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Lord Whitty: My Lords, that is certainly true. My point was that 28 days, excluding weekends, is not the maximum. Reasonable applications will be taken by the authorities. In many circumstances, weekends could also be covered. However, there are anxieties about the practicalities and we shall return to the issue. If weekend closure is needed for land management purposes, the authorities are obliged to take practical steps to ensure that those objectives are met.

There are particular situations, such as lambing, that need a separate approach. It is not clear that the presence of people poses a serious problem during lambing, although dogs are a different matter.

The Earl of Shrewsbury: My Lords, as a sheep farmer, my experience is that people can cause major

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problems with the lambing cycle. They can also cause problems when the farmer is turning ewes in lamb off the hill into nearby fields. That is a very delicate time. Perhaps the Minister should think about that again.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I was not rejecting the idea of looking at lambing in particular. I am sure that we shall return to that in Committee. I was saying that the situation was not quite the same as certain other aspects of land management and wildlife conservation. I shall talk about dogs in a moment, but we have to take on board some of the points that have been made today.

We have carefully considered the case for restricting access at night. There are already large areas of land to which people have access at night, including land owned by the National Trust and the Forestry Commission. I understand the concerns that have been expressed. My noble friend Lord Hardy and the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, referred to some horrendous stories. However, if people are engaging in criminal activity or devil worshipping--or whatever goes on in the noble Baroness's neighbourhood--they are unlikely to be deterred by the lack of a right to access.

I understand that there might be a secondary problem of whether people would be prepared to tackle those who might be going to such an event or attempting to carry out such a criminal act, but we are not convinced that a blanket ban on night access is appropriate. Many people, including bird watchers, mountaineers, ramblers or scouts, might wish to avail themselves of night-time access.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, will the Minister say why people want to avail themselves of night-time access?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, it varies. In the case of bird watchers, I believe that there are birds that one cannot observe except at night time or one has to be there before dawn in order to see them.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, how can you observe the birds when it is dark?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that it was my noble friend Lord Hardy or another noble Lord who referred to infra-red lights and so on. Birdwatchers are at the cutting edge of technology these days. The noble Earl may not be entirely familiar with that, but they are.

As regards mountaineers, clearly, if you are going to climb a mountain which is in the middle of access land, you need some time to approach it and come back down which, in some cases at certain times of the year, will require access after the hours of darkness or before dawn. So there are many legitimate reasons for wanting to have night-time access.

However, we accept that we shall need to look at this matter to see whether anything needs to be done. I believe that the best way forward is, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to use local agreements and perhaps approach the matter through the by-law system.

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The same argument about local agreements applies also to the identification of means of access and points of entry. I should disabuse the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, of something that I believe she was implying; namely, that the cost of providing means of access would fall on the landowners. The cost is likely to fall mainly or wholly on the local authorities. The landowner would have a right of appeal against any notice concerning a means of access. So it is not by any means the case that landowners would be required to provide that means of access; indeed, quite the opposite.

Of course, in many cases, it would be better if there were clearly designated points of access. But there are many places where that is not appropriate. There are great swathes of countryside where access from the road or other parts of the countryside should be quite open. We have adopted a light touch in this Bill, including in relation to means of access. In general, users would not be obliged to enter land at designated points but local agreements might help if they identified the most appropriate points of access.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, perhaps I should give the noble Lord the opportunity to have a glass of water because, like me, he is suffering a little. Does the Minister not accept that while people will have the right to access the countryside within those areas at any point, as regards knowing how they gain access and whether there are any restrictions, it is better to have access points within the framework in which we have been debating this Bill?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, in my case, it is not laryngitis. Excessive access to the Dorset countryside over the weekend has given me hay fever--and I was with my dog!

The noble Baroness may be right in certain circumstances but not in others. There will be areas of moorland, for example, where it is not sensible to have a single or designated point of access. But there will be others in relation to which the local access forums may be able to identify the optimum sites of access. That is one of the extremely important contributions which those forums may be able to make in relation to the proper management of access.

Earl Peel: My Lords, I am sorry to pursue this point but it is absolutely fundamental to the wellbeing and success of the Bill. Access forums can produce what they like. They can put up all the signs in the world. But unless there is a statutory obligation on the visitor to visit that site and read what is going on in order to know whether any closure orders are in place, then, quite frankly, it will not work because people will not know whether a closure order is in place or not.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I accept that I am a relative newcomer to your Lordships' House but speaking from these Benches, it seems that the number of interventions from the Conservative Benches is not helping our understanding of the Minister's reply. It seems to me

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that some of the points raised would be better dealt with in Committee. The number of interventions do not prove which party is the guardian of the countryside.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that intervention. In our different ways, we all have the concerns of the countryside at heart. It is important that we maximise the consensus and I feel that we are in danger of failing to do so.

For an access provision to work I do not believe that it is necessary to require every rambler to have read notices of access, orders and so on. We have to develop an education and information system that may well incorporate, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, suggested earlier, a countryside code. However, it is not reasonable to expect everyone who wishes to have access to our countryside to know in advance where and when access is provided. Of course, it is important that access is clearly signposted. The recommended access point should be clearly indicated and if there is a closure, or an impending closure, that should be indicated. It is not reasonable to require total knowledge on behalf of the rambler; that would cut across the general right of access for which we intend to legislate.

I now turn to the issue of dogs and horses. I recognise that there is considerable concern about dogs. We have already taken advice from English Nature and others in relation to the requirement that all dogs should be on leashes during the nesting season. We have already decided that we should table an amendment to extend that period until July, so that it would run from March to July. That would also need to apply when stock was in the vicinity. I recognise that other noble Lords would want the provision to go further than that. Undoubtedly that will form an area of interest in Committee. I seem to be the only person here who has a good word to say for dogs.

Lord Northbrook: My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what compensation there will be for livestock killed by the unfortunate incidence of dogs let off leashes? Is there anything in the Bill to cover that?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, if stock is damaged by a dog acting irresponsibly, and if the owner can be caught, there is already provision for compensation and, if necessary, for criminal charges. That will remain the case. I shall mention in a moment the more general issues of compensation and I shall return to the issue of dogs.

In relation to gallops and to horses in that context, I turn to the points raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, and my noble friend Lord Donoughue. The areas where this issue arises may not be as widespread as they suggest. Nevertheless, we need to consider the matter. My noble friend Lord Donoughue advised me not to mention Epsom, but it was mentioned subsequently. There is a local Act in place that would not be overridden by this provision.

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In other words, there would be co-existence of a right to access and respect for the rights of the trainer and those in charge of the horses. Once again, we may need to make local agreements in order for that to be the case in relation to other gallops. I need to ensure that the department looks at the number of cases where that may arise, and where there is a conflict between walking and other activities, in particular, in this context, horse gallops. I shall look at that further and no doubt we shall return to that subject in Committee.


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