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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:45 pm on 28th February 2011.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Liberal Democrat 4:45 pm, 28th February 2011

My Lords, along with other noble Lords, I thank the Government, particularly my noble colleague Lord Henley, for intervening early in this debate, which was extremely helpful in setting us on the road for debate in certain areas. I want to thank the Government generally for their common sense in dropping the forestry clauses from the Bill, or at least proposing to support the dropping of them when we get to them. The Government have listened to what has been going on; I suspect as well that they have been retreating in a certain amount of disarray in the face of the public opposition which they did not expect. I am not, however, going to stand up and talk about U-turns and that kind of thing. It is always strange that when Governments put forward things that some of us might not like, they are accused of being obstinate and stubborn if they refuse to listen to what people say. However, if they agree to change and withdraw things, they are accused of making U-turns. They can be accused of anything by people who want to accuse them but I am delighted by the Government's decision to take out these clauses.

I speak in favour of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere. I would have signed it if there had been any space when I first discovered it. I have tabled several amendments in this group, which are now all dead parrots or perhaps dead budgies-or, since we are talking about trees, dead woodpeckers. I do not know; I get lost among these metaphors. The Minister talked about Sherwood and suggested that my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby might be Maid Marian. I was not sure whether he was putting himself forward as the Sheriff of Nottingham. If he is, the right reverend Prelate could be Friar Tuck. All I can say is: please can I be Robin Hood?

When I proposed that Clauses 17, 18 and 19 should not stand part of the Bill, I originally did so for traditional House of Lords Committee reasons. These clauses needed a great deal of probing and discussion, which the stand part debates would have allowed to take place. I was also concerned about what appeared, on the face of it, to be fairly draconian Henry VIII powers being granted. In retrospect I was right to be concerned, but as time went on I became more convinced that this was not the appropriate legislation to deal with the future of the Forestry Commission and its land, woodlands and forests. Therefore, I became more serious in believing that this House ought to take these clauses out. I now believe firmly that if the Government had not seen sense on this, this House would at least have taken them out before it sent the Bill to the Commons. Nevertheless, we are now in the position that we are in.

I praise not just the Government for their action but those who have campaigned on this matter. It is easy to attack or criticise the campaigners by saying that some of their messages were a bit simplistic and not all of the 535,000 people who signed the 38 Degrees petition had a detailed knowledge of all the issues. That is absolutely true but how many people have a detailed knowledge of all the issues when they cast a vote in a general election? Once these campaigns started to mushroom, I was determined to make sure that the people running them had as much knowledge and understanding as possible of what the Government were putting forward, what the Forestry Commission does and the facts and figures about the estates, as well as parliamentary procedures. They could then at least have some slight understanding of how the Bill would go through this House. Not many people have such an understanding-including some Members of this House, probably-but I thought that was at least a useful thing to do. If I have been able to play a small part in that, I am very pleased to have done so.

The huge petition that the noble Lord, Lord Clark, mentioned was quite astonishing. Similar petitions-about, perhaps, more important things than the forests in many people's eyes-rarely get into six figures but this one, if the Bill had got to the Commons with the forestry clauses still included, would clearly have been signed by a million people. This is an astonishing phenomenon. In addition to that, several national campaign groups were set up and campaigned mainly via the internet. They included Save England's Forests, which got its first real boost of publicity from the celebrity letter to the Sunday Times. I see the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, in his place. He was thought to be a celebrity who might like to sign the letter. Nobody bothered to ask me but that does not worry me at all because I am not a celebrity.

There was also Save Our Woods. The young people who run that have done a very good job in setting out a vast amount of factual information and creating a forum where people could exchange information. I believe that all this has contributed to the amount of knowledge and understanding in the campaign groups being much greater than it was at the beginning. In addition, providing huge local support to the campaigns were local organisations, some of which were enumerated by the noble Lord, Lord Clark. Some of them covered big forests such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest, others covered larger areas such as the Lake District, and many more, springing up almost by the day, were concerned with their own local forests. Add to that all the access groups, which were absolutely united against the proposals. Towards the end of the campaign, a lot of the established groups, such as the Woodland Trust and the RSPB, were coming on board. It was an astonishing campaign. The involvement of the internet, Twitter, Facebook and all these realms that I do not know much about has been a complete eye-opener to me.

