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Orders Of The Day

Volume 171: debated on Friday 27 April 1990

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Road Traffic (Temporary Restrictions) Bill

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

New Clause 1

Temporary Restriction Of Motor Vehicles On Byways

`After section 14 of the Act there shall be inserted—

"14A.—(1) The power to make an order under section 14 of this Act shall, where the road is a byway open to all traffic, be exercisable for the purpose of restricting use of the road by motor vehicles, or by motor vehicles of any class, if the authority is satisfied that it is expedient so to restrict that use in order to avoid disturbance to the surface of the road or annoyance or inconvenience to other traffic using the road, including in particular pedestrians and equestrians.
(2) The power to make regulations under section 16 shall include a power to make regulations providing that objections to an order proposed to be made under section 14 for the purposes set out in subsection (1) above may be considered at a public inquiry or hearing held to consider objections to an order under section 53 or section 54 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 which would have the effect of showing that road as a byway open to all traffic in a definitive map and statement of public rights of way.
(3) In this section "byway open to all traffic" has the same meaning as in section 127 of this Act.".'—[Mr. Andrew F. Bennett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.38 am

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

We have ahead of us a useful day's debate on road traffic matters. By tradition, if a statement is forthcoming, it will be made at 11 am. It would be far more helpful for the Government to ensure that there was a proper statement at 11 am so that we knew what was happening on the poll tax, rather than for some of us to have to raise the matter on points of order at 11 am, which I am sure that you would feel to be unhelpful, Mr Speaker. I hope that you will use your good offices between now and 11 am to persuade the Government that they must make a clear statement so that there is no continued speculation.

That is especially important as there are local elections and the poll tax is a key issue at those local elections. After the local elections, voters should have the first opportunity to know the Government's proposals. It would be grossly unfair to the general public if there were hints about changes that might influence their votes and they were disappointed. I hope that you will use your good offices, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that there is a statement at 11 o'clock.

I understand the problems for the hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo), being ninth in the ballot. It is a bit like losing £5 and finding 5p—one is not sure whether one has had success. Ninth in the ballot is not the best position. I do not blame him totally for choosing a Bill that came from the Department of Transport, but I am a little disappointed that he did not find out whether the whole country or merely the Department of Transport and local authorities would benefit from it. It is rather a pity that he chose a Bill whose sole aim is to help bureaucrats in the Department of Transport and in local authorities and is not designed to help the general public. In fact, it makes life much worse for the general public.

The National Farmers Union, the Automobile Association and the Ramblers Association are upset about the Bill. I make it clear that, although I have no financial interest, I am a member of the Ramblers Association and I often speak on its behalf. I shall say some things on behalf of the association this morning. The Ramblers Association gives me considerable assistance.

The ramblers are upset about one point in particular. There is a useful group called the rights of way review committee, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst). It is sad that when the Department of Transport was bringing forward the Bill it made no attempt to consult the rights of way review committee to discover its views on the matter. I am a little unhappy about the way in which the Bill has come about.

As the proceedings continue, we may be able to negotiate some compromises, but it would have been far better if all the negotiations had taken place before the Bill was introduced for Second Reading. It would have been much more helpful for me if the hon. Member for Nottingham, South had got on with the negotiations before Easter, when I suggested that he should negotiate with the ramblers rather than leave it until the past day or two.

The problem is that, as Friday approaches and one must speak on a Bill on that day, one must do quite a bit of work. As one starts to dig into most pieces of legislation, one often finds that there is rather more in them than was thought and one begins to think, "Perhaps we should press this point and that point." The purpose of the new clause is to do that very thing.

The hon. Member for Nottingham, South should have put into the package something for the Department of Transport, something for local authorities to reduce bureaucracy, and something for the many people who walk in the countryside. He should have put in something for the farmers who look after the countryside, and he should have at least consulted major groups such as the AA.

The hon. Gentleman should also have been quite clear in saying that this is not a Bill to save money. The worry in my mind and in the minds of ramblers is that, with all the pressures of the poll tax, the Bill will make it easier for local authorities to defer repairing roads, replacing footbridges over rivers, and so on. Of course it would help if at this stage we knew a little more about the Government's proposals on the poll tax and whether the Government propose to keep the main thrust of their legislation, which is to discourage local expenditure—something that I find extremely worrying.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that not only are the Government endeavouring to dissuade local expenditure but we in the north of Ireland, where there is an entirely different rating system, have discovered that there has been falling expenditure on roads for many years and that central Government expenditure——

Order. I realise that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is still on his preamble, but I am sure that he will stick to the new clause.

I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I felt that it was important for the House to realise that it is not a narrow Bill and that there are major implications for expenditure. There is pressure to cut expenditure. I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, East (Mr. Beggs). In Northern Ireland, and certainly in the north-west of England, expenditure on roads and footpaths has been cut. This measure would allow delay. There should be some opportunity for redress. The substantial problem that walkers and others come across is what is now referred to in horrible initials as BOATS.

BOATS—byways open to all traffic.[Laughter.] The Minister may laugh, but it is causing considerable upset to large numbers of people. Perhaps the most famous person who has been campaigning about the issue is Lord Denning, but I shall refer to that matter later. I hope that the Minister will tell us what the Government will do about the problem.

The aim of the new clause is to give highway authorities—that is to say, county council, metropolitan district councils and London borough councils—enhanced powers to make temporary traffic regulation orders to restrict or prohibit the use by motor vehicles of byways open to all traffic. In other words, we are talking about the green lanes and the ancient trackways which at one time had vehicles—usually horse-drawn vehicles—going over them. In recent years, horse-drawn traffic has ceased to go over such byways and they are now often used by horse riders. There are now people who want to ride motor bikes and drive off-road vehicles on them. The clause achieves its aim by inserting a new section 14A into the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. Section 14 is one of the sections to be amended by the Bill. The new clause states that where the authority thinks it expedient, it can put a temporary restriction or prohibition of motor traffic on a byway open to all traffic to
"avoid disturbance to the surface of the road, or annoyance or inconvenience"
being caused by motor vehicles to other users of the way, particularly walkers and horse riders. I am afraid that the measures must be temporary. It would have been much better to table an amendment that would impose a permanant restriction. Therefore, I use the new clause as a vehicle to ask the Government what they will do.

