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Countryside and Rights of Way Bill

3.8 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.--(Lord Whitty.)

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, by now noble Lords will be aware of the diktat from the Government that this Committee session is to last all night, whatever that may mean. I rise to inquire whether that is either a reasonable or a productive line of conduct. First, I want to make it plain that in raising this issue I do not blame or quarrel with the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip who, as always, is the soul of courtesy and charm; I am addressing the Government in general.

In relation to the first question, I suggest that it is wholly unacceptable to treat in this way the Committee stage of a Bill, the principle of which, especially Part I, is accepted, but the essence of which lies in the detail. Much of that detail has not been

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properly thought out. Unless the detail is correct, the Bill is capable of creating great unhappiness and conflict and increasing further the feeling that the Government and the urban interests do not care about the countryside.

A number of noble Lords, among whom I include myself, have tabled amendments with the genuine aim of seeking to improve the Bill and to reduce the area of conflict. We have activities outside the House and simply cannot undertake an all-night session. Tomorrow I have an important meeting first thing in the morning. I owe it to those who pay me to be there and to be in a state which means I am capable of explaining the important issues of which I have the conduct. Proceedings such as this make a mockery of the Government's professed expression of enthusiasm for some Members of your Lordships' House to be part-time Peers who have other interests.

I accept that, in certain circumstances, an all-night sitting may be justified, for example, in a sudden emergency or perhaps where there has been conduct on earlier days which appeared to be deliberately obstructive. But that is not the case here. What happened is that, first, the Bill was brought to this House too late; and, secondly, two whole days before the Summer Recess were thrown away at the last moment to make way for the wholly unnecessary, ephemeral, ill-devised, knee-jerk reaction Football (Disorder) Bill. If the Government, in their infinite wisdom, regard that sort of legislation as more important than this countryside Bill, so be it. But that does not justify the choice they made to deprive this House of its proper consideration of the Bill before us today.

As to whether or not this is a productive course to pursue, I assume that the Government have ensured that they possess the necessary majority to pass this Motion and to see that the House continues until whatever unearthly hour tomorrow morning the Government Chief Whip has in mind. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, may like to consider whether going on for that length of time will achieve progress. Last week in a Committee stage we cantered through no less than 20 amendments in a single group and without a single Division. The Chief Whip may wish to bear in mind that, if the House is to be subjected to an unjustified all-night sitting, caused purely by the Government's prior conduct, such benign co-operation as was shown last week could evaporate. For example, if every one of those 20 amendments had been debated singly and then been the subject of a Division, the Chief Whip might have found that at the end of the day he had made less rapid progress than he would have done by a more reasonable timetabling and the preservation of goodwill on all sides.

I venture to suggest that this all-night sitting is wholly unjustified; it is undesirable from the point of view of the House and I ask the Government Chief Whip, even at this late stage, to indicate that he will change his mind.

Lord Carter: My Lords, the noble Viscount was kind enough to tell me that he would be saying a few

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words when the Motion was put before the House. This is the first time an all-night sitting has been planned since this Government came to power three-and-a-half years ago. All-night sittings are not something that any of us enjoy; but they are occasionally necessary under any government. For example, under the previous administration the House sat from 2.30 in the afternoon until 8.47 the following morning to debate the Education Reform Bill. My noble friend Lord Shepherd, the noble Lord, Lord Denham, who is in his place, and the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh--all former government Chief Whips--also from time to time needed all-night sittings to get important business through the House.

I am happy to explain why this all-night sitting is necessary. Your Lordships will remember that shortly before the House rose for the Summer Recess, as was referred to by the noble Viscount, we received from another place the Football Disorder Bill. The noble Viscount is entitled to his view on that Bill. I can only comment that 20 football supporters were prevented from going to France for a recent international and there was no trouble in Paris. The usual channels had come to an agreement to allow that Bill to be taken through all its stages in two days. However, the House, as a whole--as is its right--preferred to take much longer over the Bill. That effectively removed two Committee days from the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill before the Summer Recess. Clearly I had to find that time from somewhere.

