§ 11.57 a.m.
§ The Earl of Mansfield
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Forestry Bill is very short, consisting only of four clauses and a schedule. Essentially, it seeks to amend three sections of the Forestry Act of 1967, which consolidated legislation that began in 1919 with the inception of the 992 Forestry Commission. The main purpose of these amendments is to facilitate the achievement of part of the Government's policy for forestry which was outlined in the Statement made in your Lordships' House on 10th December 1980.
Forestry is by its nature a long-term business. Its development has been helped by the relationship which has grown up between the Forestry Commission and the private sector, and over the years each has learned from and been stimulated by the other. Their ability to collaborate was demonstrated last year when it became necessary to find new short-term markets overseas for some of the pulpwood from our forests, following the unfortunate closure of the mills at Corpach and at Ellesmere Port. Together they have been able to seek out and service these markets against a background of considerable difficulty, and their joint efforts have been of great benefit to forestry generally. We value this relationship, which is founded on mutual respect, and we have taken it fully into account in formulating our policies for forestry.
Until the advent of the policy statement and this Bill, forestry had not been the subject of a debate in another place for many years. However, I am glad to say that your Lordships are not so reticent about this important rural industry, and are to be congratulated on giving it wide ranging consideration last year, and again as recently as 23rd February this year. On that occasion we discussed the policy statement and dwelt at some length on the proposal to sell some of the Commission's land, so that debate was in part a dress rehearsal for our deliberations today, and perhaps as a Scot I may dare say that, to some degree, it will lessen the need for over-full speeches in your Lordships' deliberations this morning and afternoon. We also discussed some of the scientific and technological aspects of forestry. Many of the achievements of the last 30 years would have been impossible but for the scientific and technological advances which have dramatically transformed forestry operations at every stage in the cycle, from seed selection and plant production to harvesting the crop. The efficiency of the industry today is a testimonial to its resilience and ability to adapt to change, and to adopt new ideas and new methods of working. The Government believe that it is well placed to meet the challenges that lie ahead and that it will fully justify our continued confidence in its future.
The Government's policy statement took into account the administrative, economic and financial setting within which forestry operates. It is worth recalling briefly the salient features of the policy which it outlined. These are: first, a firm commitment to forestry and to continued expansion at the broadly historic rate of the last quarter of a century; secondly, greater participation by the private sector in new planting to reflect our support for private enterprise and our belief in its ability to deliver the goods; thirdly, a continuing planting programme for the Forestry Commission in particular where it will help to maintain rural employment; fourthly, our confidence in the long term future of the wood-using industries; fifthly, continuance of the long standing income tax arrangements for forestry; sixthly, proposals for simplifying the grant structure and the system of felling control; and finally, arrangements for making more active use 993 of the capital assets of the Forestry Commission in order progressively to reduce that part of the commission's grant-in-aid which helps to finance its Forestry enterprise. It is with the last of these objectives that the Bill is mainly concerned. The terms of the Bill are quite straightforward and I shall confine my remarks at this stage to a brief explanation of the Bill's effects and take the opportunity of removing, I hope, some of the misconceptions which may exist as to its purpose.
Clause 1 enables Forestry Ministers, in whose names the Forestry Commission's land is held, to dispose as the need arises of land acquired by them whether for afforestation, recreation or amenity purposes. This power of disposal replaces the more limited power in Section 39(2) of the Forestry Act 1967, as amended by Section 59 of the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967 and Sections 23(3) and 24(3) of the Countryside Act 1968. The disposal powers provided by the Countryside Acts in relation to land acquired for recreational and amenity purposes are not in fact subject to the same restrictions as those applying to forestry land in the Forestry Act itself, but in any case they will be subsumed in the new power sought under Clause 1. As I have indicated, the purpose of Clause 1 is to enable the Forestry Commission to generate funds for progressively reducing its dependence on Exchequer support for the management of the forestry enterprise. We believe it will enable the Commission to operate more flexibly in the commercial world of which, by reason of its development as a producer of raw material, it is increasingly becoming a part.
In addition the new power will remove any doubt as to whether or not in particular circumstances land and plantations can be sold, for instance, to rationalise the commission's land holdings. I am sure your Lordships will appreciate the desirability of such sales in the interests of sensible and economic management of the Commission's estates. Within our stated objective the commission will be in charge of the disposals programme, just as it is in charge of buying the land in the first place. The rate of disposal will depend in part on the state of the market, but also on the need to maintain coherent and effective management. Some areas will be for sale outright, but others will be leased back by the Commission for management under its established policies. In selecting areas for sale, and the method of disposal in each case, the Commission will be taking into account a number of key factors. I mentioned these during our debate on 23rd February, but they are of such importance that I feel justified in bringing them again to your Lordships' attention, since they demonstrate the care and attention which will be given to the disposals programme. They are: financial considerations; the maintenance and development of the wood processing industry; the maintenance of employment and the viability of local communities, especially in the socially fragile areas; the use of forests for public access and recreation; the interests of conservation, research and education; the effects on management; the market preferences having regard to other criteria; and, lastly, the rationalisation of the forestry estate. These factors, coupled with use of the leaseback alternative as appropriate provide very real safeguards for those who are worried about the effect of disposals on wood-using industries, 994 public access, employment or amenity, particularly when seen in the context of the limited objective to which I have referred.
That objective will set an upper limit for the level of disposals and, taking one year with another, it is not our intention that the total receipts from this source should exceed the grant-in-aid for the Forestry enterprise. However, each year we shall review the progress of disposals and new planting. If this review shows that the disposals programme is being successful, the Government will consider bids for extra finance from the Commission for additional new planting. To sum up, Clause 1 paves the way for making more immediate use of some of the Commission's assets, thus reducing the taxpayers need to finance its activities.
Clause 2 will enable Forestry Ministers, with Treasury approval, to direct that from time to time specific receipts or classes of receipts, for example, from the sale of land and plantations, or a surplus of trading income over expenditure, shall be paid wholly or in part from the Forestry Fund to the Consolidated Fund. It also repeals Section 41(7) of the Forestry Act 1967 which provides the Commissioners with limited powers of investment. This power was conceived in 1919 in different circumstances, and is now obsolete.
The Forestry Commission is presently funded through the grant-in-aid on a net basis; that is to say the grant-in-aid represents the difference between the commission's income and its expenditure. All sums received by the commissioners, including capital sums from the sale of assets, are paid into the Forestry Fund. However, under existing arrangements, sums credited to the Forestry Fund cannot be withdrawn and paid to the Exchequer even if the Fund runs into surplus. We propose to vary these arrangements so as to insulate the Commission's expenditure and cash limits from fluctuations in the disposal of land and plantations, and the sale of surplus property, by transferring the proceeds from such disposals to the Consolidated Fund as Extra Receipts. Notes on Supply Estimates and the Public Expenditure Survey will show the effect of those receipts of the Commission's net call on Exchequer funds. We also have in mind that the Forestry Enterprise is expected in any case to break-even in the mid-nineties, and when that happens the provisions of Clause 2 will enable the Forestry Commission to surrender any surplus from its trading activities to the Consolidated Fund.
Clause 3 provides for the appointment of an additional Forestry Commissioner. At present Section 2(1) of the Forestry Act 1967 makes provision for not more than nine commissioners in addition to the chairman. The intention underlying this clause is to open up the possibility of including on the board a person with business and commercial experience from outside the forestry and wood-using industries without diminishing the breadth of advice and experience already available. Clause 4 contains the citation and indicates the extent of the repeals which are consequential on the earlier provisions of the Bill. It limits the Act to Great Britain by the exclusion of Northern Ireland where the Forestry Commissioners have no jurisdiction.
My Lords, the powers sought in this Bill, and particularly in Clause 1, are an essential feature of the policy announced on 10th December last. The Bill is not a device for dismantling the Forestry Commission, 995 or for the wholesale and indiscriminate sale of its land and plantations. Our objective, as regards the disposals programme is a limited one. Its effect in terms of scale, is likely to involve the disposal of about £40 million worth of assets in the first three years, out of an estate worth £1,000 million or more at market prices. That is the measure of it, and it is against that background that I invite your Lordships to consider the Bill. It will not impair the scope of the Commission's functions as the Forestry enterprise nor will it detract in any way from its role as the Forestry Authority. We are simply putting previous public investment to more immediate use and the proceeds of the disposals programme will be recycled back into forestry through the grant-in-aid, and if the programme is successful it would make it easier for Ministers to accept bids for additional finance for new planting. Because the proceeds will be replacing other funds provided by the Exchequer it will provide a measure of relief for the taxpayer and reduce public expenditure, which is a vital element in the fight against inflation. It is in these circumstances that I commend the Bill to the House. I beg to move.
§ Moved, that the Bill be now read 28.—(The Earl of Mansfield).
§ 12.10 p.m.
