Inside Parliament: Freedom-to-roam Bill faces uphill task: Scots Nationalist calls for better access to countryside - Smith attacks VAT concession - Major put on defensive over nurseries

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Indy Politics
Margaret Ewing, Scottish Nationalist MP for Moray, yesterday added her name to a list of wild optimists, dating back over a century to James Bryce, who have tried to secure a freedom to roam the mountains and open country of Britain.

'The few should not deny the rights of the many,' Mrs Ewing said as she introduced her access to the countryside Bill under the 10- minute rule procedure.

But in fact there is no right to roam and Mrs Ewing's Bill will not change that, despite having all- party support. There is no room in the parliamentary timetable to debate it and if there was, the Government and landowners in the House of Lords would not let it pass.

Bryce's 1884 Access to Mountains (Scotland) Bill met a similar fate, though it did attract a Times leader. Noting, like Mrs Ewing, that many tourists went north for the hills, it thundered: 'They are confronted with a fortification of strong fences, locked gates, resolute gamekeepers, men of action and the terrors of the law.'

The legislation currently exercising bodies like the British Mountaineering Council and the Ramblers' Association is the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. They fear the new offence of 'aggravated trespass', aimed at hunt saboteurs, could be used against walkers or climbers crossing country that landowners want to reserve for grouse shooting or deer stalking.

Mrs Ewing, disclosing her countryside credentials as 'the daughter of a ploughman', said the proposed law could also hit orienteers, anglers, naturalists, pony trekkers, archaeologists and a host of others.

Her Bill, balancing a freedom to roam with responsibilities, would also stop the loss of de facto rights of access to former Forestry Commission land. 'Many new owners believe that private ownership and public access are incompatible,' she said. Research by the RA showed that only 14 per cent of new owners observed the Commission's freedom to roam.

Mrs Ewing, like Bryce, cited harmonious arrangements elsewhere in Europe. A 'commonsense code' had been established where everyone knew and respected each other's rights, Mrs Ewing said. 'What I seek in this Bill is co-operation, not confrontation.'

Bryce, though he represented non-mountainous Tower Hamlets, was president of the Alpine Club from 1899 to 1901 and knew that even Europe's most noble landowners did not claim exclusive rights over the hills. He told the House in 1892 that occasionally it happened that members of the AC or other visitors arranged to climb a mountain on the day when King Victor Emanuel of Italy proposed shooting wild goats.

'All that the King did when he knew of such a party being in the neighbourhood was to send a messenger with his compliments asking them if they could make it convenient to go up another peak because he had arranged to shoot in that particular district.'

The Commons's most famous hillwalker, Labour leader John Smith, had earlier tackled John Major over the pre-payment of gas and electricity bills to avoid the imposition of VAT. Labour claims the utilities are receiving pounds 10m a day in advance payments, with one Norweb customer paying pounds 7,500.

The Prime Minister did not deny it. Customers for a wide range of services could pay for them in advance, he said. 'There is nothing unusual about that, that has happened before every Budget Mr Smith can remember since he entered the House.'

Mr Smith asked: 'Does the Prime Minister not even begin to understand the problem? It is deeply unfair that those who are better off can avoid a tax obligation millions of others have to shoulder because they don't have the money to exploit the loophole that the Government has permitted.'

Mr Major said it was not a loophole. As for the less well off, the Government had provided pounds 2.5bn over three years - more for pensioners, the disabled and single parents. 'All of those people will get the money before the bills arrive - that is a pre-payment Mr Smith forgot to mention.'

The Prime Minister had come prepared for Mr Smith to exploit Tory divisions over European Union voting power and rather than let his counter-attack go to waste he unleashed it in reply to Giles Radice, Labour MP for Durham North.

'We are not going to do what the Labour Party do,' he told the Euro-enthusiastic Mr Radice. 'Labour would sign away our votes, sign away our competitiveness and sign away our money. The Right Honourable Gentleman (Mr Smith, not Mr Radice) is the man who likes to say 'yes' in Europe - Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels.'

Minutes earlier, Mr Major mocked Paddy Ashdown for an 'extremely well rehearsed' question on universal nursery education. Recalling that it was Margaret Thatcher, when education secretary 25 years ago, who had first formulated the policy, the Liberal Democrat leader asked: 'When does the Prime Minister think that promise might be delivered, this year, next year, sometime, never?'

Mr Major said that in the Liberal Democrat-controlled Isle of Wight, Mr Ashdown would find 'no nursery education', while in Tory-controlled Westminster it was universal. Last night, Ann Taylor, Labour's education spokeswoman, wrote to Mr Major pointing out that according to government figures, Westminster has just 33 per cent of three and four-year- olds in nursery education and is 58th in the council league table.