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Earl Peel: My Lords, the point is that they have the discretion. Once they have made the decision that a request for closure is appropriate, surely they should then carry it out, and "shall" should be substituted for "may". It could not be simpler.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I have been in this House for nearly 18 years and I do not think there has been a month when there has not been a "may"/"shall" debate. Relevant authorities must have a clear discretion to take into account all of the circumstances in each case. "May" makes that clear.
I hope that, even at this hour, the Minister will separate the two amendments, and indicate why this proposal is objectionable. I do not think that any point of policy turns on it. It is a question of clarifying the position rather than anything else. I hope that the Minister will accept that if we were trying to introduce some change of policy or balance, we should say so; but that is not the case.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I already risk abusing the conventions of the House at Report stage. I do not accept that. I believe that discretion is paramount. The effect of the amendments, individually and collectively would be, by stealth, to extend the 28-day period.
Earl Peel: My Lords, I do not like being accused of trying to extend the closures by stealth. The amendment is perfectly clear. There is a contradiction in terms. In view of the Minister's wholly unsatisfactory answer, I should like to test the opinion of the House.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
Fire effects can be catastrophic, as many of us have seen over the years. I recall the fire on Rosedale Moor in 1976. That moor has still not recovered. Fire is a debilitating factor and has considerable impacts on nature conservation. Exceptional weather conditions suggest prolonged drought. "Exceptional conditions of weather" is the phrase used in the Bill as at present drafted. That is simply not enough. We have to take into account these other factors. I hope that the Government will look carefully at the issue. I do not look for extensions on closure orders. I simply seek to address the important issue of fire which I do not believe is properly addressed in the wording of the Bill as drafted. I beg to move.
Baroness Young of Old Scone: My Lords, the noble Earl has a point. Where weather conditions may not be right for closure through fire risk other issues might come into play. Heathland can be at risk because the older and woodier heather is exceptionally combustible; or peat may have dried out over a long period of time. There are circumstances where a broader index is taken into account. The Meteorological Office Rainfall and Evaporation Calculation System (MOREX)--it gives objective and quantitative risk status taking into account a number of issues--is used at present with regard to closures for fire risks in the Peak and North York Moors National Parks.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I shall not repeat what I said in Committee. However, I do not understand why the Government are not prepared to look at some alternative wording. My preference would be to refer in general terms to conditions giving rise to a fire risk, ignoring reference to weather and so on. I ask the
The Duke of Montrose: My Lords, I apologise to your Lordships for not being in my place earlier to move my amendment. My organisation was such that the two people whom I asked to move it in my absence were both unable to do so.
I support my noble friend's amendment. We have a moor which suffers from lack of proper maintenance. In some ways it reflects what the noble Baroness, Lady Young, said. The moor has become heavily infected with heather beetle. Instead of large woody heather, there is an enormous amount of dry tinder-like heather with no life in it. If huge areas like that developed, it would be a greater fire risk at times when there was no danger from extreme weather.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not think that we have any disagreement about the need to avoid fires and to deal with fire risk, just as we have no disagreement about the need to deal with exceptional weather conditions. The amendment would allow any combination of conditions of the weather, the condition of the ground or the vegetation on the land to be taken into account. We are in danger of descending into theology here if we seek to cover every possible eventuality.
We believe that the provision in Clause 23 will cover all those cases where there is a legitimate need for restrictions or exclusion of access. It will be necessary to look at the weather in conjunction with the condition of the land and the vegetation: the noble Earl, Lord Peel, is right. But the weather conditions are the key to the exercise of the power. There will be situations where the risk of fire becomes most serious some considerable time after the exceptional weather, such as a prolonged drought, but the risk will still be due to that earlier exceptional weather and will still fall within Clause 23.
As we said in Committee, there may be other circumstances in which there is a possible fire risk that has not arisen because of the exceptional weather conditions. For example, some types of vegetative cover may be flammable even in an ordinary summer. Those conditions are not exceptional and, by definition, they are not caused by usual weather conditions. They are part of the normal fabric of the open countryside and I am not satisfied that they give enough reason to restrict access to the land.
The noble Baroness, Lady Young, referred to the Peak District National Park and North Yorkshire. The Peak District park has powers to exclude access at times of high fire risk under the same circumstances as provided for in Clause 23(1)(a). We are not aware of any representations that the powers have been inadequate. The Countryside Agency is working with the Meteorological Office to develop an early warning system. That may be what my noble friend referred to, although I did not catch the acronym. It will take account of weather and ground conditions and enable the relevant authority to assess whether a direction for
As we explained in Committee, if we allowed restrictions of public access in the generalised circumstances described in the amendment, many parts of the countryside could be closed to the public during most of the summer months when most people are likely to visit it. I am prepared to consider whether there is any mileage in pursuing the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, of making a particular reference to fire risk as a subordinate consideration, but putting the three on an equal footing, as the amendment would, is not justified.
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