I should like to make a further point. This concern has been aired, entirely properly, because the Government and the usual channels let the House know in advance that they expect the sitting to go all through the night and into tomorrow morning. It is not always possible to predict these late sittings. For example, the House sat completely unexpectedly until 5 a.m. on the Football Disorder Bill. On this occasion, with a late sitting likely, it seemed better to give your Lordships and the staff--I emphasise, "and the staff"--due warning so that there was an opportunity to adjust arrangements as necessary to accommodate the sitting. Clearly this is a better way of proceeding than just to spring a surprise on the House.

I trust your Lordships will understand my good intentions in this matter and accept that, as always, I have tried to act in the best interests of the House. The noble Viscount referred to my "diktat". I wish that were true with only 29 per cent of the votes in this House. I shall not pretend that the usual channels were overjoyed when I made my intentions known. But they certainly did not object.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


3.15 p.m.

Clause 2 [Rights of public in relation to access land]:

Baroness Byford moved Amendment No. 68:

Page 2, line 23, after ("land") insert ("during hours of daylight").

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The noble Baroness said: I apologise to Members of the Committee for what will be a slightly lengthy introduction. This amendment is an important one and relates to a matter causing great concern not only to the general public, who wish to enjoy free access, but also to the many wildlife groups who may find that the very things that they are trying to protect are jeopardised if all-night access is given.

Amendment No. 68 restricts access to daylight hours. Remembering that this Bill grants rights in addition to existing arrangements, it is unreasonable that those wishing to walk over access land should do so at night without there being exceptional circumstances--a topic to which I shall return later. It should be noted that access at night exists on public rights of way, and that is due to continue. However, there are serious reasons as to why access should not be allowed at night away from clearly defined, identifiable routes.

There are worries in relation to public safety, the environment, wildlife and also security for those who live and work in remote rural areas. In addition, much access land is hazardous. For example, moorland contains bogs, cliffs, crags and steep slopes. It is remarkably easy, unless one is very experienced, to become disorientated. People can get into serious trouble in the open country in a way that does not happen on clearly marked rights of way.

The disturbance of nature, particularly ground nesting birds, by walkers at night is a major consideration, especially as much of the access land has SSSI status. Many who favour night-time access entirely fail to grasp the reality of land management and activities such as "lamping"--the culling of foxes at night using high-powered rifles and lamps. That is a regular and essential part of land management practice. It is used over large areas of land, much of which will be designated as access land. For example, a recent study referred to in the Burns report--the noble Lord is not in his place at the moment--found that 21 per cent of foxes in upland Wales were culled by rifles at night.

There is also the question of security, on which I touched earlier. To grant a general principle of night-time access to land, which will only benefit the criminal and the poacher and increase disturbance, is not what we are after. There is already considerable alarm about mounting rural crime. People in the countryside must not have reason to feel more insecure and more vulnerable.

Owners and managers of land need to be able to challenge anyone on access land after dark and ask their reasons for being there without perhaps being met by the legal defence of, "We are exercising our right of access". Owners and those looking after the land need to be able to protect their land from any intent to use the right of access as a cover for unlawful activities such as egg stealing, interference with nests, poaching, rustling of sheep or cattle and the planning or execution of burglaries.

There is an important link in that regard between the wildlife enforcement provisions in later parts of the Bill and this important section, Part I. Clearly there

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needs to be flexibility in the application of the decision in order to allow for those who misjudge the time or have some other genuine reasonable excuse. During the debate in the other place, Mr Mullin said that there was nothing to prevent someone who wanted to camp or participate in night-time activities--for instance, in the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme--seeking the permission of the landowner.

I read with care the debate which took place in another place on the banning of night-time access. On the first day of the Report stage, the right honourable Hilary Benn said:

    "There is a potential risk, but we must ask whether it is sufficient to outweigh the rights that the Bill seeks to enshrine in law".--[Official Report, Commons, 13/6/00; col. 824.]

That view was shared by Mr Meacher, who later said that he recognised that the argument was finely balanced. He added that we must keep in mind the need to address the genuine concerns of those who own and manage the land affected. He also suggested that if there are legitimate reasons to restrict night-time access it could be dealt with through, for example, local restrictions on access or even by by-laws. While I understand what Mr Meacher said, I believe that the public would easier understand a general agreement in order that they can distinguish the rights relating to different areas.

