Tuesday, 28 October 2014.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting, the Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division Bells are rung and resume after 10 minutes. I also remind noble Lords that the Committee of the whole House has already considered Clauses 1 to 12 and Schedules 1 to 3. Accordingly, the Grand Committee will start at Clause 13.
Committee (2nd Day)
Relevant documents: 4th Report from the Constitution Committee, 14th Report (Session 2013–14) from the Joint Committee on Human Rights and 5th Report from the Delegated Powers Committee
Clause 13: Space activity: limit on indemnity required
7: Clause 13, page 9, line 38, leave out subsection (1)
My Lords, this amendment probes the changes to Section 10 of the Outer Space Act 1986, which requires people carrying out certain space activities to indemnify the UK Government against claims arising from their activities. The clause makes provision for limiting the amount of the liability, which until now has been unlimited. We accept that for British companies considering projects in outer space, unlimited liability is very difficult to manage in terms of financing. Given the global nature of space work—no pun intended—this could result in work being lost to other countries. Indeed, one could say other universes but perhaps one should not.
We support the intention of Clause 13, which is to cap the liability at €60 million for the majority of space missions and to give the Secretary of State powers to vary this limit by secondary legislation. However, I have three questions for the Minister. Where precisely in the government accounts will the uncapped portion of the liability, which I assume is a contingent liability, be recorded? Under government accounting rules, does this not score against the deficit? If so, how much will that be in a typical year and will the individual amounts be recorded in the notes?
Secondly, the Explanatory Notes state that a minority of space missions will retain an uncapped liability. What criteria will be used to determine whether to cap or not? When the Minister responds, could he give me some more detail on that? If necessary, he may write to me if he does not have the detail to hand.
Thirdly, I note that the regulation of space activity is currently a reserved item, so it is not a matter for the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Therefore, has this issue been offered to the Smith commission as a possible devolution item? I am sure there would be wide support for Scottish space missions being covered by the new financial powers now available to Scotland or those that are likely to be available in the near future. As a rather more technical question, are there any Barnett consequentials? I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his amendment and his questions. The United Kingdom’s space sector contributes more than £11 billion a year to our economy, with an average annual growth rate of more than 7%. The sector directly employs more than 34,000 people. The Government are committed to the goal of raising the UK share of the projected £400 billion global space market to 10% by 2030, from approximately 6% currently. The proposed amendment to the Outer Space Act 1986 contained in the Bill is one of the measures designed to help us achieve this ambitious target.
The Outer Space Act 1986 is the legal basis for the regulation of activities in outer space carried out by organisations or individuals established in the United Kingdom, its Crown dependencies and certain Overseas Territories. The aim of the Outer Space Act and its licensing regime is to ensure compliance with the United Kingdom’s obligations under international treaties covering the use of outer space. One of these is the liability convention, under which the UK Government are ultimately liable for third-party costs for accidental damage arising from UK space activities. Section 10 of the Outer Space Act 1986 requires licensees to indemnify the Government against liabilities resulting from their space activities. This is an unlimited liability on licensees.
Since it is not possible to insure against unlimited liability, there is a requirement on licensees to obtain third-party liability insurance, usually to a minimum of €60 million for the duration of the licensed activity, with the UK Government a named beneficiary. If a claim were to exceed that amount, the Government could seek to recover the remainder under Section 10 of the Act.
As the noble Lord said, UK space operators have long argued that the unlimited liability placed on them is very difficult to manage in terms of financing. Furthermore, they say that licence conditions relating to insurance place them at a significant disadvantage. Given the global nature of the space industry, this could result in work being lost to countries outside the UK, in particular to countries where operators may not be subject to unlimited liability, such as the USA or France.
The UK Space Agency has reviewed the Act and identified areas where there is room for improvement. In particular, the treatment of contingent liabilities under the Act is now out of date compared with other space-faring nations and other United Kingdom sectors that have comparable contingent liabilities. A public consultation was undertaken and the majority of respondents were positive about the benefits of capping the unlimited liability requirement to €60 million for the majority of missions. The Government therefore decided to undertake a two-part approach to address the industry’s concerns. In the first part, we reduced the insurance requirement from £100 million to €60 million. This was well received by the industry. Clause 13, which we are discussing today, is the second part. It amends the Outer Space Act to cap the unlimited liability. This will be managed through the Outer Space Act licensing regime, as the amendments to the Act provide for the Secretary of State to specify the maximum amount of a licensee’s liability under the indemnity in each licence.
Our initial intention is to set the cap at €60 million for the majority of missions. Clause 13 gives the Secretary of State the power to set or vary this liability limit on a licence-by-licence basis. This will provide the flexibility to ensure that UK space operators remain competitive internationally without the need to undertake further legislative reform. For example, companies are now developing ever-smaller satellites, such as CubeSats. These offer lower-cost, and possibly lower-risk, access to space, and potential growth opportunities for the UK. For non-standard, high-risk missions we would retain the flexibility to increase the liability cap.
The UK Space Agency is currently reviewing its approach to this emerging class of satellite and this amendment will allow the Government to react quickly if a lower liability cap is appropriate for a particular mission, thereby ensuring the UK industry remains competitive. An impact assessment has been completed and the benefit to business is estimated to be in the region of £13.5 million over 15 years. Clause 13 is designed to balance the risks to the Government arising from UK space activity against the need to enable UK industry to exploit the opportunities available to them.
The noble Lord asked how these liabilities would be represented in the national accounts. I think I shall have to write to him about that. The noble Lord also asked what criteria would be used to determine which missions will be within the cap. As I suggested in my answer, there will be a risk-based approach; we feel it is appropriate to retain the flexibility to set the amounts under the amendment on a case-by-case basis.
The noble Lord asked about the devolution position. We are not planning any change in that area. He kindly said that it was a probing amendment. I hope that that will satisfy him and I ask him to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for a very full response and for answering two of the questions. The third one about devolution might bear further examination at some other stage, but I am sure that it is way above our respective pay grades, if there are any. On the other hand, I will look with interest at the letter that deals with the way in which these contingent liabilities—which I think the Minister confirmed they were—are going to be recorded in the accounts and whether they have any impact on the deficit. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Clause 13 agreed.
Clause 14 agreed.
Schedule 4 agreed.
Clause 15: Shippers etc of gas
8: Clause 15, page 10, line 25, leave out subsection (1)
My Lords, I rise to speak to this amendment in place of my noble friend Lady Worthington. It concerns shippers of gas.
The existing regulations for gas importation and storage came into force in 2009 and applied to activities within the offshore area comprising both the UK territorial sea and the area extending beyond the territorial sea designated as a gas importation and storage zone—a GISZ. This clause alters the regulations that currently prohibit the use of an offshore installation for the unloading of gas without a licence.
Under the proposals, a third party wishing to unload their gas at an installation owned by and licensed to another party would not themselves need to be covered by a licence as long as the owners of the facility had the correct licensing documentation. The question that I should like to pose to the Minister concerns the related health and safety legislation and whether that would still apply. Can he tell us what enforcement regime is being considered, if one is necessary? What laws and processes has he put in place to ensure safety in this potentially dangerous area, and how will that enforcement appear on the ground? I beg to move.
My Lords, the purpose of this clause is to correct an oversight in the Energy Act 2008. Sections 2 to 16 of that Act provide for a licensing regime governing the offshore unloading of natural gas from liquefied natural gas tankers to installations sited offshore so that it can then be transported to the UK by subsea pipelines. The intention behind the 2008 Act was to create a streamlined consenting regime for the construction and operation of such an installation, and the key purpose of the licence is to apply appropriate regulation to the construction and operation of the installation. The Secretary of State is responsible for granting licences for this purpose.
Clause 15 will amend an oversight which has led to a duplication of licensing requirements. As things stand, it is not only the company which owns and operates an installation that needs to hold a licence but a company that owns liquefied natural gas and is having it imported into the UK via the unloading installation. This is an unnecessary burden on the gas trader. Clause 15 will make an amendment to the Energy Act so that a person—the gas trader—who, by agreement, uses an unloading installation does not also require a licence provided that the installation is already operated by another person who has a licence for that purpose.
In answer to the noble Baroness’s specific question, all existing legislation in relation to the protection of the environment and health and safety considerations remains unchanged by this change to the Energy Act. I hope that that satisfies her and that she will therefore be prepared to withdraw her amendment.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Clause 15 agreed.
Clause 16: Suppliers of fuel and fireplaces
9: Clause 16, page 10, line 38, leave out subsection (1)
My Lords, the relevant clause before us amends Part 3 of the Clean Air Act 1993; these provisions relate to smoke control areas. The Act requires the Secretary of State to publish lists of authorised fuels and exempted fireplaces that can be used in smoke control areas. Currently, this is done through regulations that are updated every six months. Clause 16 removes the need to issue regulations, replacing them with online lists to be published by the Secretary of State, which will be revised,
“as soon as is reasonably practicable after any change is made”.
The Secretary of State must keep an up-to-date and easily accessible authorised list on the gov.uk website.
This is a probing amendment. Will the Minister confirm that the criteria for selecting which fuels are considered safe and clean enough to be used will not change? If the clause is designed purely to speed up this process, it is one that we would thereby support. It should not be meant to change the terms or processes for the selection of fuels. It is important that it is made absolutely clear to people that this provision is about speeding things up, as opposed to making any back-door changes to which fuels could be used. I beg to move.
My Lords, the Clean Air Act, which was first introduced to combat the smogs of the 1950s, designates smoke control areas within which it is an offence to emit smoke unless using authorised fuels and/or exempted appliances. Clause 16 amends the procedure by which the Secretary of State specifies authorised fuels and exempted fireplaces. They are currently specified by way of six-monthly statutory instruments, as the noble Lord explained. The clause will enable the Secretary of State to specify the products by publication of a list on the Defra smoke control web pages instead. The list will be published on a monthly basis and therefore reduce the delay that businesses and consumers currently face when new products are brought on to the market. The Act provides local authorities with powers to designate smoke control areas, within which it is an offence if smoke is emitted from a building’s chimney unless an authorised fuel or exempt appliance is being used. It is also an offence under the Act to acquire or sell an unauthorised fuel for use in a smoke control area.
The Secretary of State currently has the power under the Clean Air Act 1993 to exempt fireplaces by order and to authorise fuels by regulations, if she is satisfied that such products can be used without producing any smoke or a substantial quantity of smoke. Following assessment by technical experts to ensure compliance with eligibility criteria, the authorised fuels and exempt appliances are specified in statutory instruments which are made every six months. Under the current system, manufacturers face a delay of up to eight months between that assessment and bringing new fuels and fireplaces on to the market because they have to wait for that legislation to be made.
In answer to the noble Lord’s question, I confirm that the amendment made by this clause will not change the technical standards that products have to meet to be specified. Applicants will still be required to prove via testing that their products are capable of being used without producing any—or any substantial—quantity of smoke, thus keeping the inherent safeguards for air quality. The technical experts who currently provide advice with regard to the statutory instruments will continue to assess test results and provide recommendations to government with regard to the suitability of products for use in smoke control areas.
The details of specified products in the legislation are highly technical. The authorised fuel schedules are defined in technical terms covering matters such as the composition of the fuels, the manufacturing process, the shape of the fuels and their weight and sulphur content. Similarly, the exempted fireplaces schedules contain highly technical conditions of exemption relating to how individual fireplaces should be used and what fuels should be used in them to qualify for exemption.
It is worth noting that my department is not aware of the smoke control statutory instruments, which have been issued since 1957 and biannually since 1970, having been debated in Parliament on any occasion. The lists published on the internet will be subject to defined and robust audit procedures to ensure the accuracy of the data entered. These will include checks being undertaken and the lists being signed off by senior, responsible Defra staff. The process will enable specified product lists to be updated on a monthly basis.
In addition to including the same level of detail as the statutory instruments, the lists of specified products on the internet will also indicate the dates of new product specifications and of any variations or withdrawals. This is an improvement on the current system, where it would be necessary to compare lengthy SIs for consumers and local authorities to identify any changes. Therefore, there is an element of safeguarding for consumers as it will ensure that there is legal certainty with respect to which products may or may not be used at any given time. Members of the public without access to the internet will be able to request paper copies of the lists from my department.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee initially expressed concern over the move from a legislative to an administrative process. However, I understand that it now finds the explanation provided by the Government with regard to the procedures for specifying products and the levels of control that will be in place sufficiently compelling in favour of the amendment—that is, the amendment made by the clause rather than the noble Lord’s amendment. It has, however, requested assurance that adequate steps will be taken to ensure that persons who have been lawfully using specified products do not end up inadvertently committing offences as a result of specifications being withdrawn. The Government would not want to create a situation in which people could inadvertently end up being in breach of the law.
A decision to withdraw an approval may take place only if evidence demonstrating that a product is not eligible for use in a smoke control area comes to light. Defra has advised that it is not aware of any specified products ever having been removed from the lists previously. Based on this information, while it is possible that a specified product may need to be withdrawn, it would be highly unusual. Given what I have said, I hope that the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, does that, and of course he will, perhaps I may say that for more than 10 years in your Lordships’ House I was a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, although I am not now. With the volume of statutory instruments that goes through that committee, any diminution of those orders is obviously a good thing. Even though, until now, no complaints have been made about individual smokeless fuels or individual smokeless fuel burners, that does not mean that there never will be. In a parliamentary setting—in other words, if the order is to continue—that gives the opportunity for any Member of either House to speak to the order, whether it is an affirmative or a negative. My noble friend did not say which it was and, for the purposes of my argument, it does not particularly matter. When we have this list system, how can anyone, whether a member of the public or a Member of either House, question, for example, a new smokeless fuel?
My Lords, the answer to that is that the inclusion in the published list will be information that the public need. They certainly can contact my department. Ultimately, it would remain subject to judicial review if it ever needed to come to that. The information will be public. All that will happen is that we will streamline the process so as not to clog up my noble friend’s committee.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving me those assurances and for his comprehensive assessment of the clauses in the Bill. I am very pleased that, from his assurances, the technical standards will continue to be monitored. On this occasion, I am happy to comply with the pleadings of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
Clause 16 agreed.
Clause 17: Sellers of knitting yarn
10: Clause 17, page 11, line 41, leave out subsection (1)
My Lords, I know that this is the amendment that everyone has been waiting for. This is in the Bill because, previously, there was a provision in European law to sell knitting yarn in specified quantities. That has been revoked, so the clause will remove the UK law that specified quantities in UK law and knitting shops will be able to sell yarn by whichever weight or length they choose. I hope that the Benches opposite will join us in celebrating the fact that this is a deregulation of European law, and that they will agree that this is a very good thing. I hope it is not just as a sop to UKIP that the Government are revoking this regulatory law. There is a celebration to be had here of European deregulation, which I hope everyone will agree is a good thing.
Whom did the Government consult about this? I know that there is no cost involved in the implementation of this deregulation, but will it benefit business and has there been an assessment of how it will benefit those very important people who run knitwear shops?
My Lords, I entirely share the noble Baroness’s celebration of the deregulatory activity of our friends in Brussels. If she did not point this out, I will: this is by no means an isolated example. We have worked, and will continue to work, with our European colleagues to reform the law to make it more appropriate for business in the modern age.
Clause 17 on the sellers of knitting yarn is a good example of straightforward deregulation. It scraps the Weights and Measures (Knitting Yarns) Order 1988 and its requirement that non-prepackaged knitting yarn be sold only in prescribed quantities. It will give greater freedom to manufacturers and retailers to decide what quantities of yarn to sell, and will give consumers more choice. Consumer protection will be maintained. The Weights and Measures (Packaged Goods) Regulations 2006 will still require both prepackaged knitting yarn and yarn sold with an enclosing band to be labelled with net weight. This will ensure that consumers can continue to compare prices and quantities when choosing which one to buy.
Clause 17 also makes a consequential technical amendment to the Weights and Measures (Specified Quantities) (Pre-packed Products) Regulations 2009. This measure is entirely deregulatory and, as I think the noble Baroness said, the costs arising will be zero. Manufacturers and retailers will not be required to change their existing practices or introduce new sizes as a result of this new clause; it will be their choice whether to introduce any new sizes. She asked about consultation. This is part of the Red Tape Challenge and so was subject to consultation through that process. On that basis, I hope that she will agree to withdraw her amendment.
I thank the Minister. If the Red Tape Challenge ran the consultation on this, and if it was anything like some of the other consultations that it has run, it probably involved three people. The clause is probably emblematic of the Act as a whole, which contains lots of minor changes that one hopes might lead to significant growth. On the basis of the Minister’s answer, of course I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
Clause 17 agreed.
11: After Clause 17, insert the following new Clause—
“Further exemption to Sunday trading hours: garden centres
In Schedule 1 to the Sunday Trading Act 1994 (restrictions on Sunday opening of large shops), in sub-paragraph 3(1), at end insert—“(l) any garden centre.””
My Lords, we know that the Sunday Trading Act 1994 means that any shop with more than 3,000 square feet can be opened for only a restricted number of hours on a Sunday. Smaller shops do not have restricted hours. This was a liberalisation although it was actually a tightening of the rules for garden centres, which now suffer because their products are necessarily spread over larger areas. What makes a garden centre unique is its inability to pile it high, unlike other retailers. Whereas a shop with a small floor space can ensure that it sells as much product as possible on Sunday by bulk stacking, that is not true of a garden centre. The products themselves need space to have light, to grow and to look attractive to potential customers. Stacking bay trees up like baked beans, carnations like cornflakes and tulips like tinned tuna would not be an appealing way to display them.
Most garden centres are family-owned businesses, many of which have been owned by several generations of the same family. There are also relatively few big chains of garden centres, with the biggest being only 140 out of the total of 2,400 or so outlets in the UK. The second biggest has 34 stores. They really are small businesses, which existing Sunday trading laws are trying to protect, so we should be ensuring that garden centres, with unnatural demands on their floor space and a tendency to remain small, family-run businesses, are allowed the same opportunities to trade on Sundays as a small retailer in another sector.
I would argue that this is also about getting people out of their houses and away from their computer screens on a Sunday. We are told that we should keep Sunday special and I agree. But we should not keep Sunday special by restricting freedom on a Sunday. Visits to garden centres should be encouraged alongside visits to church as wonderful things to do on a Sunday—lots of time outdoors with children. who are too often obsessed with their iPads. becoming interested in nature.
I know that there are concerns, not least from the shop workers’ union, USDAW, that an amendment seeking to exempt garden centres from Sunday trading laws would create a loophole. Its contention is that the lines would become blurred between what is and what is not a garden centre. What one may have traditionally thought was a garden centre may now sell a wider range of products, so large DIY companies may use a garden centre exemption as a way to open for longer on Sundays. But I am not concerned. According to a survey of its members by the Horticultural Trades Association, around 95% of garden centres have more than 20% of their trading area made up of either outdoor or covered outdoor areas.
