|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
I also congratulate my constituents, Michael Jones and Clare Hinchliffe, and their organisation Hedgeline, who have done so much to change the attitude of hon. Members towards the problem of high hedges. The Bill, if given a fair wind today, will end the battle against what the Daily Mail described as the "curse of the leylandii". My constituents and the people throughout the country who have been in touch with them have been instrumental in changing the attitudes of Members.
When I first took up the issue shortly after being elected for Selly Oak, the response from Ministers in the then Department of the Environment suggested that they regarded it as a frivolous and unimportant matter, which did not warrant any special attention. I therefore pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), who, during his tenure as Under-Secretary for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, will have done much to ensure that officials apply themselves properly to the measures necessary to combat the nuisance that hon. Members have so ably described this morning.
The process has been slow, but we have arrived. A consultation paper was issued in November 1999, when the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green), who is in his place, attacked it as half-hearted. He said:
I tabled early-day motion 133 of the Session 1999-2000, which welcomed the publication of the consultation paper, but emphasised that only legislation would provide a solution to the complaints that hon. Members received throughout the land. I am pleased that it had the support not only of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), who is currently shadow Secretary of State, but of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who said:
The consultation paper gathered an unprecedented number of responses from members of the public. I do not believe that so many ordinary people have ever responded to a consultation paper. More than 2,700 people responded, and 93 per cent. of respondents supported legislation. There is a clamour for the introduction of the Bill. Given the cross-party support for the measure, I hope that it will pass on to a Committee stage, when it will receive detailed scrutiny. If that happens, many people throughout the country will breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of a solution to the nuisance and distress that they have suffered because of oppressive high hedges.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Recently, a Labour Member said that he supported a private Member's Bill because he was one of the promoter's oldest and dearest friends. I am in a difficult position. I freely confess my long-standing affection and admiration for my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor). He and I go back further than perhaps either of us would care to remember, and we have undergone adventures and episodes together. I must struggle not to allow my affection for him to get in the way of my judgment about his Bill. That will be difficult because I face not a dilemma but--perhaps--a trilemma about the Bill, its provenance and its aim.
It is clear from our debate that several people throughout the country have written to hon. Members about the subject of the Bill. So far, more have written from Solihull than from Bromley and Chislehurst, although I have received one or two letters on the matter--one this week. I therefore agree with hon. Members who have mentioned constituents' letters. The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) read out a moving letter on the subject. The problem therefore exists, but should we feel obliged to legislate to deal with it?
A recent tendency, which probably arises more in consideration of private Members' Bills than other measures, has emerged. However, it also arose on the Bill on the disqualification of clergy. In that case, an individual wanted to be a candidate for election to the House, and the Government felt moved to change the law of the land. I had difficulty with that. I do not agree that because several people have a problem, we must legislate in a hurry or even slowly. It is not a sufficient reason.
My second difficulty is that the Bill is substantial. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull described the Bill, in a typically elegant phrase, as "conceptually simple". The hon. Member for Bath said that the measure was straightforward and painless. I take issue with both descriptions. The Bill demonstrates the difficulty that arises when we try to find a simple solution to a simple problem. The Bill contains 20 clauses--a reasonably large measure by any standards. Of course, it is not the sort of mammoth Bill that the Government produce almost weekly and try to shove through Committee in an untimely manner. The House dealt with such a matter earlier; we shall have to return to it next week. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull would not disagree with the description of the Bill as "substantial".
My hon. Friend is trying to deal with an apparently simple matter: people feel upset and irritated or have their health affected by the actions of their neighbours. That is not new territory. Let us consider the phenomenon of suburbia. My hon. Friend's constituency is an elegant and outstanding example of that, as is Bromley and Chislehurst. They are similar. Suburbia, with its detached and semi-detached houses, can demonstrate the difficulty of neighbours living cheek by jowl, sharing party walls or boundaries and fences. The problem of hedges is a further example of that, albeit relatively recent and, it emerges, fairly extreme.
In seeking to solve the problem, we must be careful to strike a balance--here I defer to my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, who is a solicitor of some eminence and great experience--between what we call, in layman's terms that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) would probably understand, the traditional sanctity of private property and of the domestic dwelling, whereby the Englishman's home is his castle, and the reasonable behaviour of neighbours. That is what my hon. Friend's Bill seeks to do. I fear that, in seeking to do that, things might have become somewhat over-complicated.
Mr. Bercow: The House has to decide whether the Bill satisfies the criterion of proportionality. That criterion must be satisfied for Parliament to judge it right to legislate. In that context--I make no valuation; I am simply asking the question--does my right hon. Friend agree that we would do well to bear in mind the words of Walter Lippman, who observed a long time ago that, in a free society, the state does not administer the affairs of men, but administers justice among men who conduct their own affairs?
Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I wish that that were so. He and I share a longing to return to the age when such ideas prevailed. My fear is that we are now too readily moving--if we are not already there--into an era in which people expect and demand that their every problem should be dealt with by someone else: the local authority, the Government, or the European Union, God help us.
We are losing, if we have not already lost, the idea of robust, responsible, free citizens, which we have striven to protect for centuries in our common law and in all our customs and traditions. People are no longer prepared robustly to look after their own interests, but look constantly to someone else to solve their problems
Mr. John M. Taylor: My right hon. Friend makes his case in a principled way, and I thank him for his earlier kind remarks about me. He prayed in aid the English common law as part of our robust framework of affairs. Does he accept from me, speaking as a lawyer, that one problem is that some parts of that common law are worse than others--and one of them is the law of nuisance? The aggrieved citizen, in circumstances such as those we are discussing, hardly dares go to court citing the English law of nuisance because it is so uncertain.
We find ourselves, of necessity, having to define high hedges, which the Bill does. It would not be appropriate at this stage of the proceedings to raise too many questions about whether the definition is sufficiently sound--I am not an expert in the matter--but when one sets out, in a Bill such as this, adequately to define what one means by anything, never mind high hedges, there is always potential for getting into difficulty. I can envisage that, if the Bill becomes law, some people in the horticultural or arboricultural business might look at the definition and ask themselves whether they could circumvent the provisions. I wonder, therefore, whether the definition is adequate. However, I am on dangerous ground, so I shall say no more on that matter. I merely flag it up as a potential problem.
First, the complainant must approach "the relevant authority", which will be the local authority. It has been helpfully pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull and the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham) that the complaint will probably be dealt with by an expert officer. At the outset, the authority will have to decide whether to proceed with the complaint. That is an initial hurdle, at which the complaint's seriousness or frivolity will be judged by someone. I foresee, even at that stage, the possibility of the aggrieved citizen saying, "You are not taking my complaint sufficiently seriously." Right at the beginning, it will be possible for the citizen to feel that their case is not being properly dealt with by the authority.
Finally, the clause contains a measure that I suspect my hon. Friend slipped in out of amusement--I will not say self-interest, because he no longer practises as a solicitor, which is a great loss to the legal profession. That provision states that the authority must take into consideration