I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
I should make it clear to the House that I am a member of the Ramblers Association, and I suspect that the association would support the views that I am expressing on this occasion. We ought to recognise that footpaths and rights of way are a historic record. In many parts of the country, they are the best way to identify how people used to live, and how they moved about the countryside and carried out their activities.
Footpaths are also an important part of many people's daily lives. Footpaths are often used by individuals going to work, the shops, church or chapel, or to visit friends. It is important to remember that rights of way and footpaths are an important part of everyday life. They are also important for people who go to the countryside for recreation. Sadly, footpaths are often neglected and, in some cases, obstructed, and obstructions are sometimes caused not by neglect but by deliberate action.
The law requires that the landowner should keep all footpaths clear of obstructions and that the local authority should sign the footpath where it leaves the metal road. I welcome the fact that the Countryside Commission set targets for ensuring that those two requirements were achieved. The targets were the end of this year for all footpaths within national parks and the year 2000 for the rest of the network of footpaths. I am delighted that the Government have endorsed those targets, and in many cases they will be met.
The new clause deals particularly with what happens in national parks. Seven of the national parks have agreed with the highway authority—the local authority in the area—that the park should be the agent for the right of way and footpath network. In other parks, however, the highway authority continues to carry out that activity. We argued in Committee that it would be more sensible for the responsibility in the national parks to be handed over to the national parks themselves. Sadly, the Government resisted, and the new clause is an attempt to get back to the issue.
I hope to hear the Minister say that he believes that it would be to the benefit of the national parks and those who use footpaths if the agency agreement were to be worked out in all national parks—particularly in view of the extra powers that they will have—so that all rights of way will be clear of obstructions and will be properly signed by the end of this year.
The last part of the new clause deals with a rather difficult matter. There are one or two rights of way whose legal status is still somewhat blurred, and the authority in the national park will have a duty to get those legal issues sorted out as quickly as possible. I hope that the Minister can confirm the Countryside Commission's target and that the Government are keen to see that target achieved throughout the country, but particularly within national parks. I hope that the Minister will also agree that it would be sensible for national parks to take over the right of way provision.
While I understand the intention underlying new clause 13, it is not one with which we can agree. We have endorsed the target set by the Countryside Commission in 1987, in that all rights of way should be legally defined, properly maintained and well publicised, by 1995 in the national parks and by 2000 in the wider countryside.
The response to that target has been extremely positive. Much has been achieved by the national park boards and committees working in co-operation with the relevant highway authorities. In this year's functional strategies, the English parks have reported that 90 per cent. of the network in the parks is already in an acceptable condition. Work on defining the network has been less satisfactory; nevertheless, progress has been and will continue to be made. I am sure that the remarks of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) will provoke the parks even further.
We accept the importance of reporting on all aspects of the stewardship of the parks in the national park authorities' annual reports. I see no reason, however, for departing from the general principle that the precise contents of local authority reports are not a matter for primary legislation. We already made it clear in the draft circular published in January that we expect the new authorities to include in their reports information on their stewardship of the parks, with particular reference to matters of interest to their constituent local authorities. As well as information on more general issues of importance to those local authorities, we would expect the reports to include information on their co-operation in giving effect to the duty to foster the economic and social well-being of their local communities, and on their partnerships on rights of way.
In view of what I have said, I hope that the hon. Gentleman may feel constrained to seek leave to withdraw the new clause.
I am rather disappointed that the Minister did not give a little more encouragement to those national parks and local authorities which have not entered into agreements to carry out the footpath provision to get on and do so. As we want to spend time debating rather than going through the Lobby, and in view of some of the Minister's message, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.