§ Baroness Jeger
My Lords, I hope that I may crave your Lordships' indulgence as I speak for the first time from this strange unwonted place. However, I must declare our opposition to this most unwelcome and miserable little Bill. It must be noted that in six sittings of the Standing Committee in another place not one amendment was accepted by the Government, although amendments came from Members of all parties, including supporters of the present Government, many of them very wise and experienced in forestry. After nearly 30 years in Parliament on and off, and many years spent as chairman of standing committees in another place, I have yet to see a Bill which could not be improved in any way by any amendment. I think that the failure to take on board the very real points that were made in previous discussions is a rare example of a pig-headed Administration which is more concerned with fiscal dogma than with rational arguments about an important industry which is working well and which has great promise for the future. I hope that your Lordships will show more wisdom and sense and insist that amendments which will no doubt be proposed from all sides of this House at Committee stage are passed, because there are many ways in which this Bill could be improved.
On paper it is a short little Bill, but its effects will be long-lasting and could be disastrous. Clause 1 empowers the Minister to dispose, for any purpose, of land belonging to the Forestry Commission. There are no restrictions whatever—there are no conditions of sale written into the Bill. The Minister said this morning that Clause 1 gave power to dispose as the need arises. Those words are not in the clause. The clause does not include the words, "as the need arises". The clause has no limitation whatever. Legally, therefore, the Minister would not even have to consult the Forestry Commission. Certainly he would not have to take their advice. Therefore, a Minister could 996 impose on the Forestry Commission a demand for sale which could permanently damage the current forest estate and the Commission's duty of afforestation.
Ministers may, of course, make promises about their benevolent intentions, but no Government can bind another. If the Minister's promises are to be absolute, why exclude them from the Bill? I believe that the present Minister is, like Brutus, an honourable man, but even he is not immortal. As the Bill stands the whole Forestry Commission land could be sold off in the name of privatisation.
On 26th January in another place—and I quote from Hansard, column 650—the Minister, Mr. Younger, said:The disposals programme will be a limited one".But there are no limitations in this Bill. I think that there is a very serious parliamentary problem here. No responsible legislature can govern by statements and assurances from mortal beings. It is for Parliament to ensure that its policies are carried out through statute law. And it is an insult to Parliament and to democratic government for us to be presented with a vague little Bill, the enactment of which, it is proposed, shall be a matter of personal assurances and occasional statements.
The present noble Minister may see himself as a little green elf rustling under the dappled leaves. But in the future an axeman might come who will not spare the trees. The sort of conditions that we have in mind would be, for instance, a quite sensible requirement that purchasers should have to maintain a policy of afforestation. In our debate on 23rd February I raised this point and asked the Minister about purchasers who might buy forest land for prestige, for privacy, for sport and for shooting. I receive no adequate answer then and so I wrote to the noble Minister and he replied, courteously as ever, on 27th March:Although the proposals contained in the Forestry Bill for the sale of Forestry Commission land would not prevent the situation arising which you describe, I must say that I doubt very much whether it will do so in practice".The future of forestry in this country cannot rely on the cold comfort of a Minister's doubts about the future. And what about resale? Are there to be no conditions on people who buy forestry land disposing of it when they wish to? Is a purchaser who has bought forest land without any restriction totally free to sell it again, with no future restriction on its use?
We would wish to see clear restrictions also on the woodlands available for sale. As the Bill stands—and I hope that the Minister who is to answer this debate will make this clear to the House—it would seem possible for the Government to sell off the Forest of Dean, the Tintern Woodlands, even the New Forest and other beautiful Crown woodlands which have been safeguarded for the public good for centuries. I speak with special concern about the Forest of Dean because my family comes from there and I have spent many happy years in that beautiful place and the thought of any economic vandalism endangering it is totally unacceptable. I find it not possible to take sufficient assurance from ministerial statements. I repeat that there is no reason why the Bill should not contain an exemption clause for Crown woodlands. Certainly 997 there would be little profit, as I understand it, even to this mercenary Government in such sales, because surely the monies would have to be paid to the Crown Commissioners and not to the Consolidated Fund—but this is a Government that would sell the Garden of Eden to the Serpent for profit. Why cannot these forests, like National Trust land, be made inalienable? Why cannot we have a clause in the Bill saying so?
The other matter that is important under this clause is that there seems to be no protection of rights of access and of amenity. The Association of County Councils in its memorandum on the Bill observed:Private ownership usually reduces opportunities for access and public recreation".At present the Forestry Commission woodlands and the woods of many private foresters have public access. Their beauty and amenity is priceless—except to this Government. So why cannot rights of access and the maintenance of recreational facilities be made a condition of sale? I could not help wishing that many of those young people who were throwing stones in Brixton last Sunday had been out in the woods camping, pony treking or enjoying the countryside amenities of this land.
I must ask what requirements will be made on purchasers regarding fencing—especially where forests border on farmland. At present the Forestry Commission is scrupulous in accepting its gentlemen's agreement—not legally binding, I admit—to maintain stock-proof fencing. Small farmers who have bought land in such a situation will have done so in the belief that boundary fencing would continue to be maintained by the Forestry Commission. Are they to be let down by this Bill?
Of course, it may be said that all these restrictions on sales would reduce the demands for purchase, and a good job too! In my view, this would be in the national interest and be an advantage for the future. Of course, some sales—especially of small plots and unplantable areas—can be part of good forestry management, and I do not think that anyone on this side would oppose the continuation of this policy. But the open-ended enabling powers in this clause are totally to be deplored.
I find Clause 2 objectionable because it provides that money from sales should be paid into the Consolidated Fund. It says quite clearly:There shall be paid out of the Forestry Fund into the Consolidated Fund such sums as the Ministers may from time to time with the approval of the Treasury direct.There is no doubt at all that this is a Treasury Bill. It has nothing to do with afforestation; it has nothing to do with research, with employment, with education or with amenity. The Bill will not plant a single tree. If we must have this Bill, it should be written into the Bill that income from sales should be reinvested for the good of forestry.
According to an article published in the Scotsman of 26th March, which is not a paper which I read every day (and I beg pardon of my noble friend Lord Ross for saying that), the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, is quoted as saying to a meeting of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society in Edinburgh:The receipts will be ploughed back into the Commission".But why not put that in the Bill?
§ The Earl of Mansfield
My Lords, if the noble Baroness is going to start quoting me from the newspapers, will she at least quote one whole sentence, and preferably a paragraph?
§ Baroness Jeger
My Lords, I hoped that I was saving your Lordships' time, but that one sentence seemed to me to make sense. If it is incorrect, I am sure that there will be an opportunity for the noble Earl to contradict it, although it was not contradicted when it was quoted in another place. If the noble Earl wants this to happen—and I know that he would not have made a specific commitment without meaning it—I hope that he will be the first to enshrine this commitment in an amendment at the Committee stage. I can assure him of the support of many of my noble friends and I am sure that many of his noble friends would welcome it.
Clause 3 proposes the addition of one member to the Forestry Commission. I wish I thought that adding one member to the Forestry Commission would do any good in the implementation of this Bill. Apart from the formalities of Clause 4, we then come to the schedule, which the Minister did not mention today. It seems to me that the schedule, which appears to repeal part of the Countryside Act 1968, which empowered the Forestry Commission to buy land for amenity, is to be lost. The Countryside Acts of both 1967 and 1968 gave powers to Forestry Ministers to purchase land for recreation or amenity. I do not accept that conditions have now so changed that this is not a useful function for the commissioners to have, especially if they were able to buy land in advance of planting.
In your Lordships' House we have spent much time on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill, and great concern has been expressed on all sides of the House about the need to protect amenities and the quality of our countryside and wildlife. I cannot help but think that this Bill will reduce those endeavours. The noble Lord the Minister of course referred to the economic difficulties of the nation. I believe that forestry should be isolated from day-to-day economic pressures, because days are nothing in the life of a tree. I believe that trees, more than any other form of life, need a stable and secure environment. The present partnership has worked very well and I wish that the Government would leave it alone.
The Labour Party is often blamed for excesses of interventionism, but this Bill is the most unnecessary doctrinal piece of intervention. At a time when forests the world over are diminishing to danger point, it ill becomes the Government of this country to take any step which may, even in the smallest way, diminish the afforestation of our country, which I would remind your Lordships is already importing over 90 per cent. of its timber, at a cost of £2,750 million a year. We need a positive policy for the future of forestry in this country. I was going to say that at best this Bill is a leap into the dark, but I think that it is more of a stumble into the dark, and at its worst it is cynical, mean and mercenary. I very much hope that we shall be able to have some meetings of minds at the Committee stage, so that we can try to retrieve something from this Bill which will assure the future of afforestation in this country.
§ 12.26 p.m.
My Lords, with his vast experience of this place the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, will know perfectly well that the fact that a Bill is extremely short does not necessarily indicate that all the speeches about it will be equally short. I must say at the outset that I greatly mistrust very short Bills. Frankly, I do not altogether trust some long Bills either. But it is only fair at the outset to make it absolutely clear that my noble friends and I are not entirely happy with this modest, but somewhat ill-defined, measure. Here I very much echo some of the words spoken by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, on her first appearance at the Dispatch Box. I should like to say how well she has done and I am sure she knows that she has our very best wishes in her new capacity.