Another consistent feature of garden centres is that the roofs of their retail buildings are transparent or translucent—usually glass. That, of course, is to allow for the effective care of live plants, which require light. It would be a huge imposition for other businesses to try to replicate those features to open for a little longer on a Sunday. Indeed, the HTA offered its own definition of what should qualify. It recommends:
“Any retailer which has at least 20% of its total retail footprint made up of outdoor or covered outdoor space, excluding car parking bays, delivery bays or buildings used solely for commercial plant production, or any retailer whose roof’s surface area is made up of at least 20% glass or similarly translucent material to enable the effective care and display of live plants”.
That seems an eminently reasonable definition. I am sure that the Minister could do even better. Again, the cost, time and burden of converting a DIY shop to fit these requirements, all for a few hours’ more trading on a Sunday, would probably not be worth it.
All this goes to show the absurdity of the Sunday trading laws more generally. Nowadays, many workers can go ahead and ply their trade on a Sunday to meet the demand of the customers whom they serve. If cab drivers, barmen and call centre workers want to make some extra cash on a Sunday, there are very few barriers in their way. Why should those people who work in shops above a certain square footage lose out?
Consumers overwhelmingly back change. A ComRes poll in March 2014 found that two-thirds of respondents backed a permanent extension of Sunday trading hours. At present, big supermarket chains create smaller-format stores simply to circumvent the law. The result is higher prices for the consumer, as a study by campaign group Open Sundays shows. The survey measured the difference in price between a basket of goods sold in a store of more than 3,000 square feet and one sold in a convenience store, which is many people’s only option on a Sunday afternoon. Prices were anywhere between 7% and 11% higher than in the larger stores. Is that why the Association of Convenience Stores argues against this amendment?
Throughout the world, the consumer is moving from high street shops to the internet. This is happening at the same time as a move from small shops to large megastores outside town. Charity shops and empty stores now dominate our high streets. If I was a shop worker, I would want my union to combat this trend, because otherwise I would eventually become redundant while our high streets die. Yet USDAW continues to campaign against Sunday trading. Indeed, its campaign could be designed to encourage buyers to use Amazon rather than a shop. The Royal Mail has announced that it is starting to deliver parcels on a Sunday, but why should a buyer not be able to get the same goods personally on a Sunday? Perhaps USDAW should take a leaf out of the postmen’s book.
We have to recognise that people have a right to choose where they shop and when, and bring the law up to date with the digital age. I beg to move.
My Lords, my only interest in garden centres is as a customer; I have no other concern. I oppose the amendment. To start to erode the Sunday Trading Act in this way would be a mistake. Perhaps I may quote the right honourable Vince Cable from the time when we were embarking on the Olympics. He said:
“Any move towards the abolition of the UK’s Sunday trading laws would require new legislation, a full consultation and extensive parliamentary scrutiny”.—[Official Report, Commons, 30/4/2012; col. 1293.]
I concede that it is not on all fours, but it is perfectly clear what the right honourable Member meant. The mover of the amendment suggested that there is perhaps much that is wrong with the Sunday trading laws. Okay, let us address that, but we should not make a one-off attempt on this issue.
My second concern—I shall be rather briefer than the noble Lord—is that in moving his amendment, the noble Lord gave definitions, but there is no definition in the new clause that he is proposing. He concentrated substantially on the very small garden centres—which, God willing, will continue—but I know of very few garden centres today, privately owned or company owned, that do not sell a vast range of other commodities, everything from boots and shoes to clothing. Indeed, I have been in some places where they sell stoves and furniture. It would be a great mistake if your Lordships included this amendment in the Bill. It should be returned to, if the noble Lord wishes, as part of a much broader concern, and, in particular, there should be public consultation. The members of USDAW have as much right to say what they would wish as other people who are not intimately involved.
My Lords, I have not participated in any of the stages of the Bill until now. Nevertheless, with your Lordships’ leave, I want to support the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Borwick.
I agree with him that Sunday trading restrictions no longer protect small shops to any material extent. Even if large stores were open for longer hours, it would not have a material effect on the prosperity of many small shops. There will always be people who prefer the ease, the intimacy, the convenience and the speed of shopping at the corner shop, even if the prices are a touch higher.
I respect the opinion of those who think differently, such as the noble Lord, Lord Christopher, but this amendment does not seek to remove or alter the current Sunday trading restrictions other than in respect of garden centres. As my noble friend points out, garden centres are completely different. Of course, a proper definition of a garden centre needs to be formulated. However, my experience of shopping at or, rather, visiting a garden centre is that it is good for mind and body. One often walks a considerable distance from the car park to the centre, providing a good opportunity for much needed exercise. A visit to a garden centre can be rewarding and educational. Furthermore, having purchased equipment or plants in the centre, many people hasten home to work in their garden, which, again, is a very healthy and beneficial activity to engage in on a Sunday. I cannot think of any good reason why garden centres, properly defined, should not be exempt from the Sunday trading restrictions. I strongly support the amendment in the name of my noble friend.
My Lords, I have no axe to grind on this but I am not clear about why six hours is not sufficient for garden centres to open. How many extra opening hours are needed? That is the implication of this amendment. I have not quite got my head around it. Should it be eight hours, 10 hours or a free for all and 24 hours? Garden centres have changed. I do not say this very often but I would very much counsel against your Lordships’ House sticking this in when the other House has not. I was a Member of the other place when the Sunday trading legislation was going through. I remember that it was the only time a government Bill was defeated at Second Reading. In the middle of Second Reading, the Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd, now the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, was asked: do you promise to put a guillotine on the proceedings of this Bill? He said no. With that, everyone realised that we would be there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, because this one was not going to pass easily. The easy way to get around that was to get rid of the Bill at Second Reading. Later, there was a more sensible Bill. I remember the look on the noble Lord’s face when he said that because I was in the Chamber.
I am not sure that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, about the Association of Convenience Stores. I do not think that the big stores have opened their smaller shops to get around Sunday trading laws. They have opened the small shops to put the small person out of business. Tesco is a classic example, with its One Stop shops. I did a survey a year ago. I live in Ludlow. I shopped for 25 identical items in Tesco, One Stop and the Co-op. One Stop was 10% more expensive than Tesco. However, you have to look really hard in the Tesco annual report to find that it owns One Stop. Tesco also owns Dobbies, a garden chain, but what is there to prevent Tesco converting Dobbies? Most garden centres have land around them that can be purchased, so they could be extended. I am not clear about the real consequences of this proposal.
Finally, I declare an interest. I live in the middle of Ludlow and I have a garden centre on the other side of my back garden. It is the finest privately owned do-it-yourself chain. It sells white goods and has a kitchen shop. It also sells decorating and cleaning materials, furniture, tools and small electrical items. I have not worked it out but the garden centre part of the shop is probably 50%. To give it a plug, it’s called Homecare and is used by everyone.
I have not been lobbied as a Member of your Lordships’ House and, as far as I remember, there was no lobbying during the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill as it relates to the relaxation of Sunday trading legislation. I therefore counsel the Committee against going down this route, because it is so controversial. If there is to be a relaxation—and I make no case one way or the other—it is highly controversial in respect of the other place. There must be a proper prior consultation with everybody, including customers and the employees concerned.
My Lords, I, too, have concerns about this amendment. I thought that the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, conceded that this really is about changing Sunday trading laws. It seems to me that the noble Lord was quite explicit about that. This would be one stage in that process. I also noted that he talked about people’s right to choose. Part of this issue is precisely about rights: the rights of those who feel they have not been able to choose whether to work or not. That is the issue we are dealing with. I was not involved in the legislation, other than lobbying from outside Parliament more than 20 years ago. However, I remember the complexity of finding a compromise to enable us to move forward: it took a long time.
Noble Lords will not be surprised that I am concerned because I fundamentally believe in the whole structure of creation as a seven-day cycle of work and rest. I believe profoundly that the way that we are undermining that is fundamentally affecting spiritual and mental health and well-being. It is not incidental that, across the world, people work on this seven-day cycle. When I go around my own diocese, talking to people who work in some of the retail industry in Luton and Stevenage, I see the stresses and strains and I find myself talking to people who, unlike us—perhaps with the exception of one person here who works on a Sunday—feel they have very little choice.
There is a mass of evidence that there is something deep within the Judeo-Christian tradition about that rhythm. It has, of course, never been absolute; we have always had nurses working in hospitals. I concede that absolutely. The question is whether we want to change this consensus on the basis of this amendment. We do not live in a country where everybody wants to go to church on a Sunday; we never have done. However, if you just follow the television schedules you must acknowledge that there is a different rhythm in our national life, which reflects something that is bedded in a religious viewpoint but is much deeper than that.
Those who find themselves being pressurised to work very often say that in their interviews it is one of the questions that comes up very quickly: “Are you prepared to work on a Sunday?”, Some say that they reply that they would prefer not to and suddenly find that they do not get jobs very easily. Those who do get work find themselves pressurised. This concern to find a way forward, even through this modest amendment, needs more scrutiny.
Of course, it has a certain appeal—I thought the noble Lord, Lord Borwick, played it very well in presenting all the benefits. Should not a family be able to take their children and grandparents on a summer trip to the garden centre? It looks wonderful, does it not? There they are, having their cup of tea and refreshments and so on. The trouble is, as has been pointed out by other speakers, that we do not know what this definition is. It would certainly need a much better defined background if it is to work. I was going to talk more about the question of definition but others have already done so. However, it seems to me that this would give the go-ahead for quite a number of DIY stores with a modest area of plants to be able to open.
I am not at all against garden centres—I am a passionate gardener—but this is not a good way of changing our Sunday trading laws. It would open up a wide range of exemptions and a whole new line of work for all my lawyer friends. If we wish to open up the question of Sunday trading and disrupt the consensus that has held for 20 years, we need to do it in a much more measured way than by an amendment to this Bill.
My Lords, I do not know whether any of the Committee realise that they are looking at the face of history. All those years ago, I took the Shops Act entirely through the House, the long and the short of it. I have to say that I have listened with extreme interest to the speeches that I have heard today. This issue has come up again at what I would have thought was rather an inappropriate time. I agree with the previous two speakers: this goes against my party’s past. I do not know how their minds work now but I agree with what they say. The Shops Act has been of great benefit to a lot of workers and owners, and has provided a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. It is a pity to start mucking about with something that has worked so well for so long; it is unnecessary, and if there were a vote I would vote against it.
My Lords, I was in the happy position, as a humble Back-Bencher, of listening to my noble friend on the Front Bench taking that Act through, and I think she would agree that many of the arguments that we heard then have been repeated today by the noble Lords, Lord Christopher and Lord Rooker, and the right reverend Prelate, and she managed to satisfy them then. It is quite clear to me that what goes around comes around, and that today history—to an extent, anyway—is repeating itself.
As I said, 20-odd years ago I supported many of the things in this Bill, but I also supported an amendment similar to that of my noble friend Lord Borwick. I had better make the same declaration of non-interest as I did then: although a horticulturalist by training and the director of a mail-order firm in the industry, I have never had anything to do with garden centres other than as a student when I spent three weeks weeding plant pots. We do not even sell to garden centres, so to that extent I have no interest.
The reason why I supported an amendment then, and now, is that I am told by the Horticultural Traders Association that, in the past 20 years, by not allowing garden centres to be totally deregulated, my industry, which employs 28,400 people and contributes £9 billion to the UK economy, has missed out on a vast earning capacity that today amounts to £75 million, which, by virtue of the VAT element of such sales, means a loss of £15 million annually to the Exchequer. At a time when necessary cuts are made every day to public services, I have no doubt that another £15 million would come in very handy.
Tempting though it is, I will not repeat the facts that my noble friend stated in moving his amendment, but I will briefly outline what happened some 20 years ago. The amendment that I supported, and which was passed by your Lordships’ House, was to totally deregulate both garden centres and DIY shops. The Members of another place produced a very short reason for disagreeing with your Lordships: they did not consider it,
“desirable to exempt shops of the kind described in the amendment from restrictions on Sunday opening”.
It is clear from rereading Commons Hansard that MPs of those days believed that the amendment went too far by including shops that sold,
“materials and tools suitable for use in the construction, maintenance, repair or decoration of buildings”.—[Official Report, 30/6/94; col. 926.]
So Lord Hacking, who moved the original amendment, tabled another applying only to,
“trees, shrubs, plants, bulbs or seeds”,
or, “garden supplies or equipment”.
In the debate, the House again divided and the amendment was defeated, I believe for the following reasons: first, that on that day your Lordships had lost the opportunity for ping-pong; and secondly, that shops selling those products also—as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, just pointed out just—sell a whole range of other products, such as books, furniture and paint, to name but a few. It would have been an enormous job for local authority inspectors to ascertain whether the shop in question was “wholly or mainly”, to use the words in the Act, selling the products in question.
As I said, all that was 20 years ago. Membership of your Lordships’ House has changed drastically in that time and, after several general elections, so has the composition of another place. It is certainly time to ask the Commons once again. I hope that my noble friend will pursue this through to Report. He may well be successful in this House, but I would caution him quite seriously, as noble Lords opposite have done, not to use such a broad term as garden centres. To my mind, the term needs to be refined.
While I am on my feet, I have are two things that I should like to pick up. First, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Christopher, appreciated that the words “wholly or mainly” are actually in the Act, so will cover such exemptions. I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that, under the Act, shops are allowed to open for only six hours between the hours of 10 am and 6 pm. If I were a gardener, it is quite likely that I would like to go and buy my bulbs, seeds or whatever at 8.30 am or 9 am on a Sunday. That is one of the reasons why deregulation should at the very least be considered in this area.
My Lords, this has been an interesting debate. One of the things that strikes me forcefully is that the existing legislation was introduced in the context of a lot of controversy, argument and differing points of view. It has prevailed, to good effect, for a good number of years now, and those who crafted the Bill, introduced it and took it through the House should be commended. It represents the fruitful outcome of consensus-building in an open democracy at its best. We should be very wary of beginning to unpick that consensus and agreement, which involved a lot of hard work, by seemingly innocent little steps in this direction or that. The fact is that the proposed amendment is a breach in the existing law and the principles and understanding that lie behind it.
My second point refers back to my noble friend Lord Christopher. In his significant office and responsibilities, Vincent Cable used very specific words. At the very least, I would expect from the Government in their reply to this debate, in words of one syllable, a statement about whether they are now repudiating the work and undertaking of Vincent Cable on whether coalition policy applies in this sphere. It is quite simple: a Secretary of State has given a solemn and firm undertaking and this Bill runs against that undertaking. From that standpoint, we need a very specific and clear response from the Government in their reply.
For all sorts of reasons, I find myself in line with the thoughts of the right reverend Prelate. But you do not have to come from his position, or indeed mine, to see the social significance of the prevailing legislation. We live in a society that is becoming increasingly boring in the sense that everything is the same all the time and there is a feeling of playing to the lowest common denominator all the time. In the richness of life, the principle of contrast between the six days and the seventh day is very important, whether you are religious or not. It introduces a rhythm into life, which is terribly important for the fulfilment of people psychologically as well as physically.
In talking about the physical fulfilment of people, I am rather concerned about the standards set for our physical development if we now get our exercise by walking from the car to the garden centre. If that really is what our weekly exercise is about, we are in a pretty desperate situation. Having said that, my wife, in particular, gets quite a lot of exercise from walking about in garden centres, but the point that I am making speaks for itself.
I think we need to be a bit more in touch with the front-line social realities. We are talking about the convenience of consumers. There is a lot of evidence that a significant number of shop workers who currently work in shops that open on Sundays would much prefer not to be in that position. However, they are under all sorts of pressures to be available for work on a Sunday, and those pressures are increasing all the time. What are the social implications? Very often in families of limited means, Sunday is the only day of the week when the family can get together and the parents can have a bit of time with the children and with each other. It is also a day when it is more difficult to ensure adequate and proper care for your children while you are at work, and that applies particularly to single parents. Such care is not available then.
There is a lot more to be thought through in terms of the tangible, real social implications of legislation of this sort. It is not just a question of convenience for the shopper; there are all sorts of profound implications for people, not least those working within the industry. When we come to the stage in the proceedings when we vote in the House, I will certainly vote against this, as I think it is unwise. It would be very reassuring to hear in the Government’s response a firm statement that the consensus, which was so carefully built and crafted and which has served the nation so well, will be preserved and that we are not going to start changing things by the back door. In particular, I want to know—and I am sure that that goes for most people in the Committee—whether the words of the Secretary of State are being honoured or repudiated.
My Lords, this has been a very good and interesting debate. It proves that we were wrong to bank on knitting yarn deregulation to be the star of today’s show, although I suspect that we might get a little more of a buzz when we get to byways and highways, and the green and black ones and all the varieties we are going to come to in later amendments. It is probably good that we are dealing with a range of issues today, and of course no debate could possibly be topped if it was addressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, whose recollections and memories are all so important to us. We should bear them in mind as we think through this issue.
The amendment would change the Sunday Trading Act to allow an exemption for garden centres undefined. We oppose the amendment because we are concerned that there is significant scope for confusion in defining garden centres. A number of businesses could be included because they sell garden products. However, we also oppose it because we think that such a change would amount to an erosion of the law that has stood the test of time since 1994. That could cause confusion and undermine the legislation as a whole. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said, the main thesis underlying the speech of the proposer of the amendment was the need to revisit and, if possible, deregulate the whole Sunday Trading Act. Repealing that without going through the process of discussion and debate which, as we have heard, was so much a part of the process of building the consensus around the 1994 Act is obviously something that we would have to think about very hard. This issue is about rights. It is about the rights of some people to keep Sunday special and of those who want to do more with their Sundays. We have, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to be careful about this and take our time to make sure that we get the balance right.
It is important that we get the definitions right. A garden centre can be anything from a very small operation selling plants raised locally to a large store within a much bigger department store. Most garden centres are now large operations that include, as we have heard, indoor and outdoor trading spaces, a wide variety of products, outdoor and indoor furniture, kitchenware, giftware, toys and games. It is hard to distinguish between these multifunctional garden centres and do-it-yourself stores that have large gardening departments, or even supermarkets that sell a wide range of plants and garden products in spring—or all year—sometimes in the car park surrounding the store. Without a definition, we do not know what we are talking about. An exemption for garden centres would therefore inevitably open up loopholes in the Sunday Trading Act and, as we have heard, large stores might seek to have themselves defined as garden centres, as some have already done.
As we have heard, the Sunday trading legislation is a compromise, but it is valued by retailers, employees and consumers. It gives people the opportunity to trade, work and shop on a Sunday but at the same time preserves a sense of Sunday being different from other days of the week. The Government have consulted on this issue three times in this Parliament and have found, as many other surveys have, that the laws have the support of the majority of the public—the latest report that I saw found that 77% supported the current laws—and the majority of the grocery retail community, which is a powerful alliance.
