Public Bodies Bill [HL] — Committee (7th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 28th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Clark of Windermere Lord Clark of Windermere Labour 4:00 pm, 28th February 2011

I believe that with Amendment 47 we are also discussing a series of other amendments which relate to forestry issues. I shall carry on in the spirit of bonhomie which has engulfed the Benches in the House today but I must also say that I could not have foreseen such a situation arising a couple of weeks ago. The Government have made it very easy for us to be very positive because they have listened to what we have been trying to say-or at least I would like to think that they have been listening. The Minister has certainly been listening. I am not sure whether it was my arguments that persuaded him to move his position or whether it might have been the half-million people who signed the 38 Degrees referendum, or the 82 per cent of their own supporters who opposed their initiative, or the 86 per cent of the general public who opposed the Government's proposals. If was not my arguments or any of those other possibilities perhaps it was the mass meetings.

What has been really encouraging over the past few months is the fact that the British people have spoken in a way that I cannot remember them speaking before. Across the country we have found protest groups-people-getting organised to fight the Government on this issue. Sometimes it has been just small groups of people with one local forest. In other cases-such as the Forest of Dean, the Lake District or Chopwell in the north-east-there have been very big demonstrations involving thousands of people, often in quite remote forests.

I think that the Government got the message, but I must say that they have caused a lot of trouble, offence and concern. Many workers in the Forestry Commission, whom I regard as some of the finest workers in this country, have been offended by some of the comments made by Mr Cameron. I am sure that he did not mean what he said, but he has caused great offence to them. The struggle in which we have been involved of late was justified in one of our local newspapers. The Cumberland News had a piece this weekend in which it held vox pops asking people what they thought about the Government's proposal for forestry. A woman said, "I am so relieved. My husband works in the forest. We have been worried sick. We have hardly slept. What a relief it is now". It is that sort of hardship, that sort of worry, which could have been avoided if the Government had consulted instead of just rushing ahead with the proposals.

However, they have sat back and reassessed the position; and on 17 February, the Secretary of State honestly and openly announced three major retractions. I see that one name added to my amendment today is that of the Minister, and I am very grateful that he has added his weight to mine. I hope that, between us, we will carry the day. In the other place, the Secretary of State said that her announcement,

"will allow for more measured and rational debate".-[Hansard, Commons, 17/2/11; col. 1155.]

That implies that the government proposals had not been measured and had not been rational. They had not. As I said, the Government have now said that they were wrong, and I accept their words.

My specific amendment is about the regional advisory committees-not in themselves a great part of the scheme of things, but a useful part. I could never understand why the Government were so opposed to regional advisory committees. We looked at that when I was chair of the Forestry Commission. We examined everything, because I was determined to sweat the assets of the Forestry Commission. They belong to the public, so we must get value for money from those lands and those trees. We looked at everything, including the regional advisory committees, but at the end of the day, when we added it all up, we found that their net worth to the commission was far greater than the cost.

There are nine committees. The idea is that they allow the commissioners to have an entrée into thinking on a regional basis. We had devolved a lot of our policies from the national, England level down to the regions. In some cases, we had given money to the regions and said, "You may want to spend it differently in the north-east as opposed to the south-west". In performing those functions, we really needed the regional advisory committees. I suggest that strategy of trying to engage with local people was the right thing to do and one reason why there was so much opposition to the government proposals of a few weeks ago. We got that right.

The regional advisory committees are voluntary; the chairs get a small honorarium but the rest are volunteers-a very broad cross-section of the population. We have some chairs who are academics, some who are environmentalists, and one who is the rector of Hexham Abbey in the north-east of England. We also have business people. In itself it has been a real fund of knowledge and information for the Forestry Commission. In the north-west, for example, there are five people involved in rural and forestry businesses. There is one each in academia, the third sector, health, the environment and the RDAs. We have a broad section, which has been invaluable in carrying out our particular jobs. They have met three or four times a year while the chairs meet twice a year. Therefore, we have some commonality right across the country.

I am very pleased indeed that the Minister has added his name to mine and that he will support this move to knock out the regional advisory committee from the Bill today. While I am on that subject perhaps I may add that we had a discussion earlier about the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee on which the House did not push for a decision. Will the Minister now be prepared to take that back and look at it again on Report? Although I agree with him that it has not operated for a number of years, I feel that, when we get the report from the Secretary of State's committee of experts, we might find that that committee could be used for another reason. For example, the Government have appointed a regulatory authority dealing with forestry. It may well be that this committee could be useful to the recommendations of that committee. I hope that the Ministry will perhaps look at it and see whether it is possible to bring it forward at a later stage.

I end by asking the Minister a couple of questions. The first arises from his announcement on Schedule 7 today. It was a very welcome announcement in which he said that Schedule 7 would disappear, but also that a number of bodies might be transferred to other schedules to the Bill. Can he give us an assurance that when the Secretary of State announces that all references to the Forestry Commission will be removed from the Public Bodies Bill, the Forestry Commission will not be one of the bodies transferred from Schedule 7 to an earlier schedule of the Bill? Perhaps he can give me that reassurance. I am sure that it is fairly straightforward.

Can I tease a little more information from the Minister about the Secretary of State's announcement and how it relates to the series of amendments that we are discussing? Most of the discussion is about the 85 per cent of the Forestry Commission land which the Secretary of State cannot order the commissioners to sell, as it would be illegal for them to sell such a large section of the state forest. However, the Government announced that they were going to sell 15 per cent over the next four years. That was withdrawn from the market pending the consultation. What is the Government's thinking on this 15 per cent? Will it go ahead? We believe that it should not go ahead. However, if it does, we believe that any money raised by selling off forests should be ploughed back into the forestry estate, as happened under the previous Labour Government.

I also ask a question that is puzzling a lot of people. What legal advice has the Minister had on the issue of the 15 per cent? When the 15 per cent has been sold and the 85 per cent becomes the 100 per cent, is the Secretary of State entitled to order the Forestry Commission to sell off an extra 15 per cent, and so on? That question raises a lot of uncertainties and it would be very helpful if it could be answered. The answer could give people a lot of comfort and might help the Government to buy back the support and good will of the British people which they will need in their approach to the disposal of Forestry Commission land. I beg to move.