As the noble Earl told us, the Bill contains but four clauses, and I certainly agree with what the noble Earl appeared to imply, that it is only Clause 1 which is of any real significance. As the noble Earl made quite clear and as the noble Baroness underlined, Clause 1 gives Ministers very wide powers, but utterly fails to specify how, when or under what circumstances those powers are to be used. I know that the noble Earl gave us certain assurances, but I must say to him that—as he knows perfectly well—he will not be here for ever. He may say that we have had assurances from his Government colleagues, to which I am bound to say that the present Government will not be there for ever either. I must say to noble Lords on this side of the House that there are very few Ministers in any Government with whom I would trust totally unspecified powers of this kind. Even were some of my noble friends to find themselves in ministerial office, I am afraid that I have some suspicions as to what some might do with regard to forestry with a Bill which is as loose and as vague as this one.
The noble Earl, for example, told us that essentially the Forestry Commission would be in charge of disposals. That is reassuring information, but the Bill does not say it. The Bill gives the power to Ministers virtually to sell Forestry Commission assets from under the Forestry Commission's feet. I am not saying that they will do that, but at least the Bill gives those powers. Basically, this is an asset-stripping Bill, and I think that it has to be defined in those terms. It gives Ministers the right to dispose of assets, built up over a period of some 60 years by the Forestry Commission, which progressively has approached these matters in a more and more imaginative way, so that is it has, in fact, built up a vast reserve of property which is of immense commercial value to the nation but which is also, frankly, of immense value to the nation in other ways.
We must remember that, although forestry is an essential operation for the commercial prosperity of this nation—for commercial timber production—forestry, the Forestry Commission and its activities play a very important part in the landscape of our countryside, and as the years have gone by they have played in an increasing part in the provision of recreational opportunities for our people at a time and in an age of increasing leisure.
I should be happier if I were entirely sure, as the noble Earl appeared to suggest, that such assets as are to be disposed of were invariably going to be 1000 disposed of to the private sector of the forestry business; and particularly if I knew that some of these areas were to be disposed of to highly imaginative foresters like the noble Earl, Lord Bradford, or people like Major Richard Coke in Norfolk, or the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, who I think have sometimes shown a slightly more imaginative approach to afforestation than the Forestry Commission itself.
I make no complaints about the Forestry Commission today, but there was a time when it was a little too obsessed with regimented blocks of Sitka spruce; with even-age, single species planting with clear felling: a kind of attitude towards forestry which was shared in the past by only two groups of people, the Prussians and the Forestry Commission. Nowhere else was that kind of approach universally used, but I think that many people in the private sector, and now many people within the Forestry Commission itself, have brought new dimensions to afforestation with a different kind of mix and approach. If I was assured that some of these assets were going to go to some of those people in the private sector of forestry, then I should be much less anxious than I now am.
I should be much happier if I was entirely sure that the deciding role as to which particular asset was to be disposed of and which was to be preserved rested wholly with the Forestry Commission. I am quite sure that the noble Earl will say—indeed, he has said, or implied—that the Forestry Commission's advice will always be sought, the implication being that it will always be followed; but I wonder whether it will. I personally would be much happier with the judgment of the Forestry Commission than with the judgment of perhaps future Ministers, when I do not necessarily know who those Ministers are going to be. Some of the Forestry Commission's holdings are really not commercially viable purely from the point of view of timber production, but some of them are absolutely vital parts of our countryside and are absolutely vital for recreation. Let us take, as the noble Baroness mentioned, Royal forests like the Forest of Dean, or even the New Forest. I doubt whether the New Forest is of immense commercial importance for timber production, but it is of absolutely vital importance for recreation and the countryside.
Figures collected by the English Tourist Board show that the New Forest is within reach for day trips of 20 million people. It is under immense pressure. It is magnificently managed by the Forestry Commission who have provided for recreation in an admirable way, while at the same time preserving as much of the woodland as they possibly could. But if some future Minister who perhaps takes an excessively commercial view of life—and there could be such—begins to think that this is not really a timber production area, it is a recreation area, then it is possible within the terms of this Bill that we could suddenly decide to "flog off" the New Forest to Butlins, or one of the other great recreational entrepreneurs.
I know that the noble Earl would not dream of doing that, nor would his immediate present colleagues, but there are one or two people who might. I know that one cannot spell out all these things in this Bill, but I should like to see some of them spelled out, as indeed would the noble Baroness. To digress a little, 1001 when we hear that possibly the Forestry Commission, as a result of these kind of sales, may have greater assets, I should like to know how they are going to be used. I should like to know, for example, that at present times of difficulty and the need for economies the Forestry Commission will not be forced by economic circumstances to withdraw from its very important grant aiding functions in respect of small woodlands, which may not be of great importance for timber production commercially but which are of immense importance recreationally and from the point of view of landscape and the countryside.
I shall say no more. My noble friend Lord McNair, who is engaged in one of your Lordships' committees, hopes to be here to say a few words about the Forest of Dean area which he knows very well and with which he is personally concerned. I would merely express the hope that in Committee we might find a way in this Bill of strengthening the role of the Forestry Commission; making it absolutely clear that its decision will be overriding on many of these matters. I should also like to see provision in the Bill for maintaining, preserving and perpetuating access to Forestry Commission holdings if and when those are transferred to some other ownership.
There are many parts of the Forestry Commission's land where there is free and open access for recreational purposes, and often excellent provision for recreational purposes. If those areas are to be sold—and perhaps some should be sold—one would like, when they are sold, to see that access for recreation, for pony trekking, walking, picnicking and so on is preserved and perpetuated for all time.
Finally, I should like to feel that in addition to strengthening the role of the Forestry Commission in the steps outlined in this Bill we would also make sure, bearing in mind the importance of forestry and woodlands to landscape and countryside, that the role of the Nature Conservancy Council is somehow considered and that their view is sought. Let us remember that much of the Forestry Commission's holdings are in Scotland, and I should also like to see that the advice of the Countryside Commission for Scotland is sought as and when there are thoughts of disposing of land and assets in the countryside. Let us also remember that many of the Forestry Commission's holdings are in fact in England and Wales, in our national parks. If anything is to happen in regard to land in national parks, probably the Countryside Commission ought indeed to be consulted.
I should like to see this Bill strengthened in those ways. I am not sure that we shall succeed. Certainly we shall not resist the Second Reading of this Bill; but with those words I have ventilated some of our anxieties about a simple Bill, but a Bill which, at the end of the day, unless it is operated with sympathy, care and caution, could perhaps spell danger for the countryside and some of the interests with which noble Lords in your Lordships' House are deeply concerned.
§ 12.37 p.m.
§ Lord Sherfield
My Lords, I intervene in this debate just to make two or three short points. On 23rd February I presented to the House the report of your Lordships' Select Committee on Science and Technology on the Scientific Aspects of Forestry. 1002 This afternoon is not the time to revert to the generality of that report, which was the subject of considerable debate and on which the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, promised to communicate the considered comments of the Government in a few months. I hope that is not an expression equivalent to the Greek Kalends but rather points to a reply before the House rises this summer.
There were in that report, almost inevitably, one or two recommendations which went beyond purely scientific considerations, and it is one of these in particular which I now want to take up. Your committee found that some aspects of the commission's management objectives are becoming out of date in the context of present circumstances and the way in which forestry practice is evolving, notably in the Forestry Commission's own operations. For example, the management objectives make no reference to the impact of forestry on water resources, and greater prominence could well be given to the importance of woodlands for nature conservation. In these circumstances the stated objectives of fostering a harmonious relationship with agriculture could, with advantage, be extended to fostering harmony with all land uses.
As regards the terms of reference of the Forestry Commission, the provision in the 1967 Act focuses entirely on the interests of forestry subject to the issue of directives by Ministers. Several such directives have since been issued, changing the emphasis of forestry policy and urging the Commission to take account of other land uses. Your committee therefore recommended that this shift of emphasis should be recognised and that both the commission's management objectives and its terms of reference should be amended to reflect explicitly the conditions under which the Forestry Commission in practice now operates. The Bill provides a convenient opportunity to deal with the terms of reference and I am contemplating a proposal to that effect when the Bill is considered in Committee.
My second point refers to the possible effect of the proposal to sell Forestry Commission land on the programme of scientific research and development. There is some apprehension that that might in practice lead to a reduction of the programme, which in some respects your committee found was already insufficient. In the debate on 23rd February, the noble Earl gave quite firm assurances that that would not occur, but it is important that this aspect of the policy should be kept in the forefront of our thinking on this subject.
Finally, I venture to make a comment on the main policy in the Bill. It seems entirely reasonable that the Forestry Commission should have added to it the power to dispose of, as well as to purchase land in the interests of the consolidation and rationalisation of its operations. It also seems sensible that by sales of this kind the Forestry Commission should be enabled to extend its operations in other directions or devote more resources to research and development. It is really no more than using the tools of good management. It is however far from clear that that is the whole purpose of the policy. We have been told that the proceeds of sales will be paid initially into the Forestry Fund but that that fund could then be milked for the benefit of the Consolidated Fund. It sounds 1003 to me very like a case of "Now you see it, now you don't".