Basically, the problem was this. First, the Government, although they would put it in slightly less brutal terms, botched the entire publicity throughout the last six months of last year of what they were doing. Different Ministers, although not the noble Lord, Lord Henley, were saying different things. It was not at all clear what they were saying. That gave the campaigns a lot of fertile ground. This was also about trees. As a local councillor for many years, I learnt long ago that you mess about with trees at your peril, unless you explain to people exactly what you are doing and why you are doing it and you get them on side. It really came home to me on one occasion, when Pendle council-I declare that I am a member of Pendle council-was proposing to remove some trees outside the municipal hall, which is a council-run theatre in Colne. These trees were diseased and needed removing, yet there was huge public opposition to it. We now have some nice birches there, which are much better. Nevertheless, at the council committee meeting at which this was being decided, a lady addressed the committee in tears. She said, "Do you know, me and my husband, we had our first kiss under that tree, and you're going to chop it down". That is how people think about trees. If you are going to do things to trees, you have to be very careful; you have to prepare your ground and you have to take people into your confidence from the very beginning.

I support many of the comments made about the independent panel and some of the questions. How will it be chosen? It is all going to happen fairly quickly if it is to report in the autumn, as is intended, so how will it be chosen? What are the criteria and the mechanisms for deciding who should be on it, and what are its terms of reference? The Government have to come clean about these questions from the very beginning. Furthermore, will there be any ongoing information and publicity about the panel's work until it produces its report? If not, there will be a vacuum for several months during which all sorts of rumours will develop and gain credence. The organisations that have now been set up are not going to go away. They will continue to ask questions; and if there are no answers, all sorts of information will get out there that may or may not be true. It is in the Government's interest to be as open as possible about the work of this panel and how it will work.

There is a further question about the 15 per cent. The Government have said that they have suspended selling any more of the 15 per cent until they have better protections on access and biodiversity. That is very welcome. How will these protections be announced, when will they be announced, and will the panel be involved in that work as well as deciding the long-term future of the majority of the estate?

A major consultation was run by the Forestry Commission in 2009-not very long ago-which seems to have been dropped and forgotten. A lot of organisations fed into that consultation. Will the proposals and submissions that resulted from that consultation be fed into the panel as information on which it can consider their views, along with everything else? Will there be a means by which the public can input into the work of the panel, or is all consultation now dead? I was disappointed when the Government dropped the consultation-although I was delighted when they said that they would remove these clauses-because a lot of organisations were doing a lot of work preparatory to putting in their views. It sounds-to a cynic outside, anyhow-as though the Government have said, "We have looked at the first results of the consultation. We do not like them and therefore we are stopping the consultation". However, a lot of work contributed to that consultation, and it would be helpful if organisations in the field, campaigning groups and everyone else were at least able to contribute to the work of panel by putting in their views.

We all have views about future policy. The noble Lord, Lord Clark, has secured a debate, which is still going ahead on Thursday, in which we will all be able to put forward those views more positively. However, all those people out there have suddenly not just become interested in forests-many have always been interested-but are committed to the cause of the forests, as they see it. The genie is out of the bottle and will not go back in. The campaigns and the campaign groups are alive and will not go away. They want to be involved. If there is a vacuum for the next six months, they will continue to be involved, and it will not be to the Government's advantage unless they can find constructive ways to involve these groups, as well as everyone else who is interested in the forests, and allow them to feed their information into this independent panel and understand how the panel's thinking is progressing.

This has been an extraordinary event. It is the first of this nature that I have witnessed or been involved in. It is actually exactly the same process that brought people on to Tahrir Square in Egypt. That related to an altogether different issue, and this one is perhaps less momentous. However, it involved the same kind of communication, process and campaigning by use of the internet and the involvement of many local groups. This may be the pattern for the future or it may be a one-off, but whatever it is it is quite extraordinary. I congratulate the Government on withdrawing their proposals, but we now want constructive involvement and inclusion of people in the process that is going ahead.