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Lord Whitty: Without pre-empting any subsequent debate, it may be helpful if I indicate and confirm that we have now considered whether local access fora should be put on a statutory basis. We now accept what the noble Baroness has said, that without specific reference in the Bill to the fora, there would be concern that due weight would not be accorded to their views. We therefore intend to bring forward at Report stage substantive amendments in this area. That will give the local access fora rights on advising on the new rights of access and indeed on recreational issues more generally, as the noble Baroness wishes. I thought it would be useful for me to say that.

Lord Hardy of Wath: I thank my noble friend for that most helpful and welcome contribution. Perhaps I may press him on one or two points of detail relating to the amendments. As I see it, there is a weakness in the two amendments proposed by the Liberal Democrats in that they would have the composition of the forum restricted to the owner or farmer on the one hand and the rambler or user on the other. I prefer, but with qualification, the amendment tabled by the Conservative Benches which refers to the parish councils. A good parish council, which might have a deep interest in the matter, especially in common land within its parish, would be incensed if a body under the auspices of government ignored it. While my noble friend should take note of the parish council suggestion, he should also consider the fact that, while one would have on the forum the user or walker and the farmer or landowner, with or without the parish council, there would be no one with any ecological knowledge of the area in question. There should be an ability to appoint to such a forum someone with a detailed knowledge of the fauna and flora. I trust that the point about the parish council will be borne in mind. I say that as vice-president of the Yorkshire Local Councillors Association and also because I believe that we ought to try to promote a decent relationship between the bodies that might be in

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conflict. A third voice knowledgeable on conservation matters could make a helpful and perhaps a healing contribution.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, read my amendment in that way. Perhaps I may clarify the point. Amendment No. 102 states that a local access forum,

    "shall include persons whom the access authority considers able to represent the interests of owners and occupiers of access land ... and of those who may wish to exercise the right of access over it".

That would certainly encompass parish councils. It could encompass anyone else with a particular interest. It would vary from areas with crags where climbers might be involved to those with people on horseback who had de facto rights. Under subsection (3) of Amendment No. 102, there is provision for the Secretary of State to make regulations regarding the composition and operation of local access fora. That is a safeguard to ensure that they do not become exclusive.

Viscount Bledisloe: When the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, brings forward his amendments, will he undertake to follow the civilising example of the Liberal Democrat Benches and recognise that the plural of "forum" is "fora" and not fall into the appalling solecism perpetrated by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, of describing them as "forums"?

Earl Peel: I wish to speak briefly to the amendment. In principle I have no difficulty with access fora, although if they are to work effectively it is essential that they represent all interested groups fairly. As the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, pointed out, it would be essential for there to be proper parish representation.

I have no difficulty with the principle that lies behind the amendment, but I hope that the provisions will not be used to bog down procedures. If every detail is referred back to the fora, we are in danger of seeing the working relationship between the landowner or the tenant and the access authority--that is the crucial relationship here--being harmed. That relationship must work effectively and efficiently so that people have confidence in it. When closure orders or by-laws are considered, I hope that, as far as possible, they will be provided for on a national basis so that we avoid the danger of introducing too many procedures, which will only confuse everyone. Indeed, more than anyone else the walker will encounter difficulties.

I urge the Minister to accept the principle that as few local restrictions as possible should be imposed and that as many national understandings as possible should be put in place. That will streamline the provisions of the Bill so that they can properly be understood by everyone. I stress that I am not against the principle of local groups, but I hope that they will not be used merely as an excuse to bog down and delay procedures. In many circumstances, the speed at which such matters are settled will be essential to the proper management of the land.

Lord Glentoran: Perhaps I may bring one further point to the Minister's attention. I understand that

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some of the park authorities which act as access authorities intend, subject to the will of their respective local authorities, to act on behalf of such neighbouring local authorities, which may well comprise borough councils and so forth. For that reason, when we discuss favourably the role of parish councils, can I ask the Minister not to exclude the possibility of representation by borough councils working with access authorities which may in fact be establishing such fora?

The Earl of Caithness: I am grateful to the Minister for his announcement, because I have tabled Amendment No. 211 to establish local forums--or local fora, in deference to the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe.