On 23 February, during the Second Reading debate on the Rights of Way (Agricultural Land) Bill, which was introduced by the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), there was a useful debate on rights of way. There were many comments about the problem that horse riders and walkers were suffering as a result of some green lanes or byways being used by off-road vehicle drivers and motor bike riders. The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), who is a regular attender on Fridays, said:
"I have seen groups of riders"—
by which he means horse riders—
"stampeding along bridleways and fast cars being driven irresponsibly. Drivers rev up their cars and wreck the whole
spirit of the countryside, and the people and animals within it. It should be stopped immediately.—[Official Report, 23 February 1990; Vol. 167, c. 1201.]
I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) in his place. He said:
"It is an anomaly that because a footpath or a bridleway has at some time been used by wheeled traffic it can be used for wheeled traffic today. In the past wheeled traffic might have been a horse-drawn wagon, a medieval bullock cart or even Boadicaea's chariot, but now it means that yobs can drive their wretched jeeps and beach buggies up and down the tracks and churn them up, charging into the crops arid shattering the peace and quiet of the countryside. They can ruin the soil structure of those paths all too easily. Especially with clay, once the soil structure gets deflocculated it is very difficult to restore it."—[Official Report, 23 February 1990; Vol. 167, c. 1207.]
The hon. Members for Norfolk, North-West (Mr. Bellingham) and for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) also commented on the problem.

However, the person who has received the most publicity on this issue is Lord Denning. I believe that he got himself on "Wogan". Lord Denning has been running a substantial battle against Hampshire county council over the use of green lanes. Perhaps it was as a result of Lord Denning's pressure that Hampshire county council called a conference on the subject. About 300 people attended it and put forward a series of recommendations——

I, too, have seen references to Lord Denning and his protest, which I believe was on a fairly narrow subject. My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I got the impression that Lord Denning was concerned only about his own little path near his own big house. My hon. Friend's new clause is seeking to deal with places such as the High Peak and the Tissington trail and other such trails in Derbyshire and in the Peak district—not too far from the areas that my hon. Friend knows well from his rambling and mountaineering. Is not my hon. Friend trying to protect such trails and biking areas that have been sponsored and provided by the Labour-controlled Derbyshire county council, and not somebody's private drive?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. There is some strength in his view, although I am sure that Lord Denning would dispute that he is motivated merely by the problems at the bottom of his own back garden, which is not exactly the sort of back garden that most of us know about. Nevertheless, Lord Denning has identified a substantial group of people throughout the country who have properties on the byways that used to be peaceful lanes but which have not been churned up.

I agree with my hon. Friend that a substantial number of such lanes are to be found in upland Britain and that they have major problems. Over the past 30 or 40 years., many such byways have ceased to carry motor vehicles and have become quiet places for walkers and horse riders. Often in the upland areas stones have fallen off walls and have blocked the road. When horses and carts used to travel along them, people picked up the stones and replaced them on the walls, but more recently that has stopped.

The surfaces of such byways were often composed of crushed or pounded stone or clay. Such surfaces are not suitable for modern motor vehicles and are certainly not suitable for off-road vehicles, which quickly churn up the surface, turning it into mud. It is distressing that an authority such as Derbyshire county council, which has an impressive record of trying to restore footpaths and to ensure that they have good surfaces, should find that the byways are quickly destroyed by vehicles. We need some system by which we can keep vehicles off traditional routeways that are not suitable for them.

Perhaps as a result of Lord Denning's pressure—or perhaps as a result of other people's concern, which has been less well publicised—Hampshire county council and the Countryside Commission held a conference on this matter in Winchester last October, which suggested that there should be Government legislation. That is the motivation behind my new clause.

I could give the Minister a series of other examples and could quote what other people have said about the problems but shall refer briefly to only one example of an old Roman road at Betws-y-coed in north Wales—

Yes, very close to the Swallow falls. It is Sarn Helen. It is supposedly a Roman road but as any old track was attributed to the Romans in the past, I suspect that it is, in fact, medieval. Until the 1950s, it was a metal road that ran from the Miners' bridge at Betws-y-coed to Pont-y-Pant at Dolwyddelan. In the 1950s, a substantial flood severed the road a little less than a mile from its start. As a result, it was impossible for the farmers in the area to reach their farms by that old road, which in the past had been the only way up. They found a simple compromise and used a forest road. However, once people started to use the forest road, which had a much more gentle gradient and was much easier to get up, the county council had no incentive to reinstate the missing section that had been worn away. That saved the county council a lot of money. As half a dozen farmers could still reach their farms. Why reinstate the road? One can see the county council's temptation.

Indeed, my worry about the Bill is that if it gives local authorities the right to defer reinstating a road for 18 months, at the end of that 18 months the authority could say, "We have not had much fuss about people not getting through or about reinstating it. Let's go for permanent closure." That example is worrying. If, as in this case, people can get access from the Forestry Commission, the Forestry Commission might rightly feel that a county council should make some contribution towards the upkeep of the road.

Sam Helen has not been used by vehicles for about 20 years. Tarmac has not been laid since then and the top tarmac surface has gradually been eroded by water. It is a pleasant and fairly safe walk. People taking youngsters out into the countryside to practise their map reading encourage them to use it because it is not a route from which they are likely to be easily diverted. As I have said, it is an attractive walk, but in the past two years one or two people have decided that it is a nice place to drive their jeeps. One or two jeeps can turn what is a pleasant path to walk along in both summer and winter into a muddy path.

I shall not go on for much longer because I should like the Minister at least to give us the assurance that something will be done about byways which were used by horse and cart traffic in the past and which have not been used by motor vehicle traffic. I do not know whether the Minister will be able to see his way to amending the Bill in the House of Lords in an attempt to deal with those byways, but if he cannot do so I hope that he will tell us that, following the initiative taken by Hampshire county council and the others who are concerned about this problem, the Government will bring forward some permanent legislation as soon as they can and will deal with BOATS—byways open to all traffic.