Knowing the Treasury's dislike of hypothecating revenue, or earmarking receipts for particular purposes, and knowing too its hitherto somewhat jaundiced attitude towards the forestry enterprise, there is every indication here of the presence of a nigger in the woodpile, I think the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, had the same impression. The noble Earl this morning was at pains to deny the existence of any such presence, but I am not sure that he entirely succeeded in exorcising him or it.
§ 12.43 p.m.
§ Lord Dulverton
My Lords, in speaking following the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, on whose sub-committee of the Select Committee I had the honour to serve, I wish at the outset to support him in the point he made about the possibility of bringing up to date the terms of reference of the Forestry commissioners. They have wide duties wished on them by ministerial pronouncements, but I support Lord Sherfield in hoping that suitable wording will be found—I appreciate it will not be easy to find the right set of words—to give the Forestry Commission not only the statutory duty but the authority actively to promote the understanding and practice of what I would call the good combined uses of rural land.
In the forefront of our minds has been Clause 1, but having addressed your Lordships only two months ago on the subject of forestry, I am anxious not to repeat what I said on that occasion. I had intended to speak very briefly from some short notes I had made, but I fear I shall have to depart from what I had intended to say in view of what has already been said. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, and the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, I feel there is growing disquiet over the open-endedness of Clause 1 as it stands, so briefly written into the Bill. While congratulating the noble Baroness, who was also a member of our committee, on the cogency of what she said, I could not go along with her in the rather extravagant condemnation she made of the Government's objectives and purposes in their present policy. Nevertheless, on all sides in this House in another place the anxiety is shared over the open-endedness of Clause 1.
My noble friend Lord Mansfield gave some assurances, which I accept absolutely from him, and nobody could reasonably object to the aims of the Bill; it is perfectly good business conduct to sell off bits of your asets to enable you to do other work, if that is what is intended. Like other noble Lords, I appreciate the clarity with which my noble friend explained the objects of the Bill and the way in which, he said, it would be put into operation. Having said that, what is worrying many of us is that while he said all that and while I would accept it, some of his colleagues in another place have not put it so clearly and definitely. In any event, what he said is not stated in the Bill, and that is the vital point.
I do not wish to repeat the arguments that have been adduced both here and in another place in relation to the Bill—they are all on record—but I hope my noble friend will take note of the widespread disquiet that is felt about the open-endedness to which I referred. 1004 Among the voices expressing anxiety are those of the private forestry organisations, and that might seem rather strange. The private forestry organisations welcomed other parts of the Government Statement made last December placing on them the onus of taking a greater part in fulfilling their responsibilities in expanding the national forestry asset. They accept that gladly and will take it on, given the background of confidence which we hope will be the outcome of further discussions on other parts of the Government Statement.
Those organisations are feeling disquiet partly out of recognition of the Forestry Commission's role and achievements in building up such a splendid enterprise on which the private sector has been built in recent years. Their experience, research and pioneering in relation to silvicultural management on extremely difficult sites is admired not only by the private sector of forestry in this country but throughout the world.
Another reason why the private sector feels as it does is that it values what has been referred to in this House on a number of occasions as the partnership, the successful partnership, between the public and private sectors in forestry. This partnership sets an example for many other industries in this respect. But the private sector is worried that the open-endedness might result in damage to the partnership.
In conclusion, I hope that the Government will take account of the voices that are raised from practically every section and corner of the forestry industry, as well as from outside it. The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, spoke with great experience of the Countryside Commission's points of view, and there are other points of view. I hope that the Government, despite having resisted doing so in another place, will take steps to amend the Bill and to clarify it, very much in the manner shown by my noble friend Lord Mansfield this morning.
§ 12.51 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, on forestry matters I have to declare an interest. I was for some years chairman of the Forestry Commission, for which organisation I have developed a great affection and admiration, and I am chairman of a forestry company in the private sector, and I suppose to that extent I can take a reasonably objective view of these proceedings. I am sorry that the debate is being held this morning. Your Lordships have shown great interest in forestry matters over the years, and it might have been better had we been able to delay the Second Reading of the Bill so that other Members of your Lordships' House who have an interest and experience in the matter might have been enabled to make their contributions. In a way, forestry is a long-term affair, and there is no particular reason why we should expedite the Bill, especially when it is not a popular Bill on either side of the House.
When coming into the Chamber this morning I was chided by one of my friends in the Labour Party, who asked," Is there a Social Democratic view on forestry?". I do not today want to engage in a great deal of political philosophy, but there is a Social Democratic view on the subject. If there is one thing that the Social Democrats deplore, it is the polarisation of politics in our community between, on the one 1005 hand, the nationalisers who are prepared endlessly to expand the frontiers of nationalisation in pursuit of their particular philosophy, and, on the other hand, the others, at present occupying the Government Front Bench, who, irrespective of the rationale, are determined to ensure that privatisation is implemented in all areas of Government policy.
The Social Democrats believe that the Forestry Commission is an excellent example of a mixed economy in practice. It is a state-supported organisation through its grant aid, but at the same time it has a private sector relationship that encourages them to be more efficient through the dedication schemes and ensures that to some extent the private sector discharges its social responsibilities through the dedication agreements. That partnership has been a healthy and a useful one for the forestry industry. It has been a dynamic partnership because the Forestry Commission has been able to go into the market when it felt it appropriate to buy land, and the private sector has frequently been in competition for these acquisitions. The partnership has stimulated an industry and created a real sense of total purpose and commitment to an objective on the part of both the private sector and the state sector. To that extent I am sure that the model of the Forestry Commission will loom large in the considerations of the Social Democratic Party as it evolves its new policy documents for industry in general.
Now I wish to return to the Bill. I cannot really see the justification for the Bill, other than to save a few pounds here and there in an important industry, and to satisfy a dogma. At this stage I wish to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, on her excellent Front Bench speech. I am sure that she will make an extremely useful contribution during the lengthy Committee stage of the Bill, when amendments will be introduced not only from this side of the House, but, I feel sure, from forestry interests sitting behind the Minister.
If one thing impressed me in reading the debates on the Bill in the other place it was the excellence of the speeches from the Government Benches. People steeped in forestry, people experienced in forestry, made their contributions condemning the Government in this area of Government intervention. I hope that, with the support of all the friends of forestry in this House, we shall be able to influence Government attitudes by a series of sensible amendments.
The measure of the wisdom of a forestry policy is surely to ask the question: will it expand forestry? We have had recommendations from the excellent committees of the noble Lord, Lord Sheffield, and from the CAS (the Centre for Agricultural Studies) Reading Report that expansion of forestry is necessary in the national interest. The Bill makes no contribution whatsoever to attaining that objective. If anything, it will disturb the dynamic relationship that I have explained, and it might not encourage forestry at all. Even if it is decided to sell off part of the Forestry Commission estate to private enterprise, there has to be a buyer, and the buyer will assess whether it is worthwhile to buy. He will not necessarily rush into the market.
It is hoped to attract institutional investment in woodlands on sale and leaseback or on the outright 1006 sale principle. Institutions are not looking for the long-term return which comes from planting bare land. They are looking for investment in mature and semi-mature woodlands in which there is a reasonable early return to satisfy their insurance and pension commitments. So people in the Forestry Commission who have planted, thinned, and cared for the woodlands with a sense of responsibility for the amenity, the landscaping and the nature trails, may find all that taken from them and sold to an institution which might be interested in the piece of land merely as an investment. I believe that that kind of intervention is destroying an important relationship and is not necessarily contributing to forestry expansion.
And we need forestry as an industry. As has already been said by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, 9 per cent., of our timber requirement is now home-grown. There is a sound economic argument for growing trees in this country. There is also the important social argument of restoring a natural resource. If there is anything wrong in the world at the moment, it is the fact that we are eating up our natural resources, our minerals and other resources that are limited, finite. In forestry we are replanting and replacing a natural resource. Before a Bill of this kind is introduced, the question must be asked: will it contribute to the development of that policy or will it inhibit it? I suggest that it will inhibit it.
Other Members of the House have said a word about the open-ended nature of this Bill. It does not simply say that it will be given to the Forestry Commission to make these policy decisions. They will be decided by Ministers; and their performance in terms of the cash realised will be assessed by Ministers and, above all, by the Treasury. So, instead of conducting a forestry policy, with all the responsibilities for amenity, recreation, social objectives and rural employment, which are important to the Forestry Commission, the Treasury will decide what your receipts are going to be; and the money which will be realised on the sales will not be ploughed back into forestry, it will reduce the grant in aid at the end of the day.
Of course, you can make the Forestry Commission self-supporting in a very few years. All you have to do is to withdraw any further funds for planting and help them to sell off their assets, and very soon the account will be in balance. But that is not a desirable policy. However, the Treasury has this obsession for cutting down public sector borrowing. This is public sector borrowing for investment, not current expenditure. The money we are talking about is not being paid out to people, it is being put into land and renewing resources; and that attitude on the part of the Treasury is one that is destructive.
So we shall look at this Bill at the Committee stage. We shall try to place restrictions on the powers of the Minister so far as the future use of land is concerned. We shall seek to place restrictions on the annual amount of land that will be offered in the market. We shall try to impose amenity restrictions, and we shall try to impose a limitation on the resale terms of any land that might be purchased. I hope that in the course of the Committee stage we shall be able to do these things.
