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Baroness Gale: My Lords, I speak against Amendments Nos. 19 and 28. Much has been said about access at night. The ban on access at night--if these amendments were carried--would reduce the access currently available and being used by many individuals and organisations. Bodies that allow access at night have not experienced any significant problems. The Bill already provides for closures and restrictions to be made on a local basis or for by-laws to be introduced where there is shown to be a problem with access at night.
Many people gain great pleasure from walking whether it be at night time or day time. If they wish to walk at night, why should that be denied? How would this ban be enforced? I believe that a ban on night access would be unenforceable.
Most people who enjoy walking are responsible people. They care about the countryside. So why would they not use the same responsibility at night? The risks of walking at night, falling down crevices and numerous other risks, were spoken about earlier. Those who walk are generally responsible. They take those risks into account and do not walk in dangerous areas.
As the Bill stands, it provides for night access and safeguards should any problems arise. Where there are safeguards people should be allowed access--day or night--to enjoy fully the pleasures of walking. It would take away the spirit of this Bill if these amendments were carried.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, we have had a long debate on this issue as we did in Committee. The noble Viscount claimed that this was a reasonable compromise. I do not believe that it is a reasonable compromise. It effectively provides a blanket presumption that there will be no access at night. As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, that severely restricts the right to access.
The arguments have hardly been put on behalf of those who would enjoy this access, for those engaged in hill walking and climbing for which night access is an integral part of their whole occupation and it goes right through to those who wish simply to observe the sunrise or sunset. In that context, it would take me
Beyond that, education and training establishments attach great importance to training at night time. The British Mountaineering Council advises that it is essential for leaders and individual members to have night time experience. Much of the training undertaken by the Mountain Rescue Service, referred to in Committee, is conducted at night. It is strongly in favour of not having a restriction at night.
English Nature has advised that there is no general concern over access during the hours of darkness. Many groups of naturalists require access at night in order to observe nocturnal animals and insects. Those people have special interests but they are exactly the kind of special interests to which the right of access should apply. They may not amount to very many people in total but they are important groups of people and the very fact that they may not amount to many people means that many of the fears and anxieties reflected in the debate are invalid. We are not talking about hordes of people crossing the countryside at night. We are talking about people enjoying the right of access for very specific purposes.
Very few will want to walk beyond the paths and tracks but there are some people who do. We have experience of these matters, and several noble Lords have referred to it. There are vast areas of the countryside where access by night exists at present--on Forestry Commission land, National Trust land and the Lake District to which my noble friend Lord Dubs referred. There is a wide variety of different types of land with different levels of population density and so on.
In all those areas, there has been no serious problem. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said, in the Lake District, there are 1,000 square kilometres of open land where there are already statutory access rights 24 hours, day and night. We have not heard one single example of how that existing access has given rise to the kind of problems which have been raised today.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, under the amendment that we have just passed, nobody could get close to the noble Lord's front door to steal his bike. Access would not apply within 20 metres of his front door.
In those parts of the country, for 75 years or longer, there have been substantial rights of access. In areas such as the Peak District, there has been access at night well beyond the rights of way. I do not believe that the noble Earl, Lord Peel, is correct in his references to the Lake District. Access rights in the Lake District do not have to be negotiable and they are not restricted to
Earl Peel: My Lords, I was not suggesting that for one moment. I was saying that where access has been negotiated on open land away from footpaths, that has been done through the local access authority or through groups of people in conjunction with the owner or occupier so everybody knows what is going on. There is a world of difference between the two.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not believe that that represents the position in the Lake District although there is a great deal of co-operation and understanding there. That underlines the point that if effective access management exists, there are relatively few problems.
As was said earlier, those who are likely to take advantage of the rights of access somewhat resent being regarded as potential criminals. The experience of over half a century does not give any credence to the arguments which have been put forward here today.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, referred to rural crime. Crime in countryside areas is largely committed against people who live in villages or small towns where the right of access, the right of way--a pavement or a road or a lane--comes close to the property. That is where the bulk of rural crime takes place. In any event, the figures for rural crime are diminishing, rather than as has been alleged in the House this afternoon.
Those who carry out crime do not need the cover of access rights. Almost by definition, a burglar is a person who does not observe access rights in any event. Arsonists are in the same category. Noble Lords have told the House of incidents of arson which are regrettable, as was the case of the theft of the noble Lord's mountain bike, about which I should have commiserated with him. But those arsonists do not require the cover of access rights in order to carry out their crimes. And they are crimes and they will continue to be so. Rustlers and poachers have, from time immemorial, carried out their crimes in the countryside without any rights of access.
The idea that suddenly giving a right of access means that those crimes will increase seems to me misplaced. Indeed, although I do not make a great point of it, I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that, if anything, the fact that more people are around at night may limit that rather than having the opposite effect.
In any event, as I said, we have passed an amendment to provide a 20-metre exclusion zone around dwellings which should give greater security to those who fear the effects of the extension of these rights at night time.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, referred to the safety of walkers. I accept that in open and sometimes remote countryside there are dangers, serious dangers. But walkers take those risks, whether by day or night, and they must bear the primary responsibility for their own safety. If somebody does something which is foolhardy, then he must accept the consequences of his actions. That has always been the position under the law and it will continue to be the position after this Bill has passed.
I contend that the case for a blanket national ban on access at night has simply not been made. It would seriously curtail the totality of the right of access. In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to 50 per cent. It is slightly less than that but it is a substantial part of the day. That cannot be justified on past experience, on evidence or on an assessment of the kind of people who would make use of that right or on the basis of fear of rural crime.
The noble Baroness was right to say that there must be a balance here but we have already struck that balance in this Bill. This amendment puts the balance the wrong way round. The presumption of the amendment is that night access should be banned, except in those areas where particular circumstances apply. The Bill as it stands would provide for night access, except in those areas where special circumstances arise and that can be dealt with either by exclusion or by by-laws. That seems to me to be sensible. That can deal with areas which are particularly vulnerable or have been subject to serious crime or particularly vulnerable to particular types of crime. The Bill provides that flexibility and that is the right way round in this Bill. To turn it on its head and put it the other way round begins to undermine the purpose of the Bill and I do not believe that we can pass the Bill with such a serious restriction on the right which we hope to be giving to the people of this country.
The flexibility in the Bill makes it possible to deal with real problems. The noble Viscount and many of those who have supported him have been dealing with phantom problems. Let us deal with the real problems and provide the flexibility to meet them. But let us not pretend that the access for people who will enjoy night-time access will cause the kind of problems which have been alluded to by many noble Lords today. I hope that the House will reject the amendment if it is pursued.
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