I shall listen to the Minister with interest. I hope that he will start the day by making some helpful comments that may speed our progress.

10 am

I am genuinely grateful to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for airing several issues that interest ramblers, people who ride horses and anyone interested in the open countryside. However, this modest measure is not a natural place for his new clause. As he said, I was ninth in the ballot for private Members' Bills. There is a golden rule that if one is outside the first seven, one should choose a very modest measure—I underline very modest—to have the remotest chance of successfully steering a Bill through the House. The House knows that one is not guaranteed a Second Reading. Indeed, it is most unusual, when one comes lower than seventh, to choose a measure that does not have cross-party agreement. One should choose, not a major measure, but a Bill to deal with a gap in existing legislation or a matter that everyone views as modest and uncontentious but which cannot find its way into the Government's programme of legislation.

The hon. Gentleman's monetary analogy was not quite right. I suppose that I was not sure whether I had a west mark or an east mark. The hon. Gentleman spoke about uncertainty. Having listened to him, I have a funny feeling that I have picked up an east mark this morning.

The hon. Gentleman has been less than fair to my hon. Friend the Minister and the staff of the Department of Transport. Having looked around for a modest measure, I was given their absolute assurance that all the relevant parties had been consulted. Much of the consultation was done in the middle 80s—in 1987 and 1988. The delay was in finding an hon. Member such as myself with an interest in transport who was prepared to adopt not a new Bill but an amendment to an existing measure because a gap in that legislation had been identified.

While it is true that the rights of way committee has not been consulted recently, it was consulted some time ago and there was no reason to believe that what was being done was contrary to its general wish.

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I shall continue for a moment. It also worries me that the hon. Gentleman spoke of local authorities in such a pejorative tone. The House is always being accused of imposing decisions on local authorities or not treating them with the respect that they deserve. We are told that we should give them the right to make their own decisions as far as possible. About 15,000 orders are made on this matter every year and it would be bureaucratic nonsense to involve the Department of Transport and the Secretary of State even in a minor way in matters that rightly come within the remit of local democratically elected authorities.

All that the Bill seeks to do is to tidy up sections 14 and 15 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. However desirable it would be to deal with the other matters that the hon. Gentleman outlined, what he described in his opening remarks would need a major piece of legislation. I agree with him that over the coming 15 or 20 years, our children and grandchildren will look for a much greener approach to politics and life in general. All the matters that he described will undoubtedly be part of a wider group of green issues, whether they come under the Department of Transport or the Department of the Environment. However, if the hon. Gentleman considers my Bill carefully, he will see that it simply seeks to clean up the present bureaucratic process of repetitious notices and applications. In no way do I seek to give local authorities powers that would undermine the hon. Gentleman's proposals, with which I assure him that I agree.

The Ramblers Association was not consulted and it is not happy with the proposals. It was disappointed that although it got in touch with the hon. Gentleman before Easter, he did not feel that negotiations could start then. He said that we shall have to worry about green lanes for the next 15 or 20 years. That is true, but some green lanes have been crossed by 20 or 30 people on motor bikes or in jeeps or other vehicles and have had their surfaces destroyed. The surface had probably been there for 1,000 years. When that surface has gone it cannot be restored. It is not a problem that we can put off for ever.

I am not in dispute with the hon. Gentleman on that. However, the problem that he describes does not sit well in this amending legislation. The type of anti-social behaviour that he describes is indulged in not only by motor cyclists crossing bridlepaths or footpaths. I represent what is technically described as an inner city seat. Anti-social behaviour of motor cyclists unlawfully using footpaths is a well known and is a major problem for the police. We shall have to address it, but it does not sit properly with this legislation.

My hon. Friend the Minister may wish briefly to comment on the wider implications of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I should be most unhappy if my modest amending legislation were widened into what would clearly be a major piece of legislation.

First, I wish to address the points made about consultation. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) referred to the AA. I have checked and I understand that the Tapwork report—which has nothing to do with the water industry or dancing, but is the traffic and parking consultative working party—consulted a wide variety of people, including the AA. The AA expressed no anxieties. I wonder where the hon. Gentleman obtained his information.

In general, I support the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) in support of his Bill. The new clause would extend the temporary restriction powers to matters which would not be proper for a temporary traffic order. The Bill already provides for temporary action to prevent serious damage to the road. Judgments about what constitutes disturbance to the surface or annoyance and inconvenience to others are highly subjective and would take us into different territory.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish and my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South will be pleased to hear that I share deeply their respective anxieties about the activities of certain people in vehicles in rural areas. I represent a rural constituency and live in a rural area. I resent most strongly some of the activities of some of those people. I cannot be more firm in my response.

However, as my hon. Friend says, the Bill is not the place to deal with such behaviour. I appreciate the anxieties expressed about protecting the character of byways. Traffic regulation powers can already be exercised to address such problems permanently. Rightly, they involve the normal processes of consultation—public advertisements and so on—which apply to all permanent traffic regulation orders. There is no justification for allowing the more expeditious temporary order procedure to be applied.

I understand that there are procedures available, but they do not seem to work. I am sure that the Minister is aware of how many green lanes are being destroyed. It seems that no action is being taken to protect them. Virtually everyone who has spoken has given examples of the problem. What does the Department intend to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman is right to press me. I cannot be specific at this stage except to say that I hope that he understood from my view, which in this instance i s purely a personal view, that I am endeavouring to do something about the problem.

The hon. Gentleman must wait and see, as my grandmother used to say to me years ago. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been approached——

I did not realise that Asquith was the Minister's grandmother.

Perhaps my grandmother copied what Asquith used to say years ago.

I have sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend have said, but it is not right to include the matter dealt with in the new clause in what my hon. Friend correctly, but unusually described as a modest Bill.

I accept in principle the merits of considering traffic regulation powers when the status of a byway is to be conferred under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. That makes sense. It would be wrong to confuse what are distinct statutory procedures. We are looking at the possibilities of operating the two procedures more closely for administrative convenience. To handle them jointly may require changes in legislation. It would be wrong simply to overlap them as the amendment proposes.

