HC Deb 26 March 1999 vol 328 cc662-701

Question again proposed, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

11.47 am
Mr. Cox

We have a beautiful country which is small but varied. Some parts of the countryside will need protection at certain times of the year and I am sure that the local advisory groups—which I hope will include a true cross-section of the community—will discuss that issue. I hope that any restrictions will be limited and the reasons for them clearly stated. How will members of local advisory groups be appointed? Do the Government intend that the groups will meet regularly or only when there is a specific local dispute to resolve? When landowners, whether private or public, intend to deny access to the public, will they be required to inform the local advisory group?

I hope that large areas of land will not be closed off because access is over a small area of land that has been closed. That may be justifiable at times, but I hope that landowners will not use such measures to deny access. As we all know, land management can cover many things and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will tell us how that issue will be monitored.

We often hear farmers and landowners saying that they are the protectors of our countryside. I think that it is in their interests to take that role, but that does not mean—I am sure that my view is shared by an enormous number of people, including many right hon. and hon. Members—that they then have a right to say, "This land is ours, and only we can use it or enjoy it because only we understand the land and its management."

I return to the comments in the letter from my constituent, Mr. Stephenson, which I read out earlier. He wrote about the right to roam on…common land, subject to sensible restrictions. I hope that that attitude will be generally adopted. I am sure that that is what my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle would seek and support.

We all know that some landowners put up trespass notices by rights of way, causing real difficulties in many parts of the country. Very often, people who may not be aware of a traditional right of way are concerned and frightened by the threat of prosecution should they attempt to walk the land in question. We have a network of rights of way throughout the country and I would like to hear from my right hon. Friend the Minister how we can ensure that existing rights of way continue to be open to the public and are not closed by landowners, be they private or public. We know that closures take place from time to time.

Will the Bill lead to the development of rights of way? If so, it is essential that they are properly recorded and maintained. Who would be responsible for meeting the costs that would be involved? Would it be a combination of the landowner and the local authority? We would welcome some comments on these matters from my right hon. Friend.

Sadly, a section of our community does not enjoy the opportunities that are available to us; I refer to the disabled. In recent years in the House, there has been enormous cross-party support for the introduction and implementation of legislation that has brought vastly greater public awareness of the rights of disabled people, along with other developments that have been warmly welcomed. I hope that the Bill will be another way of opening up the rights of disabled people so that they can enjoy the countryside.

A few years ago, there were many buildings to which disabled people had no access. That lack of access denied them many of the enjoyments that are available to us without any problems. The Bill provides us with an opportunity to make the countryside more available to people who, because of their disablement, are not able to enjoy it, although they wish to do so. We have shown in recent years that progress can be achieved. I hope that the Government will seek to develop that aspect of the Bill.

The Bill will give the public access to about 12 per cent.—a very small part—of the countryside. I hope that, year by year, we shall see that percentage increase throughout the country. Hon. Members on both sides have referred to certain historic and beautiful areas of the country that they know extremely well. I come from the south of England, where there are many areas that could be made more accessible to the public. We shall look to the Government and to local advisory groups to ensure that progress is achieved.

We know that the Government own enormous areas throughout the country. I hope that, through the Bill, we shall see a willingness on their part to open up the land that they own. Much of it is not open to the general public.

Mr. Gray

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that, under the Conservative Government, the Ministry of Defence largely opened up its training areas, apart from those being used at a particular moment, for use by the public?

Mr. Cox

I obviously welcome that sort of development. However, I am not talking solely about military land. There is other land that the Government own or for which they have management responsibilities. I am talking about opening up that land so that the general public may enjoy it.

Despite some of the comments this morning, I believe that the Bill will lead to continuing developments, and a real understanding between landowners and the public. That is what the Bill is designed to achieve. We know that, at times, the relationship between landowners and the public can be very good. Unfortunately, there are times when it is not. I hope that there will be real consensus and real co-operation to ensure that progress is made. If that does not happen, we have a right—we are backed by the voice of the people—to introduce legislation. That is what the Bill and the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle have clearly indicated.

As my hon. Friend said, we look to November for the introduction, in the next Session, of legislation that will take forward the developments that he wishes to secure through his Bill. I shall listen with great interest to the comments of my right hon. Friend the Minister.

11.58 am
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

It is customary to congratulate hon. Members on successfully bringing Bills to a Second Reading debate. I am happy so to congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). He knows that the Opposition oppose his Bill, but I think that the House must commend his persistence, commitment and energy in getting his Bill to this stage and—it may or may not be the case, and only the hon. Gentleman can tell—changing the Government's mind.

It is regrettable that the debate has been interrupted by a statement, welcome though it was to the House. However, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I welcome the opportunity to debate the issue that is raised by the Bill as it is of great importance.

Conservative Members strongly support increased, safe and secure access to the countryside. In order to formulate our policy on the matter, we conducted an extensive consultation, culminating in a conference last autumn. I should like to place on record our thanks to all the organisations and individuals who so willingly helped us in that task.

We support increased access for a wide range of reasons: because of the increased pace of urban living, for educational and recreational reasons, and also because we believe that increased access will help to create mutual understanding between those who rightly regard our environmental heritage as something for all of us to value and enjoy, and those whose living depends on that environmental heritage.

I therefore regret that, in introducing his Bill, the hon. Member for Pendle, whom I earlier congratulated, chose to indulge in the politics of class hatred or class envy. I cannot believe that the expressions that he chose to use are the third way, as approved by No. 10. His remarks and tone, and their reception by his hon. Friends, will not go unnoticed by those in the countryside with whom the Minister will no doubt shortly say he wishes to create a partnership.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

The right hon. Lady mentioned comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and my hon. Friends' reaction to them. However, the most telling comment in the debate came from a Conservative Member, who described the moves to gain increased access to the countryside as evil. I know that, in my area, many Conservative supporters are in favour of access to open countryside. Are not such remarks an insult to supporters of the right hon. Lady's party?

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Member for Pendle was in the full flush of triumph as he introduced his Bill, so to that extent, his comments were understandable, but I do not believe that they will help the creation of mutual understanding between those whose livelihood depends on working in the countryside, and those who seek to enjoy it. Indeed, I would go further and say that the hon. Gentleman's comments today have transparently revealed for all to see some of the Government's real motivation in the matter, and they will not be forgotten.

Mr. Gray

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the speech of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) stands in sharp contrast to the thoughtful and worthwhile speech of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who advanced the arguments in a much better tone?

Mrs. Shephard

My hon. Friend pre-empts what I was about to say. While clearly sharing the views of his hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) nevertheless demonstrated an understanding of the countryside, and a willingness to accept that there could be arguments on both sides of the divide and that those arguments needed to be explored in a less feverish atmosphere.

Mr. Bennett

Conservative Members chastise some of us for not being conciliatory. What about some conciliatory action from those on the Conservative Front Bench? Would it not be much better if they joined us and agreed that access legislation is necessary? They say that they want more access to the countryside. Would not such cross-party support take matters forward?

Mrs. Shephard

I shall go on to describe to the House the way in which we think that the matter could be taken forward. Perhaps I shall have the good fortune to convert the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish.

We believe that the matter is of wider importance to our country than the politics of class envy. Our broader approach is shared by the many organisations that we consulted, including the Countryside Commission, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Friends of the Earth and the National Farmers Union.

In their responses to the right hon. Gentleman's consultation paper, English Nature and the Council for the Protection of Rural England pointed out that the context of the debate should be broader than that set by the Government. In its response, Friends of the Earth criticised the Government for focusing almost exclusively on the social implications of increased access, not the broader implications.

The CPRE summarised the issues well in its response by stating: Those who live and/or work in the countryside and those who visit it all have a legitimate voice in the access debate alongside other interests. Alongside those interests, we would list sustainability, the protection of the environment and security for those using and working in the countryside.

The hon. Member for Pendle and the Government—after all the skirmishes and briefings, we understand from the hon. Gentleman that they are to be regarded as one—are fond of quoting the finding that 80 per cent. of people polled want to see more access to the countryside. What they often fail to add is the further information that emerged from the Country Landowners Association's research and polling.

It is, indeed, the case that 80 per cent. of people want to see more access to the countryside, but most people are not aware of the extent of the current rights of way network. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and by the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox). In his statement to the House on 8 March, the Minister gave some brief information on the Government's intentions on the clarification of rights of way and the further information to be given about their existence. I think that some of the proceeds of the national lottery were to be used. It would be useful to have further information on that matter, if the right hon. Gentleman is able to give it this morning.

Many people are vaguely aware that there are more rights of way networks than they know about. If the Government were prepared to give more publicity to those rights of way—as I believe that they are—that would make a large contribution to furthering people's desire to enjoy and use the countryside.

The CLA survey also indicates that 63 per cent. of people prefer to walk on clearly marked paths; 41 per cent. of people want new access within five miles of their homes; and 92 per cent. want restrictions to protect wildlife. This March, in the Contemporary Review, Lord Buxton pointed out: One could more likely get 100% answering 'no'"— to increased access— if the question was 'Are you in favour of tramping on skylarks' and curlews' nests or scaring off lapwings?'. [Interruption.] Well, the House must obviously consider that point. It illustrates that we need to find a balance between those arguments. The final figure given by the CLA was that 85 per cent. of people want restrictions to protect farming and livestock. Although many people are keen for access to the countryside to be extended, many are equally aware of the implications for biodiversity, wildlife and the livelihoods of those who work in the countryside.

How can a balance be achieved? We believe that the best way forward is to create a secure legal framework, which defines rights and responsibilities, and considers owner liability in respect of dangerous dogs and so on. Trust could grow within such a framework and voluntary co-operation could develop. The overwhelming majority of those who go out to enjoy the countryside are highly responsible people—as has been pointed out many times this morning. Voluntary agreements on the part of landowners are fast proliferating. We think that the Bill and the Government's intentions should have built on that responsibility and co-operation, fostering trust by pursuing the voluntary route.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

In 1990, I piloted the Rights of Way Act through Parliament. That was based on a report published by the present Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir A. Haselhurst), who is in his seat now. The Act was based on consensus. It opened up the existing rights of way network and made it easier for people to gain access. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is the right approach? It is possible to achieve consensus between the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the ramblers, if we are positive about those matters.

Mrs. Shephard

It is a more constructive way forward. That is the basis for our arguments. It is never constructive to try to impose co-operation; it is a waste of an opportunity if we do not use a bridge-building approach.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

Is the right hon. Lady aware that consensus has already been achieved in Scotland? On 9 March, Mr. Murdo Fraser, land reform spokesman for the Scottish Conservative party, said: We do not have a problem with a general right to roam. Is the policy of the Scottish Conservative party different from that of the English Conservative party?

Mrs. Shephard

The legal position of landholding in Scotland is completely different from that in England and Wales. It is a waste of time to try to draw comparisons between them.

Mr. Bennett

Does the right hon. Lady accept that the voluntary principles were enshrined in legislation in 1949? She says that progress has been made recently, but, partly because of the spread of towns and partly because of the actions of some landowners, there is now less access to the countryside than there was 50 years ago.

