Is it not extraordinary that, in six years, the Government's forestry policy has not changed? Is there not a need to encourage the expansion of afforestation as an alternative crop, in the light of the surplus production from agricultural land and to increase the timber industry? Is it not also important that farmers, crofters and smallholders should be able to participate in that development? What proposals does the Minister have for the control of afforestation? Does he favour a licensing system, which seems to be widely favoured throughout Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman asked several questions. Forestry policy, as with all policies, is kept under review. Obviously, we are aware of all the points that the hon. Gentleman made. It is right that forestry policy should take into account matters such as conservation and the environment. It should also take into account the problem of agricultural surpluses, the need to find other uses for agricultural land and, indeed, the useful and important jobs that are provided by forestry in the countryside. I wonder what the hon. Gentleman's view is on the rather more controversial issue of forestry in his own constituency, where important jobs are being provided.
Does my hon. Friend understand that there is great and growing concern about the widespread afforestation of the flow country of Caithness and Sutherland? Will he ensure that forestry applications in those areas are taken by the Forestry Commission to the Nature Conservancy Council for discussion so that this unique habitat can be adequately protected?
From my correspondence, I am well aware of the wide interest in the flow country, usually outside the flow country itself, where perhaps the locals—like the locals in most of the highlands—take a slightly more relaxed view of these matters because they see both sides of the issue. There is no question of the whole of the flow country being covered by conifers. Most of the land outside the areas already planted or approved for planting is either not suitable for forestry or will not be available for it. We have set up a group of officials to consider the future use of land in this part of Scotland and the NCC is represented in that group.
Is the Minister aware that, contrary to the impression he gave, the level of employment provided has been extremely small, even in the Highland region? Is he further aware of the criticism by the chairman of the Highlands and Islands Development Board that the environment has been radically altered by insensitive planting and that most of that planting has been done by distant companies operating tax fiddles? When will the Scottish Office examine Scottish forestry policy?
The present procedure whereby the Forestry Commission consults several bodies before approving planting grants to the private sector and, indeed, before it decides on its own planting policy, works reasonably well. Forest planting is improving. Foresters in both the private and public sectors are more aware of environmental issues than they once were. About 40,000 jobs are provided in the forestry industry in Great Britain, either directly or in the downstream industries that depend on the raw material coming out of our forests.
My hon. Friend will be aware that substantial forests are contained within my constituency and that they are an important part of the local economy. Does he agree that any nation that has a £4,000 million import bill for timber must look carefully at the policy for more afforestation, that there is substantial scope for it in Scotland and that it should be encouraged substantially through the private sector?
I first welcome back my hon. Friend to the House. We look forward to hearing from him on a number of issues. He highlights an important point, namely, that forest product imports, running at £4·5 billion, are our major single import. Therefore, the increase of afforestation is important for that reason, as well as for many others.
May I reassure the Minister on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) that he will reply to the Minister's question as soon as possible? May I resume my hon. Friend's point with specific reference to Glenelg in my constituency, a socially fragile area as regards employment, as the previous Secretary of State said in the announcement to which the Minister referred in his initial answer? Surely the handling of that raises my hon. Friend's point—that if there were more local participation in forestry some of the anxiety would, perhaps, be overcome or at least partially allayed. Instead, there have been rather dubious dealings on the possible disposal of that asset.
I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. There is room for forestry, both on a large scale, financed by outside means, and for farm or estate forestry. It is important for us to find ways to encourage that. The Government are giving a good deal of thought to those matters at present.
I should certainly like to study any case that exhibits that tendency, because, as I remember, designation must be done on the basis of present scientific evidence, not on the basis of something which may or may not happen in future. If my hon. Friend wishes to write to me or my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram), who is more directly involved in SSSIs, he should do so.
Now that the National Audit Office has joined almost everyone else in criticising the inordinate expense and questionable effects of vast tax handouts to private forestry speculators, including Mr. Terry Wogan and others, in Caithness and Sutherland, will the Government reconsider the scope of those incentives and the adoption of more positive incentives and policies for both the Forestry Commission and the private sector to expand woodlands sensibly and sensitively, especially in lowland agricultural areas?
I listened to the hon. Gentleman's question and found it difficult to understand what his party's policy would be if, in the unlikely event, it won an election. The present tax arragements for forestry are of long standing and Governments of both parties have gone along with them to encourage private afforestation. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that the Labour party is against private afforestation, many people whose jobs depend on it will be interested.