Although the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish has not achieved all that he wants—he made a fair case which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South and I are trying to recognise—I hope that——

Like the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), I have many green lanes in my constituency. I came to the House in the hope of hearing that the Bill would deal with the motorway that runs through my constituency and the temporary orders on it. Surely the two do not lie well together. Am I right on that?

As usual, my hon. Friend has hit the nail smack on the head. I am delighted that he has found the time to leave his constituency today to come and make that point, if no other. He is absolutely correct.

For the reasons that I have given, I hope that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish will understand that we cannot support the new clause and that he will withdraw the motion. I hope to assist the hon. Gentleman when we debate a later amendment because some of his remarks are more relevant to it.

I am a little disappointed, but not surprised that the Government cannot even tell us what they are thinking about in terms of BOATs. The Minister could at least have explored some of the possibilities. I am sure that many people who are concerned about these green lanes would have liked to hear that the Government were trying to take a step forward. The Minister might have told us that the rights of way review committee was looking at the issue. I hope that the matter will be raised with it.

The debate has offered a market to their Lordships. Although we are not sure whether Lord Denning was speaking for his own or for others' interests, I hope that one or two of their Lordships may feel that they can return to this issue, if not to include the new clause in the legislation, at least to press the Government harder on what they will do about green lanes. As I said when I intervened, they are being eroded steadily. When the top surface of such a road is ripped away, the result is mud for years to come. Then the local authority must spend money putting down hardcore, and we know about the problems of priorities for local authorities and their reluctance to spend money on that.

In view of the Minister's comments and his suggestion that at least on one of the later amendments he can be, as he said, helpful—it may be better to say slightly helpful—I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 2

Temporary Restriction Of Foot And Horse Traffic For Trials Of Motor Vehicles

'After section 14 of the Act there shall be inserted—
"14B.—(1) This section applies where an authority makes an order under section 14 above to restrict or prohibit the use of a footpath or bridleway for the purpose of avoiding danger to the public which would arise from the holding of a trial between motor vehicles authorised by the authority under section 33 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.
(2) The authority shall have power, as a condition of making the order, to require the person to whom the authorisation has been granted—
(a) to provide an alternative footpath or bridleway for the traffic which will be restricted or prohibited by the order; and
(b) to defray the expenses reasonably incurred by the authority in, or in connection with, the making of the order and the provision and signing of the alternative footpath or bridleway.".'—[Mr. Andrew F. Bennett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I understand the disappointment expressed at the conclusion of the previous debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). I share that disappointment because I have carefully prepared fairly lengthy notes which I might have been able to turn into a lengthy speech. However, in view of the possibility that the Government will offer us a minor concession, I do not want to take up too much time. I wish to find out what the Government are doing in one or two other areas and new clause 2 deals with that.

I admit that new clause 2 is fairly obscure. There were difficulties drafting it and a I pay tribute to John Trevelyan of the Ramblers Association for his ingenuity and for understanding the law in this area so well that he managed to draft the new clause. Its aim is to get the Government to throw some light on the use of public highways for sporting activities, particularly rallying with cars.

Earlier this year Humberside county council presented a Bill which would have given it powers to close some highways and roads within its area so that the RAC rally or one of the rallies could use them. There was considerable controversy about turning Birmingham into a legal race-track on one or two weekends a year. The fact that it seems like a race-track most days is another matter. People try to legislate for such events through private Bills, of which I strongly disapprove.

10.15 am

The question is what powers the Department of Transport has to close roads for rallies or sporting events? My information is that the powers are a little obscure. What responsibilities does the Department have to provide alternative routes for people on foot or on horseback? Obviously, it is difficult to do that. Substantial numbers of people watch the RAC rally and the organisers want to ensure that they can watch in safety. Clearly, if people are to watch in safety, it does not make sense to allow them to walk across the road on which the rally is taking place. Many people do not read the newspapers carefully and do not realise that a rally is taking place. They may go out for pleasure into an afforested area, which is where the vehicles go fastest and the race is most dramatic, happen to end up where the race is taking place and be distressed to find the road closed.

Can the Minister make a clear statement about the Department's powers to close roads for trials of one sort or another? When the Government close roads for such purposes, what powers do they have to make temporary diversions for people on foot or on horseback? In particular, will the Minister tell us why we still have this odd private Bill procedure? Are the promoters, such as Humberside county council, trying to do something of which the Department does not approve? If the Department approves of the activity, why does it not use its powers to close the roads temporarily?

I am delighted that Humberside county council, in the face of opposition from walkers and others, decided to drop the Bill and not to disturb the Yorkshire moors. Obviously, I am worried about what is going on in the centre of Birmingham and the controversy that is raging over that legislation.

My hon. Friend and I dislike the private Bill procedure in many respects. Does he agree that that procedure could allow the organisers of such an event to overcome local objections to it? It will not be the Department of Transport alone that is involved in road closures—indeed it may have no locus at all in that. It is more likely to be the local authority or, in London, the Metropolitan police, and they may have strong objections. As in other areas, the private Bill procedure is a way of getting round objections from the locality. That is the prime reason why we do not like the procedure.

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is sad that the Leader of the House has not introduced proposals to deal with private Bills. I understand that one difficulty is that he is consulting a whole series of Departments, one of which is the Department of Transport. I sympathise with the Minister for having to be here on a Friday, but if he had to deal with all the matters now being dealt with in private Bills—all the rail Bills and many other proposals—he would probably be the Minister most involved in legislation before the House and spend most of his time in Committee, probably even forgetting where his constituency was, considering the pressures that that would involve.

Some consultation must be going on between the Department of Transport and the Leader of the House as to the Department's attitude to the private Bill procedure. No doubt one of the issues that the Department has been considering is temporary restrictions on access to footpaths and bridleways when used for some trial.

I walk around the Betws-y-Coed area frequently. The Forestry Commission has pushed through a series of forestry roads in that area and they make a pretty good surface on which to walk. Often the older footpaths, which run parallel to those roads or weave a somewhat similar route across the mountainous or forested areas, have fallen into disuse and we are left with a set of footpaths which are difficult to follow and a set of forestry roads which most people use.