Mrs. Shephard

Since 1991–92, there has been an increase of 25 per cent. in the acreage available for people's access to the countryside, and a 23 per cent. increase in paths. That was all achieved through voluntary means.

I believe that the hon. Member for Pendle and the Government are wasting an opportunity. They could have increased the sense of trust between all sides in this argument and they should have begun by establishing a definition of demand for increased access—how much more demand, how much more access? I believe that they should have set their own objectives, and clarity in both those respects would have done much to dispel the suspicion with which the Bill and the Government's response are regarded in some sections of the countryside.

In England and Wales, 7.5 million acres and 210,000 miles of path are available, and 80 per cent. of the land area and 32 per cent. of path access are accounted for by voluntary agreements. The hon. Member for Pendle and, indeed, the Government might have taken this opportunity to clarify and define the rights and responsibilities of those who use the land and those who own it, but we could learn more in that respect when the Government's proposals are introduced. The same must be said of owner liability. The Bill, although it nods at the issue, is not reassuring and I hope that the Minister will take note of the many, perfectly legitimate, concerns before his legislation is drafted.

When the Minister made his statement to the House on 8 March, he was, sadly, dismissive on the matter of compensation for landowners. He said that independent research shows that landowners generally will not suffer costs significant enough to warrant compensation."—[Official Report, 8 March 1999; Vol. 327, c. 25.] He should talk to one or two upland farmers, whose land lies in some of the most attractive parts of our country and whose incomes have plummeted because of the policies of his Government. They most certainly could not be expected to afford the extra management costs of access. The Bill ignores that and the Government's Human Rights Act 1998, under which the rights of property cannot be damaged without compensation being paid. Clear intent to deal with those questions and the provision of a legal framework for all involved would have encouraged voluntary co-operation, thereby increasing and enhancing access.

It is understandable that a private Member's Bill should not seek to identify or allocate resources implicitly, but the Government's legislation will have to define their objectives so that the costs may be quantified. The Local Government Association, the NFU, the Tenant Farmers Association, the Moorland Association and the statutory wildlife and conservation organisations—including the national parks—have calculated those costs and are rightly anxious about the Government eventually making a commitment to giving them the resources to do the job.

A lot of other practical problems will be raised in the debate and as the Government take the legislation forward, including mapping, definitions, closures, the impact on land values, access to island sites and the timetable for all the changes. It may not be possible for the Minister to refer to them all, but he may be able to speak about some of them.

Conservative Members believe that the hon. Member for Pendle and the Government have been guided more by party ideology than by concern for the countryside and those who use and work in it. English Nature's response to the Government's consultation paper says that the underlying purpose of the Government's proposals needs to be clearer and that access to open country should not be the starting point of any review or overhaul of access provision. Instead greater emphasis needs to be put on improvements to the existing public rights of way network, more use of existing tracks and permissive paths and the provision of opportunities for everyone to enjoy green space near to their homes. Any new arrangements should be the subject of a strategic level environmental appraisal prior to adoption, and be developed in the light of Government policies on integrated transport, sustainable development and biodiversity.

We agree with that statement from the Government's own advisers, English Nature.

It is a matter of regret that the Bill and the Government's statement should make such scant reference to the implications for wildlife and biodiversity of increased access to the countryside. We hope that, when the Government come to draft their legislation, they will take careful note of the wise words of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in its response to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions paper of June 1998. Those words apply with equal force to the Bill. The RSPB said: In the absence of audit as to the status of access to open land, the absence of adequate research investigations from which to assess the implications…of access to open land, and the consequent lack of a comprehensive environmental assessment, the RSPB believes that the Government should proceed with caution in developing and implementing its policy for access to open land. Open land contains some of the habitats of greatest wildlife interest. Getting it wrong could be costly…to our wildlife heritage".

Sadly, we believe that the Bill is getting it wrong. It fails to build on the co-operation already in place; it fails to take account of the practicalities of land use; it fails to make a case for its proposals beyond that of party ideology; and it fails to safeguard our countryside and environment. It is a wasted opportunity.

12.16 pm
Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

I add my congratulations to those that we have already extended to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). I thank him for asking me to sponsor the Bill, something that I was pleased to do. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), I should declare a form of interest: I am president of the Sussex right to roam group, but I derive no pecuniary interest from that.

I welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend the Minister earlier this month. I represent a largely urban constituency, but the relationship between the town and the downs in Brighton and my part of Sussex is an ancient one. It was put on a more formal basis earlier this century when the far-sighted and often mayor of Brighton, Sir Herbert Carden, persuaded the town to buy large tracts of the south downs. He was looking to the future and the way in which the relationship between the town and the downs might develop. That is one reason why I have been lobbying my right hon. Friend the Minister so hard to achieve national park status for the south downs. That, however, is a debate for another occasion.

I was particularly pleased to see clauses 9 to 15 included in the Bill, as those deal with maintaining the access to the countryside that already exists under other legislation. They include references to sanctions against wilful obstruction to access, additional penalties for obstructing footpaths, and the issue of landowners' dependence on grants and the access to which they agree in order to obtain those grants. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will ensure that those issues will be included in the Government legislation.

The current position, particularly in my part of the country, is unsatisfactory. We have the famous case, which has received national prominence, of Nicholas van Hoogstraten, a landowner with an estate at High Cross, near Uckfield. He is the sad Citizen Kane of Sussex. He has amassed great wealth and can find nothing better to do with it than incarcerate himself within the monument that he is building. A great many of my constituents rejoice at the notion of Mr. van Hoogstraten's self-incarceration, but that should not be at the expense of the rights of way that exist across his estate. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish and others took part earlier this year in activities concerning the blocking of that footpath.

It is deplorable that the highways authority, East Sussex county council, has so far taken no action against the blocking of that footpath. We have heard much about rights of way and the pattern of footpaths across the country, but we should also bear in mind the fact that many local authorities are failing in their duty to maintain rights of way and to keep footpaths open. The Ramblers Association deserves congratulations for the action that it is taking concerning Mr. van Hoogstraten's estate.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the countless civic societies that work tirelessly with the Ramblers Association, often with little resources? They also seek to keep public footpaths and rights of way open.

Mr. Lepper

I certainly associate myself with those sentiments. My hon. Friend has served to emphasise the failure of statutory authorities in many parts of the country to maintain footpaths without prompting from organisations such as the Ramblers Association and civic societies.

I want to draw attention to the failure of the countryside stewardship scheme. So far, £0.5 million has gone into the 41 schemes in East and West Sussex. I discovered that list of 41 schemes following a parliamentary question that I tabled last year. Ramblers in my part of the country were surprised that many of the sites listed were under a countryside stewardship scheme. There has been a failure to publicise the rights of access that should exist under those schemes. As Labour Members have said, there should not be a right to grants under that or other schemes unless landowners are willing to accept their concomitant responsibilities.

There has also been a failure of publicity about the exemption from inheritance tax. I have tried again and again to find details of areas where access should be granted in East and West Sussex. I have tabled parliamentary questions, but I get the answer that we have heard this morning—the details cannot be revealed. However, from those answers, I have determined that, over a 10-year period, some £65 million of tax has been forgone under those schemes. Have we had £65 million-worth of access and benefit? I do not think so. I also congratulate Channel 4 on its "Dispatches" programme the year before last, which helped to highlight this tax scam.

We have heard much about the voluntary approach, and the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) referred to the need to concentrate on it. I wish that I shared her confidence that it works. Since 1949, one voluntary scheme has been established in East Sussex under the powers to which my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish referred. It was in a fairly remote part of the county, which is fine, because people wanted to go there.

I congratulate the Country Landowners Association—people may not expect me to do that—on its attempts last year to persuade its members to improve and increase the number of voluntary agreements at local level. I believe that the association has been badly let down by its members.

Let me refer again to East and West Sussex. New agreements have indeed been established in East Sussex—in Ewhurst, for instance, where an informal rally for charity is to take place on a seasonal basis. In Westfield, an agreement has been established for the setting up of conservation forces, and a pocket park with a pond. Those three schemes are very limited, however.

As for West Sussex, I have a copy of a list that has been distributed to hon. Members by the CLA. In West Dean, there is to be a way-marked walk. In Cuckfield, country trust and school visits can be made by arrangement, and there will be scout and guide camps, also by arrangement. Several ponds in Cuckfield have been rented to Haywards Heath angling society. There is a scheme allowing public access of a more general nature, and another allowing ploughing matches by arrangement. Gardens will be opened, and an entry fee will be charged.

I am afraid that that limited array of so-called public access schemes does not back up the right hon. Lady's suggestion that voluntary agreements are working.

Mr. Levitt

Had it not been for the appearance of possible access legislation on the horizon, some of those voluntary agreements would not have been established in the first place. Perhaps those in charge of the CLA felt that increasing the number of such agreements was the only way of heading off legislation—but they always knew that they would be unable to deliver them through their membership alone.

Mr. Lepper

I agree. I believe that the CLA tried to make the voluntary agreements work, and that it has been let down by the landowners.

Mr. Sawford

The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) made much of the increased access to the countryside that had been created by the voluntary approach. Before we celebrate the success of that approach, should we not ask how much of the progress that has been made over the past 50 years is due to the National Trust, English Nature, local authorities and other public bodies, and how much is due to private landowners? The figures that I have suggest that only 5 per cent. of the so-called success is due to private landowners. In fact, the voluntary approach has been a dismal failure.

Mr. Lepper

I am sure that that analysis is correct.

The CLA's claims have been analysed by the University of Hertfordshire. On 20 February this year, The Times said that analysis showed that the CLA's survey of voluntary schemes was methodologically unsound and based on inaccurate data. The reporter commented that that was academic-speak for a load of tosh.

Opposition Members have spoken of the conflict between access and environmental protection. I do not believe that there is any such conflict. On 9 March, a Brighton resident, Mr. David Bangs, wrote drawing my attention to three sites in East Sussex which, although sites of particular wildlife interest, were not being well maintained by the landowners who were responsible for them. He had already mentioned the matter to the South Downs conservation board. He rightly made the point that one reason why that neglect had been allowed to continue for so long was that there was no right of access to those sites for members of the public, who would act as the watchdog of environmental protection, rather than as tramplers and destroyers, which is how Opposition Members have presented them.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas

On the bogus conflict between the right to roam and the environment, does my hon. Friend agree that another bogus conflict that has been propounded by the Conservative party is that between town and countryside? Does he accept that many of the people who would benefit from the right to roam already live in the countryside?

Mr. Lepper

Again, and perhaps unsurprisingly, I agree. I began by drawing attention to the close relationship that has developed between people living in my constituency and the surrounding downland. That is a protective and caring relationship, which could be developed by the Bill.

I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that, by yesterday, over half of all hon. Members had signed my early-day motion 11, which calls for increased protection of important wildlife sites. I hope that, in the legislation that will reach us later this year, he will feel able to draw together measures to increase access to, and to strengthen protection of, many important wildlife environmental sites in various parts of the countryside, all of which is desperately needed.

Those who claim to be the protectors of our rural heritage—the landowners—are, with some exceptions, signally failing to carry out those responsibilities. The greater access there is to the countryside by those of us who genuinely care about it, the more protection those wildlife sites will have.

