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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 28th February 2011.

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Photo of Lord Henley Lord Henley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:15 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Judd, speaks, I think that it will be useful if I intervene to prevent a debate that otherwise might go on for some considerable time. I think that we can forestall that debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere-my noble friend, if I can put it that way, in that we come from the same part of the world, support the same football team and are looking forward to seeing each other at Wembley on 3 April this year-that I always listen to him, as do my colleagues in government. Indeed, we always listen to other people, so it is not just the honeyed words of the noble Lord. We have listened to the words of everyone throughout the country, even-dare I say it?-to our local newspaper, the Cumberland News, and the vox pop in it, to which he referred.

I am grateful for what the noble Lord said and for the kind words about what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said when she made her Statement on 17 February setting out a series of announcements concerning our forestry policy in England. I stress that these amendments relate purely to England; I think that there are others relating to Wales, which we will leave to one side for the moment. As she put it-I repeat her words-they,

"will allow for more measured and rational debate about the future direction of forestry policy".-[Hansard, Commons, 17/2/11; col. 1155.]

She said that because-dare I say it?-despite what the noble Lord said, we were not getting a measured and rational debate on forestry as a result of misunderstandings behind what had happened. My right honourable friend announced that the consultation on the future of the public forest estate would be ended, and she has done that. This was done because it was quite clear from those early responses to the consultation that the public and many MPs and Members of this House were not happy with what we had set out.

As stated in the announcement, an independent panel to consider forestry policy will be established and, in due course, we will let the House and another place know further details about it. It will report to the Secretary of State this autumn with advice on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England, the role of the Forestry Commission and the role of the public forest estate. The panel will include representatives of key environmental and access organisations alongside representatives of the forestry industry. Its membership and terms of reference will be published shortly. I ought to make it clear that, although it will include a wide range of representatives, we hope that all those appointed will be appointed for their knowledge and expertise. We also hope to keep this body small so that it can be properly focused. I think that all noble Lords know the danger of allowing bodies of this sort to grow like Topsy. I confirm that the panel will have an independent chairman.

My right honourable friend also announced that the Government will support the removal of all those clauses from the Public Bodies Bill. I was very grateful to the noble Lord for not reading out all the amendments that are being taken as part of this group, but we can take it as read that they will go through in due course. As a result, there will be a number of other amendments that I think noble Lords will not wish to move because they relate to clauses that will no longer be there. We can take it that forestry is, as I put it on another occasion, purely in relation to this Bill, a dead parrot, other than forestry in Wales, and will not be debated. That means that we will remove the Forestry Commission's regional advisory committees, which are the subject of the lead amendment.

The noble Lord also asked what we are intending to do about the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee. He will remember that we had a debate about it earlier in Committee and that I referred to it as a dead parrot because it had not sat since 2005. It was while the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, was chairman of the Forestry Commission that it ceased to have any members. I ought to be careful about this, but I should remind the noble Lord that it was his statutory duty to have such a committee and to have members of such a committee, but he decided that there would no longer be members of the committee and that the committee would no longer meet. When he comes to answer, he may assist the House by advising us why he decided that it was no longer necessary to abide by his statutory duty to have members of that committee or even to have the committee. The simple fact is that that committee has not met since 2005. As I said on that earlier occasion, it is a dead parrot, along with all the others. It is up to the noble Lord to make the case for it. If the noble Lord wants to put a case for preserving that committee at Report, I will always look at the advice that he puts before us and I will listen to his arguments as to why we should resurrect or resuscitate that dead parrot. The noble Lord, however, made it quite clear by his actions in 2005 that he did not want it, so I do not quite see why now, in 2011, he would want to revive it-unless, just possibly, he has some mischievous reason of his own, which I would never suspect that he possibly could. Anyway, we will look at that in due course, if the noble Lord wants to bring it back at Report.

We will, as I said, remove all those clauses relating to Schedule 1 and to Clauses 17 and 18 and there will be a series of small consequential amendments. My noble friend Lord Taylor has put his name down to do that-regional forestry committees and all the others will come out. I make it clear that everything that the noble Lord wishes for the moment has been dealt with. I should also make it clear that the withdrawal of the forestry-related provisions for England from the Bill does not affect the Welsh Assembly Government's policy proposals in relation to restructuring their arrangements for the delivery of their environmental policy, including policy on forestry in Wales. That is for another day and will be for those who will respond on these matters.

The noble Lord asked why we can sell 15 per cent. The previous Administration used these powers to sell land and I have referred beforehand to the fact that under the noble Lord's watch, when he was chairman of the Forestry Commission under the previous Government, some 25,000 acres were sold without any protection whatsoever. We make it clear that, should we be selling any, we will make sure that there is appropriate protection offered in terms of access, the environment and biodiversity. Of course-as I think we have made clear-we will not be selling anything in advance of the panel reporting back to us. That is why we suspended those sales, having completed the sales that we had inherited from the previous Labour Government.