The Forestry Commission can earn money by allowing the RAC rally and other rallies to use forestry roads. Because of that, a complicated situation arises as the commission's private roads, through custom and practice, are now used by people on foot or on horseback.

I hope that the Minister can clear up what the Department's legal powers are regarding allowing trials on those roads. I appreciate that the new clause is somewhat obscure, but I hope that it provides an opportunity for the Minister to define exactly the legal powers of the Department regarding rallying—I believe that the technical term is "trials of speed"—on public highways used by people on foot or on horseback.

I am not unsympathetic to the arguments put by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). They are perfectly valid, but I have less sympathy for this new clause than I had for the laudable aims contained in new clause 1.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) made an intervention relating to the Private Bill procedure. From the public's point of view, I hope that he agrees with me that there is great distinction between the procedure and a private Member's Bill. In this House we understand the difference, but the hon. Gentleman's comments could be misconstrued by the public. It would be a great tragedy and a diminution of our democracy if individual Members of Parliament did not have the opportunity one day a week to deal with private Members' Bills.

We know that the distinction between the two procedures is a good and clear one. A private Member's Bill is a public bill and is therefore totally different from a private Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and I have already referred to the problems associated with the private Bill procedure. In 1988 we produced a report containing a series of recommendations about that procedure. As my hon. Friend has already pointed out, however, we are still waiting for the Government to provide an opportunity to vote on those recommendations so that we can do something about that procedure.

The hon. Gentleman, who is usually so amusingly articulate, has demonstrated why the public cannot understand—at the conclusion of his remarks I am sure that they still do not understand—what on earth the difference is between a private Bill and a private Member's Bill.

The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish spoke of the difficulty of drafting new clauses. Although I am not seeking to make excuses about the adequacy of my negotiations with outside bodies and the Department of Transport, I did not seek to resolve some of the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman before the Easter recess because of the difficulty in drafting. I did not want to spoil a useful clean-up exercise by trying to draft new clauses, especially given my lack of legal knowledge and drafting ability. I am sure that such clauses would have been unsuitable.

I do not claim to be an avid follower of motor trials and I have never been, nor am I likely to be, a participant in such trials. I live in a delightful village, Barton In Fabis, on the city boundary of Nottingham. Between our village and the city we have a superb farm—it is within the city boundaries—which happens to hold motor and cycle trials within its confines. I do not know whether those trials cut across bridleways and footpaths. We can certainly hear those trials when they are held once a fortnight and that is the closest I get to participating.

I do not believe that the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised fit the Bill, which is designed to deal with current procedures relating to temporary traffic regulations. As a result of the Bill it will be possible to prescribe the conditions with which people must comply, and failure to do so will be an offence. That should satisfy the hon. Gentleman.

A single-event trial is likely to last for one day—or, at most, two or three days. In those circumstances, any regulations necessary could be met by a five-day notice. I do not believe that a traffic order would be required. That is a major procedure and could involve an 18-month delay. Clearly that is not what the hon. Gentleman intended. That is another reason why I feel that his remarks, valid though they may be, do not fit with this Bill. It would be wrong to accept a new clause which tries to cover an event lasting one or two days when that would not need a traffic order in the first place.

I do not believe that the new clause is necessary. Even if it were, I doubt whether the power to provide alternative routes, for example, would be welcomed. On whose land would such diversionary routes run? What would happen about consultation and objections? The new clause attempts to cover too wide an area. The hon. Gentleman has already admitted that it is fairly obscure and narrow and I hope that he will agree that it has no proper place in the Bill.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) I like to watch motor racing. I participate—or, rather, used to participate—at such occasions myself. I am an avid follower of grand prix and of various other motor racing activities. There is an important distinction to be made between such activities, which are properly controlled and marshalled organisations, and the sort of activity to which the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish earlier referred of uncontrolled interruption of rural surroundings by certain people who think that making a lot of noise in a powerful car is the answer to life's problems.

The Department of Transport has no powers in relation to the closure of roads for motor racing or trial activity. I hope that that clarifies the position unequivocally.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South that the new clause appears to be somewhat tangential to the main purpose of the Bill—even the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish recognised that.

I appreciate that section 33 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 allows motor trials to be authorised that can make incursions on to footpaths and bridleways. As my hon. Friend has said, they are likely to be very short-lived affairs. I doubt whether section 14 orders would be pertinent. A short section 14 notice might be. However, it seems more probable that suitable warning notices, or the presence of race officials—as I said, such rallies and trials are normally extremely well organised for safety purposes and in a wide variety of other ways. It is unlikely that such provisions would be less than adequate in most cases.

Given the likely short duration of trials, it also seems questionable whether the provision of alternative routes should be necessary. Even if it were, the amendment seems to be unacceptable because it appears to give a summary power to provide alternative routes whether or not they are on land in the ownership of the authority.

Detailed provisions exist in law for the diversion and creation of rights of way, with provision for consultation, advertisement and, where appropriate, compensation to landowners.

10.30 am

Does the Minister accept that if such a rally is held, particularly if there is a section through a forest, it can be difficult for people to cross the route? The organisers should make sure that it is possible for people who want to get through that part of the countryside, and happen to be there on the wrong day, to cross the route. As the Minister knows a lot more about such events than I do, he will realise that the cars proceed at fairly frequent intervals, so it is not feasible to allow people to cross the route between cars because one cannot be certain how soon the next car will come along or how quickly a person will cross from one side of the route to the other. The onus should be on the people organizing the rally to make sure that there is ample opportunity for people to cross the route, particularly in places such as the north Yorkshire moors and north Wales.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, and the objective of new clause 2, but frankly we have to apply a measure of common sense. As I said, such rallies tend to be short lived. Clearly if there is a rally involving cars travelling at speed, people cannot walk in front of vehicles as that would be dangerous and should not be encouraged. We have to ensure that the organisations running the events make sure that they are properly marshalled. On those occasions it may be difficult for people walking in the forest, or wherever the rally is held, to cross the route of a rally or a trial. There is an element of common sense, which becomes clear when we consider the issue.

