I am sure that the whole House would agree that it is a great privilege to participate in a debate on an amendment initiated by my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere. There are few people who have contributed more to the cause of the forests than has my noble friend. One thing that was particularly important about his time in the chair was that he saw to it that the commission addressed the issue of involving local communities in a sense of ownership and participation in the enjoyment of the forests. Under his stewardship, a great deal was done to open up the forests and to encourage people to use them and to have fun in them, but in a way that did not rape their very special character and heritage, in the sense that they are places of great spiritual significance and beauty. The whole House, irrespective of party difference, will want to pay tribute to my noble friend.
I endorse what my noble friend said about the spirit in which the noble Lord who is leading on this Bill has approached those issues that are put before him by people with special interests. I suppose that I shall have to say several times during our deliberations on this Bill that I should declare an interest. I am vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks and, particularly in the context of the forests, I have the great privilege of being the president of the Friends of the Lake District. One thing that my noble friend mentioned which I would like to underline is the strength, depth and spontaneity of feeling expressed when people felt that the forests were under threat. It was an extraordinary social cross-section of people, which was also impressive. The phrase one heard over and again was, "What are they doing to our forests?". There was a deep feeling that these forests were the heritage of the British people and that they belonged to the British people. We all ought to try to make connections in government between things that are happening in different spheres and I put it to the Government that, at a time when the Prime Minister chooses to talk about British character, it is very important not to attack those things that people feel are central, in a tangible way, to being part of Britain. Their forests are certainly part of that.
I was glad to put my name to the amendment dealing with the regional advisory committees. I referred to my role in the Friends of the Lake District and in the Campaign for National Parks, which brings together groups concerned about national parks all over the country. I think that it is important that, in the commission's administration of the forests, real efforts are made to get a local perspective, so that there is a real forum in which local issues and priorities can come forward and be taken into account in the way that things are handled. If nominated and appointed in the right way, advisory committees on a regional basis are a significant way in which to give meaning to this sense of ownership by the people as a whole, because it is possible for the local arguments to be heard and taken into account. That is why it is so important that the advisory committees should continue.
In his remarks, my noble friend made considerable reference to the issue of the 15 per cent. I hope that the Minister, whom I regard as a good Cumbrian friend, will forgive my saying that he did not convincingly answer the point. He kicked it into touch, because he said that it "all depended". With all the blunt directness that I have come to love in the people of Cumbria, all I can say is, "Come off it". If these forests belong to us and if we have expressed such a degree of concern, we do not want to find ourselves going down a road along which, through the back door, exactly what we have expressed ourselves as against is accomplished over a period of years. From that standpoint, we need a categorical assurance from the Government that this is not a back door to achieving the short cut that they were introducing in this Bill. On the 15 per cent issue, I hope that my noble friend Lord Clark will forgive my saying that there was a good deal of anxiety among those who were protesting about what had happened already. In a sense this is not a partisan point but one that stretches across the whole issue of the administration of the forests.
I thank my noble friend for moving the amendment. I say to the noble Lord opposite that it is time to take the message of the British people and build strongly on that-and not immediately, on day one, to start back-pedalling. The Minister referred to the importance of his advisory panel. Yes, I understand the business executive, streamlined modern management talk, which says that we must have a small, concentrated group of specialist people who will conduct this. Of course, you cannot dismiss that, because it is a very responsible job to administer the amount of forest that is there to be administered. But in the spirit of what the British people have just done and said, it will be crucial that the advisory panel is representative and is one with which the people can identify, so that it is seen transparently to bring together the different interests and communities among those who support the forests and were so aghast at what was proposed. There is a balance to be struck between business efficiency, on which the arguments of course must be taken seriously, and the job of carrying the public with whatever is proposed by seeing that it comes from a representative body with which they can identify. I am glad to be able to support the amendment.