12.32 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I declare an interest. I am an adviser to the Countryside Alliance, and a member of the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union, so the House will know where I am coming from.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on the Bill, not because I agree with much that he said, but because I am grateful to him for the opportunity to debate the issue. That is important. He has done his cause a great disservice. Again, we have heard the old-fashioned socialist rant about mass trespass and right to roam, and seen the old socialist totem that has existed for so long.

The conflict that that attitude engenders all the time has probably been the single biggest enemy to opening access to the countryside. When landowners are faced with such an aggressive attack, naturally, they respond by being aggressive in their own right. We need co-operation in the countryside, not conflict. That is the way in which to open up more land.

The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) talked about the countryside stewardship scheme, but he misunderstands it. It is not simply to increase access; it is to enhance the natural beauty of the countryside. For example, farmers in my constituency who are on the scheme cut hay traditionally to enhance the look of the countryside in the area. That means that they do not necessarily want public access, which would not be suitable there; nor would a right to roam be, because it is a cultivated area.

The hon. Member for Pavilion will recall that the right to roam has been a socialist totem since about the 1890s, when the first move to create such a right was made in the House. The movement went as far as the mass trespasses at Kinder Scout, which was another great benchmark in socialist history.

I rather suspect that, had the Prime Minister and his official spokesman not been sleeping off a late night in Brussels dishing out more money to French farmers, Labour Members' pagers would have been buzzing as the hon. Member for Pavilion went into an old Labour diatribe dressed up as the third way. I rather enjoyed it.

Mr. Lepper

In the interest of historical accuracy, I should say that many of the issues of the countryside and access to it that we have been debating today predate introduction of even the word socialism, and can be traced back in the United Kingdom to at least 1642.

Mr. Atkinson

I am certain that the issue of access and the use of highways go back to mediaeval times. However, the idea of people wanting to leave industrial towns and, quite rightly, wanting fresh air, on the hills of Lancashire and Yorkshire, dates from about the time of the industrial revolution.

As I said, Kinder Scout was a benchmark. Labour Members, such as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), have probably been on Kinder Scout, as I have been. My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) goes there regularly. One thing that one will never see on Kinder Scout is significant wildlife. Because of the amount of access to Kinder Scout, one never sees a hare there, and one sees very few breeding birds.

Mr. Levitt


Mr. Bennett

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Atkinson

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish.

Mr. Bennett

Kinder Scout is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt). Nevertheless, is the hon. Member for Hexham aware that shooting butts are still one of the problems on parts of Kinder Scout? Presumably, they are one of the reasons why an awful lot of wildlife has been destroyed there.

Mr. Atkinson

I have respect for the hon. Gentleman. In previous Parliaments, on opposite sides, we soldiered together through Committees on these issues. However, I am sorry to say that he has let himself down on that one. He knows, as everyone does, that scientific evidence shows that shooting on moorland makes a positive contribution to wildlife, whereas widespread access to that fragile area does the opposite.

Mr. Levitt

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If I were to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I could expand on the Kinder Scout, which is in my constituency. I should very much like to tell its story. People do go to Kinder Scout for wildlife and the wide access areas. In fact, 60 per cent. of all current access agreements exist in the Peak district. They exist to allow people to see wildlife and beautiful countryside—which I accept that both the hon. Member for Hexham and I both want to protect. Nevertheless, Labour Members also want to encourage the enjoyment of those areas.

Mr. Atkinson

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, if he is lucky, will be able to catch the Deputy Speaker's eye. I do not want to concentrate too much on Kinder Scout, as other hon. Members wish to speak, and I wish to be brief.

I should like to reinforce the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden and my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice). The issue is really all about opening up greater access to the land for the 18 million British people who like walking. The Ramblers Association has 125,000 members. I doubt that the Open Spaces Society, which also campaigns on the issue, has many more than 3,000 members.

The issue is not, as the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish claims, about people who enjoy a tough ramble, as he does. Although I accept that he wants to walk over completely uncharted territory, the majority of people want to enjoy a day out in the countryside near where they live. Right to roam is diverting us from settling down and building proper access for the 18 million people who enjoy walking. That is what we want to achieve.

A perfectly good Bill was thought up by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden)—sadly, he is not proceeding with it—which would have commanded all-party support. I supported his Bill, which would have allowed us to build such access.

If the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish, as president of the Ramblers Association, could persuade Ramblers Association members to stop their aggressive militancy, we should get on far better in improving access to the countryside.

The hon. Gentleman was quite right to say that one of the problems that we face now in the United Kingdom is that country lanes, which one used to be able to walk or ride down quite happily, are now used by commuters who drive their Volvos at 70 mph. That is a problem. If we want to overcome it, we could do so by reforming the rights of way system—by making it far more relevant to modern living, and less relevant to social patterns of the 19th century or earlier.

Lorna Fitzsimons

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that what he is saying would have far more impact and resonance if it were not for the attitude of landowners, who have brushed aside any attempt to achieve co-operative agreement and have forced people who want access to the countryside, who love the countryside and who share the hon. Gentleman's enjoyment of it, to seek more formal arrangements?

Mr. Atkinson

That is simply not the case. We keep talking about landowners, but we are talking not about great potentates and dukes, but about tenant farmers, small farmers and big farmers who run and control the countryside.

Lorna Fitzsimons

There are farmers in my constituency who are honest enough to admit their hypocrisy. Some of them avidly support fox hunting, but are passionately opposed to allowing ramblers on their land on the grounds that they will cause damage. At least they are honest enough to admit that a huge train of hounds and horses passing through their land creates thousands of pounds worth of damage—far more than respectful ramblers. —

Mr. Atkinson

I hear what the hon. Lady says and I probably have somewhat more experience of hunting than she does. The vast majority of hunts pass through land causing no noticeable damage. However, that is a side issue. It is one of those silly arguments that Labour Members keep making. Instead of discussing how 18 million more people can have access to the countryside, they want to play political knockabout about hunting and the right to roam. It does them no credit at all. People who want better access to the countryside will see it as defeating their objective.

I should like to raise with the Minister a number of practical issues that arise from the Bill. Reference has been made to the problems of closing off areas of land during lambing time, for example. Hill farmers in my constituency are now engaged in lambing. Will they be able to close off upland areas until the end of the lambing season on 1 May? How will they be able to do that? What method will they require? Will they have to cover the countryside with a forest of notices or hire local wardens to advise ramblers that the land is closed?

Mr. Alan Clark

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has seen the provision in the Bill that every notice that deters those who wish to walk over the countryside will attract a £10 fine for every day that the notice is up? It will be interesting to hear how the Minister manages to bridge that divide.

Mr. Atkinson

I take my right hon. Friend's point. We shall have to wait to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

Mr. Gordon Prentice

The fines apply only after the landowner farmer has been told to take the sign down.

Mr. Atkinson

The hon. Gentleman does not realise what a Northumbrian hill farm looks like. It is enormous. Are farmers expected to stick up several hundred notices around the perimeter of such farms to say that they are closed? The practical difficulties entailed in a section of the farming community that is suffering enormously at the moment having to go out and put up a lot of signs defy logic.

Mr. Levitt

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Atkinson


Who will be responsible for deciding what is extensive grazing land and what is intensive grazing land? These days, a great deal of hill land is ploughed on a regular five-year basis to improve the pasture. Is that intensive or extensive? Who will decide that and who will map it? It was said earlier that upland areas had already been mapped. That is not the case; only upland common areas have been mapped, not the uplands in their entirety. Mapping will be an extremely difficult and time-consuming operation. Who carries out the audit of determining what is a fragile upland area and what is not in respect of the right to roam? Who will make the decision? Will it be English Nature?

There are also problems in the existing footpath network. One of the difficulties is that our footpath network was created largely in the 18th century at the time of the enclosures and grew because farm workers used to move from one part of a farm to another down particular paths. The path network also grew because the roads were so poor that people used footpaths as an alternative way of going from A to B.

Those paths are often unsuitable for modern recreational walking. One farmer in my constituency has three footpaths in one field. They all lead nowhere because they were originally used by lead miners walking to their workings. He applied to divert and unify the paths so that they would lead somewhere, but when he applied for a diversion order, an objection was lodged by the local representatives of the Ramblers Association. He was faced with a bill for nearly £1,000 in legal fees and advertising costs for the creation of a sensible diversion. He was frustrated in his attempt to change three paths leading nowhere into one path leading somewhere because of the cost and the consequences, and he has not done it. There is scope for the proposed local access forums—if the hon. Member for Pendle insists on setting them up—to create a proper recreational path network to divert paths by agreement so that they do not interfere with agricultural operations.

It would also be helpful to keep paths away from farmyards and private property. People who go out walking do not want to intrude on private property. I do not want to walk in front of someone's window and stare in and nor do I want to walk through a modern farmyard, which is a fairly industrial operation. It is a dangerous place, with large amounts of machinery. Footpaths go to farms, so they go through farmyards. I should be happier walking round a farmyard on a diverted path than walking through one.

Those are the issues that we should address. If legislation is necessary for such changes, so be it. We need to overhaul and—to use the word favoured by the proponents of the Bill—modernise the rights of way network. There is a need to sit down and look after the rights of 18 million people, not those of 125,000 ramblers. That is what the people of this country want.

12.47 pm
Mr. Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton)

I shall be brief, because I am aware that there are others who want to contribute on this popular issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on the thoroughly professional and determined manner in which he has taken up this long-standing campaign, which was also a Labour manifesto commitment. I disagree intensely with the comments and criticisms that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) made about my hon. Friend's introductory speech, which was full of humour, full of detail, hard-hitting and factual. Rather than trying to create a class division, it was about sharing, co-operation and bridge building. He was asking for the sharing of a national amenity that belongs to all of us.

Dame Vera Lynn is associated with the song "We'll Meet Again" and Gerry and the Pacemakers sang "You'll Never Walk Alone". My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle will always be associated with "Roamin in the Gloamin", which was made famous by the great Sir Harry Lauder.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Minister on his recent statement and the thoroughness with which he has responded on behalf of the Government. The Government's support for the right to roam will be welcomed by many hon. Members, who have shown their support by signing early-day motions and other documents, and by the majority of my constituents, many of whom have written to me in support of the Bill. My constituency is mainly urban, but it also has large areas of rural expanse to the north. I learned—not to my dismay, but to my concern—that I have a large number of farmers in my constituency when they appeared here to lobby me about BSE. I have never had one adverse comment from the farming community, although my stance on the issue is known.

Everybody in the House will agree that the UK has some of the most beautiful countryside in the world. No matter what one's preference is, it is here. We have open green fields, the dales of Yorkshire, the Lake district, the magnificent lochs and mountains north of border and wonderful coastal areas. However, one fact remains; too few people control too much of that national asset, and that must change.

Mr. Gray

The hon. Gentleman says that too few people control too much land. Is he under the impression that the Bill will lead to any change to the way in which land is owned in Britain? If so, does he believe that that would be a good thing?

Mr. Dobbin

The Bill certainly will give access to much of the land. I was born in Scotland, where many of the great landowners live. The Scottish people will be glad that the Bill will affect the rest of the country.