Just before my hon. Friend's intervention the Minister said that there is a well-defined procedure for extinguishing rights of way. Can he tell us whether what used to be a right of way through Downing street has been extinguished? If it has not, are members of the public allowed to walk through there, and if so, how do they get through those gates?

My hon. Friend is tempting me into highways and byways down which I should not go. There was a rather delightful book by Ashley Cooper called, "Cricket Highways and Byways" which addressed the problems——

No, he was not referring to tests, he was referring to the problems experienced by cricketers in rural areas in finding fields and places to play. I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about Downing street. It fascinates me as much as it fascinates him, and I shall make some inquiries, but I am afraid that I cannot give him an answer now.

Order. After that out-of-order interlude, we should now return to the new clause.

Perhaps the Minister cannot give me an answer now, but I am sure that by the time we reach amendment No. 2, which deals with penalties, and later amendments, which deal with temporary closures, his officials will have informed him what powers have been used to close Downing street permanently or temporarily.

However tempting it might be, I refuse to be drawn. We should return to new clause 2. Information has arrived, but I shall return to it later as I cannot read the writing.

I know that you wish us to return to new clause 2, Mr. Deputy Speaker. For the reasons that I have set out, I believe that the new clause is deficient and tangential to the Bill. In the circumstances I hope that he will agree to withdraw it.

Although some issues need to be further explored, I was delighted to hear the Minister say that he has no powers to make closures for speed trials on roads. We need more information about bridleways and footpaths, but I shall not press the new clause. Although my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is keen to vote on the matter, perhaps we could defer a Division until 11 o'clock if there is no statement.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2

Short Title, Consequential Repeals And Amendments, Commencement And Extent

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 11, at end insert—

' ( ) In Part I of schedule 2 to the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988 (punishment of offenders) in column 4 (punishment) for the entry relating to section 16(1) of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 there shall be substituted "Level 1 on the standard scale if committed by a pedestrian on a footpath, or a pedestrian, equestrian or pedal cyclist on a bridleway or byway open to all traffic (as defined in section 127 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984), or a pedestrian or pedal cyclist on a cycle track (as defined in the Highways Act 1980), level 3 on the standard scale otherwise.".'.
I hope that the Minister will accept amendment No. 2. I realise that he has gone urgently to consult to find out about the closure of Downing street, but I hope that someone will make it clear to him that, if he cannot accept the amendment today, he should urge the other place to accept a similar provision. The amendment deals with the fines that can be imposed if one insists on walking down a road, bridleway or footpath where a closure notice is displayed. Obviously, the Minister has not found out what is going on in Downing street. We are all trying to find out about the closure of the road or footpath there and what is happening about the poll tax. Perhaps we could be enlightened on both matters later.

I understand that if a part of a motorway is coned off or if a major road is closed and some enterprising motorist who thinks that the cones are unnecessary and does not understand why the road has been closed simply moves the cones to one side and drives down the road, that could cause considerable danger, first, because the motorist may not be aware that the road surface is more dangerous than it looks and, secondly, because people might be walking along the road legitimately and might suddenly be faced by a car approaching at speed. There is quite a reasonable argument for motorists incurring a substantial penalty if they ignore a temporary closure notice.

However, I am rather puzzled as to why such a draconian penalty should be incurred by a walker who ignores a temporary closure notice. It could lead to an amazing situation. One might be walking along a footpath and suddenly see a temporary closure notice. If one continues along that path when it has been legally closed, one is committing a criminal offence and becomes liable to a fine of up to £400, although I am not too sure about the scale of fines. On the other hand, if one stops at the side and turns right or left and walks for 20 or 30 yards parallel to the footpath across open land, one is no longer committing a criminal offence. The worst one could be doing is trespassing, and such matters are pursued through the civil courts. It is odd that one should be liable to a heavy penalty for ignoring a footpath closure as if it were a road.

Will the Minister consider the matter and weigh up whether it is logical to impose such a penalty? In my view, it would be virtually impossible to enforce. In my experience of walking in north Wales, I was surprised to discover that recently the Forestry Commission has applied for temporary closure notices where trees are being felled. In the past the Forestry Commission relied on the common sense of the people who were cutting down the trees to shout and make it clear to anyone in the vicinity that it was a good idea to move out of the way when a tree was coming down. If they saw trees coming down, most people would be sensible enough not to walk under or close to them. It may be that insurers have told the Forestry Commission that such a common sense approach could land it in the courts, so it had better go for temporary closure notices instead, which it has been doing.

One of the major problems with temporary closure notices is that some of them disappear. I can think of one case in which the Forestry Commission worked conscientiously to put up five notices on possible paths approaching the piece of land that it was closing. The notices told people that the paths would be closed for two months, but soon after they were put up three of them disappeared. The Forestry Commission replaced them once, but then gave up.

Several people approaching an area that was temporarily closed have tried to get through and found that closure notices were in place. I know of one person who took the common sense view, took no notice of the notices and walked straight through. It was a Sunday and there was no sign of the Forestry Commission felling trees, although it was a little unpleasant to have to walk over some of the felled branches. I suspect that that person—if I read the regulations correctly—was committing a criminal offence. I am sure that he would argue if the case came to court that there were no proper warnings and that in any case he had deviated sufficiently from the footpath because of the fallen trees to have been committing trespass, not a criminal offence.

Many of the notices put up by the Forestry Commission get damaged by the elements and cease to be visible before the order has expired. Under this legislation the notices could stay up for 18 months, but that is ridiculous since they will not remain legible that long. I suggest that the Minister think carefully about whether it is necessary to impose the higher level of penalty on people who take no notice of these orders on footpaths and bridleways. He should also consider the problem of determining when someone is on a footpath or bridleway and when he is not. I am not sure whether the width of a footpath is defined in law, but if someone took no notice of an order and walked a few feet away from the old line of the footpath it would be virtually impossible to bring a criminal prosecution against him.

I am sure that the Minister would agree that it would be silly to include in the legislation fines and penalties that could not be imposed in the courts. If he is keen to get this measure through, he should at least reduce the penalties for offences on footpaths and bridleways—that is only common sense.