The amendment is premised on the view that if shops were to open for longer, it would be a good thing in terms of the so-called growth agenda, but longer opening hours do not mean that consumers have either the funds or the inclination to buy more goods. That was rather proved in the Olympic period when the Sunday trading hours extension, which was agreed by Parliament, coincided with a 0.4% decline in retail sales in that period. Sunday trading laws also currently provide an important advantage to small stores in a market that is heavily weighted in favour of big supermarkets. Indeed, the removal of Sunday trading legislation temporarily during the Olympics resulted, as we have heard, in a displacement of sales from small stores to large stores.
If the current laws were ever to change, they would need far more scrutiny and due process than is possible with this amendment. The existing Sunday trading laws were put in place after extensive consultation and several years of negotiation with interested parties to build the sort of consensus that has remained in place to date. Any wider change would need the same due process. It is clear that scrapping Sunday trading legislation is not pro-growth and will not deliver higher consumer spending. I hope that the Government will give this short shrift.
My Lords, my noble friend’s amendment would relax restrictions on garden centres by adding them to the list of retailers exempted from the Sunday trading regulations. At present, they can already open for six continuous hours between 10 am and 6 pm. When my wife told me that she wanted a wheelbarrow on Sunday, despite the burdens of office, I was able to acquire one at my local garden centre within that six-hour window and attend church on Sunday morning. This measure would mean that garden centres could open at any time on a Sunday and open on Easter Sunday, from which they are currently prohibited.
Having thought about this carefully, the Government believe, in line with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the right reverend Prelate and my noble friend Lady Trumpington, among others—although I could not have put it as eloquently as they did— that the current Sunday trading laws represent a reasonable balance between those who wish to see more opportunity to shop in and sell from large shops on a Sunday, and those who would like to see further restrictions.
Those advancing the case for further liberalisation of the Sunday trading laws claim that there will be worthwhile economic benefits, including an increase in revenue for garden centres. However, as a matter of interest, the evidence to date is not entirely compelling. The ONS’s assessment of the liberalisation during the Olympics found no significant growth associated with the longer opening hours during the event. Instead, sales tended to be spread out further over the additional opening hours. Likewise, with this proposed liberalisation, customers may not end up spending more but merely spreading their spending over a longer period.
As my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale mentioned, the industry has talked of a potential £75 million increase in revenue but no details on the increased costs of extended opening have so far been forthcoming. As I have just mentioned, we do, however, have the useful example of the measures taken during the London Olympics. The Government suspended the Sunday trading laws during the Olympics in 2012 so that retailers could take advantage of the unique opportunity that the Games presented. The suspension of the law applied only to the specified period, from 22 July to 9 September 2012. There was an increase in footfall in London but this may merely have reflected increased visitor numbers to the country. An evaluation of the suspension of hours during the Olympics found that the overall sales increases seem to have been modest for large retailers, but that there was in fact a loss of business for the smaller retailers.
Perhaps I may be allowed to interrupt my noble friend briefly. During the Olympics, there were of course many people up and down the country watching them on television and many people in the Olympic park who were watching the events live. Does my noble friend not think that that could be a reason for there being no real, material difference in sales during the relaxation which he was talking about?
I am sure that my noble friend has a point and that there were complex factors in several directions. I merely state what happened because it is a recent example of a relaxation of the Sunday trading laws and it may be interesting for noble Lords to hear it.
My noble friend Lord Trenchard asked about the impact on smaller shops at that time. He may be interested to know that the Association of Convenience Stores reported a reduction of as much as 20% in sales over the eight-week Olympic period, and a 30% reduction in footfall. However, I acknowledge what my noble friend has said. During the peak month of August 2012, non-seasonally adjusted national data show that the amount being bought decreased by 2.4%, compared with that July. Over the same period, large stores saw a fall of 3.1% and small stores one of 0.6%. This more than outweighed the benefits to larger London-based competitors, which were the prime beneficiaries. I hope the Committee will understand that such results are at odds with the Government’s Small Business Strategy.
It is sometimes argued that the relaxation of constraints on large shops will provide benefits to their smaller brethren by bringing people into the town or shopping centre but most garden centres—or most that I have been to, anyway—are located away from other retail centres. They are out of the centres of towns, so that argument does not apply to them. It is not clear what makes garden centres a special case in the same way as those currently included on the exemption list. Despite what my noble friend Lord Trenchard said, it is not as though people will have a sudden medical need to visit a garden centre, as they might have with, for example, a pharmacy.
Moreover, garden centres have increasingly diversified their products, as the noble Lord, Lord Christopher, said. Many will now sell furniture, pets, food, books, toys and stationery. As such, garden centres are in direct competition with other large stores, which are still constrained by the Sunday trading rules and it would be difficult to justify giving them preferential treatment, particularly so at a time when we are looking at ways to regenerate local high streets. Additionally, there is no obvious mood for change among the public. In a recent study, 77% were found to be happy with the existing rules while, of those who were in favour of change, 56% wanted further restrictions rather than liberalisation.
This exemption would also enable garden centres to open on Easter Sunday. This would be contentious for those who see Easter Day as a highly important religious day, when families should be free to be together. Garden centres say that this is the middle of their busiest period. However, they are already able to open as they wish on three of the four days over that bank holiday weekend. Some smaller family-run garden centres welcome the opportunity to close and to give staff the day off on Easter Day in the knowledge that none of their competitors will be open. Removing that constraint might distort the playing field in favour of bigger national garden centre networks. Consumer spending is such that longer opening hours are unlikely to achieve additional sales.
I am aware of the various campaigns on Sunday trading and I will continue to monitor the response of the public and the market, but we see no significant change in the situation that might suggest the need to reconsider Sunday trading in relation to garden centres or more broadly. I hope that is clear enough to the noble Lord, Lord Judd. On that basis I hope my noble friend will withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
Clause 18: Authorisation of insolvency practitioners
12: Clause 18, page 12, leave out line 18
My Lords, I move Amendment 12 but also give notice that I will oppose the Question that Clause 18 stand part of the Bill. I hope that the Government will accept, as a minimum, Amendment 12, even if they cannot accept the bigger—and in my view better—alternative, which is to drop the clause altogether.
The Government have come up with the rather strange idea of partial authorisation for insolvency practitioners. This would split in two the regulation of what is quite a tiny profession—fewer than 2,000 people. You would then have a profession for company insolvencies and a different one for individual insolvencies. On the basis of no evidence whatever, the Government have decided, in effect, to dumb down the specialist profession of insolvency practitioners. By doing so, they risk helping the larger insolvency firms at the expense of smaller companies, over 80% of which do not believe that they would get much benefit from lower training costs. Indeed, 90% said that they would not train a partial licence holder. The Government admitted to R3, which is the professional organisation involved, that the clause was not being introduced to fix a problem and they have cited no evidence of any undercapacity in the market or any evidence of complaints about the current system. The Joint Committee on the draft Bill, which was ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was worried about the lack of stakeholder consultation on the issue. Subsequent discussions with the industry have not alleviated any of its concerns.
Clause 18 would allow insolvency practitioners to undertake corporate bankruptcies, which will almost always affect the financial status of individuals involved, with absolutely no training or qualifications relevant to the needs of such individuals when they also face insolvency. Indeed, insolvency practitioners very often do not know at the outset of a case, particularly with micro-businesses, whether they are dealing with a corporate bankruptcy or with a personal insolvency, given the involvement of personal guarantees and the nature of the creditors. The clause would harm small firms, two-thirds of which do both corporate and personal insolvency, just when the Government’s small business strategy is meant to be helping small firms. They do not like this one. Furthermore, it would add enormous expense to the profession, as it would require the development, the delivery and the oversight of new and additional systems of exam qualification. This would be on the basis of the Government’s own estimate that there will be about only 100 such partial licences.
It is hard to imagine how the Government dreamt up this clause. There is no significant demand—we could not find any—for any change. The only suggestion ever to have been around has been for a personal insolvency-only regime, but never for a corporate-only insolvency regime. There is no evidence of there being a group of people who would just love to be IPs and who are dying to enter the market. Indeed, a number of firms are reducing their workforce and there is no evidence for the argument that we need more.
The Insolvency Lawyers’ Association has questioned the logic of operating this proposed two-tier, mixed system. Indeed, in a way, it would be a three-tier system because some insolvency practitioners would be licensed to do individual insolvency only, some would opt to do corporate insolvency only and some would qualify to do both. R3, the professional body, which knows rather a lot about insolvency, has serious concerns about this change. It considers that partial licences would have a negative impact on business and individuals seeking financial advice, as well as on the quality and competitiveness of the UK’s insolvency regime, which, as I am sure the Minister knows, is assessed by the World Bank as being one of the world’s best.
If we look across all the professions, be they doctors, lawyers or accountants, we see that they always start by getting their initial qualification through a broad training that crosses the whole area of their discipline and they then go on to specialise. The Government seem to want to carve insolvency practitioners out of this, making them jump directly to a specialism. Even worse, it could lower standards. Jenny Willott MP, speaking as a Minister in the other House, said that partial licences will reduce a little,
“the high bar on entry to the profession”.
That sounds to me like a dumbing-down.
We are talking about people’s futures—whether jobs are to be saved or a company liquidated, whether it can be sold off so that some of those jobs can be retained, whether individuals will be made bankrupt, whether creditors will get back money that they have already sent to the insolvent company, whether someone with unsupportable debts can be helped to find a way through or whether a company can be sold to someone else who can keep at least some of it running as an ongoing concern. These are big issues that affect people’s futures.
The clause is misguided; it is unnecessary; and it has been criticised by the profession and other stakeholders. The Government would do well just to withdraw it gracefully rather than be forced to do so. My guess is that the clause would never be commenced and that wiser heads would finally prevail. The provision may be in law but I doubt that it would ever be put into practice, so better perhaps to lift the threat now. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, for moving her amendment and speaking to Clause 18. When I came into the Grand Committee—I think that it was during the debate on Amendment 10—I saw the Benches absolutely crowded and I thought, “I didn’t realise insolvency practitioners commanded such interest, not even on a Sunday”.
The noble Baroness made some important points, which I will certainly seek to address, although I think that I will disappoint her, because neither do I feel able to indicate that the Government will accept the amendment nor do they have an intention to withdraw the clause. As she pointed out, Clause 18 will amend the law by introducing a new regime for the partial authorisation of insolvency practitioners. In future, those wishing to become insolvency practitioners will be able to qualify in relation to personal insolvency cases only, in relation to corporate insolvency cases only or in relation to both, as is currently the case.
The effect of the noble Baroness’s amendment would be to allow insolvency practitioners to be partially authorised but only in relation to individual insolvency. As I will come on to when I discuss the clause itself, partial authorisation will remove barriers to entry for those who wish to specialise in just the one discipline. However, I make it very clear that it is not the Government’s intention to restrict this opportunity only to those who wish to deal with individual insolvency. We believe that there should be an opportunity to specialise in individual insolvency, in company insolvency or, and as things stand at the moment, in both. There is no compulsion here; it would be the choice of those wishing to pursue a career as an insolvency practitioner.
The insolvency body R3, to which the noble Baroness referred and which, I acknowledge, is opposed to partial authorisation, has told the Government that 27% of insolvency practitioners work in firms that specialise in corporate insolvency. This compares with 5% who work in firms that deal only with individual insolvency.
The noble Baroness said that take-up of the measure will be small and she asked why we should proceed with it. Existing insolvency practitioners who have gained authorisation for both personal and corporate matters want to continue to cover both areas, but that will not necessarily be the case for new entrants. The Government believe that partial authorisation will be attractive to a minority within the profession who, by focusing on a specific sector or on specific clients, will find that partial authorisation allows them to take appointments in the types of insolvencies that they deal with.
We believe that the changes proposed in Clause 18 will result in lower entry costs into the profession for those who seek partial authorisation and that they will, over time, increase competition and lower fees. That, in turn, can lead to improved returns to creditors in insolvencies. That was certainly my experience when I was a Member of Parliament dealing with companies and small businesses that were often at the receiving end when larger companies went into administration. Very often, it is small businesses that suffer the most when there is an insolvency. If we can improve returns to creditors, including many small businesses, that must surely be a good thing.
It is important to have highly skilled professionals. While we are talking about partial authorisation, company insolvency practitioners and those engaged in personal insolvency matters require a full authorisation. I cannot accept what the noble Baroness says about this being a dumbing-down. Those who pursue that one part of the profession will have a full qualification and therefore I cannot accept that this is about lowering standards. It is important to have highly skilled professionals. We must not forget that imposing unnecessary regulatory burdens on entry into a profession itself has a detrimental impact, particularly on the public, who pay for the services of such professionals.
The noble Baroness mentioned exams and seemed to think that there would be an increased cost. I suspect that if someone is aspiring to become an insolvency practitioner and there are fewer exams to take, there will be a lesser cost for that individual. With regard to exams, I make it clear that the Insolvency Act 1986 provides that the recognised professional bodies that authorise and regulate insolvency practitioners must have in place rules to ensure that insolvency practitioners meet acceptable requirements in relation to education, practical training and experience. A memorandum of understanding between the Secretary of State and the regulators that underpins the Insolvency Act requirements provides that applicants for authorisation must hold a pass in the Joint Insolvency Examination Board exams. I assure the Committee that officials will work with the profession to modify the current exam structure to ensure that partially authorised insolvency practitioners can demonstrate a broad knowledge of both disciplines. The exam structure will obviously have to change, but I cannot see that it is going to lead to the greatly increased costs that the noble Baroness indicated.
As I said, Clause 18 is not about lowering standards; it is about setting appropriate standards. We are asking: why should someone who deals with only personal bankruptcy and individual voluntary arrangements have to know about the finer details of corporate administrations, unless of course they choose to do so? If they do, then of course that choice will still be there. For those insolvency practitioners who at present choose to practise only in corporate or only in personal insolvency, the time and money spent studying an area in which they do not practise will add little or no value to the service that they offer their clients.
Many individuals in debt do not need advice at the same time on corporate insolvency. In 2013, there were a total of 101,049 personal insolvencies in England and Wales. In contrast, there were 18,841 corporate insolvencies. Despite those two very different figures, the insolvency practitioners who dealt with those 100,000 personal insolvencies, many of which involved no business affairs or any matters requiring specialist corporate insolvency knowledge, had to study corporate matters before they could gain their qualification. That means that many of those who set out to qualify take longer to do so, some ultimately giving up on the way. For those who work in firms that specialise in one area of insolvency, the lack of practical experience in the other area can make it difficult to pass professional examinations if they are studying at the same time as pursuing their training in a particular company. That, too, is clear barrier to entry.
I think that the noble Baroness said that the figure was somewhat under 2,000. My understanding is that the figure for those who take appointments is quite a bit lower, at 1,350. This number has not changed much in recent years. We recognise that many will still want to be authorised for both corporate and personal, but we think that it is useful for those who wish to specialise to be allowed to do so. The noble Baroness also said that it would do nothing to help small firms and that only large firms would be able to take advantage. I have already indicated the advantages and the benefits that might feed through to small firms that are creditors in insolvency cases. The changes will reduce the cost of training for applicants who wish to specialise. Savings on training and examination fees are likely to be of proportionally greater benefit to smaller firms of insolvency practitioners. Larger firms tend to charge higher fees for their services and typically are set up to deal with higher-value insolvencies. Businesses looking for lower-cost advice will benefit from greater competition in the middle market and among smaller firms.
Ultimately, this clause gives aspiring insolvency practitioners a choice. As I have said, many will continue to choose full authorisation for personal and corporate insolvency work and, for those who do, the status quo will remain. Those who choose to specialise will benefit from lower-cost entry into the profession. In each case, they will be required to reach high standards in personal insolvency, if that is the area that they choose, or corporate insolvency if they choose that route.
We acknowledge the excellent work done by insolvency practitioners. I think that the noble Baroness mentioned the high ranking accorded to insolvency practitioners in the United Kingdom. They do valuable work to facilitate business rescue and they ensure that businesses with viable futures are allowed to go forward and grow despite short-term financial difficulties. Insolvency practitioners go about their work with huge skill and care and they make a significant contribution to the economy. Nothing in this clause detracts from that. The clause opens up greater choice, which I believe will bring greater benefit. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment and not press her opposition to Clause 18 standing part of the Bill.
My Lords, having listened to the Minister, I should like to raise a couple of minor issues. Before Report, it would be extremely helpful for the House to have a list of insolvency practitioners who support this proposal. Paragraph 214 of the Joint Committee on the Draft Deregulation Bill’s report states that it was told,
“that there was ‘broad support’ for the clause from a range of stakeholders, including some practitioners themselves”.
We did not receive evidence to reflect that view. In a way, part of our problem was that we had only one side of the story. I am not out to cause trouble by saying that it is clear that this clause started life under the previous Labour Government. No one ever says that, but it is true. In March 2010, before the general election, the Insolvency Service sent a consultation letter to all key stakeholders inviting views on the specialist authorisation proposals. Indeed, there was a consultation meeting in April 2010. We did not explore this in the committee and it is a big issue. We had information from the Law Society and I think that we had information from Scotland as well, but the fact is that we did not delve too deeply into where this came from. The minute I see red tape challenged these days I dismiss it because I think it is a farce. However, given that this started life under the previous Labour Government, it might have had some merit. While the papers are not available to the present Administration, it would be useful to ask the then Ministers—I do not know who they were—why they started on this journey before 2010. There must have been a reason to trigger this thing so long ago. It has not just turned up in the Bill after trawling around Whitehall; it started life before the general election. We failed to ask why in the Joint Committee but I am asking that question now.
My Lords, to take up some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the Joint Committee noted that there appeared to be some confusion about the extent of consultation on this clause. We recommended that there be further consultation on what was then Clause 9. In their response to the Joint Committee’s report in January this year, the Government took the opportunity to repeat the arguments in favour of the clause in some detail. They also stated in paragraph 116 that,
“following the Committee’s recommendation, the Government is inviting any further views on this Clause during the passage of the Bill”.
How did the Government go about soliciting these further views? Who did they invite to give those views and what was the general burden of any of those responses that were made after the Government’s response?
As things stood when the Joint Committee reported, we did not feel that there had been sufficient consultation, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was saying, to enable us to express a firm view on the merits of the clause. I note what the Government have said, but I also note the case put forward by R3. In particular, I note R3’s view that partial licences are not being introduced to fix a problem. It claims that there is insufficient evidence of undercapacity in the market and no evidence that the current regime causes concerns about the quality of the advice given. Essentially, it asserts that the system is not broken and asks why the Government are trying to fix it.
The Government, in their turn, advance two reasons for reform. The first is that the partial licences will benefit insolvency practices of all sizes and the personal insolvency market as a whole. R3 has advanced survey data that it says refutes these claims. Secondly, the Government say that partial licences will increase competition, decrease training costs, lower fees and deregulate access to the IP profession. R3 maintains that there is no evidence of the need for more IPs; in fact, it claims that the market is oversupplied. It also challenges the Government’s other assertions.
All this illustrates the position that the Joint Committee found itself in during December. There are competing claims, somewhat unevidenced, and a narrow consultation base, while the Government have not provided an impact assessment on this clause. It would be easier to make a judgment on the merits of the clause if we knew more and had more evidence. There is a strong case for the Government to agree to further substantive consultation on this issue before we reach a conclusion.