The proposal to make the right of access a statutory one must be applauded, but the Government rightly insist on responsibilities to go with the newly acquired rights. The protection of the environment for areas of natural beauty must be enshrined in legislation and respected by the walking public. There must be penalties and conditions for those who wilfully damage property, and landowners should be given compensation for those transgressions. I hope that the Minister takes that on board.

Rivers, bridges, canals and pathways need to he maintained by owners, and respected by walkers. The campaign by the Country Landowners Association has been intense—as we expected—but, in my view, has been based on the concepts of "What we have, we hold" and "Ownership is nine tenths of the law." That cannot be right.

I wish to highlight a few policy areas where clarification is needed. First, the present voluntary system is hardly cost-effective and public money is often wasted, benefiting the landowner rather than the general public. The method of renting access to land, site by site, has proved to be wasteful. The attempt to open land by voluntary agreement has resulted in vacillation, obstruction and very little progress, as has been proved over the years. Permanent access is crucial if we are to achieve a proper right to roam. The legislation must be clear and consistent, and a voluntary approach cannot provide that.

I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle is in good company. We pay testimony to James Bryce—to whom my hon. Friend referred—for his Access to Mountains Bill of 1884, the forerunner of Bills of access. The Labour Member Arthur Creech Jones proposed a similar Bill in 1939. which resulted in unsatisfactory compromise and further conflict. In 1947, Sir Arthur Hobhouse produced the Hobhouse report; a valiant effort that was rejected. Of course, we must not forget the late John Smith, a great supporter of access and the freedom to roam and climb.

We have crossed the great divide, and we are climbing a few mountains in the process. There is now an opportunity for the many in this country to share those great expanses of land that are owned by the few. The Government are delivering on one more promise. The Bill is popular, and is welcomed by 85 per cent. of the population. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle on this historic day for the ordinary people of this country. With the pending White Paper on rural issues and the intention to extend the national parks network, the Government can be truly labelled the Government of countryside protection and of countryside enjoyment.

12.54 pm
Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I am a rambler, although not one of the eminence and distinction of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). I have invited people from the Ramblers Association in my constituency and in Westminster to visit Saltwood and I have walked with them over my land and over adjoining land, and I have gladly offered them refreshment at the end of the day. I hope that the plaudits of Conservative Members will not greatly embarrass the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish. His speech was admirable, and a perfect presentation of the case in which I and many people believe.

I know that it is the convention to congratulate the promoters of Bills, but I certainly do not intend to do that, because I thought that the speech of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) was lamentable and tendentious. It verged at intervals on the paranoiac. He used extraordinary agitprop language about practically everyone whom he mentioned. He called the National Farmers Union "hysterical" and the Country Landowners Association "wreckers". He simpered from time to time when he recited the various accusations of extreme left-wingery that had been made against him.

The hon. Member for Pendle put on the record a remark that I alleged that he had made to me, and disclaimed it. Of course I remember him saying to me, "We will expropriate your land in Kent," and he remembers it, too. I like to think that I have many personal friends on the far left of the political spectrum and I respect them for their beliefs. If he had said, "Of course we will expropriate your land in Kent. That is the tenor of my belief, and I will stand by it," I could have respected that; but he folded and said that he did not remember making the remark. He remembers it all right. I would not invent that and put it in a letter.

Mr. Gordon Prentice

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clark

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I have not finished with him yet.

Mr. Prentice

If I said such a thing in the House of Commons Library, it was said with jocularity. I have said the same thing to the Bishop of Blackburn, the Very Rev. Alan Chesters, and he took it as a joke. The right hon. Gentleman seems to be congenitally incapable of seeing a joke.

Mr. Clark

That is not a charge that has been made against me before. Usually, people accuse me of being too frivolous. However, the House and the public will judge. I regret the fact that a really important cause, which is genuinely to be encouraged as we change gear from one century to another, will suffer damage if it is presented in the tendentious language used by the hon. Gentleman.

The Bill will not trouble us again, but I hope that the Minister, when he introduces Government legislation, will bear in mind the anxiety that affects many people who are otherwise completely well-intentioned towards it. According to the Bill, open country means any area which consists wholly or predominantly of mountain, moor, heath or down". Who is to judge what is "predominantly"?

Mr. Prentice

The access group.

Mr. Clark

That may work, but one is naturally suspicious of any ambiguities in legislation.

Many of the provisions are pointlessly punitive. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) mentioned the penalties for displaying signs deterring public access. There are especially penal provisions laying the burden on the landowner to take such steps as are agreed from time to time with the authority for the area or areas in which the land is situate … for the publication of sufficient information to enable a member of the public to identify the land". That is completely punitive.

I am in favour of opening up the land and inhibiting awkward and rebarbative landowners, and I recognise that such people exist—the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) cited one—but to oblige landowners to advertise and invite the public to enter their land seems to me to be going rather too far.

Mr. Bennett

If the right hon. Gentleman is as keen to encourage access to the countryside as he suggests, what should happen when a public right of way is clearly marked, but someone puts up a notice saying, "Keep out. Trespassers will be prosecuted"? Surely it is important that such notices are removed and the rights of individuals to use such paths are enforced. How should that be done?

Mr. Clark

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I would have thought that, if anyone put up such a notice, especially after this legislation or its equivalent has passed through the House, it would be immediately attended to. The hon. Gentleman has opened the door on the especially disquieting element of the Bill, which was inflamed by the hon. Member for Pendle in the way that he approached the topic. There are people who want to use the new right—I do not dispute the fact that it may be viewed as an ancient right that has been inhibited for centuries—as an engine for their private and extreme political convictions. I know those people. Few hon. Members would dispute my green credentials. I have been on the picket line at live export demos and been roughed up by the police, and I also went to Jill Phipps's funeral at Coventry cathedral. I well know that militants infiltrate such movements. The militant hunt saboteurs, for example, have no more commitment to animal welfare than I believe does the hon. Member for Pendle to the beauties of nature.

Mr. Gordon Prentice

I introduced the Bill.

Mr. Clark

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to intervene.

One of the great advantages of extending the right to roam is that many ordinary people, who might not otherwise have had access to the beauties of nature and the enlightenment that comes from great landscapes, wonderful scenery and communicating with the open, will not be prevented from enjoying those pleasures. That is why I resent those who try to use the Bill as a naked instrument in their private prosecution of the class war. It should be no such thing. It should be a unifying measure, not a divisive one. I draw to the Minister's attention the danger that, if he does not take proper control of the matter and respect the various rights and balances that should be inherent in the implementation of legislation, he will take a further step towards a socially divisive cleavage between those who live in the towns—many of whom may feel resentful about what is happening in the country—and those who live in the country and are certainly resentful, as the recent countryside march showed, of what they believe to be the encroachment on and erosion of their rights and responsibilities by the town.

1.4 pm

Mrs. Eileen Gordon (Romford)

Although I have been known to ramble from time to time, I hope that I shall not do so today. My remarks will be extremely brief. Many of the points that I intended to raise have already been covered in this interesting debate.

I would not claim to have the depth of knowledge of many of my hon. Friends. However, I have received many letters and postcards from my constituents showing their support for the right to roam. I know that they warmly welcome all the efforts and work of my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice)—or should I say the class warrior for Pendle—the Minister and the Government to make the right to roam a reality at last.

Like many people who live in towns, my rambling and walking is mostly done in towns and shops. That landscape is extremely pleasant—at least to me—but many people living in towns like to escape to moor or down to be surrounded by our beautiful countryside, to hear the call of the curlew rather than the ringing of cash registers. We need that space, freedom and access.

I can tell Opposition Members that people move out from their towns. People leave Romford and visit other places. They like to go to the Peak district or the Yorkshire moors, for example. They should have the right to do so.

As a town dweller, I become confused about where we can and cannot walk in the countryside. It is a brilliant idea to have mapping, when we get the right to roam, so that people will know where they can and cannot go. It will give people—perhaps new walkers—information, knowledge and clarity. That will be most welcome.

I can speak only from my limited experience. However, two particular walks have influenced me and my support for the Bill. The first was a family rambling day in Havering, which was organised by the Ramblers Association. I have always found that association to be a very responsible group in its concern and care for the countryside.

The Havering walk was on designated footpaths. My hon. Friends the Members for Hornchurch (Mr. Cryer) and for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) joined me. It was a fairly short walk, but many of the footpaths were overgrown. Some had been diverted without any consultation or without the right to divert. Most were neglected and encroached by crops, for example. As a result, most of the footpaths were very narrow and insecure. It is clear to me that, if landowners are so casual about maintaining footpaths and do not even provide access to comply with the law, they and other landowners will not voluntarily provide greater access.

The second walk was in the Forest of Bowland area, when we went on another trip during the Labour party conference at Blackpool last year. The weather was pretty foul but the countryside was lovely. There was so much beautiful land with so little access. I therefore became convinced that a voluntary agreement would not work. I am reassured and delighted that those who know much more about the subject than I do, and the Government, have come to the same conclusion. This land is our land. I look on today's debate as the beginning of yet another Labour party manifesto pledge fulfilled. As we said, our policies include greater freedom for people to explore the countryside.

Legislation is needed, and I am sure that the Government will introduce a Bill as soon as they can when parliamentary time permits. Like my hon. Friends, we are looking towards November for that to happen.

Who could forget the images of the late John Smith striding through the countryside? The Act that will follow this debate will be a tribute to him. The right to roam will give pleasure to town and country people alike as it will provide greater access to the countryside. This is definitely a landmark day.

1.9 pm

Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I apologise to the House, and in particular to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), for not being present at the start of the debate, owing to an unavoidable commitment.

I should declare a long-standing interest in hiking and mountaineering. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) mentioned the Glyders, the Carnedds and the Snowdon horseshoe, which are my second home.

Those are healthy pursuits which, together with walking, horse-riding and cycling, are widely shared by our constituents. Outward-bound activities such as orienteering are becoming more popular, not just among young people. Ever more people will be pursuing such activities as more free time becomes available to them, not least in retirement, and they should be encouraged to do so. That is why the Bill is so timely and would have had my support in principle, with some important reservations, which I hope the Government will take into account in preparing their own promised legislation.

The right to access or to intrude on private land has long been a contentious and divisive issue. It has, regrettably, been fanned by the politics of envy over the years, as my namesake, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) emphasised. Emotions continue to run high, encouraged by the media, as currently demonstrated by their coverage of the Bill. That is regrettable, but it is a reality and will remain so unless it is addressed by legislation.

I willingly confess to feeling incensed by being denied access to areas that I want to climb and explore, but that are permanently closed, just as I am incensed by ancient covenants that prevent my constituents from building a swimming pool in their back garden, for example.

I welcome the reasonable approach that, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) reminded us, has been adopted by the Ministry of Defence, which owns much of the attractive countryside and coastland in my county, Dorset. The MOD makes it available for walking on most weekends and at other times during the year, thanks to the last Conservative Government.

Clear conflicts of interest exist on the issue with which the Bill deals. The right to ownership of property and the right to privacy are clearly defined in the European convention on human rights, and are rightly upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. It has been suggested that, if the Bill became law, landowners would be entitled to compensation from the courts.