On the other hand, I accept that some organisations are opposed to a ban on night-time access and suspect that Members of the Committee have lobbied in the same way as I have. Those who have lobbied me suggest that there is a safety angle to the amendment; that is, a safety angle to preventing people from having access to land at night. I am sure that all responsible owners, organisations and charities whose land would be affected by my amendment would be the first to accept that emergency situations may arise. On such occasions it is safer to remain where one is than to risk walking or climbing at times other than those stated.

Safety is a big issue to those who walk at night. Some argue that as footpaths are open to the public 24 hours a day, so too should all access country. However, there is a great difference between walking along a footpath and rambling over unknown ground. The Ramblers' Association encourages members on night-time walks to inform someone where they plan to walk and when they plan to return. If ramblers, who are a well organised and experienced group, recommend such action, they realise and accept that night-time walking can be dangerous.

How do we balance the desire for night-time access with the needs of those who live or work in rural or remote parts of the country? Furthermore, how do we protect the wildlife? I have put forward both sides of the argument because it is important for us to accept that there are pros and cons on both sides. I hope that in reply the Minister will deal equally with both sides and not tell me only that my amendment is unnecessary.

It was argued that already people have access to large parts of the country at night and they have caused no problems. Perhaps that is not surprising

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because on the whole they are in well organised groups and are few in number. The Bill will allow everyone to walk where he or she wants, either individually or in groups. Indeed, Mr Mullin stated that a blanket curfew across millions of acres was neither justified nor enforceable. That is yet another issue which we must discuss in this opening debate. However, he went on to say that it was unlikely that more people would suddenly come forward. He thought it more likely that the same people would want to explore new territory. The difficulty is that not only must we consider the safety of walkers, land managers and wildlife but we must guess how many more people might want to walk at night-time.

Four groups have lobbied me, as I suspect they have other Members of the Committee. Although I missed debates in your Lordships' House, yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the Minsmere site in East Anglia, close to where I stayed at the weekend. The RSPB has some 2,300 acres in the area and it has a clear policy of opening from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., or until dusk if that is earlier. That applies to their reserve car parks, visitors' trails and hides. I asked the officers what concerned them about the Bill. The obvious one, which has not yet been mentioned, is the disruption of birds who come to rest on grassland in the area. Secondly, they reminded me that skylarks, for example, which have several broods during the year, breed until October or November. Indeed, the Minister has tabled a later amendment to extend the period but only until July.

The Game Conservancy Trust also wrote to me highlighting the problems of the breeding season, which is longer for some breeds. It also mentioned the control of foxes at night time and lamping.

Yesterday, I also visited Dunwich Heath, which is a National Trust property. It is clearly stated on the gates that they are locked at 8 p.m. No night-time caravanning, camping or roadside parking is allowed.

Finally, the Countryside Alliance, together with others, oppose night-time access. It states:

    "We do not think it can be justified neither in terms of the needs of rural communities nor in terms of public safety or necessity. We recognise there needs to be flexibility in the application of the law to take account of human error".

I hope that I covered that point earlier. People who want to enjoy 24-hour access on access land should be required to seek permission and give notification to the owner, occupier or land manager.

Night-time access is already enjoyed by many recreational groups on public rights of way. It should be remembered that the current Bill does not seek to exclude the existing arrangements but it gives a right in addition to, and not instead of, those currently enjoyed. Moreover, much of the access land is hazardous; for example, the moorland contains bogs.

I shall not speak for much longer but perhaps I may quote from an extremely good article which appeared in this month's Country Magazine and was written by my noble friend Lord Buxton. He wrote:

    "Possibly the most serious aspect of the proposals is the pressure for access at night".

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Earlier in the article he argued that if the Bill were about organised access there would be much less argument because most people prefer such access. I suggest that most members of the public want to walk during daylight hours but I accept that some want to walk at night. However, night-time walkers might cause more damage than is anticipated.

I apologise for taking quite so much time in moving the amendment but as it rubs off on subsequent amendments it is important to consider it. This is an important issue which we must examine in total. How can we protect our wildlife and ensure that walkers, land managers and those who live and work in rural areas are safe? I beg to move.

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