My Lords, I say first to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that I did not mention that the provision had started life under the previous Labour Government because I did not know that until he informed me of it. Of course, not everything that the previous Labour Government did was wrong, as I recall from going through the Lobbies at times in your Lordships’ House. I will take the point that the noble Lord makes and find out just who was behind that, if I might make that inquiry.
There were some specific questions asked and I will certainly respond in writing to those who have contributed to this debate. However, it is also important to make the point that existing insolvency practitioners are, by the very nature of their business and profession at the moment, people who are qualified in corporate and personal insolvency. I understand that my noble friend Lord De Mauley has in the past been an insolvency practitioner and he has indicated that these are two different specialisations. Clearly, however, the practitioners are duly qualified and may well question why everyone coming behind them should not go through the same route that they followed.
It may well be, as we believe, that aspiring insolvency practitioners have shown a desire for some partial authorisation. A survey of members of the Insolvency Practitioners Association showed that non-IP members were in favour of this. It would be wrong to go so far as to say that there is an element of protectionism here. However, one of my arguments is that we are looking at people who want to come into the profession—by their nature they are not already there, giving their views—and there are many benefits to allowing that specialisation.
Since I stood up, I have received a further response to the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I understand that this clause is a development of a policy started under the previous Government. An earlier version of it was proposed for inclusion in a legislative reform order, although the measure was withdrawn and, in the event, the order did not proceed. I will not to try to decipher this note further in case I get it wrong—I will write to the noble Lord.
With regard to the question from my noble friend Lord Sharkey, on 23 January the Government, on the recommendation of the Joint Committee, launched further consultation on whether any changes were required to what is now Clause 18. Responses were considered and included representations from insolvency practitioners, creditor representatives and others. I am not sure whether the responses have been published or whether there is any intention to do so, but perhaps I could write further to my noble friend and give him a flavour of the responses before Report.
My point is that we are dealing with people who are looking to the future and may aspire to a career as an insolvency practitioner but who do not particularly want to take on the whole gamut of it, preferring to specialise in one form or the other.
My Lords, perhaps I should mention—though it is not an interest, being from so long ago—that I was a member of the Insolvency Practices Council, which oversaw insolvency practitioners. I was there as a consumer, not as a trade union member, of the noble collection of insolvency practitioners.
One of the strange things is that this is a deregulation Bill, but it is going to create a new system of exams, oversight and monitoring. That is somewhat odd in a deregulation Bill, but that is beside the point. The assertion is made that it will attract new entrants, without any evidence. The assertion is made that IP fees will be reduced, without any evidence. The assertion is made that training costs will be reduced. Actually, the main training provider, BPP, has to apply its overheads across the exams, so the cost per exam will go up even if you do two exams rather than three. These are assertions, not evidence.
When I was involved in this area—this may answer the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, though not to me—there had been suggestions about a personal insolvency-only regime, never a corporate insolvency-only regime. The idea was that people working in debt management companies in particular might want a personal insolvency-only regime. However, despite the fact that I spoke on this at Second Reading and have had lots of lobbying and approaches from everyone else, none of the debt counselling people has approached me to support the idea of a single licence. There has been silence on that. However, it explains why the amendment would be to allow a personal-only insolvency regime. None the less, I remain worried about the idea of a corporate-only insolvency regime, whereby people dealing with corporates would have no training in personal insolvency. It is an issue that we may want the Government to reconsider, but for the moment I beg leave to withdraw.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Clause 18 agreed.
Clause 19 agreed.
Schedule 5 agreed.
Clause 20 agreed.
Schedule 6 agreed.
13: Before Clause 21, insert the following new Clause—
“Rights of way: annual report
The Secretary of State must prepare and publish an annual report on— (a) the implementation of the changes introduced by sections 21 to 27; and(b) the effectiveness of the changes introduced by sections 21 to 27,and must lay a copy of the report before both Houses of Parliament.”
My Lords, public right-of-way legislation is complex, often archaic and certainly plentiful. Looking around the Committee today, I notice that there may well be previous Ministers of Agriculture in the Room who put some of this legislation through. It all builds into an important picture that needs some clarity, and I am very pleased that certain aspects of this are in this Deregulation Bill. They cover important aspects of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Highways Act 1980 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, building on the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.
I declare my interest from the register as an owner of farmland in Cheshire over which there are a number of footpaths. These are not controversial; they are intermittently walked and do not cause disruption to farming operations. However, across the country the situation is considerably less clear. Under the 1949 Act, local authorities are required to produce a definitive map and statement of public rights of way. This is taking some time and continues, such that in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 a cut-off date of 2026 was introduced, after which routes pre-existing 1949 cannot be added to the definitive map.
Not only is the process of registration slow and complex, certain elements of the legislation have yet to be implemented and are considered to be flawed. In 2008 a stakeholder working group was set up by Natural England with membership drawn up from public access user groups and land management and business interests, including farming, and the local authorities. In 2010 it produced the Stepping Forward report, which proposed the changes that we are discussing today around the procedures introduced in the various legislation.
The stakeholder working group is to be commended on finding and building consensus around the main interested parties to recommend these changes as a package, to streamline the process and to make quicker progress, even though there may appear to be plenty of time until 2026. Some of the recommendations will no doubt help farmers to manage access safely, others will help to bring clarity to user groups and a large number will aid local authorities in bringing forward proposals to reduce confrontation and red tape. The approach from these Benches is to retain this consensus and build on it. The stakeholder working group is still continuing and, with these proposals agreed and implemented through the Bill, it can press forward in addressing further problems and bring these forward as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, there is the task of following up on these proposals. The amendment before the Committee today is to do just this and annually publish a report on how effective this process has now become, how much quicker applications have become to deal with and any unforeseen issues that have arisen. The whole of Schedule 7 defines the new speedier and more streamlined process, but will it find snags? For example, paragraphs 4 to 6 of the schedule change the procedure for initiating action in the magistrate’s court. That procedure has charges applied to it, and these charges for initiating court action have increased substantially. Will this become a deterrent to the effective working of this provision?
Clause 26 opens the way for full cost recovery from a landowner seeking an order. The effect will need to be carefully monitored. Clause 24 revisits the CROW Act 2000 to correct those perceived flaws. It is important that the impact of this so-called right to apply for orders, both on local authority workloads and on the network itself, is properly monitored. The amendment would enable this and other measures to be monitored and their operations made transparent to ensure that the stakeholder working group is working on the right track.
One effect of the amendment would be to continue to build the esteem of the stakeholder working group and encourage it to continue trying to seek consensus on the most controversial aspects of our rights of way. It should be an important aid to the Minister in communicating the effectiveness of the process to draw up a definitive map and statement of public rights of way, and he should welcome it. I beg to move.
My Lords, before I start, like the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, I should declare an interest in that I am the owner of land over which pass public rights of way.
Perhaps I may also say by way of preamble that the rights of way reforms package, of which Clauses 21 to 27 will form the basis, is founded on the recommendations of the independently chaired stakeholder working group on unrecorded rights of way. The group consists of 15 members—five from each of the key sectors: local authorities, landowners and rights of way users. It contains members of the Ramblers, the British Horse Society, the National Farmers’ Union, the Country Land and Business Association, the National Association of Local Councils and the Local Government Association. I may say a bit more about that in a debate on a later group of amendments.
Amendment 13, in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, seeks to ensure that the Government monitor the success or otherwise of the rights of way reform package after implementation. That is a worthy objective and one with which I have no disagreement. That is why the Government have already given a commitment that they will arrange for the stakeholder working group to carry out a review. We said in the other place during the Committee stage that,
“the stakeholder working group’s advice will be sought on the constitution of the review panel, as was set out in another of the group’s proposals. The panel will be able to advise on how well the reforms are working and whether any further measures need to be taken before the cut-off date”.—[Official Report, Commons, Deregulation Bill Committee, 6/3/14; col. 238.]
While it is important to monitor the implementation and effectiveness of the rights of way clauses, it seems ironic to use a deregulatory Bill to impose on government and, in turn, on local authorities the statutory burden of making a formal report to Parliament. The additional bureaucracy that such a formal reporting mechanism would create runs contrary to the aims of this Bill. Indeed, the proposal runs contrary to the recommendations of the stakeholder working group itself. In its proposal 21, the group said:
“A stakeholder review panel should be constituted after implementation of the Group’s proposals to review progress with recording or protecting useful or potentially useful pre-1949 rights of way before the cut-off”.
Since the stakeholder working group has shown itself to be so effective in working together to develop solutions, I suggest that it would be wrong not to entrust the group with advising on the most appropriate mechanism for carrying out a review of the reforms. It is in the interests of each of the stakeholders on the group that they do so. On that basis, I hope that I can persuade the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister for certain of those clarifications but I should like to press him on the further work of the stakeholder working group. While the amendment limits the annual assessment to a report on the measures in the Bill, it would be helpful if the Minister could clarify any further aspects of this group and how he sees further progress being made. Having confirmed that it will continue, does he believe that its membership is sufficiently widely drawn to tackle more controversial aspects, and will the group be encouraged to come forward with proposals in a timely manner? Even though this is a long way ahead, we are aware of the urgency to make progress, as we will see in debates on further amendments that will be coming up shortly. It would be extremely interesting to hear how the working group may approach the more controversial aspects. The noble Lord should be mindful that we may well return to this at a later date, having considered further debate on the amendments. We reserve judgment about how appropriate it is that the Deregulation Bill should include a proposal to monitor its work going forward.
I think that I have explained that the stakeholder working group is quite broadly constituted in its membership. It has tackled some pretty contentious issues successfully, and I hope the noble Lord will accept that. In terms of how it will work as this goes forward, once all the rights of way reforms have been put in place in both primary and secondary legislation, that group can start preparing a review. Of course, any review by that group will be published by Defra and put on its website. I hope that that helps the noble Lord.
Amendment 13 withdrawn.
Clauses 20 to 23 agreed.
14: After Clause 23, insert the following new Clause—
“Presumed extinguishment of intrusive byways open to all traffic in limited circumstances
In section 116 of the Highways Act 1980 (power of magistrates’ court to authorise stopping up or diversion of highway), after subsection (1) insert—“(1A) Where a byway open to all traffic passes through the curtilage of a residential dwelling including the gardens and driveways of the premises it is presumed that diversion of the highway so that it does not so pass will make the path more commodious and that the highway is unnecessary unless the court is satisfied that—
(a) the privacy, safety or security of the premises are not adversely affected by the existence or use of the path; or(b) the path or way provides access to a vital local service or amenity not otherwise reasonably accessible.(1B) In exercising the powers under this section, the authority and the court shall have particular regard to the presumption that a byway open to all traffic should not pass through the curtilage of residential premises including the gardens and driveways of the premises.
(1C) A “byway open to all traffic” means a highway over which the public have a right of way for vehicular and all other kinds of traffic, but which is used mainly for the purposes for which footpaths and bridleways are so used.””
My Lords, in moving this amendment, I will also speak to my other amendments and most of those of my noble friend Lady Byford, which encapsulate mine with major additions. I apologise, therefore, for my long-windedness in seeking to add three new clauses to the Bill. The trouble is that three sections of the Highways Act 1980 are involved.
England has around 18,000 miles of rights of way, which these days are used mostly for recreational purposes. A minority of these pass through gardens. Last weekend, I was walking in Dorset and just before the Recess I was walking on the Quantock Hills in Somerset. Both these walks, as it happens, were through farms and on common land. In a later amendment, I will have something to say about common land.
The Somerset walk took me past a farm in which it would be quite easy to look into the windows had I so wanted. Most people are uncomfortable walking through someone’s garden or alongside a house in the country. However, there is, alas, a minority of walkers who are not so respectful of other people’s property and it means that anyone with a right of way through their property has no right to privacy, security or safety. Young children cannot be allowed to play in their own garden unaccompanied; nor can family pets be allowed to roam freely. There is not even a legal right to have a gate, which is something that I hope we can deal with in a later amendment to the Bill.
In essence, the family home cannot be used as a family home as the Committee would understand it. This means that, as we continue to develop as a country, the situation gets worse for those afflicted. They have no legal defence against theft or vandalism. Criminals can legally wander around to assess a property for burglary and come back to isolated properties when they are unattended. There are numerous examples of walkers peering through the window at those sitting down for a family lunch, and of unleashed dogs running around a domestic garden and chasing resident dogs, killing chickens, ducks, or cats, defecating and so forth. Sunbathing in the garden, having lunch on the patio or a child’s birthday party take on totally different dimensions in these circumstances. Currently, the homeowner has no legal right to apply for a diversion or extinguishment and lives in a permanent trap. The stress and the financial hardship involved in employing specialist lawyers, only to learn that one has virtually no legal rights, have led to illness, mental breakdowns and at least two suicides. The financial resources required to get expert legal help runs beyond most ordinary people’s means and makes justice unaffordable.
The Minister in another place, Defra and the Law Commission all acknowledge that there is a problem that needs dealing with, but say, “Let’s see what happens with the proposal in the Bill for new guidance on giving the right to apply to and ultimately, in specific circumstances, to appeal to the Secretary of State”. The problem is that it will take some years before we discover whether the new draft guidance on the right to apply for diversion or extinguishment of rights of way that pass through gardens, farmyards and commercial premises works. The guidance is not even statutory, and I can see the Secretary of State being overwhelmed by appeals.
Why is this? In the current government-proposed solution, the public interest is in legislation and the family home interest—privacy, security and safety, as I have mentioned—is in guidance. They do not have equal weighting. In the proposed solution, the full local authority cost is to be passed to the applicant—in other words, the ordinary family home owner. There is no cap. The potential cost could be beyond many ordinary people. The proposed solution therefore will not work.
What is needed to solve this dilemma is a legal presumption in favour of extinguishment or diversion, not the “wait and see” attitude from the Government and advocated not only in the brief from the Open Spaces Society but also by the specialist working group that my noble friend referred to just now. I beg to move.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to speak to my amendments, which are linked with that proposed by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale. I support his amendment, but it focuses on a narrower base than mine. I must first record my family farming interests and my membership of the CLA, and the fact that we have paths across our farm. The CLA still has concerns about the Bill.
I was sorry not to be available for Second Reading, although I read Hansard with great interest. I will not make a Second Reading speech, but wish to record my support for the aims of the Bill, which brings forward sensible and proportionate measures for improving the regulatory regime in the UK.
My Amendment 17 would require councils in England to have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State as to the exercise of their powers. Amendment 18 would replace existing Clause 25 and define the purposes in greater detail; namely, “preventing or reducing crime”, to which my noble friend referred, and,
“ensuring the safety of any persons … preventing damage to property … preventing the ingress or egress of animals; or … protecting the natural environment”.
The stakeholder working group on unrecorded public rights of way established by Natural England consisted of 15 people, representing path users, landowners, occupiers and, importantly, local authorities. Much consensus was achieved. The group’s work has been immensely important in the bringing forward of the proposals in the Bill, but one or two items on which there was agreement were not included.
As a result of this work, the Government produced guidance, which has been placed in the Library. However, the particular detail encompassed by my two amendments has not been included in the Bill. Why was this? I understand that the proposals were agreed by the stakeholder working group, which accepted that the guidance should be statutory so that authorities would have to take it into account in their decision-making process. However, I am not clear on that.
The view of the stakeholder working group was that rights of way are so complex that it is important to make them easier for everyone to understand. The complexity leads to different applications of the rules and different interpretations by local authorities. Guidance should be applied fairly, consistently and impartially, with the aim of making regulation less burdensome. Some might argue that my amendments increase burdens but I humbly suggest that a clearer direction should reduce costs and burdens. There would be less doubt because interpretation would be clearly stated in the Bill. I am also aware that some authorities are overwhelmed by the large number of outstanding claims with which they have to deal. We need to make it easier for their decision-making. I support my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, we did not spend a lot of time in the Joint Committee on this because we were not adding things to the Bill. We made recommendations relating to further clauses, which I will not go into. I have been a regular walker in the Lake District for the past 30 years. One of my greatest regrets is that I did not discover the Lake District until I was 45. However, I would never claim that enjoyment of the countryside and the open air, and walking in the Fells, entitles me to go through someone’s garden alongside their private home. There can be no justification for a walker, a person enjoying the country, making that claim. Because of the route that a path may take—sometimes they go through a private garden—you sometimes see a sign that asks walkers not to use a child’s swing and says that if they do, they do so at their own peril. There cannot be an argument to do that.
I was involved in a case about a path being moved. The cost of moving a path a small number of yards—or metres if we are in Europe—is enormous. I cannot see that that cost can justifiably be put on the owner. It is a public good to move a path. In some ways, I am sympathetic to the principle behind the amendment, although putting it in the Bill is asking for trouble. Perhaps we need another stakeholder working group. The one relating to this Bill was admirably chaired by Ray Anderson, who seems to have done an incredibly good job getting a consensus.
By and large, there is a case for change. The Government’s view should not be, “Oh well, this is on the landowner”. It is not quite like that, particularly when you are in the Fells, which is the only area I know in some detail but it may be different elsewhere. However, it does not alter the fact that things change as regards rights of way. A path can be diverted, and the joy of the countryside and the open air can be maintained. My view is that you cannot make a claim about the right to go through a person’s garden. I am not making that claim as a walker. My claim is to access to the countryside. Therefore, there should be movement on this issue but it would be best for it not to be in this Bill.
My Lords, I apologise for not being able to attend Second Reading. I had to go to a school event with my children. This package of measures has been agreed, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, and others. However, we need to reflect on the fact that it has been carefully agreed by a wide group of people over two years. If we start to unpick various elements, other issues might fall out as well. We need to bear that in mind very carefully. This has been a carefully agreed package and what might seem a small change, if introduced in one area, might undo the broad compromise and consensus secured on the wider agenda.
My second point is that, looking carefully at the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, it seems that in this new legislation there will be a significant improvement—he alluded to this—in the process for owners and occupiers with their ability to apply to make orders to divert or extinguish public paths. I think that the authorities will have to consider such applications within four months. Combined with the draft guidance which I think has been agreed to by the stakeholder working group, and which spells out how order-making authorities must consider this issue as it moves forward, those two changes together—the draft guidance and the new rights that private landowners are being given in this legislation—should be tried and tested before we start making further amendments. For those two reasons, that it is a carefully considered package with broad consensus among a hugely divergent group of people and that there are already some new proposals in the legislation to address some of the issues that my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale has rightly raised, I do not feel able to support his amendment.
My Lords, I support these amendments but first I must declare an interest as a farmer and landowner, as an ex-chairman of the Countryside Agency and as an ex-president of the CLA. I really rose to support Amendments 17 and 18, in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. Both amendments seem to bring forward consistency and clarity; certainly, Amendment 17 does that while Amendment 18 creates greater flexibility and less red tape. I endorse the question that the noble Baroness put to the Minister as both these amendments were agreed by the stakeholder working group. The reason, as enunciated by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, is that we have fairly limited reform of the rights of way legislation in Clauses 21 to 27 because those were the only agreed reforms put forward by the stakeholder working group. However, these two amendments were also agreed. Why has Amendment 17 been rejected altogether, when it seems to be very consistent with a deregulatory Bill to bring consistency across the country?
