequences of the Bill in relation to the EU habitats directive. We accept that, if passed, the Bill will require amendments to the regulations under those EU provisions.

The noble Earl, Lord Peel, referred to the precautionary principle. The Bill provides for closing or other restrictions to protect nature conservation interests. But it is also true in this area, as in many others, that experience shows that it is possible to combine access with conservation. It is significant that 200 national nature reserves are visited by over 3 million people per year without serious disturbance to wildlife.

Earl Peel: My Lords, what the Minister says may be true up to a point. However, does the noble Lord accept that where there is any lack of precise knowledge of this issue scientific research should be carried out? The noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, said that science should drive our decisions on these issues. Does the noble Lord agree that where there is lack of knowledge based on scientific research, such research should be carried out; and that in the meantime the precautionary principle should prevail?


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