Mention of the Forest of Dean has been made this morning, and of other areas of high amenity importance. 1007 I live in the City of Glasgow. Within 20 miles of Glasgow is the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park, and it is a great delight at weekends to see youngsters with their rucksacks on their backs making their way up the forest trails in the Queen Elizabeth Forest Park. Under this Bill the Minister has power to take that great breathing space on the outskirts of Glasgow and to sell off that land to private investment. We shall try at the Committee stage to restrict that power, and I hope that in so doing we shall have the support of noble Lords from all Benches.
I have one final point, my Lords. The proposal to add another member, presumably with commercial experience, to the Forestry Commission enables us to look once more at the composition of the Forestry Commission. All right; a man with commercial interests (and that was supposed to be my role when I was chairman of the Foresty Commission) is important, but so also is a forester. I know there is provision in the legislation that on the Forestry Commission there should be people with forestry experience, but we have never really had a working forester on the Forestry Commission. It may be that it is time we started to look at the degree of worker involvement as well as of business experience in the affairs of the Forestry Commission.
§ 1.5 p.m.
§ Lord Irving of Dartford
My Lords, in speaking in this debate I am happy to indicate an interest in the paper and board industry, and it will be from the industry's point of view that I shall be speaking today. Last December the Director General of the British Paper and Board Industry Federation, Mr. John Adams, issued a statement on forestry policy in which he said that they welcomed the Government's statement on forestry,and its declared intention to continue expansion in the national interest".He said, however:Nevertheless it leaves some nagging questions to be answered and could introduce a number of risks to efficient forestry in this country and also to the wood using industries".I have to tell your Lordships that after a long debate on all the stages in another place these nagging doubts still remain. They are not lessened by the wide enabling powers given by the Bill or the fact that the Government refused to accept a single amendment in the other place. I hope that the noble Earl, who described himself in the debate on 23rd February as the "fount of wisdom in this House", will be much more flexible than his colleagues in the other place.
§ Lord Irving of Dartford
My Lords, I certainly do not wish to misrepresent the noble Earl, and if I am wrong I apologise, but my recollection is still fairly clear. Among the nagging doubts expressed by the Paper and Board Industry Federation was as to the scale of operation envisaged by the Government's determination to sell Forestry Commission land and any change that this would have on the future structure of the Forestry Commission. As several noble Lords have 1008 said, the Forestry Commission stands high in the reputation it holds both at home and abroad; and as the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, said in the debate on 23rd February:There will be grave regrets throughout the forestry world, which includes the processing industries, and the private sector, if the viability or the authority of the Forestry Commission were in any way to be weakened or damaged".My Lords, I am very sorry that as a prelude to this Bill there was not a White Paper in which the whole of the considerations could have been set out. We could then have seen all the options and some of the long term projections that could have been given. The paper and board industry believes that the aim of Clause 1, which is,to dispose without restriction or qualification of land acquired for forestry",is alarming without considerable qualification. To remove restrictions on the Forestry Commission to dispose of state-owned forests and lands to the private sector without safeguards could, in the view of the industry, introduce risks to the future efficiency of forestry in the country and also to the wood-using industries. Such disposals should, in the view of the federation, be small, and take place only where they could lead to more economic management overall; for example, state forests that are isolated, or adjoin private woodland, or land suitable for forestry. In the view of the Federation, there need to be inbuilt safeguards introduced into the Bill to guarantee, first of all, that these forests will be properly regenerated, and secondly, that the Forestry Commission should be given the right of first refusal to purchase back any land which had been previously sold when offered to the market. This could be done with proper valuations which would not really prejudice the future of negotiations in that field. Thirdly, that the land should not be disposed of to foreign competitors or to other persons who did not have the long term growth and prosperity of United Kingdom forestry as their prime concern.
The paper industry has suffered most acutely from problems of foreign competition in the past few years. These would be accentuated, and the industry is concerned that the Forestry Commission should retain its role of forestry authority and forestry enterprise and that it should be the declared policy of the Government that nothing should be done which would impede the Commission in carrying out this role. The Forestry Commission, whose prime objective, reinforced by the Forestry Act 1967, is the supply of wood for industry, is structured to undertake the large-scale long term supply contracts which pulp mills require to ensure the viability of their large capital investments, and its ability to make and fulfil such contracts should not be in any way restricted.
Further, my Lords, for major wood-using industries such as conversion into wood pulp it is vital that wood costs are minimised through the large-scale mechanised planting and harvesting, and it is recognised that the Forestry Commission, with its long experience of large-scale harvesting, is better equipped for such operations than most other people in this business. It is important, therefore, that the Forestry Commission should retain its role as both forestry authority and forestry enterprise.
1009 The United Kingdom paper and board industry has faith in its future despite its current problem of high energy costs and the strong pound which have already forced the closure of three major paper and board mills using very considerable quantitites of United Kingdom wood. Feasibility studies are currently being carried out on small-scale pulping mills that could be widely used in the United Kingdom. If such studies show that the future is promising, then this would help to optimise the utilisation of indigenous wood resources and help to reduce the import burden of wood and wood projects, currently costing the country £3 billion per annum. It could also possibly maintain domestic production to the benefit of employment and the balance of payments rather than that home-grown pulpwood be sold abroad to make high added value paper and board that is then imported back into the United Kingdom.
The industry is therefore concerned lest the measures contemplated could harm the successful operation of the Forestry Commission and this of the wood industries. With 8 per cent. of the United Kingdom land surface devoted to woodland we have less coverage than almost any other European country. This nevertheless should have a conversion value, if it is sustained and preserved to the year 2025, of £800 million per annum. If the target of the Centre for Agriculture studies was accepted the figure by 2025 would be something like £1,700 million a year, at a time when it is preducted that there will be a shortage of timber. Expansion of British forestry will increase national wealth by substituting home supplies for imports, something we all ought to be doing, and by increasing employment opportunities.
There has been a strong suspicion that this Bill is a Treasury Bill and not a Forestry Bill. The Secretary of State for Scotland said in another place on 15th December:The scale and location of areas to be sold will be at the discretion of the Forestry Commission and will depend on the demand from those interested in making investments in this sector, coupled with the need to maintain a coherent forestry management policy. The overriding objective will remain the reduction of the Commission's need for grant aid for its forestry enterprise activities".The paper industry believes that an assurance is necessary that not more is sold than is necessary to offset the grant in aid. The industry would clearly not wish to see further sales take place to offset the public sector borrowing requirement alone beyond that for the grant aid for forestry. I hope that the noble Earl will be more forthcoming than his colleague in another place, and that we will see some amendments to the Bill at the next stage. So far as we are concerned, the success of forestry is in the interests of the whole country.
§ The Earl of Mansfield
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, since he was courteous enough to inform me that he would not be able to attend until the end of this debate, will he accept that I have looked up the Official Report to see what I said on the previous occasion; and would he take it from me that I acknowledge that I so expressed myself that it could be taken that I was putting myself forward as a fountain? That was no part of my desire, and would he therefore accept my apology?
§ Lord Irving of Dartford
My Lords, that is very generous of the noble Earl. I accept his apologies, and if I misrepresented what he intended, I also apologise.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ Lord Barnby
My Lords, in following the noble Lord, Lord Irving, I should like to record how much I appreciate having had the advantage of listening to the interesting statistics and historical information that he gave us. Next I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Mansfield on the way in which he combined adequacy and clarity with admirable brevity in presenting the conditions of this Bill. In the course of his remarks he gave a catalogue of six points which were particulary recommended in the Bill. For my part, I was interested in No. 6, which is the point which justifies my own intervention. It is with regard to common land. There are many cross references, necessarily, to the Act of 1967, as is inevitable, and there were also necessary references this afternoon to the Countryside Bill. Section 39(2) of the 1967 Act is amended by the Bill but there seems to be no amendment to Section 39(1). There has been liberal indulgence this afternoon by other speakers taking a wide view of the question of forestry rather than strictly concentrating on the Bill.
Clause 2 of the Bill deals with the sale of land. For myself, I am interested in the question of common land and my purpose in intervening today is to ask the Minister whether he can give some indication of the mechanics whereby common land is available for purchase by the Forestry Commission for the purpose of reafforestation. If he cannot do that today, perhaps he will write to me about it. I have listened to debates on forestry in this House for the last 50 years. My mind goes back to the Royal Commission on Common Land. When I was in another place, we tried very hard to get that Commission set up. We succeeded and a report, a large volume, was issued. The Government of the day promised early legislation following its publication. That was 60 or 70 years ago, and the legislation has not yet arrived. But, of course, there may be hope for the future.
The point I wish to make is that within a reasonable radius of the metropolitan area there are considerable areas of common land which are derelict. They produce nothing; they do not even have recreational value. Many of the areas are covered with scrub and rubbish. This waste of national land should be much regretted. We are told that the amount of available land is inadequate and that areas are shrinking all the time because they are being used for other purposes. Many noble Lords who are familiar with the question of common land know the limitations regarding its reafforestation. Nevertheless, I believe it calls for a proper investigation. I am not sure whether there are special problems connected with reafforestation and hardwood.