Frankly, Amendment 18 has been gralloched—a good expression meaning to remove the guts of something, in this case the amendment put forward by the stakeholder working group. It has been limited to applying only to byways open to all traffic. The other reasons for erecting gates, which are well enunciated in proposed new subsection (2) of the amendment, seem perfectly reasonable and appropriate. As I say, they have been agreed by the stakeholder working group.
On the amendments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, I am on the side here of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker: I agree with their principles but they are a step too far. They ought to be thrown back to the new, reformed stakeholder working group for it to look at carefully and see where it can agree amendments about diversions or closures—preferably not closures but certainly diversions—so that they would be easier to make around domestic premises. That would be a very good idea.
My Lords, I support these amendments, particularly the ones in the name of my noble friend Lady Byford. I do so because they go a little further than those of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale, which would include only gardens and driveways. My noble friend Lady Byford’s amendments also reflect the recommendations of the stakeholder working party on this subject, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron.
Although the Government have issued guidance they have put nothing in the Bill, which I find odd. My honourable friend Tom Brake, speaking for the Government at Third Reading in the other place on 23 June, said:
“It is clear, however, that there has to be a change in the way in which both legislation and policy operate if people are to get a satisfactory hearing, and that is what the Government are doing in the Bill”.
He goes on to say that it,
“will be supplemented by guidance that will effectively act as a presumption to divert or extinguish public rights of way that pass through the gardens of family homes, working farmyards or commercial premises where privacy, safety or security are a problem”.—[Official Report, Commons, 23/6/14; cols. 77-78.]
Unfortunately, that is not what the Government are doing in the Bill because they have not put anything in it on this subject.
We have the guidance but we do not have the legislation, which is what my honourable friend said was needed. Guidance is only guidance; it is not obligatory. We need legislation in this Bill. I am sure that this omission by the Government may be an oversight so I hope that the Minister will accept my noble friend Lady Byford’s amendments, which reflect the working party’s recommendations. If the Minister cannot accept them today, I hope that he will agree to take them away and consider them further.
My Lords, I am a countryman, a farmer and someone who has much experience in the centre of England of the problems before us at the moment, which concern allowing people to move freely in various areas for enjoyment. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, speaks of the area that is a natural walking area and he spoke as one who would never dream of passing through anyone’s garden and so on. I am sorry—I will not say he is alone but a lot of people would not see it that way. In fact, they might do the reverse. Speaking as one who comes from the Midlands—I farm between 10 miles from Coventry and 10 miles from Birmingham—there is a mass of people there and they do walk. However, things have changed and, while I agree in principle with both amendments that have been tabled and with the thrust of the proposal that has been made, we must realise that we are deregulating and not creating yet more legislation. Therefore, I hope we are simplifying this so that not only the people who live in the countryside can understand it but also the people who wish to come to the countryside.
The key is education. As many farmers do, I handed down a large portion of our property to my son many years ago and things began to change, as they do when things are moved from father to son. Not long ago, I met an old boy who lived not very far from the farm. I had not seen him for years. He said, “You know, guv’nor, what they say about you up here?”. I said I had no idea. He said, “They say when Henry farmed this farm, anybody who set foot on it got shot. His son brings them in by the busload”. In the past year, he has had 90 visits from schools. He has two people carriers to take the children around the farm, and that is real education. I have been with him on one or two of the trips around the holding and it is very encouraging to see the change in those children, the change in how they look at green grass and, certainly, the changed way they look at animals.
There is a lot to be done here. I only plead that we get it right and we do not make it so complicated that it is almost impossible for people to understand. It must be understood by the property owners and by country people, who are happy to receive people who come to the country as long as the rules are in place and are understood by both parties in the interests of facing a very important area for the future. It is no good doing what was suggested by that old man. I have never shot anybody and I would never stop anybody if I saw that they were reasonable. However, I believe that my son now has less damage done to his property than was the case in my day because he has freed up the footpaths and provided an opportunity for people to visit and walk more freely through the area.
My Lords, this is the first time that I have spoken in Grand Committee and I need to declare my interests in relation to this issue and to other aspects of this Grand Committee. I am a member and vice-president of the Open Spaces Society; I am a member and patron of, and am active in, the British Mountaineering Council; I am a member and the deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council; and I am a vice-president of the Local Government Association. There are probably others that I have forgotten but those will do for the moment.
I hope that the mover of this amendment will have listened very carefully to the last speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, who talked a lot of common sense. When you are dealing with footpath diversions and those footpaths go through or are adjacent to housing in the countryside, common sense is the most important thing that is required in solving the problem. I shall come back to that.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, said that at the moment people have no right to make a claim. I do not understand that and perhaps he will explain what he means by it. I am a member of a local authority committee which deals with quite a few of the requests for footpath diversions and extinguishments in my area, which is the Colne area of Pendle. We do so on behalf of Lancashire County Council, which is the highways authority and it has devolved that to us at the moment. We deal with quite a lot of these requests.
Perhaps I may explain the context. We are talking about an area of the Pennines with a very intense network of public footpaths, which were originally used by people to go from one farm to another. That was their original use, although nowadays of course people get in their vehicles and take a much longer route. There is a very dense network of public footpaths across the fields and, because they originally went from one farm to the next—this is an area where the farms are scattered over the landscape—they inevitably went through farms and into the farmyards, because people went from door to door. In the modern age, the farms may still be working farms in some cases but, even if they are, the barns or the former farm workers’ cottages will be occupied by people who are not working farmers; they live there and commute into the towns. In such areas, there is no reason at all why the footpaths need to go along the front of people’s cottages, past their windows and to their front doors. The sensible thing is for them to be diverted around a little settlement of two or three houses that exist in the middle of the fields.
As I said, we get a lot of applications for footpath diversions and footpath extinguishments, although mainly diversions. They are all very sensible and we look at them from a common-sense point of view. This is where I come back to having problems with the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. If they were put on the face of the Bill and became legislation, they would make it very difficult to apply the kind of common-sense decisions that we make at the moment.
As I understand it, the legislation says that a footpath diversion should be convenient for people wanting to use the footpath. I think that “convenient” is the word that is used but, anyway, that is what it means. So, if you have a footpath going through a farmyard, or a courtyard that used to be a farmyard, and there is a proposed diversion, you look to see whether that diversion is sensible from the point of view of the people walking on the footpath and that the diversion is not too far or too difficult or perhaps goes through difficult terrain, as well as looking at the effect that the footpath has on the people whose houses it goes past. I remember one example where a footpath went through a group of three houses, which now would be quite expensive, and it literally went along the pavement in front of the windows of someone’s house. Quite reasonably, they said that this was an intrusion and was unreasonable. We went on a site visit to look at it and we walked that route and the proposed alternative, but the proposed alternative, which went around the back, gave us a very good view, through some huge glass windows, into the bedrooms and bathrooms of their neighbours. Under those circumstances we said, “No, we’re not diverting this because we are moving one problem and creating another for the neighbours who in fact had objected”.
You have to look for solutions. Our footpaths officer, who we employ, went out to talk to them all and tried to find an alternative diversion that solved it for everyone. That kind of common-sense practical work on the ground has to be done. In most cases it can be done perfectly acceptably and reasonably, and, where councils can do that, it works. In many cases, though, it does not work, and I will explain why in a minute.
I turn to the noble Lord’s amendment. He wants to suggest that there should be a presumption for a diversion or a stopping-up so long as the council and the Secretary of State are satisfied that privacy, safety or security are not adversely affected by the existence or the use of the path. Where I live, which I suppose is an urban street in a rural area, I could argue that we are adversely affected by the existence and use of our front street because people can go along it, our front garden is not very big and they can see in. It is a question of degree and looking at what is reasonable. Is someone unreasonably affected by the existence or use of the path in context? If you simply say “adversely affected”, full stop, that is a pretty draconian test. The wording talks about it being “possible” to divert a path, but at the moment the test is whether the diversion is reasonable for people wanting to use the path. It does not say that it cannot be any longer than the existing route but is it unreasonably much further, or is it reasonable that people should have to walk another 20 or 50 yards to remove the problem caused by the path? So all the checks and balances—and it is all a matter of balance—would be taken away by the wording of this amendment, which would put the balance far too much on one side, not the other. Maybe the present system is not perfect but I think that these amendments go far too far the other way.
I will not repeat the points that my noble friend Lady Parminter made, with which I completely agree, about the stakeholder working group and the fact that it has come up with an agreed package.
My final point is that at the moment there is a major problem with all these things, but in my view it is not about the legislation or the rules; it is about resources. In the present situation in local government, where most local authorities, certainly in the north of England, are in dire financial circumstances, desperately trying to keep resources going for old people’s care and that kind of thing, highway authorities simply do not regard this as being of a sufficiently high priority. There is indeed a great waiting list in many areas and it takes a long time. That is the real problem. If they are going to have to deal with these in four months in future, they will not be very pleased because they will have to put resources into what they regard as not being a top priority. For those of us who care about our footpaths, let us see whether that does the trick.
My Lords, like other noble Lords, I have interests to declare as a landowner with rights of way over my land, as a veteran of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act open access provisions and as a chartered surveyor who occasionally has to deal with people who are affected by rights of way problems—both public and private rights of way. I am also the chairman of the Rights of Way Review Committee, which is the parallel body that brings together a large number of different interests of landowners and users. The Minister’s own department is represented on it. I pay tribute to the professionalism that goes into that, which I know is also a hallmark of the stakeholder working group. For one more day I am also president of the National Association of Local Councils, a CLA member and a vice-president of the LGA. That completes my declarations of interest.
A huge amount of consensus has been teased out between the parties, but it serves to underline some sharp philosophical differences on either side and one must try to recognise that. The consensus, such as it is, depends hugely on the Government continuing to commit to a 2026 cut-off date on the one hand and to the resourcing of the investigation of unrecorded ways on the other. There is no consensus if the Government do not commit or they falter between now and that end date. The entire thing could easily fall apart. A lot of personal commitment and reputational capital is tied up in this.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to resources. Yes, indeed. In local government terms, this is one of those services that is regularly being bled dry because it is not a priority commitment in the context of unparalleled spending cuts. Would that the cost and uncertainty and sheer bother that is occasioned to owners of land on the one hand and the resources and activity that is put in by rights of way groups on the other—and the demands made on the public purse to try to broker these things—were actually put into the improvement of the fundamental rights of way system rather than going all round the houses trying to decide who was right and who was wrong.
The noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, introduced me some time ago to two people who had particular problems with the way in which public rights of way can impact so appallingly on individual property rights. They are not the only ones. I have met with others and tried to help professionally a third category. I know very well of an example of a couple who live on the Sussex Downs. A footpath runs immediately in front of their front door. Their garden lawn is in the front because the slope rises up behind them and there is effectively no private garden behind. They provided me with incontrovertible evidence, some of which I saw myself, of groups of walkers simply deciding that they would sit down on the green area that was the front lawn. I was also shown incontrovertible evidence of people peering in through the front window of this property. That is as unacceptable in my terms as someone who barricades land that is subject to lawful rights. They are both at the extremes, and those extremes must be excised from our deliberations. The more we can build that consensus in the middle, the less likely it is that those extremes will consider themselves at liberty to perpetrate some quite anti-social acts which are to the detriment of everybody—users and landowners alike.
At Second Reading I encouraged the Minister not to overlook the ongoing needs of the public rights of way system, and I am glad that the Bill contains many valuable measures. The Bill represents a snapshot in time—it had to be compiled at a particular date in order to get the material in there—yet dialogue within the stakeholder working group and the Rights of Way Review Committee is ongoing. The Country Land and Business Association told me—and the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, has repeated it—that several things agreed within the stakeholder working group are not reflected in the Bill. The implication I am getting from others is that these were not actually agreed and should not go in. I do not know the answer. The Minister and his valiant departmental staff—and they are valiant—must somehow decide who is right and who is wrong. I am not in a position to say.
I conclude by saying that if the stakeholder working group came out with measures that could reasonably be included in the Bill as a matter of agreement, there would be no reason not to accept them. I do not say that with regard to the specifics of the amendments of either the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, or the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. It is just a general comment. If the next legislative opportunity is six, seven or eight years down the road, we will be well on the way to 2026, and I would be pretty worried about whether this was actually going to get done. Therefore, the entire premise of this whole set of provisions is jeopardised.
The Government have a pivotal role in this situation—that of an honest broker, assuming that they act as such and do not decide that this is in the “too hot to handle” box and do nothing, and assuming that resources are made available. There has to be a lasting settlement so that the parties on either side of the rights of way argument cease to be hostages to legal, administrative, legislative, political and financial fortune and we can look to a public rights of way system that is ultimately fit for the 21st century, rather than something that enriches consultants and lawyers.
Therefore, if the Minister’s department has, of necessity, been selective about what it has taken into the Bill from the stakeholder working group, the Minister might give us an explanation of that—or, if not, he might confirm that the Bill represents the composite nature of what needs to be in there. In that case, my view would be that no change is better than change that would put us on a slippery slope that would unseat and unsettle the consensus that we have already arrived at—a consensus which I firmly believe we can build on—and that we can progress matters to our mutual benefit across the piece.
My Lords, I draw the Committee’s attention to the fact that I am a patron of Friends of the Lake District and vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks, but what I want to say now is very personal. If I have come to any conclusion working in those areas, it is that the management of the countryside and the enjoyment of it by the maximum possible number of people, which entails access, is best handled by what both the noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Greaves, were emphasising: reasonableness and common sense. There has to be give and take, and compromise. What matters is that everyone sees clearly that it is about reaching sensible arrangements between people with their own needs for privacy, as I have. The coast-to-coast cycle track goes down a lane beside my house right by the window of one of my rooms—it is not a bathroom; it is a study—so I understand that there are issues in this area, but it is handled sensibly. It is a long-established lane going way back into history before most of the cottages and hamlets were built. Reaching consensus is therefore terribly important.
We have had a special working group working in this area and, as the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, rightly said, we do not want to start unpicking it because we just do not know what that might lead to. The amendments that have been put forward have a lot in them to be taken very seriously. It is not at all a matter of dismissing them out of hand; rather, it is about listening to those arguments and seeing how we can meet them in that context of reasonableness and common sense. I say to those who have tabled these amendments in good faith—and I have a lot of respect for some of them—that, in the Scottish phrase in law, the case is not proven. However, it is a case that cannot just be dismissed; it should be taken seriously and, if it were ever to be pursued, it would be good if it had more hard statistical evidence at its disposal. It is not just about principles; it is about what, in quantitative terms, the effect of all this is and how big a problem it really is.
I very much endorse the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, that this group of clauses should be viewed as a package. As all noble Lords have expressed, all these amendments are indeed paved with good intentions. However, they are not completely uncontroversial. The existing provisions are carefully balanced, but presumptions would destroy that balance. Existing legislation already allows for many of the changes. Existing legislation already provides for the diversion of paths out of gardens and farmyards. These changes can and do happen all the time. I am told that, of 1,257 diversion orders that have reached a conclusion in the past three years, 94% did not attract objections. There is a lot of sense in the right to apply being allowed to bed in in the provisions put forward by the stakeholder working group and being properly monitored before there is any amendment to the standard procedures for closing and diverging footpaths.
Amendments 17 and 18 are also interesting in that they bring forward further provisions and further work on the stakeholder working group. I understand that the provisions in Amendment 17 are already agreed in draft by the stakeholder working group and Defra.
Amendment 18 includes elements agreed at the stakeholder working group but go a long way further where the stakeholder group is not agreed. For that reason alone, we would hesitate to endorse that amendment. Specifically, I understand that it is possible to apply to erect gates on restricted byways in line with existing provisions for their erection on footpaths and bridleways, and this is the element that was agreed by the working group. These amendments go somewhat further than the working group proposed by introducing a whole lot of new purposes for which gates and styles may be erected on public rights of way of all kinds. For those reasons we would hesitate to endorse the amendments, although we well recognise the basis on which they have been tabled.
My Lords, this has been a full and interesting debate and I am grateful to my noble friends who have moved amendments and to all noble Lords who have spoken to them. I will begin with Amendments 14 to 16, in the name of my noble friend Lord Skelmersdale. The rights of way reforms package, of which Clauses 21 to 27 will form the basis, is founded on the recommendations of the independently chaired stakeholder working group on unrecorded rights of way. That group, as I explained earlier, consists of 15 members: five from each of local authorities, landowners and rights of way users. The group was founded in 2008 with a remit to develop a package of reforms to facilitate completion of the definitive map and statement—the local authority’s legal record of public rights of way. This is a daunting task on a topic where views are highly polarised, but it is a task in which they succeeded.
Of key significance is the fact that the group has unanimously agreed the key proposal that the 2026 cut-off date—after which it will no longer be possible to record pre-1949 rights of way—should be implemented. However, this is subject to the caveat of what my noble friend Lady Parminter described as a finely balanced package of reforms being implemented as it stands and not being tampered with or cherry-picked.
My noble friend’s amendment seeks to address the issue of intrusive public rights of way. This is an issue to which the Government have been giving careful consideration in discussion with the rights of way stakeholder working group and members of the Intrusive Footpaths campaign. The Government acknowledge my noble friend’s point that for householders and farmers an intrusive footpath can have a substantial impact on their quality of life or on their ability to run a business, and several noble Lords have spoken about that. It can cause severe difficulties and there are a significant number of cases where people have been through years of considerable inconvenience and stress. We recognise that there is a need to find an acceptable solution. That is why the Government have worked with the stakeholder working group to include measures in the rights of way reforms package that will make a significant difference to the way that requests for diversions and extinguishments of rights of way will be dealt with by local authorities. I am confident that they will help to alleviate the difficulties experienced by those affected.
The Bill proposes to implement the right-to-apply provisions introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. These provisions give landowners the right to apply for diversion or extinguishment of a right of way. Through clauses in the Bill we are amending them in such a way as to enable people with rights of way through their gardens to make applications. These provisions will come into force, along with the rest of the reforms package, when all the elements of the package are in place. We are working towards implementation by April 2016. With the right-to-apply provisions in place, local authorities will no longer be able to ignore requests for rights of way to be moved or extinguished, or to dismiss them out of hand. They will be obliged either to make an order or to be prepared to justify their reasons for not doing so. There is also—
My Lords, I was some way from leaving that point. I will get there in a moment. There is also the question of whether any orders made would be confirmed. The right to apply provisions will be supplemented by guidance that will effectively act as a presumption to divert or extinguish public rights of way that pass through the curtilage of family homes where privacy, safety or security are a problem.
