Inside Parliament: Peers given lesson in land access: Maiden speech by Earl Spencer focuses on responsible approach to use of the countryside - Bill attacks 'sleazy world of Tory finances'

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Indy Politics
While Sir Norman Fowler was trying to convince a Commons select committee that wine and cheese parties are a main source of Tory election funds, a short speech at the other end of the Palace of Westminster served as a reminder that not everyone depends on an expensive campaign to win a voice in the national legislature.

Earl Spencer, the 29-year-old brother of the Princess of Wales, made his maiden speech during a House of Lords debate on changes in the countryside - a comfortable slice of which, as he reminded peers, his family have owned for 600 years.

'In fact, in 1620 in this House, my ancestor, the newly enobled Lord Spencer was taking on King James I for abuse of the Royal Prerogative,' he said, making his forebear sound like an early Tony Benn.

The former page of honour to the Queen doubted that he would raise such passion as that earlier exchange, which led to the Tower for Lord Arundel, but in focusing on public access to the countryside he was entering controversy of a kind.

The Spencer estate is at Althorp, three miles from Northampton. 'I think we are very fortunate in having a block of coniferous woodland between us and the town,' he said. Northampton's population had grown from 120,000 to 180,000 in the past 20 years.

'People of the town do, of course, want access to the countryside. If you go to this woodland on a Saturday or Sunday, you will see thousands of people exercising their children or their dogs or their more basic instincts,' he said.

Lord Spencer, whose own recreational tastes earned him a 'Champagne Charlie' tag, went on: 'Often they will be using the public footpaths and bridleways, but we don't really make them stick to these areas. We want them to use these areas as an amenity. It affects us not at all as a family or as a farming unit.'

There was damage and vandalism of course. 'We have had everything from fences being pulled down and burnt, animals killed, devil worshipping and motorbike racing.' But encouraging people to go to a 'condensed, easily reached area' had worked well for the Spencers and offered a lesson for other landowners, he said.

'If you let people use the bridleways and pathways to which they are entitled, indeed encourage them to do that, you have them where you want them, where they're legally entitled to be, and not where you don't want them, which is everywhere.' It was 'an effective compromise' and people should be encouraged through grants to make more land available for access.

'People who act in this responsible way are depriving the more politically zealous organisations, who sometimes seem to be more engrossed in pushing forward their rights and powers than in doing anything for the delicate balance of the countryside, depriving them of foot soldiers and adding respect as good stewards of the land.'

The young peer's remarks, delivered from the cross-benches, will have struck a chord with Lord Middleton, the Conservative landowner, who opened the debate with a critique on the mass of rules and regulations bearing down farmers. In the 1970s, Lord Middleton fought a prolonged battle with the Ramblers' Association over the route of the Wolds Way across his Yorkshire estate.

The sunlit uplands could not have been further from the minds of MPs. In Committee Room 8, where Sir Norman appeared before the Home Affairs Select Committee, and in the Commons chamber, they were fixated by what John Spellar called 'the dark and sleazy world of Tory political finance'. Mr Spellar, Labour MP for Warley West, secured a First Reading for a Bill to regulate the funding of political parties. It stands no chance of becoming law, but the set 10 minutes which the MP was allowed for its introduction enabled him to rub a little more salt in an open wound.

'Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear,' Mr Spellar said, suggesting the declaration of donations above pounds 1,000 and the publication of accounts by political parties in the same way as companies and trade unions. It is outrageous that the Tory party should be dependent on those with no vote in UK elections, that the financing of the party should be . . . dependent on such excessively large donations from those who are not prepared to be publicly identified.'

Mr Spellar said there was a strong statistical link between company donations and the chances of their heads getting knighthoods - precisely one of the charges Sir Norman, the Conservative Party chairman, had to deal with in the committee.

Contrasting donations of pounds 4.3m from companies in 1992-93 with pounds 18m raised by constituency associations - 'everything from membership to wine and cheese' - he said contributions did not buy influence in the affairs of the Conservative Party, 'totally unlike' the influence of trade unions on Labour policy and in leadership elections and the selection of candidates.

'Nor does it buy honours. It is inconceivable that anyone would offer honours in that way. To offer honours is a criminal offence.' There was no correlation between those who donated to the party and those who received honours, he insisted.

Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, tried again: 'So any relationship between political favours, be it honours or whatever, conferred on those who donate to your party is entirely coincidental and not related to their donation.'

'Yes,' Sir Norman replied. 'That's it exactly.'