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I am happy to say that I do not disagree further with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and I am much more in tune with his reasoning on the other amendments. It strikes me that the definition of a hedge as
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there are people, unfortunately, who would take advantage of the Bill if the definition of a hedge were extended to six trees? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that one tree can constitute a significant barrier. There are some who would not use one tree as a significant barrier, but we all deal with cases in which people use two trees--or even one, in some cases--to cause significant annoyance and nuisance to an immediate neighbour whose only crime has been to live next door, quite peaceably, and get on with their own affairs.
Mr. Forth: That may happen in some extreme cases. The hon. Lady raises an important question on which I should like to touch, although it is not entirely appropriate at this stage of the debate. Do we use a Bill such as this to deal with that restricted, limited and unfortunate set of circumstances? This is a problem of our times. Because we are developing a blame culture and a complainant culture, Members of Parliament often feel obliged or persuaded to use statute to meet the complaints of an ever-narrowing number of people, and I am not sure that that is right.
I do not see it as my job here to assist in the making of law to deal with an ever-diminishing range and focus of complaints. I am not saying that if the Bill does not deal with every conceivable set of complaints it is defective. We must at some point accept that there must be limitations on the aspiration, effect and scope of legislation. It is not necessary to deal with everything. I argued a moment ago for widening the scope of the Bill in what I believe to be a reasonable way. However, it does not have to meet every criterion. If this were intended to be the high hedges and single intrusive trees Bill, we should have called it that--then we would all know what we were talking about. What worries me is the danger of inadvertently providing a mechanism to engender and encourage a huge number of activities.
The hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) said that he believed that the majority of the problems arising in this area would be dealt with by amicable discussion and mediation, and that we would be left with a hard core of cases. However, every time we extend the scope of this, based on the definitions in clause 2, we are in danger of
I have been very modest in suggesting that the definition should be three or more adjacent evergreens. One is in danger of getting into a very narrow debate. I simply wanted to make a point, and if I had to make the choice, I might even prefer to go along with my hon. Friend's proposal rather than my own.
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): My right hon. Friend has been somewhat critical of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). Perhaps he would be interested in the contents of a letter that I received only this morning from a Mrs. Porter of The Wheatlands, Bridgnorth. She writes concerning high hedge abuse. There is no question but that high hedges cause enormous difficulties between neighbours. She says:
Mr. Forth: Of course I accept what my hon. Friend says. I am pretty sure that almost every Member of the House--were they to take the trouble of attending on these occasions--could produce a letter from a constituent of the kind produced by my hon. Friend. We have to judge whether we think that the Bill is an appropriate response to the emotional cases raised with us by constituents. We have to make a judgment about the number and seriousness of such cases and whether the Bill offers a proportionate response to them. That is what we are here to do.
My concern, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, is that in many respects the Bill is disproportionate and would be an over-reaction; in its details lie the seeds of misunderstandings that could lead us into difficult circumstances.
Mr. Pound: The right hon. Gentleman raises a most important point which in many ways cuts to the heart of our debate. He will be aware of biblical references to the upas tree which poisons all that come close to it. I am sure that he must be aware that, in many cases, disputes between neighbours are conducted by arboricultural proxy--that is a severe problem. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the point made so well and so eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that, far from increasing the scope for litigation--moving into those murky waters of compensation and blame and all the other things that the right hon. Gentleman rightly condemns--the measure removes the thrust from the civil courts and places it in a more detailed, defined, narrowed locus? In fact--and this is a remarkable and extraordinary thought--it may actually reduce the amount of civil legislation and dispute.
The definition of "hedge" in the Bill is inappropriate and could be misleading. In another of my amendments, I propose to broaden the definition--away from "evergreen"--for the reasons that I gave earlier. Amendment No. 85, in which I propose to substitute "six feet" for "two metres", has already been well rehearsed. I merely place myself in the camp of those wrinklies and crumblies who feel much more comfortable with feet and inches than with centimetres and metres. I make no apology for that.
I shall not dwell on the matter, but in the context of a Bill such as this, it is perfectly appropriate for us to make the point that we should have feet instead of metres. Perhaps we should have both--I would accept that; younger generations--my children's generation--are on the other side of that particular fence, but I do not want to labour the point.
However, I do want to discuss briefly amendment No. 86. The Bill needs provisions to deal with the distance between the trees, shrubs, bushes or whatever we end up including in the definition. That point has a direct bearing on the matter of light. Self-evidently, if such flora overlap or abut one another, they will obstruct the light. If, however, there are distances between them, they will not obstruct the light--or will do so to a much lesser extent. There is a lacuna in the Bill--certainly in clause 2--in that no reference is made to that.
The Bill includes the words "form a barrier", but contains no remotely adequate definition of a barrier. It deals with height--something dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch in the now rather controversial formula that has already, properly, absorbed some of our time this morning. It refers in clause 2(2)(b) to
My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull is an eminent and experienced law practitioner, and he perhaps thinks that he understands the words of his Bill. I am sure that he does, because otherwise he would not have brought it before the House, but I defy him to say that the average neighbour, even in Solihull, where all the residents are people of extreme discretion--otherwise they would not have elected my hon. Friend--could pick his way through clause 2(2)(b) and come out feeling that he knew what on earth a high hedge or a barrier was or what constituted a gap.