I believe that one of the few mechanisms that will enable the Bill to work effectively will be to establish such fora. However, as my noble friend Lord Peel has just pointed out, difficulties and problems may be encountered with such groups. We need to consider the size of the fora and the commitment that will be required of the members. Farmers and landowners are extremely stretched. They will need to give up even more of their precious time to serve on the fora. Unless farmers, owner-occupiers and tenants make available that time, the fora will not be able to undertake their tasks effectively. The groups cannot become talking shops; they must evolve as positive institutions working within a national framework. We shall discuss specific amendments addressing such a framework in due course.

I point out only that the more that can be agreed nationally, the easier it will be for the fora to work properly and effectively and, indeed, the easier it will be for those who wish to utilise the benefits conferred by the Bill.

I hope that the Minister will now be in a position to give the Committee further details on how funding will be made available for the new fora, how he sees them working and, lastly, on their size. Perhaps it would be helpful if the noble Lord were to agree to meet between now and the next stage of the Bill those noble Lords who have expressed an interest in this matter. Thus when we reach the Report stage and are more limited in the time available to discuss the matter, we shall at least have had an opportunity to meet him and to express our views. His officials will then be able to take them into account when drafting the government amendments.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley: I urge the Minister to pay no attention to the suggestion of the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe. We are not talking about market places in the middle of Roman towns; we are talking about the English word "forum", the plural of which is "forums". The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, quite rightly used that word. I hope that he will continue to use it in spite of the fact that he seemed to be giving way to some rather intellectual blackmail which was of no interest.

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9.30 p.m.

Lord Greaves: I stand shoulder to shoulder with the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, in believing that the English word is "forums", despite the fact that the amendment states otherwise. I noticed that my noble friend Lady Miller said "forums" five times and "fora" three times; the Minister said "fora" twice and "forums" once. Whatever we do, let us stick on one and decide what we will call them. In my part of Lancashire, folk stopped talking Latin quite a long time ago.

On behalf of these Benches I thank the Minister for what he said about local access forums. We look forward to seeing the form of wording he comes back with. There are a number of reasons why we believe it is important that local access forums should be statutory bodies written into the Bill. First, it gives people an assurance and a guarantee that they will exist. Without it, some local access authorities may well, at the very least, drag their feet and perhaps set them up in a half-hearted way and not treat them seriously.

Secondly, it will allow reference to them in other parts of the Bill. We have put down amendments on that basis. It also means that in terms of regulation and secondary legislation--although it is not necessary to name them in the Bill for that purpose--it makes the whole issue clearer.

We want to see the forums playing an active role throughout the whole process. For example, if at the mapping stage draft maps are produced by the Countryside Agency--even though there might have been consultation locally with land owners--and it lands those draft maps on people who have not seen them before that stage, it would be likely to lead to immediate reactions and conflict. On the other hand, if local access forums are involved at a very early stage in the consultation process when the Countryside Agency is carrying out the initial mapping, it is far more likely that the result of the initial mapping will, at the very least, be something which will lead to consensus locally.

Later in the Bill we shall be talking about public rights of way plans and improvement plans. The access forums have a crucial role to play because there is a great feeling among many people--especially people associated with bridleways, for example--that Part II of the Bill will not lead to an improvement of the rights of way network but to a worsening of it, because of the capping and so on, and to a failure to carry out the work within 25 years, which they see as likely. Local access forums playing an active role will be a bulwark, a guarantee, a means of providing the initiative and motivation to get on with not only getting the definitive map, the historic record, right, but also getting the improvements in the rights of way network which are so desperately needed in many areas.

We believe that these forums are a key part of what is being proposed. That is why it is important that they are incorporated in the Bill. It is a guarantee that they will not be a seven-day wonder but will be here next year, in 10 years' time, in 25 years' time.

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It is interesting that support for the idea of local forums comes from right across the spectrum. The Countryside Alliance has sent us a briefing urging us to set up local access forums. If I am on the same side as the Countryside Alliance either something dreadfully wrong is going on or we are right.

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