These debates are traditionally conducted on a non-party basis, which puts me at a slight disadvantage. If the noble Lord the Member for Edinburgh, North (The Earl of Dalkeith) had made his speech in the Scottish Grand Committee, he probably would not have got off as lightly as he may do in this debate.
At the outset the noble Lord declared his interest, which we all know. I want to declare mine. At the beginning of the war I was a conscientious objector, and I was conditionally accepted as such provided that I did agricultural or forestry work. I was sent down to the Doone Valley in North Devon to fell trees on behalf of the Forestry Commission. For every tree that I felled I got blisters on my hands. Nevertheless, it was a very enjoyable experience. That was followed by further tree felling in the dales of Yorkshire and subsequently by tree planting just south of Jedburgh. Whenever I go past those forests I recall my contribution to the beautification of that part of the country.
To listen to this debate one would not think that we were talking about a nationalised industry of many years' standing—since 1919. From what has been said up to now, this is no junk yard. We have an investment of about £250 million, 85 per cent. of which is State forestry and the rest private woodland. It is an industry in which, by the nature of things, the investor—that is the taxpayer—must wait a considerable time for a return on his capital.
For this reason it has always been a tempting target in times of financial crisis for the Treasury to suggest cuts, if not outright abolition. Indeed, in 1922, as the Report recalls, the Geddes Committee on national expenditure recommended the abolition of the Forestry Commission. That recommendation was not accepted by the then Government, although the investment programme of the Commission—and, therefore, its activities—was substantially cut back. The same happened in 1931, in another financial crisis, when another committee on national expenditure recommended a drastic cutting back.
From the outset, the Forestry Commission has had a difficult childhood. Successive Governments have run hot and cold about it, mostly cold. Today's speeches have shown that the Treasury view towards the Commission is somewhat jaundiced even yet. Hon. Members have pointed out that in the past the Treasury has adduced the argument that public expenditure could not possibly be justified from a commercial point of view. The same could be said about public expenditure on education. Whenever there is a financial crisis there is a great temptation, particularly when the Conservative Party is in power, to cut back on education. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The same could be said of pure research, from which the immediate return is often negligible and from which the long-term return might be problematical. If we were to judge every form of public investment in terms of economic return, short-term or long-term, we would be defying the concept—