My mind goes back a great number of years to when there was so much waste of land and property generally. When there was a bigger production of coal, there was a very necessary heavy import of softwood for pit props. At that time in Parliament the question used regularly to be asked:" Why don't we produce it ourselves instead of importing it? We 1011 have these hillsides in Wales all derelict". There was not much encouragement for hill farming and sheep then. It is a pity that better use was not made of that land then.
I thank your Lordships for your indulgence for my digression. May I conclude by saying that after a long interest in forestry I recommend that the Government should give the strongest encouragement to develop a greater production of home-grown timber to replace the vast amount of timber that we import.
§ 1.22 p.m.
§ Lord McNair
My Lords, I have to begin by apologising to the noble Earl that I was not able to be in my place at the beginning of the debate. I had to take the chair in a EEC sub-committee upstairs. I am very sorry that I could not hear the speech with which he introduced the Bill. I have no doubt he made out a good case for it with his usual eloquence. I am equally sorry that I was not able to hear the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, which may perhaps have given a slightly different impression.
As I was unable to hear the speeches, I must suspend my judgment for the time being, despite what I have heard since I arrived, and accept the theoretical possibility that this may still be a splendid Bill in so far as it affects forestry in general, but not in so far as it affects the Forest of Dean which is what I want to speak about. In the Forest of Dean this Bill has aroused the most widespread—one could almost say universal alarm and apprehension. It has few, if any, friends on the Forest of Dean District Council. I am getting letters from residents all expressing their concern.
I do not know whether the New Forest may be in the same position but as I do not have enough information I shall not speak about it at all but only about the Forest of Dean. The difference between a Royal forest like the Forest of Dean and a great deal of the windswept coniferous uplands which the Forestry Commission administer is simply that this part of Gloucestershire is fairly densely inhabited. After all, it is not very long since it made up a parliamentary constituency which in the past has had some notable representation. I believe that the population density is one person to every one and a half acres. One can compare that with the nearby North Cotswold district where there is only one person to every five acres. It is, in other words, a human habitat. People live there. The forest is the environment in which they live.
The long history of the Forest of Dean, which was a royal forest in the days of Edward the Confessor, is a fascinating story with which I must not detain the House this afternoon. It is a story of a centuries old conflict between the interests of the people who happen to live there and the interests of the succeeding authorities of Crown and state who have seen it (and who sought to exploit it) first as an amenity and later as a national asset.
To begin with, it was a preserve for deer—and incidentally, wolves and wild boar—and the human inhabitants were tolerated so long as they did not interfere with the deer. Later, because much of its soil will grow the finest oak in England, it became the 1012 main source of supply of timber for the Navy. That is why we are told that the commanders of the Spanish Armada had orders not to leave a single tree growing between the Severn and the Wye. All the time, very deep beneath the trees, there have been rich mineral deposits. In Roman and pre-Roman times it was the iron ore that was worked. More lately, of course, it has been coal. Although today I believe that the National Coal Board has closed its pits and left, there are still the Freeminers of the forest with their private opencast workings.
The rights of the foresters, the rights of access to the woodlands, the rights to graze sheep, the rights of vert and of pannage—or perhaps "privileges" is a better word for them—never had any very firm legal basis in law. As I understand it, that is the price that one pays for living in a Royal forest. The privileges have depended more on custom and usage than on law; but this only makes them all the more precious. It is these rights or privileges which the foresters fear may be eroded, set aside or even extinguished if this Bill becomes law in its present form.
If the Minister is given the sweeping powers which this Bill would confer upon him and if—for perfectly good commercial reasons—some parts of the forest were to disappear into private hands, who then can protect the rights of access for the foresters themselves and for the tourists and holiday-makers upon whom they are coming increasingly to depend for a part of their income? I am afraid that I must say that the people in the Forest of Dean have learnt not to trust Governments; they like to see something in writing. This is in no way aimed at this present Government. These powers will go on from Minister to Minister, if we let them.
In the forest they had established a good modus vivendi with the Forestry Commission. They have learnt to live with the 1967 Act and they would much prefer to go on living with it. So far as this present Bill is concerned, the Forest of Dean would wish to be excused, exempted, excluded. That I hope we may achieve in the later stages as the Bill makes it way through your Lordships' House. But if we should fail, then perhaps we can find some other way in which to ensure that the people in the Forest can continue to move freely among the trees which their ancestors have been planting and tending ever since they made that very important discovery that "tall oaks from little acorns grow".
§ 1.29 p.m.
My Lords, I must apologise to your Lordships for not being present when the noble Earl made his opening speech on this forestry debate. But I have a point which may not have been brought up before. Your Lordships will remember that a chandelier fell from the ceiling of our House, very narrowly missing the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell. The authorities of your Lordships' House and the Palace of Westminster put up—and it was done in very quick time—a timber false ceiling. I wonder whether that timber is home produced or foreign. I also wonder whether the noble Earl could make some investigations and perhaps tell your Lordships at a later stage. I would guess that in this Bill the wood would be called either high-quality shuttering or 1013 low-quality planking, both of which can be met to the same specification from this country as from abroad.
Perhaps the noble Earl could assure us at a later stage—I do not mean now—whether the Government departments who are concerned with timber purchasing and timber use could make sure that the home-grown trade gets a chance for quoting when there is a user requirement. If the noble Earl, or your Lordships, could bring forward something to be inserted into this Bill to this effect it would do more good than, I regret to say, anything that has been said in your Lordships' House today and in another place in recent weeks for the benefit of the home-grown forestry and timber-growing trade. I apologise again to the noble Earl for being unable to hear his introductory speech.
§ 1.32 p.m.
§ Lord Ross of Marnock
My Lords, I am not tempted by the suggestion that was made that in order to hear certain Statements made in another place we should carry on until about three o'clock. Of course, if challenged, I daresay we could do it with a few suitable interventions all round to keep me going; but since we have already been warned by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, that we are going to have a long and sustained Committee stage and that amendments are going to flow from all sides, it would be as well for me not to prolong my speech on this occasion.
§ Lord Ross of Marnock
My Lords, I would ask my noble friend not to say "Hear, hear!" The fact is, of course, that I, like other Secretaries of State, have had experience of being a Forestry Minister. I was one for eight years and one thing I certainly discovered very quickly was the uniqueness of the partnership in forestry between the industry, the Forestry Commission, the private woodland owners and the timber trade. I got a perfect indication of that in 1968 when one January night there were about 43 million Hoppus feet of Scottish timber felled, scythed by a hurricane. What a problem it was for the industry, the people who were marketing, the owners, the Forestry Commission and the contractors. I can remember how well that wind-blow action committee met and handled this, not just from the particular point of view of their own interest but from the point of view of the interests of the whole lot.
Another thing I discovered, which sticks out a mile in this Bill, is that the Minister is really in the middle. On one side there is the Forestry Commission, anxious to get on with carrying out their 1919 remit—and that remit was further upgraded and consolidated in 1967 and further added to within a couple of years of that—and also anxious to get on with planking and research and development. On the other side there is the Treasury, and I recall that the task of the Forestry Ministers was constantly to battle with the Treasury and to get money made available to carry out what the Forestry Commission considered was a national task. May I say this: the present set of Forestry Ministers have obviously failed. They have not been able to handle the Treasury in the way that others have. I remember the planting programme when I first became 1014 Secretary of State in 1964 was somewhere about 25 thousand acres. I managed to raise it over 50 thousand acres; and there was a very healthy mood in respect of both private and public forestry that" this was more like it".
Figures have been quoted, among others by my noble friend who made such a wonderful speech from the Front Bench—and I can assure her that she will be expected to adorn this Front Bench for a long time on this subject if she keeps up that kind of standard. I well remember exactly the position. We are only self-sufficient to the tune of nine per cent. If even the optimistic figures that have been put forward as to what the planting programme should be were carried out, by the end of the century we would only be about 25 per cent.—and by the end of the century timber is going to be a very scarce commodity and a very valuable commodity indeed. We have to rate the value of the assets we are now seeking to dispose of in relation to that and of what the value will be if they are maintained.
I have nothing but pride for the progenitors of the Forestry Commission who in 1919 were looking not two, three or fours years ahead, but a century ahead. Their first plantings are now coming to maturity at the present time. Is this the time to sell them off? I believe the noble Lords, Lord Irving of Dartford and Lord Taylor of Gryfe, together with my noble friend all asked the question: Who is going to buy? Let us remember what is going to be sold. First, we are told the disposals will be limited. That was said by the Secretary of State in another place but in the Bill there is no suggestion that it is going to be limited. We have had figures today from the Minister of State to show that it will be 43 million a year over five years. It is not in the Bill. It says quite clearly and simply:The Minister may dispose for any purpose of land acquired by him under this section".That is not the Forestry Commission but the Minister, and for "Minister" you can read "the Treasury".