Under the right to apply provisions, any appeal made by an applicant, whether it is because the local authority has refused an application or because it has failed to confirm a diversion order it has made, will be submitted to the Secretary of State for a decision. The Government will therefore be in a prime position to promote implementation of the revised policy set out in the guidance by setting a clear precedent in those decisions. A draft of the guidance has been deposited in the Library of your Lordships’ House. We recognise that it needs further refinement, which is why it remains open for comment.
The rights of way reforms will also give local authorities more scope to deal with objections to orders themselves rather than having to submit every single opposed order to the Secretary of State as at present. The combined effect of these provisions will offer the prospect of real improvement for those people experiencing problems with a public right of way across their property. We want to evaluate how the measures work out in practice before seeking to add to the legislative burden.
The issue of intrusive public rights of way is very emotive. I understand why it arouses strong feelings and why those affected want something done. While putting a presumption on the face of the Act might seem desirable, the new clauses would create regulation where it is likely to prove unnecessary and create more problems than it resolves. The clauses proposed by my noble friend would impose a duty on each local authority to divert or extinguish every right of way that passes through the curtilage of a residential dwelling unless they are satisfied that the privacy, safety or security of the premises are not adversely affected by the right of way and extinguishing it would not remove access to a vital local service or amenity not otherwise reasonably accessible.
Carrying out a survey to identify rights of way that fulfil these criteria would place a significant new burden on local authorities. The proposed clauses would also have the effect of removing the tests in current legislation that ensure that the public interest in the right of way is safeguarded where that right of way passes through the curtilage of a residential dwelling. My concern is that the proposed new clauses do not strike the right balance between public and private interests, which is critical to the agreement reached over the guidance by the stakeholder working group. I invite your Lordships to agree that legislative solutions imposed without a consensus or consultation could result in more disputes and legal challenges.
As the draft guidance on diversions and extinguishments has been developed by the stakeholder working group, it is founded on a strong stakeholder consensus, which means that it is likely to be complied with. We firmly believe that solutions based on agreement and mutual interest result in less conflict, as several noble Lords have said, and less need for enforcement in the long run. The stakeholder working group consensus is the result of many years of hard work and difficult discussions between stakeholders who have commendably agreed to put their differences to one side and work towards solutions that are for the common good. We should not risk putting all that progress in jeopardy by adopting measures that are not founded on that agreement. These proposed new clauses would impose a significant new burden on local authorities and all but remove the current public interest tests.
My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale questioned the right to apply and whether the guidance would have the intended effect. There is pretty clear agreement among stakeholders that the major difficulty for landowners is in getting local authorities to make a diversion or extinguishment order in the first place. Our plans to implement and extend the scope of the right-to-apply provisions for such orders will overcome this, because landowners will be able formally to apply and appeal if the authority refuses to make an order or fails to respond.
The other hurdle is getting orders confirmed. However, according to Ramblers, which keeps accurate records of these matters, of the slightly in excess of 1,200 diversion orders which have reached a conclusion in the last three years, 94% did not attract any objections. Of the remaining 6%, less than 1% were not confirmed following submission to the Secretary of State. I am not saying that 100% of proposed diversions should necessarily go through. Clearly, that would depend on the proposal’s merits. However, given those statistics we believe that the combination of the right-to-apply provisions and the guidance will have the desired effect and that we should not rush to legislate before seeing how these measures work out in practice.
My noble friend Lord Skelmersdale asked why a landowner should have to meet the entire cost of a diversion and I understand his concerns. Where the diversion or removal of an existing right of way is for the benefit of the property owner rather than for the public, I think it is not unreasonable that the property owner should meet the cost. Authorities will not be able to recover more than the actual costs and would have to make clear exactly what was covered by those costs. In addition, as part of the rights of way reforms package, we will be introducing a framework within which local authorities will be required to make it clear to landowners what each stage of the process will cost and what they will be getting for that money.
We expect the costs of making alterations to public rights of way to reduce as a result of the reforms package as a whole, specifically through the following measures: significantly reducing the cost of publicising orders; giving local authorities more discretion to disregard spurious or irrelevant objections; making the exchange of written representations the default for dealing with opposed orders, rather than a public inquiry; and encouraging local authorities to enable landowners to make their own arrangements for undertaking some of the work normally undertaken by the local authority.
My noble friend also asked about the likely average costs to a landowner of diverting or extinguishing a right of way. Those costs will of course vary considerably across the country. They will depend on whether the relevant order is objected to and whether the matter goes to a public inquiry. Information we have gathered through our work gives us an estimated average cost, over a range of circumstances, for making and implementing a legal order to divert or extinguish a public right of way. The least cost is where an order is unopposed or written representations are used to deal with any objections; these average less than £2,500. Costs increase to an average of more than £8,000 where a public inquiry is held and experts and barristers are appointed.
I turn to my noble friend Lady Byford’s Amendment 17. This proposed new clause would give the Secretary of State the powers to issue statutory guidance on the making and confirming of a range of orders to divert or extinguish public rights of way. I recognise that the objective here is to give a statutory basis to the draft guidance on the diversions and extinguishment of rights of way that has been agreed by the stakeholder working group and placed in the House’s Library. We developed this draft guidance in collaboration with the stakeholder working group. The guidance sets out the proposed government policy on the diversion or extinguishment of rights of way that pass through gardens, farmyards and commercial premises. It effectively acts as a presumption to divert or extinguish public rights of way that pass through such properties where privacy, safety or security is a problem and exhorts confirming authorities to act on that presumption, wherever possible.
We have great sympathy for those people who experience problems with public rights of way that pass through the garden of their family home. We are on track to implement the right-to-apply provisions introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which give landowners the right to apply for diversion or extinguishment of a right of way. Through clauses in the Bill, we are amending the provisions in such a way as to enable people with rights of way through their gardens to make applications under those provisions. With the right-to-apply provisions in place, local authorities will no longer be able to ignore requests for rights of way to be moved or extinguished, or dismiss them out of hand. They will be obliged to make an order or justify their reasons for not doing so, on appeal to the Secretary of State.
There is of course also the question of whether any orders made would be confirmed. Under the right-to-apply provisions, the Secretary of State will be the confirming authority for all disputed orders. Government will, as I have said, therefore be in a prime position to promote implementation of the revised policy set out in the guidance, by setting a clear precedent.
As I have said, getting broad agreement on this guidance is a fairly significant development. Because it has been developed by the stakeholder working group, there is a strong consensus on it. I am sure that the Committee will agree that new measures such as this are more likely to prove successful in practice because they have been introduced through agreement among stakeholders, regardless of whether they have statutory backing.
We should not lose sight of the fact that this is a Deregulation Bill, the purpose of which is to minimise the statutory burden rather than increase it. I believe that the combined effect of the right to reply and the new guidance will offer the prospect of real improvement of the position of those people experiencing problems with a public right of way across their property. We should evaluate how the measures work out in practice before seeking to add to the legislative burden by making the guidance statutory.
I turn to my noble friend Lady Byford’s Amendment 18. We recognise that an amendment to extend the powers to authorise gates and similar structures could be helpful to landowners, householders and farmers who have rights of way going through their premises or garden, and for reasons of security or safety wish to install a gate to help to protect their family or business. We have considerable sympathy with those people who experience problems with a public right of way in those circumstances. This issue was put to the stakeholder working group, which discussed it at some length. While there was agreement about the proposal in principle, the group has not yet arrived at a formulation on which it could agree. At the same time, concerns have been expressed by users of rights of way about the possible proliferation of gates and other structures across those rights of way if the current restraints were to be removed. Particular concern has been expressed by equestrian groups, who already have concerns about the extension of powers to authorise gates on byways in Clause 25 of the Bill. They are particularly concerned about riders with disabilities, who may not be able to dismount or who have difficulties in opening and closing gates.
In the light of those concerns, we have concluded that we cannot rely on stakeholder agreement around such a proposal, and that pressing ahead with it would put stakeholder consensus at risk. We believe that the combined effect of the right to apply and the new guidance will offer the prospect of a real improvement in the position of those people experiencing problems with a public right of way across their property, and that we should evaluate how the measures work out in practice before seeking to legislate further—for example, through this amendment. On the basis of what I have said, I hope that I have persuaded my noble friend to withdraw his amendment.
Before my noble friend responds to the Minister, I wonder if I might raise two issues with him. I thank him for his full response to my two amendments. Do I understand the Minister to say now that the stakeholder working group has not agreed with the two amendments that I tabled? My understanding was that they had been agreed to, and it is important that we have on the record whether or not they were. I do not wish to embarrass him, but from the inference of that he then went on to say that further discussions would take place because this had not been totally agreed. I am a little lost.
Perhaps while the Minister is thinking about that, because I will not get another chance later in the Bill, I thank everyone who has contributed. In an ideal world we would all want the best, and that should be done by agreement and by making things possible, but clearly at times they are not possible and some of the examples we have been given clearly reflect that. However, I would hate to think that we were not tackling an issue that had actually been agreed. If there has been some misunderstanding, perhaps the Minister would come back at a later stage and clarify that for us. In my opinion, it is slightly concerning that at the end of the day we are not clear exactly what has happened.
I wonder if the gist of that discussion could be circulated to the rest of us. I am not wholly opposed to the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Byford; there is a lot of common sense in it. However, local agreement ought to be possible, and it would be very helpful for all of us to know what the facts are.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and of course to my noble friend the Minister for his very full explanation of the Government’s—I believe—slightly misguided interpretation of what has been put in the Bill. Were we in the Chamber, I would withdraw my amendment in favour of my noble friend Lady Byford’s Amendment 17, which gives me exactly what I and those who have briefed me would like.
I am not sure whether my noble friend Lady Parminter wrote the government line or is following it. She said that the group package should be tried and tested. They both said the same thing, so they are clearly in concert.
Does my noble friend want to comment? No? Anyway, they have spoken with one voice, whether accidentally or intentionally. My noble friend Lady Parminter says that it is nice to know.
Both the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, and my noble friend Lord Cathcart said that Amendments 17 and 18 were agreed by the specialist working group and asked why they were therefore not in the Bill. We have heard a lot on that from my noble friend the Minister. My noble friend Lord Plumb agreed that there are occasions when walkers—was his word “misbehave” or have I interpreted what he said?
I do not think that I have to answer that, thank goodness. For once, I am not the Minister.
The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, echoed my noble friend Lady Parminter and my noble friend the Minister in sticking to what I call the government line, but I am confused. What exactly is the government line? I have in my hand a copy of the Bill that was presented to the House of Commons which was signed by my right honourable friend Oliver Letwin with support from various other members of the Cabinet. My right honourable friend wrote to Nadhim Zahawi MP about this subject on 23 April, because the said MP had forwarded to him a letter from a Mr and Mrs Colin Ray of Wilmcote for his comments. He replied that he was “very” sympathetic towards the problems experienced by some people with public rights of way across their land and that he was pleased to hear that Mr and Mrs Ray thought that the Defra guidance on diverting and extinguishing rights of way was a positive development. I could not agree more—it is a positive development—but it is not positive enough. He went on to point out that it was the guidance that was supported by the stakeholder working group rather than the amendments to the Deregulation Bill, as proposed by the Intrusive Footpaths campaign—which, incidentally, has been briefing me. He continued that the stakeholder working group has agreed that the Bill should be amended to make the guidance statutory; that that amendment is now in hand; and that he envisages that it will be tabled shortly. However, in the Bill in front of us, it just ain’t there.
Going back to something that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said earlier, I regard that as the Secretary of State giving a clear and specific undertaking. I do not like to quote the noble Lord’s words back at him but that is the fact. Having said that, unless the Minister wants to answer me now, or would like to do so privately or on another occasion, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.
Amendments 15 and 16 not moved.
Clause 24: Applications by owners etc for public path orders
Amendment 17 not moved.
Clause 24 agreed.
Clause 25: Extension of powers to authorise erection of gates at owner’s request
Amendment 18 not moved.
Clause 25 agreed.
Clauses 26 and 27 agreed.
Schedule 7: Ascertainment of rights of way
19: Schedule 7, page 104, line 4, at end insert—
“(c) after subsection (5A) insert—“(5B) The modifications which may be made by an order under subsection (2) must be made within a period of one year from the date an owner deposits a map and statement under section 31(6) of the Highways Act 1980.(5C) An application made by a person under subsection (5) must be made within a period of one year from the date on which the owner deposited a map and statement under section 31(6) of the Highways Act 1980.””
My Lords, I want to make clear that this is where the stakeholder working group and my amendments do not necessarily agree. My understanding on the other one was that there was consensus but we will return to that next time. These probing amendments look at two issues; namely, time limits and resources. Amendment 19 proposes that there should be a time limit of one year from the date on which the owner deposits a map and a statement under Section 31(6) of the Highways Act 1980. The amendment would set out time limits for claims and would reflect the position that is taken with regard to village greens, for which claims must be made within a year of the use being stopped or challenged. This also applies to Amendment 21, which would be inserted into the Highways Act 1980.
As regards the time limit to bring user claims under Amendment 21, the Highways Act requires that a claim should be made based on the use which has taken place immediately before the use was challenged. It was not anticipated that the wording might permit claims to be brought based on periods of use which were alleged to have occurred decades previously.
Amendment 20 deals with costs and fees, which were spoken about as regards earlier amendments today. Where a claim of a right of way is made, even if vexatious or spurious, the landowner, if he wishes to defend the claim, will incur significant costs. It is not unusual for a landowner to have costs of several thousands of pounds, making a defence of a claim impossible for those with smallholdings or those who fear that they will not be successful. However, the claimant’s costs are borne not by the claimant but by the public purse.
Amendment 22 looks at user evidence and tries to deal with spurious claims. It requires a witness to complete their own statement and then sign a statement of truth. I think that all Members of this House would assume a statement carries that commitment of truth. The stakeholder working group recognises the importance of ensuring high-quality evidence in claims for rights of way to reduce burdens on individuals and authorities. Should this amendment be accepted, I believe that overall it would reduce costs and burdens for individuals and for society.
I know that many authorities have outstanding claims and it would be helpful if the Minister had an idea of the total number of such claims which local authorities are having to cope with. I believe that in Warwickshire there are more than 100. As the amendment does not apply to the modification already lodged with local authorities for investigation and registration, I invite the Minister to reflect on this question as I may well want to expand on it when we come to later stages of the Bill. It is a case of trying to make sure that we move the proposals forward in the Bill, and I again put on the record that I am pleased to welcome it. A lot of good work has taken place but the questions of costs and of a time limit are still undefined. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support Amendment 19 concerning the time limit. We live in a very crowded island and I believe that England is the fifth most densely populated country in the world. There is huge competition for land use across a wide spectrum of activities, and the planning system is a very obvious example of where the use of land is democratically decided upon. It seems to me that the simplest way to avoid disputes is to have certainty and a clear decision-making process that adjudicates clearly and fairly with clear time limits so that everyone knows where they stand as soon as possible.
The whole point about a Section 31 deposit of a map and statement by a farmer is to create certainty so that the householder, the farmer or the landowner and the public know what is permissible and what is not. With a Section 31 deposit there is usually a conversation between the farmer and the highway authority. The local highway authority agrees the deposit of the maps, so the farmer and the highway authority are in agreement in saying, “This is the situation regarding rights of way on this land”. That clarity is really important to all concerned, including the general public.
A Section 31 deposit is also really important to landowners, among whom I include myself and the son of the noble Lord, Lord Plumb. I welcome most people on to my land. There are people who walk all over it, and kids cycle across the fields and go into the woods. In fact, I get into trouble because they tend to cycle around badger setts, which brings somebody in authority down on my head for allowing that to happen. I am very happy to allow local people to use the land. Sometimes I have to interfere and say, “Thou shall not do this or that”, but on the whole I am very relaxed about it. I am happy to do that provided they are not creating a statutory right—that is, getting rights that are going to infringe any future use of that land because they are establishing rights of way. That is a really important factor. If people can come along and contest a Section 31 deposit of a map and statement several years afterwards, that is completely wrong, and I think that the general public and the walking public will suffer as a result. It may be that a one-year time limit before anyone can object is too short. I would probably have gone for two or maybe even three years. However, it is important that we have some time limit in this whole area.
The other amendment in this group to which I want to refer is Amendment 22. I had slight sympathy for Amendment 20, concerning costs being made against spurious claims, but it is almost impossible for an applicant to know in advance whether their claim is spurious. Therefore, the way to deal with it is to ensure that the proposed statements are true. That is a very good idea. I do not believe that the minor cost involved is a good reason to bypass this reasonable check on a process. The statement needs to be treated as though it has been made in a court of law, even if in reality it has been garnered around a kitchen table in a very relaxed atmosphere with, quite likely, the witness being led in a very unbarrister-like manner by whichever side happens to be taking the statement. It could be being taken on behalf of the Ramblers or on behalf of the landowner, but having to sign a statement of truth is sufficient to ensure that it is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That would be a very good thing.
My Lords, the proposals in the Bill will make great progress on many aspects and procedures covering rights of way legislation. We welcome this further debate on many aspects that the stakeholder working group raised. While we have addressed and debated some of them, there is as yet no agreement and it may be a long way off. However, we have welcomed the debate and look forward to further progress after these provisions have been enacted.
My Lords, my noble friend’s Amendments 19 to 22 seek to introduce measures that reflect the valid concerns of landowners and farmers about the impact that claims for rights of way can have on their businesses, and about the costs of dealing with such claims during due legal process.
I am aware that there are concerns about the potential effect on some landowners of applications to record a right of way, particularly about multiple applications in an area or even on a single property. An application fee has been suggested as a solution to this issue. However, the introduction of such a fee or charge would be highly contentious. Ministers specifically asked the rights of way stakeholder working group to look at the impact of applications to record a public right of way, particularly at multiple applications, and what measures, including a fee or charge for an application, might be introduced to mitigate this perceived problem. The group agreed to report back to Ministers in the following terms:
“The problem of multiple applications could be an acute one in some cases but it is not widespread and there is little prospect of coming up with a solution, particularly on application charges, on which the full range of stakeholders could agree”.
However, the group’s view was that measures already agreed as part of the reforms package will in any case alleviate most of the problems. The first measure is to raise the threshold for applications. A local authority would be able to reject applications that did not meet a basic evidential test, effectively eliminating spurious or speculative applications. We are proposing to apply this retrospectively, as agreed by the stakeholder working group, by means of the transitional regulations provided for in Clause 27(7), so it would apply to any existing applications that have not yet resulted in an order.
The second enables newly discovered rights of way to be diverted and/or reduced in width before being recorded. This would be by agreement between the local authority and the landowner, with no scope for the agreement to be thwarted by objections. It is possible that this could also be applied retrospectively through the transitional regulations, thus reducing the overall administrative and cost burden of the procedures for recording rights of way.
Taking each of the proposals in my noble friend’s amendment in turn, the proposition to introduce a time limit on applications for an order to modify the definitive map is not as straightforward as it may appear. While it is possible to envisage such a measure for applications that are based solely on evidence of recent use, most rights of way applications are concerned with recording a right of way for which there will be both user evidence and historical documentary evidence, which may not come to light until many years after a landowner makes a statutory declaration under Section 31(6) of the Highways Act 1980.