I accept that the right of common access to open countryside, as proposed by the Bill, is not mentioned in the European convention on human rights, but it is a right that public opinion strongly supports and demands, as my postbag demonstrates. That demand will only grow, so it is right to address the issue now. It is reasonable for the European Court to take account of that growing demand, should it be necessary.

A number of my hon. Friends continue to advocate a voluntary approach, as do, understandably, those representing landowners and their interests. I do not believe that a voluntary approach would work. There are too many people representing both sides who will find it impossible to appreciate the approach of the other. The situation is not helped by the media, which tend to demonise those with strongly held views. That is why so little progress has been made in achieving the co-operation and understanding that would be necessary for a voluntary approach to work.

As the issue is so polarised and the opposing points of view are so entrenched, I believe that there is no alternative to legislation. I agree with the Countryside Commission's conclusions that any voluntary arrangements would be unlikely to deliver the extent and the permanence of access that the Government are now seeking.

Far from destroying the good will that is necessary to achieve greater access, the Bill would provide a framework for mutual trust and understanding to develop between landowner and rambler or walker. Legislation would make clear beyond any misunderstanding the obligations on all land users.

The Bill defines the rights and responsibilities placed on ramblers. The detailed list in schedule 1 defines those to whom the Bill would not apply, because of their thoughtlessness, willing destruction of property or sheer stupidity. That should be welcomed on both sides of the argument.

Those eager to access the land were described in a recent letter to The Daily Telegraph as people who do not want to destroy the countryside; we simply want to enjoy it peacefully, carefully and with as little disturbance to the local population as possible". Such people will no doubt welcome the measure as a way of ensuring that decent, common courtesy is maintained, and as an assurance to the landowner that his land will suffer no detrimental effects as a result of their presence on it.

To the landowner, the Bill should be equally reassuring. It would place statutory obligations on those who are using the land in pursuit of recreation and provide the landowner with increased recourse—supported by the full weight of the law—in the event of maltreatment of property. The law would provide the landowner with specific powers; it might not be necessary to use them, but they would be instrumental in establishing a working relationship between landowner and rambler. Such powers would not be provided by a voluntary agreement.

I share the reservations of the hon. Member for Pendle, as reported in The Sunday Telegraph, about the Government's proposed local access forums. Recommendations on such matters should be left to the Countryside Agency. I share the concerns of English Nature that owners of heath or downland could prevent public access by ploughing, spraying or fertilising land, deliberately destroying the characteristic vegetation and habitat for wildlife. I share the concerns of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation that the Bill must protect ground-nesting birds, such as merlin or golden plover, which would be at severe risk from unrestricted access during sensitive times of the year. There should be a far more realistic provision than the 12 days suggested in the Bill for organised shooting, from which the revenue generated is vital in maintaining moorland.

However, despite those reservations, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on pioneering a Bill to enable our constituents to explore more of the natural British heritage, and I look forward to the legislation promised by the Government.

1.17 pm
Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

It is a pleasure and a privilege to speak in the debate. The right to roam is a genuinely cross-party issue on which concerns have been expressed on both sides of the House. I am especially pleased to follow the excellent contribution made by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), and hope that he will accept that he is excluded from the comments that I am about to make.

If we look back at history, we see that politicians on the losing side of an argument tend to resort to three tactics. The first is to misrepresent the arguments of one's opponent, so as to knock them down. We have seen far too many examples of that today; for example, the idea that ploughed fields or people's gardens could be included in the right to roam. The second tactic is to attack the messenger rather than the message. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on his thick skin; I am sure that it is as valuable in this House as it is on the moorland. The final tactic is to appeal to the values of consensus in opposition, having fought against such values during 18 years in Government.

I do not need to remind hon. Members of the extreme beauty and importance to walkers of my own High Peak constituency. During the debate, I have been taken aback by the number of hon. Members who have said that they have been there. I hope that they were not campaigning, because they did not inform me that they were coming. However, they are all welcome to continue to visit the area.

My constituency is huge: 80 per cent. of its population live in only 20 per cent. of the area. It has limestone in the south and east, and the millstone grit of the Pennines in the north and west. The moorlands stretch from Greater Manchester to Sheffield, and High Peak itself extends from Buxton to Barnsley. It is a walker's paradise. I probably represent more sheep than electors. Nevertheless, I think it is correct to say that one third of the population of England can travel to the Peak district within an hour. That gives an idea of the pressures that exist in the management of visitors.

I must admit to the neglect of one my electoral areas; the Hope Woodlands polling station serves an area of about 100 square miles, but has only 46 electors. That means that I do not campaign there much, but I describe it to give hon. Members an idea of what the terrain is like in that part of my constituency.

A hundred years ago, the areas around Kinder Scout, which is the geographical centre of High Peak, were open to ramblers and for roaming, but that changed over the early part of this century. The landowners decided to enclose the land. They enforced their rights, as they saw them, and took action against walkers who strayed from the paths. Kinder Scout, which is the highest point on the Pennines, was surrounded by 15 square miles of land to which entry was prohibited.

On 24 April 1932, hundreds of campaigners met at Bowden quarry in Hayfield and elsewhere to set out on their walk across Kinder Scout. That day became an important chapter in the social history of Britain—the Kinder Scout mass trespass, which led to hand to hand combat and pitched battles with armed gamekeepers over a wide area. Walkers were beaten and arrested, and five ramblers were sent to prison, with sentences of up to six months for the crime of wanting to wander harmlessly and responsibly over open and uncultivated countryside.

I have met two of the original ramblers. One was Ewan MacColl, the folk singer, who immortalised the campaign in song. I met Ewan and Peggy Seeger, his wife, in the 1980s. In 1992–60 years after the original trespass but, unfortunately, after Ewan's death—Peggy came back to Bowden quarry to celebrate that anniversary. Benny Rothman, one of the walkers imprisoned in 1932, was with us and his passion for the right to roam had not dulled one bit.

Hundreds of people were there to celebrate, among them my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). We were elated by the occasion, although a little down in the mouth; it took place only a few days after a rather devastating general election defeat for the Labour party.

Back to 1932; the trespass struck a chord and there was uproar and public outrage because walkers had been imprisoned. The campaign to change the law stepped up a gear, but the war intervened. In 1947, 15 years on, the Hobhouse committee called for a statutory right to walk on what it called "rough country". The 1949 Act was a milestone in many ways, but it advocated a voluntary approach to access agreements, which some would have us believe is still applicable today. I hope to show why that is not the appropriate way forward any more.

The Peak district was the first national park to be set up under that legislation. In the park today, 80 square miles—including the area around Kinder Scout—are open to ramblers under access agreements. Incredibly, the Peak district national park contains 60 per cent. of all the areas of England and Wales that are subject to voluntary access agreements and most of it is in my constituency. Open access land is also owned by the National Trust and other bodies.

People approaching the park from Sheffield and Barnsley have to drive through many miles of beautiful countryside, which they are not allowed to enter, until they reach identical areas of beautiful countryside, which they are allowed to enter, before they can walk freely on open moors, but even where there is open access, there are arrangements to close land where necessary.

A number of times, Conservative Members have asked, "What will happen when land has to be closed?" Land is frequently closed, some of it open access land. That land is closed by agreement for shooting or the breeding of birds, and large areas are closed down for several days in summer when the fire risk becomes too high. Walkers understand and respect those restrictions. They know why they are in place and there are no complaints about the temporary closing of the land for good reason.

The Peak District national park has 22 million visitors a year. It is the most popular national park in Britain and the second most popular in the world—only Mount Fuji in Japan has more visitors. A high proportion of those are day visitors, walkers and ramblers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned the problems of erosion. In Edale, the entrance to the Pennine way has had to be split into three to manage the concentration of erosion on the linear paths. It must be said that the effects of erosion would be reduced in such areas if there were wider access, with fewer feet per metre to cause the damage.

Although the access agreements in the Peak district are voluntary, many of them are not altruistic—there is a quid for the pro quo. The Peak park makes payments to landowners in recognition of costs incurred to them by public access. However, the system is slow and cumbersome, and does not command as much respect as it should. In many cases, it is difficult to justify the on-going costs, particularly as they may relate to events that occurred when access was granted. The real reason for the payments is to give landowners an incentive to partake in the voluntary access scheme and to link that scheme with a code of practice for others to follow. As I shall demonstrate in a moment, the scheme is not succeeding in doing that. Part of the cost of access to the Peak national park arises from the comprehensive system of rangers, who patrol access areas and help and advise walkers on their rights, routes and responsibilities.

Most telling of all, however, is the fact that the final evidence is that the voluntary process has failed to give us anything like the 4 million acres of open countryside to which there could be open access. Despite the best endeavours of the Peak national park and the constant lobbying by walking groups, precious little more land is subject to open access now than it was in the 1970s. In the past 25 years, the voluntary approach has produced virtually nothing as regards the schemes, even where payments are involved. It is now time to move on and accept that it has not worked.

As my right hon. Friend the Minister said in his statement on 8 March, another drawback of the voluntary scheme is that it is, by its very nature, temporary. Presumably, any land that can be voluntarily designated as access land can be voluntarily withdrawn from access. As any walker will confirm, someone setting out on a day's rambling on the peaks needs primarily a reliable map. In future, that map will tell people where the open access land is and where it is not. Under a voluntary system, there is no guarantee that land that is open access land one day or one year will have the same status the next. The whole idea of our proposal is that the arrangement should be permanent so that people know what is open access land. That is the answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) and other Conservative Members who are no longer present.

In the spirit of the Bill, with the practicality of the Government's approach, the lessons learned from the Kinder trespass, the honourable history of ramblers and my constituency's contribution to that history will now come together to achieve a single goal: the right to roam responsibly and to share and enjoy, but at the same time preserve, some of the world's most glorious natural heritage.

1.29 pm
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

I apologise to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and to the Minister because I must catch the 2.15 train from Paddington to attend my surgery in Chippenham at 4 o'clock, and so shall be absent for the rest of the debate.

I appreciate the opportunity to follow the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt), who is my co-chairman on the all-party minerals group. I congratulate him on avoiding the extreme and class-warrior language, on which a number of my hon. Friends have commented, that personified the opening speech of the hon. Member for Pendle.

Mr. Sawford

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray

I have only just started my speech, and I must keep an eye on the clock, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way.

Such an approach to this matter was tellingly revealed in the speech of the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Dobbin), who constantly gave us glimpses of his true feelings. It is not so much that he wants his constituents to have access to the countryside to go walking but that he resents the fact that a small number of people own a large amount of land. That is true, and most of them are pension funds. The British Rail pension fund is a substantial landowner, as is the Queen. Dukes and farmers are also landowners. The Bill does not reform the system of landowning. If that is part of the class warrior agenda of the hon. Member for Pendle, perhaps he should say so. As I understand it, the Bill is wholly and solely about access to the countryside.

We should cast the class warrior aspects to one side. However, I am concerned about Labour Members' caricature of the attitudes of Conservative Members. They seem to think that we are the dukes: the country landowners who are determined to keep the nasty townies in the town because we do not like walkers and we do not want people tramping over our estates. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The hon. Member for Pendle and I were at Glasgow university together, and he knows that my father is a minister in the Church of Scotland. My only property is a flat in Westminster, most of which is owned by the Bank of Scotland. I have no country assets, unlike the Minister, who has a pleasant country house just outside my constituency. I have no personal interests in those matters. I merely speak on behalf of my constituents who are farmers and landowners, and who are naturally concerned about some of the provisions in the Bill.

