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Provision Of Access By Access Authority In Absence Of Agreement

Volume 357: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2000

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Lords amendment: No. 30, in page 21, line 21, after ("land") insert

(", or to other access land,")

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment No. 31, Lords amendment No. 32, amendment (a) thereto, and Lords amendments Nos. 33 and 129.

This modest group of amendments was moved in another place and modifies the provisions relating to improving and securing public access to access land. For example, Lords amendment No. 30 clarifies the fact that access authorities may serve a notice of intention to carry out works relating to a means of access where it is needed to facilitate access to any access land. The Bill currently provides that such a notice may be served only to secure means of access to the access land in question.

Lords amendment No. 31 provides an additional ground of appeal for owners and occupiers against notices under clause 35(1) that a different means of access, such as a gate rather than a stile, should be provided.

Lords amendments Nos. 32 and 33 make consistent what public bodies may do under parts I and III in carrying out their legal responsibilities, and what provision should be made for compensation if they cause damage. Lords amendment No. 33 reflects our agreement to address points raised by the Opposition in another place and our acceptance of the principle that, if damage is caused by a public body in carrying out its legal responsibility, a person suffering such damage should be entitled to compensation. It is phrased in similar terms to an amendment that we accepted in the House in relation to part III. Lords amendment No. 32 clarifies what an authorised person may do in exercising his or her powers under this part of the Bill. The provision is similar to clause 70(6).

Lords amendment No. 129 makes a minor modification to the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. Section 39(1) of that Act allows local planning authorities to enter into management agreements with landowners. Clause 72 will allow the countryside bodies to enter into such agreements and enable them to help protect open countryside, so ensuring the permanence of the right of access. The amendment allows section 39 agreements to be made in relation to any land, not just that in the countryside. It means, for example, that the Countryside Agency, in particular, can enter into such agreements to provide permanent protection for millennium greens in towns and villages.

We welcome some of the changes, although the Minister set off some warning signals when he described them as minor. He was here yesterday, during our debate on the Bill's guillotine motion, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) made the salient point that whenever amendments are described as minor or technical or he is told that they will clean up legislation, his hackles rise and he instantly reads the legislation particularly carefully because he is sure that an imposition by the Executive is involved.

Heaven forfend that I should accuse the Minister of having unworthy motives in describing the amendments as technical. Amendment No. 32, to which we have tabled amendment (a), will give an agent of the authority the power to enter private land. The matter is therefore worthy of scrutiny by the House and, we believe, of improvement; that is the point of our amendment. Amendment No. 32 will give the agent of the authority the power not simply to enter the land, but to use a "vehicle" to do so, to take police with him, to take
equipment and materials needed for the purpose for which he is exercising the power of entry
and, finally, to
take samples of the land and of anything on it.
By any standards, those are draconian powers. Anyone who might be on the receiving end of them should feel that they were being exercised only with the degree of force absolutely necessary for the purpose for which the entry was made. That is why we have produced the brief but, I hope, helpful amendment (a), which would insert the word "relevant" in proposed new subsection (4A)(d). For an agent to be able to take samples of land—or of anything—under any circumstances involves extending what may be necessary powers, although the Minister chose not to explain the circumstances under which the powers would be exercised. Even so, the Bill would be improved if it was made clear that the only samples of land that could be taken away would be those relevant to the particular purpose.

Apart from the general consideration about giving people only the absolutely minimum powers necessary to enforce the law, a wider point is involved. The Minister will be aware that, throughout our debates, there has been a natural tension between landowners whose rights will be removed by the Bill and those who will benefit from it. Throughout the passage of the Bill, we have sought to avoid conflict. We have sought, by improving it in practical ways, to minimise any tension that could arise following its implementation. As the Minister will know, there have been sporadic outbreaks of class warfare among Labour Members who consider it moral and dutiful to cause pain to landowners. Conservative Members have tried to be much more inclusive, and to reconcile those involved in any conflicts.

A simple practicality is also involved, however. If we give too much power to those who trample over private land, resentment will build up and there will be a possibility of problems in the future. I hope that the Minister will explain what kind of warrant will be needed for the exercise of power of entry, and in what circumstances he envisages the exercise of that power.

As I said at the outset, I consider this to be a draconian power. Our amendment seeks to focus it much better, so that there can be no doubt that it is being exercised reasonably and sensibly.

I am happy to reassure the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) that his concerns have already been dealt with. He is right to say that it is important for any samples taken to be relevant to the purpose. We have used the same wording as is used in part III, to which no objection has been made. I have no doubt that if the samples taken were not relevant to the functions for which an authorised person was exercising his power of entry, that would be unlawful. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured by that.

The hon. Gentleman asked me why samples might be taken. They might be taken, for example, if it was necessary to check the status of grassland, in circumstances that we discussed earlier. I am advised, however, that an irrelevant sample would not be lawful in the first place. The hon. Gentleman's amendment is therefore unnecessary.

It is not clear to me how the Bill can include words permitting behaviour that would be unlawful in another Bill. Can the Minister tell me which Bill would make taking irrelevant samples illegal?

I cannot do so off the top of my head, but I am advised that samples taken that were not relevant to the functions for which an authorised person was exercising his power of entry would be unlawful—so, presumably, the answer is "this Bill".

Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 31 to 38 agreed to [some with Special Entry].