If I have learnt anything from being a Minister and if I have learnt anything of politics—and I was 33 years in the other place—it is that once the Treasury see there is money readily available they can grasp for their immediate purposes—not long-term purposes—they will be back. There used to be a thing called the Road Fund just as there is at the moment a Forestry Fund. Where is the Road Fund now? I remember a certain Chancellor of the Exchequer, when explaining his Budget, hesitating for a time and then saying "I will dip into the Road Fund". It was too easy and it will be too easy for the Treasury to dip into the Forestry Fund. There is nothing in this Bill to limit them. The progenitors of the Forestry Commission were looking a century ahead but the progenitors of this Bill are looking perhaps three, four or five years ahead. It is not fair for us to be asked to accept this kind of measure. We have had one or two blows on forestry this last year.
I think the noble Lord, Lord Irving, referred to the pulp mill and board closures. The Forestry Commission lost a ready market—one that could have added value in British terms and for Britain. I think it was about 250 thousand tons. What is happening to that now? It is being sent abroad at timber values, of course. This is coming back to us as paper and, strangely enough, at rates that our own people here 1015 cannot meet. So there are one or two questions in respect of the whole industry, and I hope that the Forestry Commission and the Government will get together.
I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, sitting there. He said that there is some sense in rationalising aspects of the selling. There are parts of the forests and woodlands which the Forestry Commission could quite easily sell off to other people, and it would make sense for the other people where they integrate the forestry with, perhaps, agriculture. But there is nothing to prevent them from doing that now. I have the 1967 Act here and they can do it. But the fact of the matter is that, at the present time, there is a limitation on that power to dispose, and that is a limitation on the purposes for which this Bill has been introduced.
I used to be a teacher of English, though you would never appreciate it from the way I speak from this Box. But if there is one word that I hate, it is "privatisation". It is about as ugly as the very thing itself. May I say to my noble friend Lord Taylor of Gryfe—if I may still call him that—that I was appalled by his arrogance in assuming that his new party, the Shirley-Davy Party, alone have a balanced attitude towards forestry. That seems to be his impression. But that attitude is already there in the actions of the Labour Party over the years, in the way they tackled forestry in the 1947 Act, in 1964 and thereafter. So let him not be too arrogant about that.
I hope that this partnership will continue. I hope that the consensus in Parliament about forestry will continue. I was not a forester when I became Secretary of State and my mentor—believe it or not—was the late Duke of Buccleuch, the present Duke of Buccleuch's father. I got to the point where I could trust him in forestry matters. That is what happened in relation to private forestry, the Forestry Commission and the trade itself. They have a unique organisation.
I know that the Government say that this Bill will do nothing about that and it will go on. But the Treasury's eyes are on the fact that, more and more, we are approaching the time when there will be very considerable assets. The Forestry Commission will become self-financing and the indication is that, if things are left alone, that will happen in about 1995. The greedy eyes of the Treasury are now on this and it is now felt that, if they get rid of the assets, they can be self-financing 10 years earlier.
But they have left so many questions unanswered as to what will happen to the national aspects of forestry. What will happen to the continued planting and restocking by the Forestry Commission? We are told that it is proposed to sell up to one-third of the Commission's reserves. Those are reserves of land, and I ask your Lordships to remember that they will be sold for any purpose. There is nothing in the Bill which says that they will be sold for forestry. There goes a considerable part of the future planting programmes—and this is land. This is where privatisation goes too far. I read on:The Commission reserves the planting of land to the private sector for afforestation"—it does not say that in the Bill—of the existing forests. The remainder, being essential to the 1016 management or of no interest to private investors, would be the basis of the Commission's continued new planting".How on earth can any organisation plan five years ahead with this? You can say goodbye to the planning of the Forestry Commission's future programmes. They do not know how much money will be demanded of them each year from the Treasury. I think this is crazy. Here is a unique organisation with a worldwide reputation and it will be thrown away.
We had the advice of the Sherfield Committee on the subject of the approach to new technology within forestry. At the moment, research is being cut and here we have a committee of your Lordships' House saying that we must spend more on it. The noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, asked what they could do in relation to land management and the rest of it. Section 8 of the Forestry Act 1967 makes three other points, apart from the general duties of the Forestry Commission which is,…charged with the general duty of promoting the interests of forestry, the development of afforestation and the production and supply of timber and other forest products in Great Britain".They may,undertake the collection, preparation, publication and distribution of statistics relating to forestry, and promote and develop instruction and training in forestry by establishingforestry schools or colleges, and that is what has been done. Secondly, they may,make, or aid in making, such inquiries, experiments and research, and collect, or aid in collecting, such information as they may think important for the purpose of promoting forestry and the teaching of forestryand research comes into that. Then, thirdly, they may,make, or aid in making, such inquiries as they think necessary for the purpose of securing an adequate supply of timber".They have wide powers, and I am certain that no Government would object to them interpreting those powers in order to deal with the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, about modern management, land resources, the use of forestry, farming and so on.
It makes me sad when a Government, which has a national asset like this, is taking powers that are bound to make people suspicious and allowing this Bill to go through another place without a single comma, noun, conjunction, phrase or anything else being changed. It has had such a cold reception from everybody. The ramblers are concerned about it. After 1967 there was greater emphasis upon recreational facilities being provided in the forests, and, of course, that has been done with youth hostels, camps, car parks, guidance tours and forest walks.
One of the greatest open-air assets that we have has been developed by the Forestry Commission and the people have responded amazingly. One would have expected that there would be forest fires all over the place, but no. Even the people from Glasgow respect what has been given by the Forestry Commission and the money that has been spent. The ramblers are worried, because if you sell off forestry there is no guarantee that there will be the same access.
The Royal Society for Nature Conservation are worried, in particular, about the sale of woodlands which are of importance to conservation, and they suggest that there are about 60,000 hectares of such woodlands. They say, 1017If these woodlands are offered for sale on the open market we believe that there is a danger that some will attract prices beyond the means of any organisation prepared to acquire them for conservation reasons and further losses or damage of important wild-life habitats would result".They suggest that there should be a restriction on sales. This goes through every criticism: there ought to be a restriction on sales, conditions about resale and retention of existing access. If the guide is to be the greedy determination of the Treasury, then the Nature Conservancy will not be called in. The Countryside Commission will not be called in. It will be money first and the nation last.
May I take the Minister of State back to the initiation of the Forestry Commission? It was a Scottish Lord (his son is not at present in the Chamber but he does attend) Lord Lovat, who was its first chairman. There are many people on his side of the House who will take every step to ensure that the Forestry Commission is not undermined. We have still got a national purpose. This silly privatisation is about two years out of date now. The Government are sorry that they ever embarked upon it. If they want to make a U-turn, they should do it first on this Forestry Bill.
§ 1.51 p.m.
§ The Earl of Mansfield
My Lords, I should like to thank noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. Some of them are extremely experienced in forestry matters. The whole House will appreciate both in this debate and, I have no doubt, in later stages of the Bill their collective and individual wisdom and the contributions which they will make. I must also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, on her first appearance at the Front Bench. If I say that I agreed with almost nothing that she said and that her attitude to the Bill possibly betrays a gap in her education over some forestry matters, I know that she will not take it from me in any way which could be described as amiss—still less meant offensively.
Forestry depends very largely on confidence. It is plain, as a result of the debates which have taken place since our policy statement last December both here and in another place, that nobody can question the Government's firm commitment to the industry or to our belief that expansion should continue, although it must do so at a rate which is commensurate with the resources which we can devote to it. It is fair to say that the need for expansion is accepted in all parts of the House, though I accept that we do not all necessarily agree upon the scale and the way in which it should be achieved.
As I explained to your Lordships at the conclusion of our last debate on 23rd February, we are satisfied that the way ahead lies in an expansion broadly at the historical rate of the past 25 years, taking one year with another. We also believe that the time has come for the private sector, which over the years has steadily built up its expertise, to undertake the greater share of expansion. So there is no disagreement as to the desirability of having an expansion of the forests in the United Kingdom.
I must take issue with the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, who accused the Government of having nothing more nor less than a cash register mentality, dictated by the Treasury. His scenario of the forestry 1018 Minister standing with the Treasury on one side and the Forestry Commission on the other is certainly not the way in which the present Government set about their task. Failure, of course, he is no stranger to, because I think he was Secretary of State at the time when capital transfer tax was introduced, a tax vindictive and which caused a bigger blow to confidence in forestry than any other measure which could possibly have been introduced. That, if the noble Lord took issue with the Treasury, is one battle which he lost.
I think that a great many of the points which have been made in the debate are more suitable for the Committee stage or possibly the Report stage of the Bill than for a Second Reading debate. Nevertheless, I shall try to answer most of them because there are some very real and genuine misconceptions about the Bill and, indeed, about the Forestry Commission and the role of Government which have given rise, I think, to a great deal of the dismay over the Bill. Some of those misconceptions I hope to do something to allay.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, in effect said that there were to be no restrictions and no conditions on sales, no need for Ministers to consult the Forestry Commission; therefore the whole of the Forestry Commission's land could be sold off. This theme was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, who, to quote his own elegant expression, said that Ministers could "flog off" the New Forest. It may not be necessarily known that the Forestry Commission is in fact a department of state. It is not a Quango. It advises Ministers in its own right in exactly the same way as any other department of state. If there is a question to be asked on forestry matters either in this House or the other place, it is officials from the Forestry Commission who sit in the Box and advise Ministers as best they can.