The caricature of Conservative Members that Labour Members have drawn is terribly unfair. The people in Chippenham, Malmesbury, Wootton Bassett and Corsham—the four main towns in my constituency—who are not landowners or farmers are determined walkers: they love walking. All my hon. Friends who have spoken are clear about the fact that we must find ways of improving access to the countryside. We are not saying, "Keep them in Chippenham, Malmesbury, Wootton Bassett and Corsham. Stay at home you lot. Don't come out into the countryside and walk." We are pleased that they want to walk in the countryside and we want to encourage them to do so. We are determined to improve their access to the countryside.

The debate is not about whether people should go walking, riding and fishing in the countryside, but about how they do that. The Bill has missed its mark, because it concentrates exclusively on the 5 million acres of land to which people apparently have no access. Of course, they do not. People do not want access to a huge moorland: they are not going to zig-zag backwards and forwards across it. They want decent access across the moor, to the mountains and fields and to farmland. They want not to wander all over the countryside, but to find ways of getting on to it, enjoying it, seeing the wildlife and enjoying the fresh air—all the things that we do when we go for a walk in the countryside.

That is why the Bill has missed its mark. Instead of saying to landowners and farmers, "Let us co-operate to work out a way in which people from the towns can get into the countryside," the Bill says, "You, the landowners and farmers, we're going to sort you out. You're the people who have been stopping us. You're the people who are putting up notices saying 'No Trespassing'. You're the people who are putting barbed wire across paths."

I can tell the hon. Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon), who unfortunately may have come across brambles growing on to the paths, that, when one goes for a walk in the country, it may be a little uneven underfoot and little bits of bramble may grow on to the paths. If we had the right to roam anywhere we liked, she would have to deal with unevenness underfoot and brambles.

Mrs. Gordon

The hon. Gentleman is being extremely patronising. I was talking about designated footpaths, which are meant to be maintained and accessible.

Mr. Gray

I apologise to the hon. Lady if she felt that I was being patronising: I would not for a moment wish to do so. I was trying to make a sensible and serious point. Some hon. Members have given the impression that they do not understand what getting into the countryside is all about. I am perfectly content that there should be properly managed and properly organised paths. On a number of estates and farms in my constituency, the farmers go to great lengths to provide easily usable stiles and to make possible access for disabled people.

Those farmers go to huge lengths to keep the paths in good shape, to keep the brambles back and to ensure that there is wildlife land alongside the ploughed land, with butterflies and birds on it. We are finding ways of providing exactly what the hon. Lady wants: sensible, attractive, managed access to the countryside for all, not just the few. Conservative Members are great democrats.

Lorna Fitzsimons

The hon. Gentleman is making a plea for reasonableness, and for people to be able to share the countryside that he has the honour of representing. No doubt, his area is very beautiful—I happen to live in an area of great beauty as well—but his argument does not hold water. The problem could have been solved at any time over the past 18 years or more. If those who had the ability to provide access had wanted to co-operate, we would not need legislation now. Does the hon. Gentleman at least understand what has driven people to seek such legislation?

Mr. Gray

Had there been no increase in access to land in recent years, the hon. Lady would have a good point; but, since 1991–92, when a measurement was last taken, 1.1 million acres have been opened up to walkers, and 12,400 miles of paths. That is an increase of 23 per cent. There has been huge growth in the amount of land and the number of paths available to walkers.

Mr. Paice

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gray

I think that I should make some progress. These are really introductory remarks.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Lorna Fitzsimons) made a good point, which others have made today. There is a fine network of paths and rights of way across the nation, which is the envy of many other countries. I sympathise with the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and the Ramblers Association: I hate it when I take my family out near my village of Slaughterford and find that a piece of barbed wire has been placed across what I know perfectly well is a proper path, that a notice saying "Trespassers will be prosecuted" has been erected, or that farmers have inadvertently ploughed up a path that we have the right to cross. I find that extremely annoying, and understand why the Ramblers Association wants to take direct action.

At the same time, however, I understand how frustrating it is for farmers to have three or four tracks across their fields going nowhere at all—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). An ancient right of way goes through the kitchen of a farmhouse in my constituency, and members of the Ramblers Association insist on going in at the front and out at the back in order to preserve it. How much more sensible it would be if we could change the law relating to rights of way, giving ramblers proper access to the countryside which they love while also protecting farmers.

No doubt, the Minister will be familiar with the problem of roads used as public paths—rupps—and boats, and the question of green lanes and four-wheel-drive access. That is a complex and ancient area of the law, and it needs to be sorted out wholeheartedly and comprehensively, so that we can provide a decent network of paths across the nation for walkers and others.

The Bill appears to address a need that does not exist. It seems to be saying, "Millions of people are desperate to get into the countryside but cannot. Let us open up the farmers' fields, or the moors and hills, so that they can." However, all the polls show that the demand for recreation in the countryside is stable, and that, by and large, it is being coped with.

I spend two weeks every summer high on the National Trust cliffs in Cornwall, which provide some of the finest walks and, in mid-August, some of the best weather in the country. I rarely see anyone else using those National Trust walks. My village of Slaughterford is one of the picturesque and beautiful walking areas in Wiltshire, but we see incredibly few people there. I am not aware of the millions who are bursting at the seams to get on to other people's land. I suspect that a great deal more noise is created by the more militant members of the Ramblers Association and others who believe in making a huge fuss, not because they represent a large number of people who want to go into the countryside but because they represent the interests so clearly described by the hon. Member for Pendle. It has more to do with class warfare and the ownership of land than with peaceful enjoyment of the countryside.

Conservative Members oppose the Bill, but not because we want to deny people the right to get into the countryside; of course we do not. On the contrary, our entire aim is to find ways in which to encourage them to do so. We oppose the Bill because we believe that it has a different agenda. If the Government's Bill concentrates less on those class warfare aspects, and more on improving right of way access and securing proper access to the countryside, we will welcome it.

1.40 pm
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words. I congratulate my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), both on introducing the Bill and on his extremely good speech. He recognised the change of situation since my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment made his statement earlier this month—on which I congratulate him—on this important issue.

All the emotive language has come from Conservative Members, who have talked about class warfare. Until the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) spoke, I did not think that we were going to hear a single positive or thoughtful contribution. Conservative Members have used words such as evil, socialist, militant, politics of envy—those words have peppered speeches.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle referred to a briefing that was held just over a week ago by the Countryside Commission in the Moses Room in the House of Lords. He was sitting behind and I was sitting next to one Member of that House, who all the time muttered, "Nationalisation without compensation"—what a load of rubbish; what nonsense.

The Bill talks about—and the Minister's proposals will ultimately result in—giving rights of access to the countryside and rights to roam in the countryside, but with responsibilities. Every Labour Member has spoken of the balance: the need to give rights to people, but, at the same time, for those people to exercise responsibilities.

I should have said that I am president of the Lancashire Ramblers Association, a position that is held by rota. At some time in the future, my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle will take that position. I have no doubt that he will be a worthy holder of that post. He and I join the North-East Lancashire Ramblers on their family ramblers day, which takes place every year either in his constituency or in mine; this year, it is in mine on 26 June. We always look forward to it.

One of the things that I have always been proud of in my constituency—not every one of my constituents knows this—is that people can get off a train at Burnley central station and walk right into the countryside via a footpath that was put down by the council, aided by European and other funds. They can get to the countryside without crossing a single road. There are not many constituencies in an urban area where people can do that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle referred to the inheritance tax and the way in which that was waived in certain instances to give the right of access, yet we do not know where the right of access is. That must be nonsense and a disgrace in 1999. We sometimes have to reflect on how those people got the land in the first place. It is not a question of the politics of envy. It is our countryside and we want people to be able to enjoy it.

In my constituency, people can see Pendle hill dominating the skyline. It is near the Trough of Bowland, the Forest of Bowland, Wycoller and the Bronte moorlands. There is so much for people to see.

I chair the rights of way review committee, which is an ad hoc committee that submits to the Government views on rights of way from various organisations. I accept that the majority of people will want to walk on designated footpaths, and not to go wandering off into fields. However, that fact does not make the concept behind the Bill wrong.

The Countryside Commission published the results of the 1994 national survey on our national rights of way. One of the questions asked whether paths were signposted from roads. The report stated: Highway authorities—county, and metropolitan and outer London borough councils—are required by law to signpost every right of way where it leaves a metalled road.

The report said that, in 1994, 42 per cent. of all rights of way were signposted, which was an improvement, as only 34 per cent. were signposted in 1988. It said also that 52 per cent. of bridleways were signposted; that 9 per cent. of signposts gave additional information, such as destination of the footpath; and that 26 per cent. of paths were neither signposted nor easy to find from the road.

Labour Members mentioned the interest that the former leader of the Labour party, John Smith, had in the subject. When my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment introduces the Government's more comprehensive Bill, which will deal with more than one matter—I realise all the problems that will have to be dealt with, such as mapping—I shall give him 100 per cent. support. Like everyone else, I hope that the Government's Bill will be introduced in November 1999.

The Government's Bill on the right to roam will be a tribute to the late John Smith, and no greater Bill could be passed in the Labour party's centenary year.

1.46 pm
Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East)

One of the unfortunate truths of human nature is that we instinctively defend our own territory, often to the detriment of others. The fact is that genuine voluntary access to private land hardly ever happens without either the threat of legislation or some type of cash incentive. In reality, therefore, there never will be any such thing as genuinely voluntary access on an acceptable scale.

Those who argue for voluntary agreements simply miss the point—which is that the demand for right of access is primarily about the principal right to walk peacefully and responsibly in uncultivated open countryside. Over the centuries, landowners' failure to volunteer access makes it essential to create a statutory right to roam.

Conservative Members, after so many years of denying the right to roam, are saying, "Don't be so aggressive. But, hang on, we're about to volunteer access." After so many attempts by people to gain access to the land, surely such assurances are nonsense.

In my own constituency, more than 100 years ago—and 36 years before the Kinder trespass—the people of Bolton were taught the hard lesson that those who own the land want to keep it entirely for themselves. Nothing much has changed.

In the late summer of 1896, Colonel Ainsworth, the local bleach works owner, decided to close Coalpit road, which was a track leading to Winter hill. In doing so, he was trying to deny the right of access of thousands of local workers to walk in the fresh air and enjoy the countryside after a week's work. He had no hesitation in doing so by force, hiring extra men to warn walkers off his property. He erected signs stating that trespassers would be prosecuted, and built a locked gate to block the road. Ainsworth's action caused outrage in Bolton, and a protest was organised, inviting the public to join a demonstration at Winter hill on the following Sunday. The demonstrators intended to test the right of way over the moors. A crowd of about 1,000 people met at the bottom of the hill, at Halliwell road.

As the peaceful demonstration proceeded up Halliwell road, it was joined by thousands of Bolton workers who flocked from their rows of terraced houses on to the march. By the time that they reached the disputed gate, there were an estimated 10,000 walkers.

