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Baroness Mallalieu: Perhaps I may add my voice to those who ask the Minister to be more flexible, particularly about Saturdays. It was not the intention of the Government that access would be increased at the expense of the livelihoods of those who work there. Indeed, when Mr Meacher was asked about the Government's intention regarding compensation, at col. 669 of the Official Report of 17th March 1999, he said that the independent study which the Government had commissioned indicated that there were unlikely to be any significant losses or costs to landlords because, among other things, there would be the continued ability of landowners,
Lord Monson: Although we are literally a long way from mountains or moorlands, I do not know anyone in my part of the world who shoots on any day other than a Saturday. Nearly all the guns work from Monday to Friday; and most of the beaters have other jobs from Monday to Friday. For that reason, I favour either Amendment No. 237 or possibly Amendment 250 which would seem to fill the bill quite well.
Lord Whitty: Let us go back to first principles. The right of access is to enable the people of this country to enjoy areas of the countryside which are currently closed to them. Most of those people, irrespective of whether they are ramblers or live in the countryside or town, work for five days a week. To extend the discretion to cover the weekends when the vast majority of people would utilise this right, without any check and without the authority of the countryside agencies, severely undermines a basic right.
The 28 days provides some flexibility to landowners without having to go through the Countryside Agency. That does not alter the fact that people who want to organise shoots on a Saturday, those who, for conservation reasons, during lambing, or whatever, need to close on a weekend or series of weekends still have the ability to obtain the authority from the agencies in addition to those 28 days. We are talking here about virtually total discretion for the landowner without reference to anyone else. If shooting is carried out on a Saturday, the Countryside Agency will be able to be persuaded that that is a sensible reason for closing the land on that day or series of days. Indeed, as I have said before, once agreed, the restrictions on the right of access can apply over a period of time.
Some of the amendments--this is certainly true of Amendment No. 237 and the subsequent ones--are a means of extending the 28 days. The noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, was explicit about that, although the others dodged the point. They would extend the discretion of the landowner to close access land without reference to the countryside authorities. Land could be closed for the whole of August, when most people take their holiday, or for seven weekends across the summer, restricting access for people whose only time for walking is at weekends.
Many of the points that have been raised can reasonably be met by landowners approaching the Countryside Agency to ensure that land management and access needs are appropriately balanced. If there is a need for weekend closure beyond the 28 days because of breeding, shooting or other land management purposes, the Countryside Agency will decide.
Lord Whitty: But neither are there any criteria in the amendments on how the 28 days can be used or extended. The 28 days could be used by an irresponsible landowner to exclude access for the period when people are most likely to want it. Some of the amendments, including Amendment No. 237, would extend the 28-day period considerably, without setting out any criteria for when those 28 days plus however many weekends applied. That could greatly extend the time that parts of the countryside are closed to the public.
As I pointed out earlier to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, landowners also have the flexibility of applying one set of 28 days to part of their land and another set of 28 days to another part of their land. That also answers the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. A tenant's land could be closed for one set of 28 days and the rest of thefreeholder's land could be closed for a different 28 days. There is considerable flexibility in the Bill.
Earl Peel: There may be considerable flexibility in the Bill, but, although the Minister tried to assure us earlier that the access authorities would be reasonable, there is no guarantee of how they will behave, as the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, has pointed out. If the Minister wants to assure us that the access authority will be reasonable, why is he not prepared to be reasonable? It amounts to the same thing. As the noble Baroness pointed out, the amendments would save all the bureaucratic nonsense of the owner having to go through the system. The Minister is arguing against himself.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: The income gained from shooting in the uplands is incredibly important to the ability to manage the area properly and to conserve wildlife. Shooting cannot be planned very far in advance. Very often, whether shooting can take place is determined by the keeper walking the hill to see the lie of the land, what the weather is likely to be and how the birds are. It is often not possible to seek agreement about closures through the Countryside Agency even modestly far in advance. The Minister should give serious consideration to allocating at least some of the 28 days to Saturday closure.
Viscount Bledisloe: The Minister has criticised some of the amendments because they would extend the 28-day period. Does he accept that Amendment No. 248 would do no such thing? It would leave the number of days at 28, but would remove the bar on weekend closure. If the Minister is worried that some landowners might abuse the situation by closing for
Lord Whitty: The noble Earl, Lord Peel, asked me to be reasonable. I think that I am being reasonable, but I am also trying to avoid bureaucracy. The 28-day provision was included to avoid having to go through bureaucracy and to give a basic right of discretion over land management. The provision is flexible, because different parcels of land can be dealt with separately. There are also clear provisions for how the Countryside Agency is to assess applications for closure. If it does not act reasonably, it will be inbreach of its duty and the landowner will be able to appeal to the Secretary of State.
Amendment No. 237 is an attempt, for whatever motivation, to extend the 28-day period. I cannot consider any amendment that would do that. Landlords have other ways of excluding their land for particular purposes outwith those 28 days. That is why we have included the application provisions. Applications for shooting on a Saturday would undoubtedly meet the Countryside Agency's criteria for the use of the land and the need to close the land for safety and management reasons.
Lord Whitty: I did not quite say that. Each case will be taken on its merits, but clearly the need for shooting for land management purposes and the safety implications of shooting when there is public access will be pretty strong grounds for the Countryside Agency to take into account.
I take in part the points made by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe. There may be another way of looking at the issue, but putting restrictions on the way in which weekends can be used within the 28 days could make things even more complicated.
Amendment No. 237 is certainly an attempt to extend the 28 days and I shall continue to resist it. I have not seen an amendment relating to weekends within the 28 days that would be sensible and workable. There may be such an amendment, but I have not seen it yet. I therefore continue to oppose the amendment before us. I shall take into account the views that have been expressed, but I hope that the amendment before us will be withdrawn. Having considered the views, I cannot give a commitment as to how far we would go because I believe that we could still end up with a completely unsatisfactory situation. Nevertheless, I hear the voices around the Chamber and will, without commitment, consider the matter further.
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