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Baroness Byford: My Lords, I hope I am coming in at the right moment. I apologise to my noble friend Lord Peel. I do not think I have ever been as good-looking as my noble friend and I am sorry that I rose to speak before him.
Perhaps I may turn to the amendments standing in my name, Amendments No 123, 124 and 127. I do not intend to move Amendment No. 127. Amendments Nos. 123 and 124 refer to the position of owners or occupiers who may decide to diversify, either commercially or by signing up to one of the Government's stewardship schemes. We discussed the matter earlier. I should like to reassure the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, that my amendments were not intended to make land inaccessible to people. I apologise if they had that interpretation. That was not the purpose behind them.
I turn to Amendment No. 124. There is no formal right of application in the Bill for owners or occupiers to seek closures or restrictions on conservation grounds. Some conservation bodies may own access land; for example, the RSPB, the Wildlife Trust and the National Trust. Other private owners may wish also to secure closures or restrictions for the purposes of protecting wildlife. That does not refer to the wildlife that the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, has just referred to which are protected to get shot; it refers to the wildlife that are protected to be protected. While such owners may be able to request closures, the lack of a formal right to apply means that there is no corresponding appeal against a refusal to grant such an application.
The effect of the provisions is that the case for closures on conservation grounds could be given less overall weight than the case for closure for land management purposes. That lack of balance should be redressed. The amendment would widen the definition of land management under Clause 22 to include closures to conserve important features of the land. The right for an application for occupiers to close on nature conservation grounds would then be accompanied by a right of appeal under provisions related to the land management closures.
If there was a separate right to apply for conservation closures outside Clause 22, it would need a separate right of appeal. Sweeping it under the existing appeals provision by widening the scope of the existing right of application under Clause 22 represents the best way forward, and hence our amendment.
Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 124A, 124B and 125A. Perhaps I may make a general inquiry of the Minister about Clause 22. Noble Lords on the Government Front Bench have frequently relied on the existence of Clause 22 as a reason for arguing against other amendments which have been put forward. My fear--which may be a mere lawyer's fear--in relation to Clause 22 is that it will be interpreted as applying only to very specialised situations; for example, where an occupier would come within Clause 22 only if his case was very different from that of other landowners.
From what noble Lords on the Government Front Bench have said, that is not their intention. They regard Clause 22 as being very wide in giving the agency the power to make these closures in any circumstances where it considers it appropriate. I should be grateful if the Minister could reassure us that there is no such restriction as I fear and that every application can be approached without a presumption either way and certainly without a presumption that an occupier would come within Clause 22 only if his case was very special.
Amendments Nos. 124A and 125A enlarge the number of reasons for which the orders may be made to include the prevention and diminution--I apologise for the fact that the Public Bill Office has misspelt "diminution": it is not my fault--of harm to the land, to people or to animals in order to allow cases to be dealt with where some kinds of access are likely to disturb or frighten people, to disturb or frighten and thereby injure animals or to cause damage. If those matters were included as grounds for closing the land if the access authority thought it appropriate, that would very much reduce the worries that have given rise to earlier amendments.
Amendment No. 124B deals with a separate point. It seeks to make it plain that closure under Clause 22 can relate to specific hours of the day rather than to specific periods of the year; for example, it could be used to control night access. If the Minister can give me a categoric assurance that that power already
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 126 and 128 which stand in my name. The purpose of the amendments is to explore whether the considerations to which the relevant authority should have regard when it is considering whether to grant exclusions or restrictions are adequate. The amendments are tabled to help in particular the small farmer who may need to apply for extra restrictions at weekends. It is possible that a small farmer's partner and children will be fully occupied during the week in other forms of employment or as students. For some purposes of land management it may be reasonable for that person to apply to close at weekends.
As I read Clause 22(3), the factors to which the relevant authority should have regard do not include the opportunities available to the applicant in question to undertake the land management required. Although paragraph (b) refers to,
On 30th October, the Government wrote to my noble friend Lady Hamwee in response to these concerns. They stated that, in their view, nothing in Clause 22(3) would interfere with the discretion already in the gift of the relevant authority. The letter went on to say that the Government did not believe that these amendments were necessary. However, I should like to establish on the record whether the relevant authority can have sufficient regard to an individual case, in particular in relation to the small-scale applicant.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not know quite how many issues are before the House at the moment, given the number of amendments tabled here. However, perhaps I may start by assuring the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, about Clause 22 in general. It is our intention--and the Bill provides--that applications made under Clause 22 will be considered on their merits. Nothing in Clause 22 provides that such applications would have to be wholly exceptional or different from other applications. Having said that, which I believe would apply to all the amendments tabled to Clause 22, I shall go on to deal with them individually.
Amendment No. 121, taken together with Amendments Nos. 122 and 125, would require the relevant authorities to make a direction for a land management closure upon application by someone with an interest in the land, whenever it was expedient for the management of the land. We do not expect that landowners will often need to apply for additional closures on land management grounds. The 28 discretionary days--which can be applied to any parcel of land--will usually be enough. Applications may need to be made if the closure or restriction is required on certain weekend days or bank holidays, or if the 28 days have been used on a particular parcel of land.
It is important that the relevant authorities should have a clear discretion in making such directions so that they can take into account all the facts of the case. Again, this forms a part of my response to the general question put by the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe. If a landowner has used up all of his 28 days simply because he does not want walkers on his land, then it is reasonable that the authority should take that into account in deciding whether to give a direction under Clause 22. However, if he has made good use of his discretionary closures, we expect the relevant authority to look favourably on the application and to be likely to make the requested direction.
This means that we are certainly prepared to be flexible and we would expect an authority to judge cases on their merits. What we do not want is to introduce amendments to the Bill which would, by stealth and without good reason, increase the 28 days to 38 days or any other period. Of course, if the authority does not make a direction in accordance with the application, the applicant will have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State or to the National Assembly.
We have also made it clear that the relevant authority should restrict access only as far as is necessary for the purposes outlined in the application. If restricting access to paths would be sufficient to enable the landowner to carry on activities outlined in his application, then that is what should be directed--not a total exclusion. The term "expedient" implies that the direction could be for more than is strictly necessary for the purposes of the application. At least, that is what I think it means; either it means nothing or it means something wider than "necessary". We do not accept that access should be excluded or restricted unless it is necessary for the purposes set out in Chapter II.
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