Could my noble friend explain why it is reasonable for documentary evidence, unaccompanied by usage evidence, to come into discussion many years after an application has been made? This is a matter of history and should remain so. It is surely not an acceptable argument against my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, I said that there will be both user evidence and historical documentary evidence. Let me continue and try to go some way towards satisfying my noble friend. The time limit on the claiming of town and village greens introduced by the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 is often cited as a precedent. However, this fails to recognise that the legislative framework relating to public rights of way is different from that of town and village greens. Most notably, a green is not created until it has been registered as such whereas public rights of way already exist in law, regardless of whether they are recorded on the definitive map. The recording process is simply ascertaining something that already exists. Rights of way can come into being though a variety of mechanisms, not just a qualifying period of use. In addition, rights of way can be diverted or extinguished to accommodate development whereas town and village greens cannot.
The stakeholder working group discussed the question of a time limit on applications but has not yet been able to reach consensus on it, despite a willingness to try. However, the group suggested that developments on Section 31(6) deposits should be monitored, following recent amendment to the provisions by the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013, to evaluate the scale of the problem over time. We intend to continue to do this in collaboration with the group.
The proposed amendment to Section 31 of the Highways Act 1980 appears to be linked to the proposal to introduce a time limit for applications. However, the amendment appears to provide that the presumed or deemed dedication of a public right of way on the basis of 20 years’ use cannot have taken place unless someone has made a valid application to add the right of way to the definitive map.
I am not entirely clear if that consequence is intended but, if it is, it would prevent the local authority from recording the right of way on the basis of evidence that it has discovered itself. It would also no longer be possible to establish the public right of way through a court declaration. If this were to be the case, there is an argument that it would create an incentive for users of rights of way to make more applications to ensure that in these cases the presumed dedication had taken place.
Introducing a fee for an application for an order to modify the definitive map would be at odds with the whole basis of the legislative framework that has been in place since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, under which local authorities are charged with recording all the public rights of way within their areas and asserting and protecting the public’s right to use them. The fundamental problem with this proposal is therefore that, in the main, applications are made not for the benefit of the individual applicant but in the public interest. In addition, it is worth affirming that local authorities are already funded for this statutory duty through the revenue support grant. Even if there were no formal application process, if someone provided a local authority with evidence of the existence of a public right of way, the authority would still be statutorily obliged to consider whether to make an order.
The amendment seems to recognise this fundamental flaw in the proposals and seeks to remedy it by seeking to charge a fee even where evidence is submitted without a formal application. This seems unworkable, though, as I do not see how a fee can be charged when the person submitting the evidence is not making a formal application and receives nothing tangible as a result of their actions.
The final proposal seeks to amend the existing form of application for an order to modify the definitive map, which is set out in regulations, by requiring the submission with the application of a statement of truth. There is a case for strengthening the quality of user evidence to accompany applications for an order to modify the definitive map, but we do not believe that further regulation is needed to achieve this. We intend to bring about improvements in the quality of user evidence but through non-statutory means, as part of the review of existing guidance that will be required to implement the reforms package. In addition, we will be looking at extending the new preliminary assessment of applications to cover the quality of user evidence as well as documentary evidence. Moreover, it is already possible for rights of way inspectors to require evidence to be given under oath at inquiries.
Not only do the amendments proposed here go considerably beyond the finely balanced package of reforms agreed by the group but the proposed amendments on charges for applications to modify the definitive map, and on time limits for such applications, are highly contentious. They risk jeopardising the hard-won stakeholder consensus behind the proposed package of rights of way reforms.
My noble friend Lady Byford asked for specific information about costs. I am afraid that they are not collated centrally. I hope that she will understand that.
My noble friend Lord Deben asked why claims should be made many years later. Highway law is predicated on the fundamental principle, “Once a highway, always a highway”. However, the 2026 cut-off date that we are working towards, and which is a key element of the stakeholder working group package, will eventually close off the possibility of recording a right of way on the basis of historical evidence. On the basis of everything that I have said, I hope that I have persuaded my noble friend to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank my noble friends for their contributions to this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, for his very practical look at the amendments that I tabled, and my noble friend Lord Deben for challenging the Minister on the issue of it surely not being right that it might take years. I shall read very carefully what the Minister has said because I value his experience and his responses, but I am not really a happy bunny, if I may put it that way. I should like to clarify again that these were considered by the working group. They were not agreed by the working group and I have not suggested that they were, but the issue has been raised and the discussions are ongoing. Even those within the working group who did not feel inclined to support them understood that there was an issue that needed to be debated.
I am just hopeful that between now and Report we may be able to get further enlightenment on some of the issues that I have raised. Certainly the whole question of cost, not only to the individual farmer but to the local authorities, is something that we need to keep at the back of our minds because local authorities are clearly stretched with trying to carry out their statutory regulations and responsibilities on so many different issues.
While I accept much of what the Minister has said, I need to read it very carefully. I am happy to withdraw my amendments but I think I shall be returning to it. At this stage, though, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 19 withdrawn.
Amendments 20 to 22 not moved.
Schedule 7 agreed.
Clause 28: Erection of public statues (London): removal of consent requirement
23: Clause 28, leave out Clause 28 and insert the following new Clause—
“Erection of public statues (London)
In section 5 of the Public Statues (Metropolis) Act 1854, for “commissioners” substitute “Mayor of London”.”
My Lords, I have tabled this amendment because the responsibility that the Government have had for 160 years in giving consent for the erection of public statues in London should not pass away unremarked. Also, perhaps more importantly, there has to be a concern about where the responsibility for all public sculpture in London, not just public statues, should ultimately live. The area of London in question is Greater London but excludes the City of London and Inner and Middle Temples, as the very helpful notes to the Bill indicate.
There is a case for handing over ultimate responsibility for all public sculpture, not just statues and not just new sculpture, to the GLA. The timing of this amendment is interesting in the light of the think tank Centre for London’s call for greater devolution for the GLA, including, I understand, the ownership of public land. There is also a case for treating all public sculpture equally, at least administratively, which, with the change that the Government are making here, we are part-way towards doing.
I say this because I believe it is the specific environment, the place itself, that should be the starting point and of paramount concern. If the environment demands that there should be a sculpture sited in that place, the question should be asked: what kind of sculpture should it be? Should it be a memorialising sculpture or something else? However, we tend instinctively to do things the other way round. There is a national clamour to memorialise such and such a person, and then sometimes an unholy compromise arises in terms of the use of public space.
My first question to the Minister is why the Government are retaining the 1854 Act at all if they are removing the key responsibility for consent for public statues. Yes, I believe that these decisions should be taken with the locality permanently in mind, but I am not at all convinced that the ultimate responsibility for decision-making for new public sculpture in London should reside with the local authorities. Public sculpture generally should be under the stewardship—I stress, the stewardship—of London. New public sculpture in London is foremost a city-wide issue, of primary concern to London and Londoners.
With regard to my amendment, which is really a first stage in my train of thought on the subject, I do not for one moment believe that any current mayor should be making personal decisions about these things. I would have strongly disagreed with any suggestion that Generals Havelock and Napier ought to be removed from Trafalgar Square. Public sculpture should be removed or relocated only under exceptional planning considerations because to do otherwise, for aesthetic reasons or reasons of political correctness, is to excise history and that is wrong.
However, considering the future, I would be very happy—I think that others would agree—if there were a 20-year moratorium put on all new sculptures memorialising the military, the royals and politicians. Our culture is considerably wider than that. Last week, a fellow Peer suggested to me that there should be an independent decision-making body of experts. There is merit in that; in Berlin, for example, I understand that there is a citywide system of open competition for all new sculpture under the auspices of Berlin’s association of visual artists. Comparisons can be made here with the manner in which the very successful fourth plinth project is administered, whereby decision-making is down to an independent group of judges yet the project itself is under the stewardship of the mayor.
My second question is: might the Minister promise to find out whether, over the years, there has not developed a substantial archive reflecting the Government’s involvement with public statues in London? Westminster City Council, for example, confirms in its guidance on public statues and monuments that it currently submits detailed plans and drawings to the Government. Has an archive built up and is it publicly accessible? If so, as it would be of great interest to the public and historians, what do they plan to do with it?
We often take public sculpture in London for granted but when people from this country or from abroad visit London for the first time, the very first things they want to see include Nelson’s column or the Shaftesbury memorial fountain at Piccadilly Circus. Public sculpture is part of the face of London and says important things about our history and cultural identity. It is perhaps too important to be left only to local planning departments and it is fitting that the GLA should take more of a role in this area. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, for raising this issue. He makes a good case for this matter to be given more consideration. We are in debt to previous generations—he ended on this—for the substantial collection of public statues that there is in London. According to Westminster City Council’s guide to its process for obtaining permission for statues, they date from the Charles I statue of 1633. I had a look at that the other day and it is in very good nick. We are still seeing modern examples of material being put up and, as the noble Earl says, there are huge impacts on the way in which we view our city, on tourism and in other aspects, so it is important.
Behind the individual questions that the noble Earl has posed for the Government I think there is a real worry about their attempts to deregulate here. While the Government are clearly achieving something by taking responsibility away from the Secretary of State—although that is a deregulatory measure on a Minister and not on business—I am not sure whether they are taking the right step. As the noble Earl mentioned, there is a gap regarding who has responsibilities in this area. Given her previous experience, our Deputy Chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, might be in a better position to answer some of the questions about whether English Heritage has a role to play in this. I am sure that she will be too discreet to mention anything at this stage, and certainly not from the chair. However, I am sure that she will have some ideas about that. I am also sure that the Arts Council, in its wisdom and knowledge of these matters, will have things that might be brought to bear.
Whatever those ideas are, it is wrong for any individual politician to take responsibility for this area. That point was well made. I am not entirely clear whether substituting the GLA for the City of Westminster would solve that problem, because we are still talking about political control, but it raises the question: “Why just Westminster?”. Why would we not have wider consideration about where statues might be placed in London as a whole? My feeling is that statues are too important to be deregulated simply by the measure proposed by the Bill. I am not sure what the right solution is but I wonder whether the Minister might think about having a little more discussion about this.
The reflection I have, which I think is shared by the noble Earl whose amendment this is, is that there will be a bit of a gap here. It is not just a planning issue. The issues around putting up any memorialising form, whether it is a physical representation of somebody or an object whose presence is intangible, require aesthetic and other considerations rather than simply being about planning. I am not sure whether the planning system is quite the right place for this to be left. If there is therefore a gap, how would we find a way around it? It may be by having a statutory committee of some kind or simply by inviting some other body to take on a responsibility, which might be advisory. Whatever it is, I share the noble Earl’s concern about this issue.
My Lords, the purpose of Clause 28 is to remove the current requirement on persons seeking to erect statues in public places in Greater London, excluding the City of London and the Inner and Middle Temples, to obtain consent from the Secretary of State before doing do. Controls to prevent the unsightly proliferation of statues in Greater London are already provided for by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. This requires that planning permission be obtained from the relevant local planning authority prior to the erection of a statue in a public place in Greater London or the remainder of the country. I am not sure that I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, but I am sure we can have a useful discussion about it. Given that the aim of this change in Clause 28 is to streamline the current double-handling of applications to erect statues, I cannot really see a benefit in removing the requirement to seek the consent of the Secretary of State only to replace it with a requirement to seek the consent of the Mayor of London.
The mayor plays a key role in the planning for London’s continued success. His London Plan provides the economic, environmental, transport and social framework for development in the region to 2031. He ensures that local plans fit with the London Plan, works with boroughs to develop planning frameworks for major areas of brownfield land and considers planning proposals of strategic importance. In this way, he already has input to the preparation of policies relating to public statues, such as those produced by the City of Westminster. The noble Earl asked why keep the 1854 Act at all? It is worth saying that it provides a power for the Secretary of State to repair and restore, for example, any public statue. I might be so bold as to suggest we would all find that an important power to retain. He also asked whether there are archives. I do not believe there are such archives—I am happy to have a rootle around but I am pretty sure there are no centrally held archives. I have little more to add. I hope I have said enough to persuade him to withdraw his amendment.
I thank the Minister very much for that reply. I think it is useful to open discussion on this issue. I am slightly surprised that after 160 years there would not be some kind of substantial file. As I said, Westminster had to submit quite detailed plans and drawings and that has been going on for a long time. Could the Minister promise to look very carefully to see if there is anything there that would be useful? Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 23 withdrawn.
Clause 28 agreed.
24: After Clause 28, insert the following new Clause—
“Mechanically propelled vehicles on unsealed roads: removal of burdens
(1) Within one year of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall lay before both Houses of Parliament a report containing an assessment of the burdens and costs caused by the use of mechanically propelled vehicles on unsealed rights of way to—
(a) the users of such rights of way,(b) landowners and tenants, and(c) other interested parties, including highway authorities, Natural England, National Park Authorities, local authorities, parish councils and other community organisations.(2) A report under subsection (1) shall include—
(a) proposals to alleviate such burdens and costs, and(b) an assessment as to whether legislation should continue to permit mechanically propelled vehicles to use unsealed rights of way.(3) The Secretary of State may through regulations implement any proposals contained in the report under subsection (1).
(4) Regulations made under subsection (3) shall be made by statutory instrument.
(5) A statutory instrument under subsection (4) shall not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by both Houses of Parliament.
(6) The Secretary of State shall not issue a report under subsection (1) until he has consulted with such interested parties as he thinks fit.”
My Lords, I declare my interest as the president of the Friends of the Ridgeway and as a member of GLEAM, the group which protects green lanes, or tries to. In proposing this amendment, I submit that the opportunity should be seized to resolve the problem of motor vehicle use of unsurfaced highways, with a clear focus and timeframe for the way forward, and to give a clear signal that the Government intend to take action. The Government’s current plan is to set up another stakeholder working group in the hope that it will achieve consensus on motor vehicle use of unsealed highways. I submit that it will not reach consensus because the parties involved have diametrically opposed views. There is no prospect of compromise between those who ride noisy motorbikes and drive specially equipped four-wheel drive motor vehicles and those who value on the other hand the peace and quiet of the countryside, such as walkers, horse riders, cyclists and birdwatchers. There is also a real safety issue involved.
I believe that the Government’s intention is to set up a new stakeholder working group, but I am afraid that it is out of the remit of the present stakeholder group. It was deliberately excluded from the remit because nobody could see any prospect of agreement and they did not want to stop the group agreeing other things. When it touched on the issue in relation to simplifying the processes involved in getting rights of way on the definitive map, the current stakeholder group consciously set the problem aside. It did so because it was clear that there was not a consensus. It is for this reason that the current group is not a credible model for the way forward.
The remit for the current stakeholder working group was to,
“work together with the aim of reaching consensus on a balanced package of strategic reforms in law and procedure that in the Group’s view would bring real benefit to the various interests potentially affected by the claimed existence of”,
historic public rights of way.
At its meeting in February 2009, the question arose of tackling rights on unsealed highways on the list of streets, referred to in the following extract from the working group’s minutes as “other routes with public access”. The minutes record that:
“A suggestion was made that a process be instigated to review”,
“with a view to identifying those that are clearly not vehicular and for these to be considered for inclusion on the definitive map [of rights of way]. Another suggestion made was for a default status to be afforded to”,
“subject to higher rights being confirmed. This suggestion was criticised on the grounds that it would be reinventing”,
roads used as public paths which were classified by the CROW Act as restricted byways.
In September 2009, it is recorded that,
“several Group members felt strongly that to allow negotiation over status would be against the public interest”.
These reservations were, we believe, those of the members of the stakeholder working group representing the interests of motor vehicle owners. In the light of conflicting views and no likelihood of agreement, no further work was done on this problem. No work was done, or could have been done, on the question of byways open to all traffic—the other class of unsealed highway used by motor vehicles—as these were well outside the terms of reference of the group. The current stakeholder working group was deliberately setting aside the highly contentious issue of use of motor vehicles on unsealed roads. This amendment seeks to bring this about.
It took the current stakeholder working group five years to come forward with proposals on much less contentious issues than motor vehicles using green lanes. We need action, not years more of delay. All the stakeholders with an interest in the use of unsealed ways by motor vehicles clearly must be consulted and the Government are already committed anyway to full public consultation. But leaving the initiative for developing proposals for consultation in the hands of a stakeholder group that will not be able to agree, we suspect, even on terms of reference will delay rather than assist moving forward towards meaningful consultation and a solution.
It is essential that the Government set the agenda, lead on the issue and are seen to be leading, as they did when they secured protection from motor vehicle use on footpaths and bridleways under the NERC Act 2006. The Deregulation Bill seeks to reduce burdens resulting from legislation for business or other organisations, or for individuals. The amendment identifies an area of legislation not currently covered by the Bill but where there are heavy burdens on individuals, communities, local government and other public agencies. Missing is legislation that permits and seeks to regulate the use of unsealed highways by motor vehicles.
The amendment that we are proposing would place a requirement on the Secretary State to examine the costs and burdens that flow from the current legislation, to propose remedies and to lay a report and recommendations before Parliament within one year of the passing of the Bill. There is nothing in the amendment that would oppose the Government or interfere with any of the clauses already in the Bill, including those that result from the work by the present stakeholder working group, or those on the rights that Defra seeks to protect. The only thing the amendment would do is require the Government to consider the regulatory burdens of the existing legislation in this area, and to bring forward proposals on a definite timescale.
The amendment has all-party support, as the Committee will no doubt hear. The burdens and costs that the amendment seeks the Secretary of State to identify and review flow from Section 67 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, Parts 1 and 2 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and Section 41 of the Highways Act 1980. The legislation needs review, not just because of the heavy burdens that it places on individuals and the various agencies involved in administering it, but because it permits the use and destruction of unsealed highways by 4x4 motor vehicles and motorbikes.
These unsealed highways are the country’s green lanes. There are burdens and costs for individuals and communities affected by the use of unsealed highways and byways by motor vehicles. We are seeking to use the current highway and rights of way legislation as a means of redress. The public organisations bearing the burden of the legislation on motor vehicle use of unsealed highways are the highways authorities, the national parks, Natural England, which is responsible for the areas of outstanding natural beauty and national trails, the Planning Inspectorate and the courts.
The highways authorities are obliged by law to repair all unsealed highways damaged by motor vehicles. They cannot avoid this cost, as it is a statutory duty under Section 54 of the Highways Act 1980. The cost of repairing a badly damaged green lane can be up to £75,000 per mile. If the lane is repaired without a permanent traffic regulation order being applied to it, it is again vulnerable to repeated challenge. The highways authorities have a process to determine all applications claiming unsealed highways as byways open to all traffic. This is a legal duty under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. There are objections to over 40% of these applications, which lead to public inquiries and burdens for the Planning Inspectorate, the highways authorities, individuals and community organisations.
