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The Earl of Caithness: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. I had hoped that she would take this amendment away for consideration, but she led us on to Clause 24, and nature conservation. Such closure orders may be needed quickly. Can she reassure the Committee on the speed with which such decisions will be made? If there is a threat to nature conservation or a sudden hot spell, which Yorkshire has at regular intervals, the fire risk increases and action needs to be taken quickly.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Subject to confirmation of what I am about to say, I am certain that, within its terms of reference, English Nature would react with great speed in circumstances where there was the kind of risk to which the noble Earl has referred.
Lord Greaves: Would the Minister consider whether the word "exceptional" should be in this part of the Bill? I do not believe, for example, that the Meteorological Office would want to use a loose word like "exceptional" to describe weather. It talks about events that may occur once in five years or once in 50 years. Whether a particular weather condition is exceptional or not is a matter of opinion. What the weather is at a particular time is a matter of fact. It may help if the Government consider removing the word "exceptional", which at best is redundant and at worse inaccurate.
Lord Williamson of Horton: The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in a sense is making the same point as I did. I am not necessarily in favour of removing a reference to the weather, as is proposed in the amendment, but the phrase "exceptional conditions of weather" will cause difficulties for the authority that has to take the decision. It is quite possible to have a continuously hot summer. So far in this debate we have talked only of Yorkshire, but there are other parts of the country where we have hot summers--they will get hotter too. There can be a hot summer, which is safe from the point of view of fire risk for a large number of months, but perhaps by September the situation may be sufficiently dangerous to make it necessary to have a
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Come back Michael Fish! There is a difficulty in the points being raised by the noble Lords, Lord Greaves and Lord Williamson of Horton. If we were to remove the reference to "exceptional weather", the converse situation could be applied; that is, the normal pattern of weather in summer could be used as a reason for closing large areas of the countryside for long periods.
Lord Greaves: But then we come back to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness; that is, that it is a combination of the weather and its effect on the land that is important. Whatever the weather conditions, even if there had been a long hot summer, they may not have affected a specific moor very much and so the provision would not apply. It is the combination of the weather and the condition of the land that must be taken into consideration and the most important factor must be the condition of the land.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: I understand the point being made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, but I have a concern that the solution he seeks to put forward could be used as a means of ensuring that public access is restricted in many areas for long periods of time.
I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson, whether I am prepared to reconsider the arguments put forward and see if they can be applied without denying people access to land for long periods of time in conditions that are normal for the vegetation in a specific part of the country. I do not want to mislead Members of the Committee by implying that we will come back and change the wording. However, everybody appears to seek the same objective. But there is a difference of opinion on how to achieve it without, on the one hand, reducing access too much and, on the other, still responding to exceptional circumstances.
Earl Peel: The noble Baroness implied that if the words were changed in the Bill to meet this amendment, it could result in large areas of land being closed for long periods of time, which I understand would be unacceptable. But the Government have constantly told us throughout the passage of this Bill, "Do not worry, the Countryside Agency will be reasonable and look after your interests". Now that the boot is on the other foot, does not that reasonableness apply just as well?
Earl Peel: I should never dream of accusing the Minister of bad faith and certainly I was not doing so in this case. But having heard the argument used constantly, "Do not worry, the Countryside Agency will look after your interests", I thought in this case it could be turned to our advantage. However, the noble Baroness does not accept my argument on that.
Lord Glentoran: That has been a useful and valuable debate and I thank the Minister for her encouragement. The weather is subjective but the ground--what is growing or is dead on it and the type of terrain--is more relevant. I am sure that the Minister knows, but it might be worth recording, that the Peak District National Park Authority has a sophisticated system using the Meteorological Office and computers to assess fire risk. Considering all the work that will be done, the time is coming to make our fire prevention a little more sophisticated than relying on the weather.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: The noble Lord raised the issue of the Peak District National Park Authority which, I understand, considers a range of criteria in deciding whether to use its powers of closure under the National Park and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 on access agreement land. The authority's powers under the 1949 Act are based on a similar form of words to those which appear in the Bill and we are not aware of any representations that those powers have been found wanting.
The noble Baroness said: The amendment seeks to keep Clause 23 in the present as opposed to the past or in the future. The clause deals with things done or proposed to be done. Most people would understand that to refer to the past and the future. Therefore, the drafting opens up the possibility of saying that because something was done in the past the land should be restricted or closed. I refer, for example, to Ministry of Defence land which, once it has been taken out of use and made reasonably safe, need not continue to be closed. However, the provision could apply to all kinds
The Earl of Selborne: Normally I follow the noble Baroness because she is the sole of clarity, but on this occasion I am slightly mystified. Is it not possible that something in the past tense might be a good reason for not allowing people on to the land? Let us suppose, for example, that for good reason the soil had been fumigated. It might then be most undesirable to give people access over it. Does she intend that people cannot be restricted from access in such circumstances?
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: When tabling the amendment I was more concerned that the Bill appeared to preclude many things which were "being" done. They are not mentioned. It is possible that the noble Earl is correct and perhaps I should have drafted an amendment which read "being done or proposed to be done". However, I believe that the exclusion of the present tense is dangerous.
Baroness Byford: I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 269 and 272 in the group. I shall be brief. The first amendment refers to the "conditions prevailing" as well as to the operations taking place or proposed. Clause 23(1)(a) refers to the weather conditions and paragraph (b) refers to "anything done, or proposed to be done". That does not cover the spread of bracken, which I have referred to, or to a plague of rabbits or other vermin. The amendment provides reference to "conditions prevailing" in order to cover those points.
Amendment No. 272, inserting the words "an indefinite period", provides for exclusion or restriction for an indefinite period. It is not possible to quantify the likely period of closure for such things as weather conditions. The amendment provides that closure or restriction may be for an indefinite period.
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