Meacher's right to roam wrong-foots the Conservatives

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The Independent Online
SOMETIMES YOU can see a back bench deflate in front of your eyes. It happened to the Tories yesterday when MPs gathered to hear Michael Meacher read a statement about the Government's plans to give people greater access to the countryside. The advance word had been that New Labour was retreating from the idea of compulsion, but it soon turned out that this had been canny backspin. Squaring up to excoriate the Government for not keeping a manifesto promise, the Tories discovered, to their obvious dismay, that they were going to have to excoriate them for keeping it. As Mr Meacher said the magic words "bring forward legislation", Labour members huzzahed and chortled at the glum faces of their opponents, loudly enough, indeed, to mask the crucial words "as soon as parliamentary time allows" - a phrase that could mean anything from next month to sometime in 2015.

But Labour backbenchers were too exhilarated to notice, taking in deep lungfuls of the bracing socialist air that blew around Mr Meacher's remarks. When a Labour minister talks about ensuring that "the people will be free in perpetuity" and alludes to landmark legislation from the Attlee government, you can tell that he is half thinking about what he will look like embroidered on to a trade union banner, leading a march of cagouled ramblers into a glorious sunset. And even the most suspicious backbenchers were in a mood of giggly jubilation. "I feel kind of warm towards New Labour at the moment," said Gordon Prentice, before offering his private member's Bill to the minister as an early opportunity to press the legislation through. Barry Jones, carried away by the revivalist spirit of the occasion, asked the minister to assure him that legislation would also apply to Wales so that it would clear away "any remnants of 18th-century oligarchy". It wasn't clear why it should be the 18th century, except that it sounded so impeccably wicked - a time when shotguns and gintraps would soon put paid to unwanted intruders.

Labour members saw a vision of sturdy ramblers, eyes bright with the beauty of nature as they planted a boot into the face of privilege. Their opponents saw an advancing army of oiks in shellsuits, annoying sheep and distressing innocent ground-nesting birds which would, if nature was allowed to take its course, be blasted from the sky six months later, as God had always intended. Where Labour talked of "rambling" and "roaming", placid and contemplative activities, the Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd referred contemptuously to people "traipsing" around the countryside, a verb that conjured a picture of a surly, foot-dragging excursion - pathway erosion personified. Conservative members would probably have gone even further, had they not been nervous about their appearance. To listen to them talk, Mr Meacher had just announced his attention to pass a Right to Loiter With Intent Act.

Conservative members asked two pertinent questions: Edward Garnier pointed out that both the European Convention and Labour's Human Rights Bill required compensation for any dilution of rights of property, and Peter Atkinson asking how the public would be informed of the temporary closures that landowners would be allowed under the legislation - would the newly accessible countryside be invisible behind a rash of signs? Others may occur later. If, as Mr Meacher said, gardens were to be exempt from the regulations, you can imagine there might be a bit of a rush on down at the local garden centre - "I'd like to order 83 miles of herbaceous border, please, and four gross of assorted garden gnomes". But for the majority of MPs this wasn't a day to cavil at details. It was one to admire the splendid view - including that sparkling stretch of clear blue water.