At that stage, the assembly was addressed by a man called Joe Shufflebottom—which is a good old-fashioned Bolton name. He was a Bolton socialist and proud of it. He advised the marchers that legal action could ensue and that they should take care to keep to the footpaths and to avoid provocation. He said: We have met today to say to Messrs Ainsworth and Co. that we the people of England have the right to pass through and we will do so. I hope that this year we shall deliver that right. His statement was met with cries of "Hear, hear" and applause. In the words of the Bolton Chronicle at the time, a scene of the wildest excitement occurred and a large crowd rushed at the gates and on to the disputed territory.

One of the gamekeepers who was attempting to take names was knocked to the ground and as the history books show, lost his notebook, his hat and his mackintosh. Police Inspector Willoughby, who was in charge of the police on the demonstration, was thrown over a low wall. At that point, he decided to send for reinforcements from Halliwell police station. Fortunately, there was little further trouble and a wagonette loaded with policemen was turned back on Halliwell road before reaching the scene of the affray.

The demonstrators then peacefully proceeded towards Belmont and an umbrella was opened to collect funds to defend the right of the people in the event of any prosecution. The collection amounted to a total of £4/10, mostly in coppers. The demonstration ended in good spirits and was unprecedented in the history of Bolton.

The Bolton Chronicle further observed that many of the walkers returned by the same route, calling in at local hostelries. It was said that the demand was so great that the wants of the hungry and thirsty ramblers could not be satisfied and the landlord of the Wright's Arms did a roaring business. It is clear that old habits have not changed.

The following week, a procession of 12,000 walked over the disputed land and the police allowed them through. Colonel Ainsworth's gamekeepers, however, took a number of names and 10 men had injunctions served on them restraining them from trespassing on Ainsworth's land. Two of them had costs awarded against them of more than £600, which was a fortune in those days.

The Bolton right of way movement was neither a total failure nor a massive success. The mass movement of 1896 died off and was channelled into legal battles that were fought on the hostile terrain of the British legal system.

The lesson of the story is that it does not matter how many people march over the moor—be it 10,000 or 100,000. Without a statutory right to roam, the rights of the privileged few will eventually take precedence over the majority. The law will consider the rights of the Colonel Ainsworths of the world to shoot grouse along with a small party of their friends to be more important than the rights of millions to enjoy the countryside. That is why a statutory right to roam is essential.

Despite Colonel Ainsworth, the tradition of rambling has prospered in Bolton and the Bolton Country-wide Holidays Association rambling club based in Bromley Cross in the north of my constituency has more than 300 members. Although Bolton is now well served by public footpaths, ramblers often choose to walk further afield. They write to me complaining that, when they walk in the Forest of Bowland, for example, access is limited or even non-existent. Much of the land is owned by the Duke of Westminster.

Such ramblers are, of course, reliable and responsible people and have a genuine respect for, and love of, the countryside. The accusation that allowing walkers greater access to the land will damage the land, threaten endangered species of birds and cause vandalism in the countryside is ridiculous. It is invented nonsense designed to justify selfishness.

Rather than being a threat to the countryside, ramblers will protect our rural landscape. Rather than allowing vandals on to the land, we will be recruiting thousands of unpaid countryside policemen who will ensure that the land on which they walk—land that they respect and love—will be protected. The ramblers whom I meet when I go out walking are more likely to pick up litter when they find it than to drop it and would be determined to protect wildlife rather than damage it.

The principles enshrined in the Bill have clearly influenced the Government's thinking on access to the countryside. My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) must be congratulated on pursuing the Bill. regardless of whether it becomes law.

We are lucky to live in a country that has some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. It is our nation's heritage, but it is not much use to us if the public are all but refused the right to enjoy it. The statutory right to roam will be a culmination of hundreds of years of struggle by people such as the brave men and women of Bolton, who pushed their way on to Colonel Ainsworth' s land on that summer's day in 1896. Although they are no longer with us, they would be proud to hear that their part has been noted in our debate on right of access. It has been an honour and privilege to mention them and the part that they have played in the fight for the freedom to walk in the open and uncultivated countryside.

1.57 pm
Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on his entertaining and effective speech. Several unflattering comparisons have been made with the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), but they complemented each other with the potency of a Yorke and Cole combination. To take the footballing analogy a little further, my right hon. Friend the Minister has already had one excellent result and I hope that, like Alex Ferguson, he goes on to gain another in securing a right to roam Bill in the Queen's Speech in November.

Walking and rambling are hugely popular in this country. More than 400 million walking trips were made in 1996. A statutory right to roam will further increase the opportunities for leisure activity—for healthy walking, for tourism and for increased understanding of our environment.

A statutory right to roam would build on, and increase, the opportunities available through the existing rights of way network. Above all, it would deliver huge pleasure to all those who take advantage of it. We have some stunning scenery in our nation, but enjoyment of far too much of it is denied to the many and left locked up in the hands of a privileged few—a privileged few who have been defended today by the Conservatives and were also defended by a Plaid Cymru Member when my right hon. Friend the Minister made his recent statement.

Conservative Members claim that they, too, support high-quality access arrangements. Taking their words at face value, their mistake is in believing that a voluntary approach could deliver high-quality access. The voluntary approach has had enough time to deliver results. The right of access to land is not an issue that has suddenly arisen. It has been a political issue for more than 100 years and has been supported by the Labour party for much of that time. Those who advocate a voluntary approach should have been able to deliver more substantial and more wide-ranging access arrangements to demonstrate their view that statutory action was unnecessary.

Bearing in mind the potential 3 million to 4 million acres that we have been talking about, the small amount of additional land voluntarily made available pales into insignificance. If the election of a new Labour Government committed to examining a statutory right to access cannot stimulate a more active and more determined voluntary commitment to access from landowners, it is safe to say that, 100 years since the start of the campaign, the voluntary approach has demonstrably failed.

The Government carefully examined whether—despite the history—a voluntary approach could be made to work. Six sensible benchmarks were laid down, against which people were asked to judge whether a new form of voluntary approach could be developed. Some 84 per cent. of respondents to the Government's consultation exercise—a clear majority—made it clear that they did not believe that voluntary arrangements could deliver cost-effective access of sufficient quality, extent, permanency or clarity.

It is highly relevant to examine what is likely to happen in Scotland. The Scottish access forum, comprised of representatives of all sides of the access debate—including landowners, walkers and public agencies—has called on the Scottish Parliament to provide a right of access to land and water, exercised responsibly, for informal recreation and passage. The forum developed a package of proposals after extensive consultation that commanded the support of all the forum members. John Grant of the Scottish Landowners Federation claimed: These legislative proposals will ensure that arrangements for public access to our land are among the best in Europe. They will enhance the quality of life of every citizen. If the landowners' organisation in Scotland can take such an enlightened attitude to access legislation, surely Conservative Members—who oppose such statutory provision in England and Wales—should re-examine their view.

If Conservative Members cannot accept the views of Scottish landowners, perhaps they will listen to their own Scottish spokesman, Murdo Fraser, whose support for a statutory right to roam I made clear in an earlier intervention. Scottish walkers, Scottish local authorities and Scottish landowners support a right to roam. Even the Conservative party in Scotland supports a right to roam. Why not the Conservative party in England and Wales? Are Welsh mountains somehow more fragile than Scottish mountains? Are wildlife habitats on moors in England more at risk than those on Scottish moors? I do not think so.

It is ridiculous that the Conservative party in Scotland supports a statutory right to roam while the Conservative party in England does not. There is no massive difference on the issue between Scotland and the rest of the UK. What is different is that the Conservative party in England appears to be even more obtuse than its Scottish counterparts.

Beyond educating English Tories, the Scottish experience has a lesson for all those interested in access in England and Wales. The various interests have developed mutual understanding and effective partnerships to begin the task of implementing new access provisions. We need a similar sensible dialogue among landowners, managers, user groups, conservation interests and local authorities in England and Wales.

The new national access forums in England and Wales, coupled with the local access forums—which will bring together people with a detailed local knowledge, mirroring the membership of the new national forum—are sensible and important ways of securing wide support within local communities and the national scene for access packages.

Landowners—both individually and collectively—have an important perspective, and must be heard. They should have the discretion to close land or restrict access for defined reasons for a limited number of days. The Government's package will allow that to happen. Conservation interests also have a different and crucial dimension to bring to the forums. However, it is time that user groups were heard. The Government's approach will ensure that all interests are heard.

Legislation is urgent, but it will take time. It is an opportunity for ramblers and landowners to sit down locally and start hammering out the details of access. It is far better to start negotiating locally now, so that united advice from local interests can be presented to the new Countryside Agency.

We have been waiting for legislation for more than 100 years, and it is high time that the House had the opportunity to put such a Bill through. I wish my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment success in his behind-the-scenes negotiations.

2.4 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I start, as others have, with warm congratulations for my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) on the opportunity that he has given the House to debate the important issue of public access to the countryside—something for which we have been waiting, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) has just said, for the best part of a century.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle spoke with his usual eloquence and commitment, and exhibited a rich vein of humour that exposed how tenuous and fragmentary are Conservative Members' arguments against a right of access and how readily that lack of argument has been covered by resort to cheap slogans about class warfare. I always take note when Tories start to talk about class warfare. They know all about it, because they have been practising it for centuries.

My hon. Friend's gentle mockery demolished a number of myths and misrepresentations, and I pay tribute to him. He has campaigned tirelessly on a cause in which he clearly believes passionately, and he has contributed not a little to the Government's own preparations for a Bill. Since he introduced the Bill, the Government have announced proposals for improving access to the countryside. I am grateful to him for his decision to withdraw the Bill in favour of a Government Bill.

My announcement to the House on 8 March was, I am delighted to say, extremely widely welcomed. As my hon. Friends the Members for Heywood and Middleton (Mr. Dobbin) and for Tooting (Mr. Cox) said, their postbags and mine have never before been as full as they are now, with personal letters of thanks for our decision to legislate for a new statutory right of access.

For some reason, the announcement was also apparently unexpected. The cutting that I most relish was, I think, a leader in The Daily Telegraph. I do not have it here, but it said something like, "Michael Meacher stood up yesterday in the House of Commons and did something unprecedented in modern British politics. He delivered himself of a statement that had not previously been leaked to the press."

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle spoke about mapping. He is right in saying that common land is already clearly demarcated and that upland common areas have already been mapped, but there are difficulties with areas of downland. I have already spoken with the Countryside Agency about getting a mapping exercise under way as quickly as possible, and we are certainly considering whether the right of access could, on that basis, be introduced by stages.

I do not believe that local access forums will take capricious decisions, largely because if any party has doubts, the matter can be referred upwards to the Countryside Agency.

Many hon. Members referred to publication of a Bill. It is of course my intention to bid for a Bill at the earliest parliamentary opportunity, but all hon. Members know that that depends on agreement within Government. I have no doubt, however, that the Government business managers will have heard the strong demands for early legislation.