The Minister will say that it keeps the Bill simple if the penalties are all the same for all roads, bridleways and footpaths, but I suggest that legislation ought to reflect common sense, not simplicity for the Minister and his officials.

It is perfectly true that the present penalties apply to all traffic regulation order offences, but the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) is missing the point, which is that these are maximum penalties. I cannot conceive of a magistrate failing to take account of the gravity of an offence or of whether it was committed on a quiet Sunday morning. It is equally true that temporary restrictions and prohibitions need not apply to all classes of traffic. Exceptions can be made for pedestrians and cyclists whenever appropriate. If only motorised traffic needs to be restricted, the orders can make that clear, so much of the illustration that the hon. Gentleman gave the House does not apply.

I know of no other road traffic laws to which the remarks of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish would apply. These penalties are prescribed maximums. Surely it is the seriousness of the offence that matters, not by whom it was committed. If, in the opinion of a court, a pedestrian or a horse rider has committed a serious offence, the fact that he was walking or riding a horse does not somehow make it less serious; and merely because a person who commits a minor offence is behind the wheel of a car does not make it a major offence. It is the circumstances that count. I do not believe that most of the cases that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish described would ever come to court.

Day after day, perhaps unwittingly, we may all commit criminal offences without realising it, but we do not all go to court and face the maximum penalty. So I ask the hon. Gentleman to live in the real world and to accept that all the Bill does is prescribe the maximum penalties. It is up to the courts to decide what level of penalty to impose, but I cannot believe that magistrates will say that the maximum is the minimum.

10.45 pm

Of course magistrates will use their common sense, but the whole idea of prescribing levels of fine is to give them some guidance on how Parliament thinks of the seriousness of particular offences. I accept that if someone walks along a motorway, there is a strong argument for hinting to the magistrates that he should be given the highest possible fine, but, in the case of footpaths and bridleways, the House should not be hinting that magistrates should consider the maximum. They should consider much lower fines.

I am afraid that I cannot agree. It would be wrong of the House to second-guess the circumstances. In most of our criminal law, this House sets the maximum penalties, not the minimum sentences. The Lord Chancellor's Department sets out certain guidelines for all our courts, but we set maximum penalties and allow the courts to decide the seriousness of an offence, and that is the proper way to conduct these matters.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo), in his usual way, has dealt cogently with the argument. There is clear disagreement between my hon. Friend and me and the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), for the reason that my hon. Friend has already enunciated, and I do not have a great deal to add.

It is a central tenet of the criminal law that penalties relate not to the status of the offender but to the nature of the offence. We are talking about maximum penalties. In my view and that of the Government, therefore, it would weaken the deterrent considerably if low penalties were imposed for offences committed by pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders. I hope that, in the circumstances, the hon. Gentleman will agree to disagree and will withdraw his amendment.

I am disappointed with the Minister's reply. To give him the opportunity to sort out what is going on in Downing street, I think that we should divide on this issue.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 7, Noes 27.

Division No. 184]

[10.48 am

AYES

Hattersley, Rt Hon RoyWise, Mrs Audrey
Powell, Ray (Ogmore)
Randall, StuartTellers for the Ayes:
Rees, Rt Hon MerlynMr. Andrew F. Bennett and
Skinner, DennisMr. Tony Banks.
Spearing, Nigel

NOES

Arbuthnot, JamesLeigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)
Atkins, RobertLightbown, David
Batiste, SpencerLloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Brandon-Bravo, MartinMcCrea, Rev William
Brooke, Rt Hon PeterNicholson, David (Taunton)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)Norris, Steve
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)Renton, Rt Hon Tim
Carrington, MatthewTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Couchman, JamesThompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Garel-Jones, TristanWaller, Gary
Goodlad, AlastairWheeler, Sir John
Hill, James
Irvine, MichaelTellers for the Noes:
Johnston, Sir RussellMr. Graham Bright and
Kilfedder, JamesMr. James Arbuthnot.
Knapman, Roger

Question accordingly negatived.

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next Sitting of the House.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you consider having the Division called again? There has been considerable confusion. It is rare to have Divisions at 10·45 on a Friday morning and there was some confusion among hon. Members about what was going on. I spoke to an hon. Member who clearly had no idea what was taking place. When the Division was called, I was at the other end of the building obeying a call of nature. I managed to get back to the Chamber in time. I had been in my place earlier in the morning and I was aware that something might be happening. If the Division were called again, it is possible that the requisite number of hon. Members would pass through the Lobbies. It would be most unfortunate if the Bill, which has wide support, were to fall because of a confused Division. As there is bound to be some dispute about the Division, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will you call it again?

I cannot help the hon. Gentleman in that way. There was no confusion in the minds of the Tellers and the Division was conducted in a proper manner. As fewer than 40 Members voted, it is inevitable, according to our procedures, that the business on the Bill will have to stand over to another day.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is interesting that 40 Members were not present, bearing in mind that there is a Government majority of about 150 over the official Opposition.

Yes, it is private business, but we expect Members, especially Ministers, to be present. There is an absence of Tory Members and Ministers because the Government are in a shambles over their legislation.

You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that when the sitting began at 9.30 am I raised a point of order when Mr. Speaker was in the Chair about further poll tax legislation being suggested by no less a person than the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary as a result of the current poll tax legislation being in disarray. Mr. Speaker did not comment on whether there would be a statement at 11 am.

I am sure, Mr.Deputy Speaker, that you expect Ministers to tell the truth at all times. Earlier this week Ministers of the Department of the Environment were asked whether any changes would be made to poll tax legislation and they stated—their answers appear in Hansard, and one of my right hon. Friends may refer to them specifically—that there would be no changes. It appears that when those questions were being answered in the House the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary was running around Tory Members telling them that everything would be all right and that changes would be made. Is it not——

I am just coming to it, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I ask you to be patient for a moment. This is an important issue.

You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that we had, business statement yesterday. You probably heard the Leader of the House announce the business for next week.

Now we are being told that the poll tax legislation is in ruins. It is high time the Government told Mr. Speaker that they intend to make a statement about the poll tax shambles. Let us get rid of it. People outside the House—in your constituency, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and in mine—are demanding that the poll tax be dropped.

