I plan to meet the Forestry Commission chairman next month. I met the commission's director general last week, when we discussed a range of issues.
I know that my right hon. Friend is aware that great concern is being expressed in many quarters about the possibility of access being denied to woodland sold off by the Forestry Commission. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to pass on those concerns to the chairman of the forestry review group? Will she ensure that if any recommendations are made by the group, there will be adequate opportunities for interested parties to discuss and comment on them before any changes are made?
Woodlands managed by the Forestry Commission provide very important opportunities for nature conservation, access to the countryside and a wide range of other recreational and environmental benefits. The review group will have to take full account of the need to safeguard those public benefits. I know that my hon. Friend lives close to the Forest of Dean—indeed, it is in his constituency—and I live very close to Thetford forest. I have been left in no doubt whatever of the degree of public anxiety about access. I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend's concern, as I have been doing, to the review group. There is nothing to consult about at present because the review group has not yet made any proposals. Nevertheless, sufficient time will need to be allowed for consultation about whatever proposals the review group puts forward.
Will the Secretary of State remind the Forestry Commission chairman that people have had the right to roam in Sherwood forest for many years and that Robin Hood will turn in his grave if that right is forbidden? Will she ask the chairman of the Forestry Commission to ask his review group to stick to its previous timetable? The changes to the timetable are causing concern and I do not want to see Robin coming into the Chamber to tackle the Secretary of State.
Yes. That is a considerable achievement by the Forestry Commission and as a result of Government policy. We need to get the balance right between broad-leaf planting and softwood, given that softwood makes up the bulk of our timber consumption. That will be another concern to be considered by the forestry review group.
How can we believe what Ministers say on this issue? First, the Prime Minister gave an election pledge that the Forestry Commission would not be privatised, but then that was repudiated on the ground that that commitment was given during the
frenzied activity of the campaign".
Next, the review group was set up. We then discovered that some forests have been offered privately to national conservation groups. Now we are told that that review group has appointed a merchant bank and a land agent to advise it. Does the Minister not appreciate that millions of people derive great enjoyment from the freedom to roam in our state forests and that that freedom would be lost were they to be privatised? Will she stand up and fight for the people on this issue?
I have already made my feelings plain on the question of access. I can certainly reassure the hon. Gentleman, who I know has a keen interest in this matter. Perhaps I should remind him that forestry is a multi-million pound industry which brings many economic and environmental benefits to this country. The review is intended to ensure that we get the best value from the Government's investment and that we are to provide the right climate for private-sector investment. The consultants will help the review group in that work. I should repeat to the hon. Gentleman that there is no pre-determined outcome of that review and one option could be to do nothing.