If it is really suggested that in some curious way Ministers could go, without telling the Forestry Commission, to some estate agent and put the land at present owned by forestry Ministers, through the Forestry Commission, up for sale in a roundabout, underhand way without the Forestry Commission being consulted, nor having an input in the deliberations, I have to say that it merely shows an ignorance of the thoroughly sophisticated and complex democracy in which the Government of the day is carried on in this country. It is vital to appreciate this because it is on this that a lot of the safeguards, so to speak, which do not appear in the statute and which to my mind do not need to appear in the statute are based. When one comes to such matters as access, which I agree is an important issue, it is for that reason that the Forestry Commission, which I repeat will be in charge of sales, has got the ability to say," This particular forest is part of our sales policy and we will sell it off, but because of access considerations we will not sell it as such; we will have a sale and lease back". Therefore, the Forestry Commission will retain total control as part of its retention of management of that particular forest.
I know that one cannot govern by assurances but, if one stops to think for a moment, Ministers by statute are empowered to do all manner of things. It may well be that in the minds of the party opposite, or some of it or most of it, and its various offshoots, they do not like any selling off of the assets of a public 1019 corporation, whether it is a nationalised industry or a Department of State like the Forestry Commission. This is an attitude of mind which is perfectly understandable and, if I may say so, respectable. But it does not mean that by passing a Bill such as this Parliament is giving Ministers carte blanche in an autocratic, one might almost say megalomaniac way to sell off parts of our forests, especially those parts such as the Forest of Dean or wherever it happens to be at the gates of Glasgow that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, likes to parambulate in without let or hindrance. I must make this point because it is one which is cardinal and central to the whole of the way in which the Government of the country is carried on. Therefore, it is an important part of why the Bill comes to be drafted as it is.
The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, describes this as an asset-stripping Bill. There is no evidence at all for that. If, as I say, the Department of State which advises the Ministers in fact is going to be in charge of the sales policy it is for the department to carry it out. I have related to your Lordships what the policy in broad terms is going to be and how various eventualities and safeguards will be written into it. It is for the commission to carry out that policy. I quite agree that a new Government could have a new policy but that would be a matter for our constitution and our democracy to take into account when that new Government came into office, and it is the same for very many things which are passed by statute in Parliament.
I fully accept the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, about recreation and also his point that the decision of the Forestry Commission—I think he said this—must be overriding. Of course, if the Forestry Commission is given the duty of carrying out the policy there is no question of anything being overriding any more than any other Department of State can override its Ministers.
A number of noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, and the noble Lord, Lord McNair, talked about the sale of Crown Lands which comprise the New Forest and indeed the Forest of Dean. Obviously these patches of woodland—and I do not say this in a derogatory sense—these forests, are unique. They have a special status and equally obviously the commissioners will continue to dispose of little patches of land and cottages and so on, as they have done in the past but there is no intention of using the powers in this Bill to dispose of large tracts of land and certainly not in any way which would prejudice the traditional character of these areas. If an assurance from the Government is now worth anything, I give that assurance. There is no need, for the reasons which I have given, probably at considerable length, to write provisions for the future of these areas into the Bill, but no doubt we shall return to that in Committee.
In regard to this general matter of the sale of woodlands and public access, I have tried to show your Lordships how the Government intend to give effect to obvious concern that public access to woodlands where it has previously been enjoyed—and also other woodlands in the future—should continue to be so enjoyed. I think it is right just to repeat shortly that where there are considerations, particularly of 1020 such matters as access, the commission will not effect a sale. What it will do will be to effect a sale and lease-back. I should hope that in those particular instances in fact the forest will continue to be managed in the traditional way as it was by the Forestry Commission and I daresay the persons who frequent it will not even know that there has been a change of ownership.
Even where a sale takes place—I think this is a matter on which I should touch—in any particular part of the forest, for instance to an institution or a pension fund, I believe that on the evidence which has been before the country for the last 10 or 15 years, such institutions or pension funds, or whatever it may be, will show considerable pride in their ownership and a great desire to share their asset with the public. Certainly if the customers (if that is the right word) of the public limited company which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, adorns at the moment provide an example of what I believe is going to happen, I think we can rest very well content.
One of the things which perhaps exemplifies the attitude of certain people to these projected sales was evidenced by the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, when we had our debate on 23rd February this year when she asked—and I do her the courtesy of quoting her exactly:are we to have an invasion of oil companies, multinationals, Japanese pension funds, buying up acres of our forests?"—(Official Report, 23/2/81; col. 915.)If her voice gave a metaphorical quiver of indignation over that last phrase, who shall blame her for that? Certainly as regards the experiences of anybody who has had anything to do with the commercial organisations such as I have described which are likely to be in the market for forestry, I myself, putting on a personal hat for the moment, am entirely satisfied that in fact they will be overjoyed to show their public-spiritedness at very little cost to themselves by making their woods available and indeed attractive to anybody who wants to go into them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, questioned the schedule and criticised me for not mentioning it, and I think that in effect she suggested that the power of the commission in the Countryside Acts to buy land for recreational and amenity purposes will be repealed. If I have understood her correctly, I can reassure her that that will not be the case. The repeals merely relate to the power to dispose of such land and those powers are being subsumed in Clause 1 of this Bill
The noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, questioned the future of the small woodlands grants. This of course has nothing to do with the Bill, as opposed to other parts of the Government's policy, and we are proposing to replace the existing structure of grant aid for the private sector with a new and simplified system, and this has now reached the stage of consultations, which are at present going on. I can give the noble Lord the assurance that we shall certainly see to it that the purposes of the small woods scheme are reflected in the new structure now under consideration. So I do not suppose that the noble Lord need get down to drafting an amendment in that particular direction.
My noble friend Lord Dulverton and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, suggested that the Forestry Commission should have statutory powers and revised 1021 terms of reference to enable it to foster harmony of all land uses. This is an interesting and indeed very far-reaching suggestion. I think, if I may say so, that it is outside the terms of this Bill; its implementation would impinge considerably on a number of different Government departments in their differing responsibilities, and the implications of this proposal would have to be considered extremely carefully before an amendment was put down to this effect. The Commission are already under an obligation to have regard to the welfare of the countryside, including such matters as nature conservation, under the provisions of the Countryside Acts, but whether there is any need for additional statutory provisions to amend the Commission's terms of reference I question; I would hardly think they are necessary.
One matter which perhaps again exemplifies the misconceptions which have arisen over this matter of the Forestry Commission and sales of land was something said in the previous debate by my noble friend Lord Dulverton, who took it that the planting role of the Forestry Commission would be considerably lessened, and in fact, if I may say so, muddled up the absolute minimum with what he thought was going to be a maximum. That is another little example of what can happen so far as misunderstandings of the Bill are concerned.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, will the noble Earl explain why the sale of plantable land will not in fact restrict the future planting programme of the Forestry Commission, which is the point that Lord Dulverton had in mind?
§ The Earl of Mansfield
My Lords, the Forestry Commission will continue its planting programme according to the grant in aid which it gets in the normal way. I anticipate—and again I can only peer through the glass darkly into the future—that as a result of the sales one of two things will happen; first of all, in the medium term the Forestry Commission's plantings will probably to an extent go down as the private sector comes up, but thereafter, as the whole of the expansion of forestry proceeds in the way in which I outlined in my opening remarks, the scale of planting by the Forestry Commission will again increase, and, hopefully, at no cost to the taxpayer. One of the matters which have been forgotten when talking about Treasury" raids" and so on in the way Lord Ross has done is that one point of the Government's future policy is that the Forestry Commissioners should be less dependent, if dependent at all, on the taxpayer, which is merely another name for the money that is raised for the Treasury.
My noble friend Lord Barnby asked about the way in which common land could be made available for afforestation, which is really the opposite of what we are discussing in this Bill. There are great difficulties about acquiring such land for afforestation, but I shall take up his invitation to write to him, if I may. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, deprecated the holding of this debate today, and I think I must, in courtesy to him, say this: this is a Bill which has been in existence, so to speak, for a very considerable time, and since, as noble Lords have said, it was unamended in the other place, there is no question that anybody has been taken 1022 by surprise. Therefore, the fact that it has not, by reason of a printer's error, had the full amount of time which according to the rules it should do between First and Second Reading is not the Government's fault. If it is the noble Lord's point that he objects to the Second Reading of this Bill on what I may call the last day of term, I for one, as a Scot, am very glad that it is taking place at a time which will allow me personally to get to my family, hopefully, this evening rather than tomorrow evening. If there has been personal inconvenience to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, I can only apologise, but he gives me a smile, so I hope it is not too grave.
My Lords, I think I have at any rate tried to take up most of the points. My noble friend Lord Bathurst asks about the planks in the ceiling. I am afraid that, copious as my knowledge of forestry may be, I am not in a position to tell him as of this moment whether it is high quality shuttering or low quality planking, but I shall do my best to investigate both that and the rather wider part of his question, and, if I may, I shall write to him as soon as the information comes to hand.
I have no doubt that we shall have some hard-fought debates in Committee and I personally look forward to them. But in the context of today's debate I commend the Bill to the House and ask your Lordhips now to give it a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.