Where the decisions of the highway authorities or the Planning Inspectorate on applications are challenged, these are burdens for the courts, reaching as high as the Supreme Court. The highway authorities bear the costs and burdens involved in trying to use traffic regulation orders to restrict or exclude motor vehicles from using unsealed highways. The costs and procedures involved in making these orders are significant. Where they are used to restrict motor vehicle use on unsurfaced highways, the orders are invariably challenged in the courts by motor vehicle organisations. If a legal challenge succeeds, the cost to the highway authority can be up to £50,000 or more. Highway authorities are naturally very reluctant to take that risk. That is why we see few traffic regulation orders being made to control motor vehicle use of any part of the unsealed highway network.
There is also no legal redress other than judicial review against a highway authority which refuses to consider implementing a traffic regulation order. This is unfair on the individual users to whom I have referred and the small communities bearing the brunt of motor vehicle use on unsealed highways. The national parks are also bearing heavy burdens. The current legislation is handicapping all the national parks authorities in their effort to protect their unsealed highways. It is also impeding them in carrying out their statutory duty to protect the environment of the national parks.
In the Peak District National Park alone, there are 225 green lanes open to use by motor vehicles. The Peak District National Park Authority spent £100,000 on managing motor vehicle use on its green lanes in the two years from 2012 to 2014. During that period, it was able to secure traffic regulation orders on just two unsealed highways out of a list of nearly 40, giving serious cause for concern.
The only reason public authorities and individuals are carrying all these burdens is that the law continues to permit many thousands of miles of unsealed highways to be used by motor vehicles. The amendment requires the Secretary of State to report on whether legislation should continue to permit such use. The Government have recognised the need for a review and consultation, but their proposals for taking the matter forward do not go far or fast enough. There is currently no timescale for action and no clear focus for a review. The Government are also unrealistic in hoping that a stakeholder working group made up of the parties involved—the mechanism for action which has been suggested—will reach agreement. This is not remotely possible, and setting up such a group at this point will therefore serve only to waste further time. That is why the amendment sets a timetable and a clear focus for action.
At this stage, I should point out that I am not concerned with traditional motor vehicle trials in the countryside. They are not a problem; it is the unsealed roads that are a problem. There is also a tendency to paint those who are campaigning on this issue as the rich. I want to refute that, as many walkers who are in the group we are seeking to protect most are relatively poor compared with those who often drive very expensive four-wheel drive vehicles. It has been suggested that barriers may be an effective way of closing off some lanes, but experience has shown that these barriers are often winched out by the 4x4 vehicles, many of which are equipped with winches. I am told that there is no problem in Scotland, where off-roading is not allowed, but Wales has similar problems to those in England.
I know that I am not allowed to show photographs but I draw noble Lords’ attention to the fact that I have many photographs from a very wide area, including the Lake District, the Peak District National Park and the North York Moors National Park. The damage is so significant that I believe we must take action. I beg to move.
My Lords, I declare four different interests as regards this matter. First, I have farming and landowning interests, although, whereas there are public rights of way over my land, I do not think that the matters to which the noble Lord refers affect my interests in any way. Secondly, for a great deal of my life I have been an active motorcyclist. Looking back, apart from riding a motor cycle over my own land, I do not think that I have ever gone a yard off the main highway. Certainly, I am not involved in any of these activities. Thirdly, in this aspect, for 14 years, I was president of the Auto-Cycle Union, which is the governing body of motorcycle sport. The ACU issues licences for events and competitors. Official events cannot take place without its licences. It has a very strict form of discipline for those organisers or competitors who break the rules. Finally as an interest, I was a Member of Parliament for 33 years for the southern part of the Lake District, which covered parts of the Lake District National Park and the Yorkshire Dales National Park.
I have always been very concerned about the way in which these unsealed roads and byways get absolutely wrecked by totally irresponsible people who use them as race tracks. For many years, I have taken a view that we should try to do something to stop these people who chew up the byway and behave in a totally irresponsible manner. Therefore, I have a great deal of sympathy for what goes behind this proposed new clause. We need to keep it in perspective because, as I understand it, there are 6,000 miles of unsealed roads in the country compared with 115,000 footpaths, bridleways and restricted byways. We are not talking about byways which are the dominant part of those ones where the public should have every opportunity to enjoy the tranquillity of the countryside.
Trying to come to a formula to deal with this, as the noble Lord said, is fiendishly difficult. We have to ensure that some of the vital interests continue to be able to go about their business. The day has gone when the shepherd plodded the moors with his dogs. Nowadays, they use 4x4s, which means that they must continue where it is essential to be able to use these unsealed roads. Shooting interests also often use them, as they should. In particular, I was rather apprehensive when I heard the noble Lord propose this new clause that he was trying to get at properly organised sporting events.
With my former ACU hat on, I was delighted to hear that he is not proposing to get at those organised events, which are done under very strict rules. I remember that years ago when I was in the Commons there was a great problem with unauthorised car rallies that raced through villages in the middle of the night—cars with open exhausts making a perfect nuisance of themselves. Things were changed so that only car rallies organised by the official motor sport organisations were supposed to take place. Nowadays one never hears of this problem. I hope, therefore, that we can get something done. How do we do that? I dislike this new clause for one particular reason: that it is done by statutory instrument. That means that Parliament would have no chance to amend it, and because this is such a contentious issue Parliament should have a way of amending proposals to do with it. This is the aspect of the new clause I am most critical about—it ought to be done by primary legislation, not in this way.
As I understand it, Mr Rogerson proposed—in another place—to set up a group. I do not see terribly much difference, with great respect to the noble Lord who proposed it, between a group being set up and the Minister himself having to lay proposals, which is what the new clause proposes. We know that it is going to be difficult but let us have a group and let them have a go at trying to find agreement about these things. It is essential that we deter the abuses that currently take place and the best way forward would be to follow Mr Rogerson’s proposals. I hope the Minister, in his reply, will stick to that.
I end, perhaps in a rather cynical way, by saying that the last thing this proposal is, is deregulation. It is not deregulation at all. I wonder if it is in order in regard to the Long Title of the Bill. However, I am not going to make an issue of that. I welcome efforts to try to do something about this menace but this is the wrong way to go about it. A year is too short a time. I hope the Minister will proceed in the way that Mr Rogerson suggested.
My Lords, I am conscious that this is a very interesting debate, but I am also conscious that by agreement the Moses Room tends to finish soon after 7.30 pm, with a little leeway to go on longer. It would be very helpful, since we wish to finish this clause, if contributions were as brief as is seemly.
My Lords, I speak briefly in support of this amendment. Like many noble Lords, I must declare an interest: I am a shareholder in a family company that owns and farms arable land in north-west Essex. I am, and have been for 60 years, a user of footpaths, bridleways and, from time to time, byways open to all traffic, on other people’s land in Essex and in many other parts of England. This is a point on which there is no real difference of interest between reasonable landowners and walkers and riders. All of us can coexist; what none of us can easily coexist with are those who use byways open to all traffic for four-wheeled vehicles, sometimes caravans of them, with their main object, it seems, being to make as much noise and mess as possible.
I have received many letters on this subject—they all seem genuine letters, written by the person who signed them and not copying something out—all in favour of this amendment. I had one yesterday, as it happens, from my brother-in-law, who is over 80 now. He wrote to me that, from his earliest years, he was a regular user of the Long Causeway that starts in Sheffield and goes to the heart of the Peak District National Park and described how that beautiful old path has been repeatedly and seriously damaged by four-wheel drive vehicles. He cited the fact—and I have no reason to doubt it—that the Peak District National Park Authority recently incurred expense of no less than £250,000 in trying to repair the Long Causeway. I therefore support the amendment.
My Lords, I thank most warmly the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, for having introduced this amendment. If one looks at the photographs to which he referred and others—the evidence of our own eyes—one sees that this could be described in other circumstances as wilful and irresponsible vandalism. It is the destruction of one of our greatest assets and the people doing it should be treated firmly. Of course, it is going to be a complex area and it will be difficult, but the point is that the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, is having a go. If his proposals are not right, let us get proposals that are effective but let us stop dilly-dallying on this issue.
Some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, are very valid, not surprisingly, and I am sure that as we take this matter forward they can be considered. If the amendment is brought back on Report, as I hope it will be, perhaps they can be considered by then, which would be very sensible.
Sometimes in this context, there is emotional talk about the right of the handicapped to access the countryside. To those of us who work in the sphere of national parks and the rest, all the evidence suggests that the responsible representative bodies of the handicapped and the others are saying that what is happening is a menace, because it makes walking—for the blind, which is a very obvious example—much more hazardous and difficult. For the deaf—and I understand that problem, being deaf myself—it can be a terrifying experience when this noise suddenly occurs, with no sort of warning.
The point that we need to remember, and it is about social responsibility, is that what a few are doing is placing significant financial penalties on people who are trying to care for these rich and special national assets. This means that the cost of that care very often gets passed on to the taxpayer, to the subscriber and the donor. Is the indulgence of those few in irresponsible behaviour to be subsidised by society as a whole? That is just ridiculous. The financial and Treasury disciplines that apply to most of our lives should mean that we make it a priority to get this situation put right. I therefore again thank the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, most warmly and say that the sooner that we can do something about it, the better.
Can the Minister, in his closing remarks, answer a question that I think will be of interest to all noble Lords? This amendment deals with a very important issue and I think we are very grateful for it having been raised today. The question is how we deal with it. I agree with my noble friend Lord Jopling that a stakeholder group is the best way forward. However, there have been questions raised about how much confidence we can have in that as a route to deliver. Can the Minister say what progress has been achieved in setting up a working group on this issue? Has a timetable been set for that working group and if it does not complete by that point, what actions do the Government intend to take? Perhaps the Minister can say in words of one syllable whether he, like his colleague down the other end, has confidence that a stakeholder working group can address this very real problem. The strength of feeling in this Grand Committee today shows it is something that this House wishes to be addressed quickly.
My Lords, I actually put my name down to support this amendment but, unfortunately, too late to get onto the Marshalled List. My main point directly contradicts what the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, said. I think this is a deregulatory amendment and, as such, fits in very well with this Bill. If passed it would involve much less work for local highway authorities, organisations and individuals; it would also simplify the law for others. It makes it unnecessary for the local highway authority to classify or define the status of each and every one of these UUCRs—unsealed, unclassified county roads.
We have heard this evening about the lack of resources available to highway authorities and they would inevitably not have the duty mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, to repair some of these roads. There is less work also for planning authorities and, possibly, the courts. It obviates unnecessary work, research and legal proceedings by the public sector, private individuals and bodies on the vast majority of the 3,000 miles of green lanes. Incidentally, it would prevent most of them being churned up into wet, muddy brown lanes, as has been said, by motorised traffic where drivers have wrongly assumed that they have automatic rights to use them. They do not. Just because the roads have not yet been classified by the highway authority, which has not the time or the resources to do it, it does not mean that drivers have the right to use them. It puts the onus on those wishing to use these UUCRs for motorised traffic to prove their case and it gives them a full three years to do so, which seems a reasonable window. The local highway authority will not have to investigate all the green lanes and by the end of the three-year window, clarification and certainty for all will prevail. That is the key—uncomplicated clarity and certainty.
Under the current circumstances, it is extremely likely that these UUCRs will be left until after 2026 because the local highway authorities are not getting round to dealing with them. They will be left and remain uncertain. Drivers will continue to use them because they will not be properly classified by 2026. Not surprisingly, no progress has been made on that front at all. This amendment is deregulatory for both public bodies and private individuals and I recommend that the Government look very favourably on accepting it. I believe that it would be very popular with walkers, bicyclists and riders, who are a very large constituency.
My Lords, I will be very brief. I support my noble friend Lord Bradshaw’s very comprehensive outline of the purpose of this amendment and I, too, express my regrets to the Committee that I was not able to be present at Second Reading. There is, of course, an element of farce, were this not a really serious matter, in that the precedent is claimed by the off-roaders that these green lanes in the past were open to horse-drawn vehicles. I find it very regrettable that some of the national park authorities, which of all bodies should be the basic guardians of this beautiful and threatened environment for which they are responsible, have not been universally helpful. There has been a wide disparity of co-operation across the local authorities. My noble friend indicated the difficulties that they face. There has certainly been a multiplicity of police and local authorities. It is interesting that one of the success stories is the Ridgeway where there is only one police authority, Thames Valley. In the past, there has been a knight in shining armour on that police authority—my noble friend himself.
The Minister has gone as far as he can in flashing exhibits to this Committee, but I know that he has received pictures of the appalling damage that is done on these green lanes. He made the point about traffic regulation orders, and a lot of authorities are very wary of instituting those for the reasons that he gave: the huge potential cost of defending against challenges.
I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Judd, raised the question of disabled access. There have been unfortunate cases where confrontations between groups of learning disabled people and motorcycles or 4x4s have turned violent. We have to remember that the 4x4 and motorcycle groups are very powerful and persuasive, and they do not always have the restraining and responsible influence of the Auto-Cycle Union, to which my noble friend Lord Jopling has referred. I support the working group. The Government’s apparent policy of reconvening these stakeholder groups, which have hitherto failed to reach agreement, is not helpful.
This is an opportunity that will not occur again. I have a feeling that this has been kicked into the long grass—possibly an unfortunate reference in this context, as the green lanes could probably do with a little more of that. However, this opportunity will not occur again for many years to come. It is a simple amendment to rectify unintended gaps in past legislation and I strongly hope that the Minister will give it some consideration.
My Lords, the problems arising from recreational motor vehicles—4x4s and motorbikes—using green lanes, unsealed tracks and other classified county roads have become very serious. For today’s Committee I have received a large postbag of submissions highlighting the disruption to quiet enjoyment of the countryside, and indeed the destruction of the pathway that precludes any other use. The Green Lanes Protection Group, made up of some 20 organisations ranging all the way from the Lake District in Yorkshire through North Wales and the Brecon Beacons to Somerset and the South Downs, has provided evidential photographs of the damage, and this is supported by many green lane alliances and concerned individuals.
This is becoming a serious, pressing matter to sort out. We recognise this and, in expressing sympathy, urge the Government to commit to a way forward. However, I hesitate to prescribe how the Minister should approach this, as the amendment does when it says, for example, that within one year of the Bill’s enactment the Secretary of State must lay before Parliament the report that the amendment calls for.
Perhaps the Minister could say which body, and which process, might be the best way to respond. Would it be once again a stakeholder working group or a sub-committee of wider interest groups that could make recommendations? Legal changes introduced by the NERC Act 2006 have improved the situation by limiting claims for the recognition of additional BOATs and by giving traffic regulation order powers to national park authorities. In places, though, particularly in some national parks, the problems remain extensive and further legislation is most likely to be necessary, along with better enforcement. Any debates on this issue that arise in the context of the Deregulation Bill will be important in paving the way for future legislation.
My Lords, in what is an understandably contentious and partly ideological debate about the recreational use of motor vehicles on unsurfaced routes in the countryside, particularly inside national parks, my noble friend’s proposal seeks to place a duty on the Government to assess the burdens and costs caused by the use of mechanically propelled vehicles on unsealed rights of way. Presupposing that the review would conclude that motor vehicle use gives rise to a burden and cost, the clause would give powers to alleviate these but would not seek any assessment of any possible benefits, or seek to weight burdens and cost against such potential benefits.
I have to say that I have considerable sympathy with the genuine concerns of my noble friend and others about the problems that can arise from the recreational use of motor vehicles on unsealed roads. Like the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and others, I think that my noble friend is right to raise it today. Furthermore, I agree that this issue needs to be tackled and some means of resolution to it found. The Government’s published response to the Joint Committee’s report of pre-legislative scrutiny on the Bill said as much, but recognised that this Bill was not the right mechanism for doing it.
The issue of recreational off-road motor vehicle use is a complex, emotive and contentious one where one person’s pleasurable pastime is anathema to another. Research conducted on byways open to all traffic—admittedly, some years ago in 2005, although I am not aware of there being a significant change—found that although there are some acute cases of damage by recreational motor vehicle use in hot-spot areas, some of which my noble friend and I discussed earlier today, there was no evidence of widespread damage to the byway network from motor vehicles. The research found that 85% of byways open to all traffic in England carried either light traffic, at an average of 0.6 motor vehicles per day, or moderate traffic, at an average of 5.0 motor vehicles per day. Not all damage to unsealed roads and tracks is caused by the recreational use of motor vehicles. The research found that 62% of byway traffic is due to land management and dwelling access and just 38% is due to recreation. In addition, it found that 70% of byways were without any drainage. Much of the damage is due to a combination of farm vehicles, water erosion and poor maintenance.
I must also say that there is good evidence that the use of unsealed roads during organised motoring events, such as hill climbs, puts significant amounts of money into rural economies. There are about 150 hill climb events around the country every year, with over 12,000 participants. The motorcycle club trials in the south-west alone are estimated to bring about £120,000 to the local economy. Some groups of motor vehicle users engage in volunteer activities to repair and maintain unsealed tracks, which I think is something that we would all want to encourage.
It is our contention that the most appropriate way to review policy on the recreational off-road use of motor vehicles is for it to be based on the stakeholder working group model and, in answer to my noble friend Lady Parminter, such a group will be established as soon as possible after the passing of the Bill. Despite my noble friend Lord Bradshaw’s scepticism, I point out that the stakeholder working group approach has proved to be successful, as demonstrated by the consensus in the face of diametrically opposing positions over the rights of way reforms package, of which the clauses in the Bill form the major part. This has resulted in agreement being arrived at through discussion and negotiation.
I was just coming to the noble Lord’s earlier question on timing in a moment.
My noble friend asked what would happen if there was no consensus between the pro-vehicle and anti-vehicle groups. Clearly, consensus would be the preferred outcome but of course we recognise that ultimately this may not prove possible. Even without consensus, at least all the viable policy options will have been properly explored and evaluated by stakeholders, enabling Ministers to make better informed decisions on which proposals to take forward.
On the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, the original stakeholder working group took 18 months to reach its conclusions and there is no reason why we should not set a similar timeframe for another. I am grateful to have my noble friend Lord Jopling’s support for this route. Within such a group, recognised experts can explore all the viable possibilities and their likely consequences. Solutions arrived at in this way, based on agreement and mutual interest, are likely to result in less conflict and reduce the need for enforcement.
My noble friend’s proposed new clause would create new regulation, which may not prove necessary after the issue has been properly analysed and discussed by the stakeholder working group and other stakeholders. Furthermore, subsection (3) of his proposed new clause contains a power to adopt some sort of measure to remove public rights of way by regulations. We believe that this would be an inappropriate use of delegated legislation and does not recognise that the best solutions to problems are often those that do not resort to legislation.
I am happy to have further discussions with my noble friend between now and Report but, on the basis of what I have said today, I hope that he will agree to withdraw his amendment.
I thank my noble friend very much. The Minister’s offer of further discussion is very pertinent because many people in your Lordships’ House feel very strongly about this issue. I was not convinced by the statement that there were only a few places; this is happening all over, and is growing. Urgent steps must be taken to deal with it. I may not be the expert on what those steps are but I am happy to engage in further conversations. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 24 withdrawn.
Committee adjourned at 8.01 pm.