Clause 27 — Procedure for Establishment

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 3:00 pm on 29th June 2006.

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Amendment made: No. 22, in page 15, line 22, leave out 'association' and insert 'council'.— [Jonathan Shaw.]

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs)

I beg to move amendment No. 23, in page 15, line 37, after 'common' insert

'(and in particular persons exercising rights of common)'.

The amendment addresses Opposition concerns that, when the national authority is considering whether there is substantial support to establish a commons council, representations from commoners actively exercising their rights should carry greater weight than those who are inactive, or who are not exercising their rights.

On some commons the number of inactive commoners exceeds the number of active commoners. There is concern that opposition by a large number of inactive commoners might be enough to prevent a council being established. Although any views expressed by inactive commoners will undoubtedly need to be considered, the amendment ensures that the national authority must pay particular regard to the views of those commoners actively exercising their rights as they are the people who are actually making use of the common. Commons councils will have functions relating only to the management of agricultural activities, vegetation and common rights. The views of those actively exercising rights of common are extremely important as they are the persons able to influence the management of the common. Our amendment will require the Secretary of State, or the National Assembly in Wales, to attach more weight to the views of active commoners when considering representations from those with common rights.

Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

As I suggested in an earlier discussion, I welcome the amendment, together with most of these groups of amendments, because they are all positive Government responses to representations made by myself and other hon. Members in Committee. Amendment No. 23 is extremely sensible. It shifts the balance, as the Minister said.

It might help, however, if the Minister would say precisely how he envisages the provision operating. I do not think that he intended those using the rights to have a right of veto, but has he had any discussions about how he would apportion more weight to them, particularly—I shall not reopen an earlier debate—given that non-users but holders of rights may vastly outnumber those who exercise their rights? There may only be two or three people who exercise their rights; there could be dozens or—as in the example of development that I used earlier—tens if not hundreds of people who hold rights but do not exercise them. It would be useful if the Minister explained in more detail how he envisages that balance working out, bearing in mind what could be a considerable numerical imbalance.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

Now that we are on the right amendment I shall ask the Minister a few questions, although my right hon. Friend David Maclean has shot most of my foxes. Like my right hon. Friend, I would like an idea of how the Minister or the Government will interpret this provision. I raise this particularly because in my constituency I have a large number of grazed commons, and at the moment they are extremely well organised. One of the biggest, Allandale common, has a stintholders—people with common rights—committee, and they run the common extremely efficiently, despite some difficulties that Natural England or English Nature have been presenting them with recently over the issue of fencing.

The stintholders are anxious to know whether their stintholders committee would simply be seen to continue to exist in its current form as a committee, or whether it would be preferable for it to translate itself into a council; and whether, if it translated itself into a council, people other than the stintholders—those who have direct common rights—would have a right to be involved in the management of that council--that is, other local organisations, or ramblers, who might consider that they have a right to access that common. A fuller explanation of how the Government intend to work this would be appreciated.

Photo of David Maclean David Maclean Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee)

Amendment No. 23 is an important amendment and I congratulate the Minister on listening to the representations made in Committee. It is important that those who earn a living from the land should have more say on how the commons are managed than those who are just living in the area. There is an increasing tendency these days, as farming declines and particularly some of the small farms at the foot of the hills decline, for them to be bought out by offcomers like myself, as they would say in Cumbria—a large number of people who do not earn a living from the land but are buying up farmhouses or farms; and suddenly, one discovers that one has some extraordinary rights of common.

I think—I can only say "think" because I am not certain; it is my negligence—that for the past 10 years I owned some rights to cut peat on Mungrisdale common. I did not exercise them and I have sold that house now, so I shall not be exercising them, but it is not too far-fetched to imagine a situation where so many of us who are not practising farmers buy houses or land—we buy our quaint little bit of old England—and then we want to freeze things in aspic. We do not want to let modern farming practices continue and we do not want to see sheep around, breaking into the garden. We do not want grazing. We do not want this or that. It is important that the minority, in some cases, who may be actually carrying on the practice of farming the commons, and managing them and keeping them in their current condition, have a much greater say in how they are run than those people who just buy a bit of land and suddenly find that they have a grazing right, a peat-cutting right or a heather-burning right and do not intend to do anything with it.

Again, I know that the Minister cannot be specific about what weight he will attach to five representations from one side and 10 from the other. He cannot be formulaic about it, but we need assurances on the mechanics of how he will listen more to the views of practising commoners, rather than those who have merely acquired a piece of land. That is probably going to be an increasing problem that we face in rural England in the management of commons over the next few years.

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:15 pm, 29th June 2006

I also agree that the amendment is important. It redresses the balance that appeared to be out of kilter in the initial wording—according to one view, at least. Many people will welcome the amendment. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is vital that the voice of people who make a living from the common be heard clearly. Of course, it is a balancing exercise, because many other interests are involved. The amendment redresses what was perceived to be an imbalance at the beginning. I would be interested to hear the Minister's response to the various points that have been raised, but I welcome the Government's amendment.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs)

First, I would like to address the remarks from Mr. Atkinson, who raised the issue of voluntary associations. The Bill has no effect on existing voluntary associations. Where such a body is working well, there is no need for any change. However, where a commons council is established on a single common or a small number of commons, we would expect that the council might replace any existing voluntary association. That would be a decision for those running the voluntary association and not one that would be taken by the national authority.

Where a larger commons council is established—for example, covering several commons in an area—it is entirely possible that voluntary associations might continue to exist and to have a role in the day-to-day work on an individual common. Rules about management would be made by the statutory body and the voluntary association would have to abide by those rules in carrying out its operations. Dartmoor is a good example. Voluntary commoners associations exist on many of the commons, but management of the commons is governed by rules made by the Dartmoor commoners council. I envisage that as the sort of relationship that could and should develop.

The wider questions were about trying to give a feel to how one would arrive at the judgments and the relative weight that would be given to the active and inactive commoners. Primarily, I am here as Minister for biodiversity. The Bill is about land management and the improvement of our common lands. When considering whether to establish a commons council, the national authority will consider the local circumstances. Where there are numerous inactive commoners, with no interest in the common, the national authority will pay greater regard to any active commoners. Similarly, the inactive commoners would be given few—or fewer—voting rights, compared with the active commoners.

We need to retain the flexibility to respond to local circumstances. On an agriculturally active common, it would not make sense for inactive commoners to be given an equal say in whether a council should be established, or equal voting rights if one were. However, where there is no agricultural activity on a common, it may be right for inactive commoners to have a stronger representation. The amendment will retain that flexibility, which I believe is inevitable and right, but will ensure that, where they exist, active commoners will have a greater role and that the national authority will be able to look to the essential purpose—

Photo of Elfyn Llwyd Elfyn Llwyd Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Skills), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Would I be right in presuming that the actual framework will be subject to regulation? The Minister refers to a differential in voting rights. Will there be some guidance on that in regulations? I will not press the point at this immediate moment, so if he cannot give me an answer now, no doubt he can do so in writing at a later date. I do not want to put him on the spot, but how will the process that he is describing be rolled out, to use a modern term?

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the wonderful way in which he extended his remarks until my inspiration came. There will be guidance, but there will be no regulations except the establishment orders, which will be brought forward on a case-by-case basis. I hope that that is helpful.

Amendment agreed to.