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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, how quickly could a criminal case be brought to court? A criminal prosecution would have to wait its turn. Priority would be given to more serious custodial cases. It might take months. It is not possible to be authoritative on the cost of injunctions compared with a private prosecution, because they will vary between cases, but they are likely to be higher for a prosecution.
The noble Lord, Lord Monson, cited the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. That Act said that trespass was a criminal offence only when the trespasser did something to intimidate, obstruct or disrupt a lawful activity on the land. That is not the restriction in Amendment No. 3. The provisions of the 1994 Act would still be a criminal offence on access land. I am sorry, but there is no way in which we can accept the amendment.
Amendment No. 17 is based on understandable and well informed concerns about the impact of breaches of restrictions to protect nature conservation interests on a site. It would apply a fine of up to £500 to a breach of a restriction or exclusion imposed on conservation grounds under Clause 26. It would require that the breach was intentional, had occurred at least three times in the past month and was likely to result in damage.
However, I am not convinced that it is appropriate or necessary to have a blanket criminal offence, even for a breach of a nature conservation restriction, where no harm or damage is caused. I believe that that is the key point. Criminalising trespass on land where access is restricted for conservation reasons would mean that we would be dealing differently with important conservation areas according to whether or not they were access land. That is not rational.
Perhaps I may give comfort to my noble friend Lady Young. I want to convince her that the Bill is already adequate to achieve what she wants. It will significantly increase the protection to wildlife and conservation sites. Part III improves enforcement of wildlife legislation, increases fines to £5,000 and introduces prison sentences for serious offences. It also creates new offences of intentionally or recklessly destroying or damaging SSSIs or disturbing rare animals on such sites, punishable with fines of up to
Where identifiable harm or damage occurs, it will be subject to a criminal penalty. If a certain activity causes a particular problem, such as repeated breaches of conservation restrictions, Clause 17 enables the local authority to make it the subject of a by-law. That is the second leg of the comfort which I offer to my noble friend. English Nature already has by-law-making powers in relation to national nature reserves and European conservation areas, and we have tabled an amendment to Part III which will extend that power to cover all SSSIs. Surely that targeted approach is the right way to deal with any problems which may arise.
It is likely that simple restrictions on access will usually be sufficient to protect sensitive sites; for example, by limiting access to paths or applying tougher restrictions on dogs. The vast majority of walkers--I believe that everyone agrees with this--are likely to observe such restrictions without recourse to the criminal law. As I have already explained, where wilful and repeated trespass occurs, the court will be able to issue injunctions. Where harm or damage occurs, the general criminal law will apply.
I believe that where a breach of nature conservation, closures or restrictions causes significant harm or damage, that is best dealt with through the targeted measures which this Bill strengthens. I am not persuaded that Amendment No. 17 is the right way to achieve what we all want to achieve--that is, the effective protection of nature conservation interests.
Earl Peel: My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have supported my Amendment No. 3. I should perhaps apologise to the House. We have reached a new stage of the Bill and I should have taken the opportunity to declare an interest in that I own land which will be subject to the access provisions under this Bill.
I believe that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford summed up the matter: we need a balance to avoid confrontation. That is the issue which we are trying to come to terms with through this amendment. As the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, rightly said, these sanctions will apply only to a very small number of people--those who repeatedly ignore the restrictions and regulations under Schedule 2 and Chapter II.
I did not express a view about the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Young. I support that amendment. I believe that it is right and proper that such sanctions should apply to breaches of nature conservation. However, as my noble friend Lord Marlesford rightly said, it is equally important that sanctions should apply not only to nature conservation issues. The regulations and restrictions are imposed for a good reason. Landowners want to seek restriction orders because they wish to manage
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that he has increased the period during which people will be asked to leave land from 24 to 72 hours. We acknowledge and accept that. He went on to say that people who are in breach of what I believe he described as "simple offences" would be caught by my amendment. However, people will be asked to leave land three times--not once, not twice, but three times. If they do not get the message then, quite frankly, I believe that they are worthy of some degree of criminal sanction; namely, a £200 fine. I do not consider that what we are imposing under this amendment is particularly draconian.
Therefore, I am disappointed by the response from the Minister. I am also disappointed, but not unduly surprised, by the response that we heard from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I am bound to make the general comment that farmers from the West Country who read this Bill must seriously wonder what the Liberals do to deserve so many seats in rural Britain in view of the way that they have treated people in relation to this Bill. But that is another point.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, although I accept some anger from the noble Earl because we do not support this amendment, he will concede that we pushed with the Conservative Benches for the 72-hour extension for exclusion; we pushed for tighter controls on dogs; and we pushed for weekend closures. All those measures had our full support. All the measures to help farmers that the Government conceded received our full support. In many cases we worked with the Conservative Benches and in some cases directly with the Government. I believe that his remarks are unjustified.
Earl Peel: My Lords, of course I acknowledge that in some cases the noble Baroness has helped and supported us. I was intending to acknowledge that when we came to discuss the Question That the Bill do now pass. However, on the bulk of the issues in this Bill relating to rural matters, I am afraid that the noble Baroness has not been supportive and she has certainly not been very supportive in the Division Lobbies.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
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