Let us have a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to tell us exactly what is happening.

Order. Let me deal with one point of order at a time. There has been no request for a statement. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) must use his ingenuity to raise the matter on another occasion. I hope that he will not do so during private Members' time.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish that I were able to do something to bring back before the House the Road Traffic (Temporary Restrictions) Bill, which has fallen for a number of weeks. I hope that there is some way in which it can be brought back quickly before the House.

This morning, I have been answering constituents' letters about poll tax. When I asked the Minister earlier in the week whether further changes were proposed to the poll tax system, the answer was no. Those who are writing to me are not those who parade in the streets. They write because they cannot afford to pay. What am Ito tell them? Should I write, "Don't worry—there is going to be a change now because the Prime Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary has spoken"? It is a serious matter and we must have a statement as soon as possible.

I am sure that the right hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) will use his ingenuity and his very long parliamentary experience to find a way of raising the matter.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The item of business that we were considering prior to the Division fell because there was not a quorum. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has said, it appears that Conservative Members are more interested in talking outside this place about poll tax than in coming to the House to tell us what is happening. An item of business having fallen, we now have quite a bit of time. Would it not be possible for a Minister to use that time to tell us what the Government are doing about poll tax? The hon. Member for Nottingham, South (Mr. Brandon-Bravo) could no doubt negotiate with ramblers' organisations and other bodies outside this place and reach agreement with them. His Bill could then come forward on another Friday and get through on the nod.

It is an insult to the House for Ministers to arrange for information to be given outside before it is provided in the House. Surely we should have a statement now. Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, through the usual channels available to the Chair, impress upon the Government that the last moment for a clear statement on poll tax is next Monday? There are people outside this place who are involved in the local elections, in which poll tax is a major issue. They want to know what the Government are doing. It is not satisfactory for the people to be going to the polls with the hint that the Government will do something about the ridiculous poll tax but not having the benefit of a clear statement from the Government. There will be people who think that they will be had if there are hints of change rather than a clear statement.

Order. There is nothing that I can add to what has been said already. I remind the House that we are in private Members' time. There are many private Members' Bills, and many private Members waiting to discuss them. It would be unfair on the House to continue with these points of order. I have given a ruling. I have told hon. Members that they must find other ways of raising the matter. We must now get on with the business before the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There was an extensive debate on the community charge legislation on Wednesday, in Opposition time. It was marked by very successful speeches from both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities, and also by the absence of any alternative policy from the Opposition.

On the point about private Members' Bills, will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker think carefully about the precedent set this morning, when an excellent and well-prepared Bill was cut down and thrust back by at least a number of weeks through the calling of a spurious Division?

I can only say that the Division on the amendment to the private Member's Bill was in order. If the hon. Gentleman wants to draw the matter to the attention of the Select Committee on Procedure, he is free to do so.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The circumstances surrounding the shambles that the Government are in on their poll tax legislation are quite exceptional. Ministers have stated that there will be no change, yet there have been clear reports today suggesting that there will be a change. The poll tax is having a dramatic effect on, and causing great despair to, people throughout the country. We are close to local government election day and there are political ramifications. I beg you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to ensure that everything possible is done to get a Minister to the House to tell us and the people outside exactly what is happening with the shambolic poll tax.

Order. I will take the points of order, but they must be brief. I remind the House that this is unfair to hon. Members who have business on the Order Paper for today.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I assure the House that I feel much better than I sound. I have given due notice to a Conservative member that tomorrow I shall be campaigning in his constituency on behalf of my colleagues. I support the view expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) because I, too, have received letters about the poll tax and I know that tomorrow I will be asked about the current position. I therefore give notice that unless the Government make a statement at 2.30 pm, as they can and should do, I shall advise electors in that constituency that the Government have ambiguous policies, that Ministers apparently do not know what the policies are, and that I——

It is that I support the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Leeds, South that the urgency of the matter is not confined to letters. That is why there should be a statement at 2.30 pm.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Surely hon. Members could go through the usual channels to get a Minister to make a statement, rather than resorting to what has happened this morning—a great deal of caterwauling from Labour Back Benchers who got themselves into a terrible position by calling for a vote which then lost a Bill that they wanted. Those are rather strange circumstances.

Whitehall has already stated that reports in the newspapers are based on pure speculation and I feel that that is true. People throw in red herrings and others are willing carriers of them. In the due process of time there will no doubt be a statement, so it would be wrong today to try to force the Government's hand to make a statement based on pure speculation.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I sympathise with the position that you are in this morning. You are trying to protect private Members' interests as the house is due to debate a number of private Members' Bills. I have a particular interest in the Sunday Trading Bill and I hope that the House will find time to discuss it today. I declare an interest as a Member sponsored by the Union of Shop Distributive and Allied Workers.

The general rumours and the statements in the media this morning make us suspect that there will be a change in the Government's poll tax legislation. Some of my hon. Friends have, therefore, drawn your attention to very necessary points, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you are occupying the Chair this morning, I hope that you will consider taking the information already given to you by hon. Members to Mr. Speaker and to the Government and suggesting to them that even if the statement requested at 9.30 am could not be prepared for 11 am—the usual time to interrupt business—it should at least be ready by 2.30 pm so that the whole country can be told of the proposed changes.

I have made this plea to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because Labour Members who have advised their constituents not to pay the poll tax, and who have been criticised for that from all quarters, may now find that they gave the right advice. If the poll tax is changed during the current period, how will councils refund the poll tax already paid? Is it a guideline——

It is not really a point of order for you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have a very high regard for you and I say publicly that when you are in the Chair hon. Members have more liberty to make important points, especially those who rarely rise on points of order. You believe that we have the right to raise these points. My plea to you is to exercise your authority by asking Mr. Speaker and the Government to come to the House before the end of business today and to make a statement on this crucial issue.

Order. I have allowed hon. Members on both sides of the House a good run. The hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) has answered the point for me by making it clear that it is a matter for the Government and not for the Chair. The points raised have been heard by Government Front-Bench Members. We must now continue with private Members' business.