Mr. Brake

When the Minister bids for that Bill, will it include a wider wildlife remit?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman knows me well, because we have participated in many debates together. He raised that point earlier, and I am coming to my response to his speech in a moment. I will try to cover all the major points.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) made the point that we should rely on a comprehensive network of rights of way. The problem—as I made clear when he raised the point after my statement on the issue—is that, although some 74 per cent. of rights of way are open, some 26,000 miles of rights of way, or about a quarter of the total, are not open. The other main point is that open countryside is not always nicely criss-crossed in a manner that gives appropriate access. I believe that people will keep to rights of way or to paths. The surveys undertaken by the CLA show that two thirds of people want to do so. In my experience of rambling, I try to keep to rights of way because it is much easier to do so. However, there is no reason in many cases why people should not have area access, as opposed to linear access, in many areas of open countryside, provided that they fully respect wildlife and other interests. I made it clear in my statement, and will again, that those interests must be fully respected.

Mr. Paice

The point that I was trying to make was that the Government should concentrate on opening up the quarter of rights of way that are blocked, for one reason or another, and creating linear access over open land, partly for the reasons I gave earlier and partly because that would be more manageable. The issues that the right hon. Gentleman has rightly mentioned, including the effect on wildlife and the environment, could be much more carefully managed and monitored if the Government were to concentrate on developing a footpath network, even if that required some statutory intervention.

Mr. Meacher

I have already made it clear that I expect paths and linear access to be widely used. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's assertion that we should be restricted in all circumstances. Area access is entirely appropriate in parts of the open countryside.

MR. MACLEAN rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put, but MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to Standing Order No. 36 (Closure of debate), declined then to put that Question.

Mr. Meacher

I thought that Conservative Members wished to have a debate on this issue. Perhaps they might allow me to respond to their arguments at some length, which is what I am trying to do.

I warmly thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for his comments today and for the enormous contribution that he has made to the access movement. He mentioned the extension to woodlands, cliff and foreshore, riverside and canal banks. I wish to make it clear to the House that I have already asked the Countryside Agency to advise me on that issue, and I shall take close note when it reports. I agree with my hon. Friend that compensation is an issue, in the sense that, if extra expenditure is involved in improving or enabling access—whether through the construction of stiles, gates, guided trails, hides or car parks, for which it may be reasonable for charges to be made—there should be an opportunity to recover costs.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Brake) asked me when the Government Bill will be introduced. I can only repeat—any assistance that the hon. Gentleman or any other hon. Member can give in encouraging my colleagues to recognise the importance of such a Bill will obviously be helpful—that I shall certainly be bidding for an early Bill, and the earliest one that I can get. I cannot go beyond that. The hon. Gentleman asked whether that measure will be linked to a wildlife Bill or a Bill relating to sites of special scientific interest. I have made it clear that I believe that we need legislation on both counts. However, the hon. Gentleman will have to await the manner in which the Government will introduce legislation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting made many points with which I strongly agree. I shall refer to those to which he asked me to respond. First, the local access forums will meet regularly, wherever it is necessary, by agreement. That does not mean that they will be meeting all the time. However, there will be regular meetings according to what the parties believe is necessary.

As for closure for land management reasons, landowners who want to close land will be required to provide good reasons—

Mr. Rowe

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I understand that one of the functions of the Chair is to try to protect private Members' time. There has been only one Friday during this Session when the Government have not made a statement. We are debating a Bill that the proponent has already suggested will be withdrawn. Is it fair to Members with Bills on the Order Paper to behave in this way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The previous occupant of the Chair ruled on this matter earlier. Please continue, Mr. Meacher.

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting also asked about the blocking of rights of way. I say to him, as I will say to everyone over the next few months, that it is an offence for landowners to prevent or obstruct access, for which they could be taken to court.

My hon. Friend raised an interesting point about the disabled. Local authorities are required to consider the needs of the disabled and I am glad that the Fieldfare trust has established standards of countryside access for disabled people.

If I may say so, the speech of the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), who is leading for the Opposition, was remarkable more for its weasel words and simpering acquiescence than for any genuine commitment. I noted that she said at the outset that the Conservative party supported increased access. She mouthed the words, but she will not will the means. She pays lip service to greater access, but she stops well short of supporting anything that will make it happen. She hides behind protection of the environment, biodiversity and the security of those who live and work in the countryside. I have made it abundantly clear that the Government support those issues, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle. We shall certainly fully protect those interests when we introduce our Bill.

The right hon. Lady said that most people were aware of the extent of access. I wonder whether she is. We carried out consultation with Entec which showed that between 1 million and 1.5 million acres of countryside in our nation were not available for access. There is a further 1.5 million acres where access is sometimes tolerated but not secure, and could be withdrawn at any time. We are talking about 3 million acres where there is not secure access.

The right hon. Lady made it clear that the Conservative party supported voluntary co-operation. That was repeated by Conservative Members throughout the debate. I say to the right hon. Lady, as many of my hon. Friends have said, that we have had 50 years to deliver voluntary increases in access. What has that delivered? The answer is about 50,000 hectares only. That is about 3 per cent. of 4 million acres in 50 years. At that rate, it will take 1,500 years before we can secure 4 million acres. Is that the Tory party's policy?

The politics of envy is a phrase that has been thrown about a great deal. I noted that the right hon. Lady did not respond to the point that the Conservative party in Scotland has no problem with access or the right to roam. We would like to know why the issue is so difficult for the Conservative party in England. It is a problem only for the old-fashioned, stuck-in-a-time-warp Tory party in England.

The right hon. Lady asked whether we should not get a measure of the demand for access. How can we do that until the product is available? As for compensation, the proposed statutory right will still allow agricultural activities to take place on the land. Similarly, it will still allow the development of land if that is agreed, and it will still allow closure of land for good management reasons. As I have just made clear, we believe that reasonable extra cost to create access should be recoverable. It is a fair balance between the rights of landowners and the general interest.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) raised the matter of inheritance tax exemption for estates that were opened up. He mentioned a figure of £65 million in Sussex. That is one of the features of my hon. Friend's Bill. I am sure that the Treasury will have taken note of the point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pavilion also spoke of the voluntary access register, which has had such limited results. That is the key point. The Country Landowners Association wanted to co-operate with the Government. It knew that legislation was in the offing and tried to get a big increase in access from its members, but it has lamentably failed. The CLA has delivered very little—not for lack of trying, as I believe that it tried hard—but the amount of extra access is of only marginal significance and much of it is outside open countryside.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made a heart-rending plea for protection from militant aggression against landowners. What he meant, I think, is that we should rely on the magnanimity and generosity of landowners, whose voluntary increase in access in the past 50 years has been a drop in the ocean. If that method worked, we would follow it, but as his hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) so bravely stated, it has not worked. There is no reason to believe that it will work in the next 50 or 100 years.

The hon. Member for Hexham spoke of a right to roam being a socialist goal since 1890. The right to privilege and inequality has been a goal of the Tory party for the past three centuries. The hon. Gentleman asked how advice is to be given about closures. There will be notices at strategic points and in local papers, and there may be wardens or rangers to advise. However, closures already occur on land that is open for access. A significant amount of land is open for access, although nowhere near 4 million acres. It is sometimes closed, but that creates no problems, so I see no reason why there should be problems in future.

Intensive grazing land is a matter requiring advice from the Countryside Agency. With regard to changing the rights of way, I was glad to note that the hon. Gentleman in particular, given his speech, acknowledged that the Government would consider alterations to the right of way, but that that would be by agreement. There are good historic reasons for those rights of way. There may, at the margin, be good reasons for changing them, but that must be by agreement.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton for his welcome, together with that of many of my hon. Friends. He rightly pointed out that the issue of access is part of a wider countryside package. I announced on 8 March our proposals with regard to a substantial part of that package, but later in the year, I hope to return to the House with other important announcements. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mrs. Gordon) pressed me strongly that that should be in November this year. I hope that I shall be able to satisfy her, but I have already explained the circumstances.

My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) made a marvellous speech recalling the great Kinder Scout historic trespass, whose defeat 70 years ago the Government are finally redressing. He mentioned the uncertainties of the voluntary approach. That is a good point. The only way to achieve certainty is through a statutory right, and by making clear the land to which it refers. That can be done only by mapping.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) rightly drew attention to the quarter of rights of way that are still not open, after all the efforts of the past 20 or 30 years. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Crausby) dramatically referred to the great fight of the people of Bolton. He said that the people have a right to pass through and intend to do so. I believe that, if they were here, they would welcome my hon. Friend's Bill and the statement of the Government's intention.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West made the important point that Scottish landowners have accepted the right to roam and there is no reason why we cannot achieve the same right in this country.

I now turn to the speech of the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark), whose contributions to debates are always entertaining. I fear that he let the cat out of the bag by saying that he broadly supports right of access provisions. I respect him for saying that. The right hon. Gentleman is no respecter of persons or parties—including his own party. That is why he has such an honourable place in the nation's consciousness.

Mr. Alan Clark

indicated assent.

Mr. Meacher

The right hon. Gentleman raised the point that militants will infiltrate environmental organisations. If any Member of this House is a man of the world, it is the right hon. Gentleman, and he must realise that miscreants, robbers and militants do not need a statutory right of access for carrying out their nefarious activities; I fear that they do so already.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East made a brave speech. In this House, the hardest speeches to make are those that defy one's party line. I respect that when it is done for the sake of integrity and conscience. The hon. Gentleman accepts the need for legislation and does not believe that the voluntary approach has worked or will ever work. I am grateful to him; perhaps good common sense is beginning to break through the Opposition's monolithic resort either to the cheap taunts that we have heard this morning, or to the cosmetic pretence—which I think that none of them believes—that, in reality, the voluntary approach will be effective.

The hon. Gentleman raised points about codes of conduct, guidelines and penalties. When I introduce legislation, it will be clear that we, too, have a strong belief in those matters. The protection of all forms of wildlife is important—for example, ground-nesting birds and animals in their breeding season. All those birds and animals have as much right as human beings to our beautiful countryside and need to be protected. I also endorse entirely what he said about those who live and work in the countryside.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the 12-day prohibition period. If a landowner offers good reasons that are acceptable to the local access forum, that figure could be higher, although I think that the existing figure is reasonably generous.

We thought long and hard about whether a voluntary approach would deliver the three criteria we seek: the extent of access, permanence of access and cost-effectiveness. We considered carefully the initiatives taken by the Country Landowners Association to encourage landowners voluntarily to offer greater access. I hope that the CLA will discuss those matters further; I think that its members deserve much credit for their action in developing access assessment and their access register—which I am prepared to take further. With the statutory countryside agencies, we shall consider how to build on that work in developing our own proposals.

However, the key point is that the CLA tried to deliver voluntarily, but it was not able to do so. When assessed against the key criteria—especially that of permanence—set out in our consultation paper, a voluntary approach cannot deliver. By its nature, it cannot deliver permanence. With regard to extent, we have tried for 50 years to extend access and achieved 3 per cent. of our target; extent has to be statutory, if we think that 4 million acres is an appropriate area for access. As for the cost of access, the consultants showed that a voluntary right of access would probably cost four times as much as a statutory right. For all those reasons, a statutory right of access is needed and that is the appropriate way in which to proceed.

Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, are keen that access legislation should be announced—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.