Clause 46 — Powers relating to unathorised agricultural activities

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 29th June 2006.

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Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:15 pm, 29th June 2006

I beg to move amendment No. 118, in page 26, line 23, leave out 'an agricultural' and insert 'any'.

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 119, in page 26, line 39, leave out 'agricultural'.

No. 120, in page 26, line 41, leave out 'agricultural'.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The previous group of amendments dealt with unauthorised works on the commons and the current group covers unauthorised activities, which the Bill defines as unauthorised agricultural activities. For consistency, there should be another amendment to remove "agricultural" from the clause heading. It is interesting that subsection (8) on page 27, which defines unauthorised activities, does not include the word "agricultural". That is the point that the amendments try to make.

Activities, which are not necessarily agricultural, that are detrimental to the qualities that we want to conserve sometimes take place on the common or the village green. If unauthorised or unwise agricultural activities take place, of course the national authority should have the power to intervene. However, activities that are not agricultural could be equally detrimental.

When we entered into those discussions previously, the Under-Secretary's predecessor said, "Oh well, those activities are illegal anyway." I have tried to find examples of activities that might be detrimental to people's enjoyment of access or biodiversity that are not illegal but will not be helpful in managing the commons or village greens. They include informal dog racing and other informal sports and activities, which might be acceptable but, if they expanded or their frequency increased, would be unacceptable to people who want to enjoy other informal activities or wish to use commons for grazing and agricultural purposes.

The amendments would therefore remove the word "agricultural" and thus cover more than simply activities that are associated with agriculture. I believe that the farming community would welcome them because, if they were accepted, the Bill would be perceived to deal even-handedly with everyone who has the interests and well-being of commons at heart. I look forward to the Under-Secretary's response to those simple amendments, which would add something to the Bill.

Photo of Peter Atkinson Peter Atkinson Conservative, Hexham

I am suspicious of the amendment because it may extend the clause's scope and intention far too widely. My ears pricked up when Mr. Williams mentioned unauthorised dog racing. In our part of the world, we have an old activity called hound trailing, which is popular in the Lake district and in my constituency. Indeed, we had an international—because somebody came from Cork—hound trail meeting the other Saturday, which was a good occasion. The amendment would catch that because the event takes place across a common.

I can envisage problems with informal, sensible activities on the village green that could be caught by the amendment. What about an impromptu football kick-about? What about flying a model aircraft or simply having a party? The amendments risk being far too draconian. As I understand it, authorised activities are a matter for the slightly sinister organisation referred to in the Bill as the "appropriate national authority"—a Kafka-esque sounding body. If something is not authorised by the appropriate national authority, the activities that I mentioned could be caught by the amendment. It could have an unintended consequence of stopping people's legitimate enjoyment of village greens.

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

The amendments would considerably broaden the existing power in the Bill for the national authority to deal with unauthorised agricultural activities, extending it to cover all unauthorised activities. The power in the clause is intended as a power of last resort to deal with difficult agricultural problems that are damaging the common and cannot be resolved by other means. It is deliberately focused to address problems such as rights' holders who may exceed the number of animals that they are allowed to depasture on a common, who are engaging in unauthorised cutting or removal of vegetation or are not removing animals during periods when the common should be cleared of livestock. We do not want to expand the power to encompass a large number of non-agricultural activities that can already be more effectively tackled locally.

I pick up the theme that Mr. Maclean began. Telephoning the Secretary of State in Westminster to report, for example, motorbikes racing across a common, will not be as effective as contacting the local police, who are much closer to the problem, much better informed, and more able to deal with such issues.

There are already existing enforcement powers to deal with many of the problems that Members have mentioned as occurring on commons and it is not our intention to duplicate them; for example, several Acts deal with driving on common land. Section 193 of the Law of Property Act 1925 makes it an offence where any person without lawful authority drives on land to which the section applies. The section applies to what are often described as "urban commons"—commons that before 1974 were within urban districts or boroughs—and other commons that have been dedicated by deed for public access.

Section 34 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 makes it an offence where a person without lawful authority

"drives a mechanically propelled vehicle...on to or upon any common land, moorland or land of any other description, not being land forming part of a road".

There is also a host of local byelaws that prohibit driving on common land and greens. Furthermore, village greens are afforded protection under section 12 of the Inclosure Act 1857, which protects greens from injury or damage and interruption to their use or enjoyment as a place for exercise and recreation. It may also be used against those who drive on greens.

I stress that the clause is envisaged as a power of last resort. To widen it as the amendments would allow is not acceptable, so I hope that Mr. Williams will not press them.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:30 pm, 29th June 2006

I accept what the Minister says about the clause being the option of last resort. I hope that many of the agricultural problems will be sorted out by the commons councils, so the opportunity for the national authority to exercise the powers would be extremely rare and remote.

There are hound trails in my constituency, too. When I attended the Pont ar Elan show a week ago last Saturday, it was a privilege to see not only hound trails but also dog racing on the common; but it was taking place with the express permission of the commoners' association. Our amendment would address only activities that were undertaken against the express will of commoners' associations, but as I would not want the Minister's weekends disturbed by people ringing up to report informal dog racing, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendments made: No. 81, in page 27, line 8, leave out 'association' and insert 'council'.

No. 82, in page 27, line 18, leave out 'association' and insert 'council'.— [ Mr. Watts. ]