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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 28th February 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords, Shadow Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 5:00 pm, 28th February 2011

I, too, am very grateful to the Minister for the information that he provided at the beginning of this debate and for the gracious apology from the Secretary of State in the other place a couple of weeks ago. I, of course, welcome the statement and the fact that all references to "forestry" and the Forestry Commission are being deleted from the Bill. Can the Minister confirm that the Forestry Commission will not appear in any other schedule if Schedule 7 is disappearing? Can he also provide clarification on Wales? I am not entirely certain what the position is now on Wales because the Forestry Commission is mentioned in Clauses 13 to 16.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and others, I pay tribute to the wonderful campaigns up and down the country. I, of course, pay special tribute to the people of the Forest of Dean in the Hands off our Forest campaign. It was the first campaign off the blocks and led the way for campaigns that drew widespread support, and eventually the Government listened, as they should do, and changed their mind. The sort of consultation the Government embarked on after they had produced the Bill, which said that they were going to enable forests to be sold, is not the right way of going about things. We should always have a consultation and a White Paper first.

I realise that the independent panel will listen to people's views but, as many noble Lords have said, we need to be assured that the independent panel is going to work in a transparent and public way, and we need to know who is going to be on that panel and what their remit is. If the Minister does not have answers to those questions today, I trust that he will have answers when we debate this issue again on Thursday. While I realise that the independent panel has been tasked by the Secretary of State and Defra, we on these Benches and in the Forest of Dean strongly believe that the small percentage of forests that remain in public hands-I think it is only about 15 per cent of the country's forests and woodlands-should remain in public ownership and continue to be managed by the Forestry Commission, which does an excellent job.

I am therefore delighted that Clauses 17, 18 and 19 are being deleted and that all the other amendments will fall. The reason why I and so many others from the Forest of Dean felt passionately about these things is because, as the right reverend Prelate said, the forest is not just the woods but a community, and we felt that our community as a whole was under threat. We enjoy customary privileges rather than established rights and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, we felt that those customary privileges were under threat.

I also added my name to amendments relating to public access, consultation, management and so much more. These issues are all of the utmost importance and I hope that they will be dealt with by the independent panel. Rights of access under the CROW Act are simply not enough when it comes to forests. We are all deeply grateful to the Forestry Commission for enabling cyclists, those who ride horses and those who practise motor sports to enjoy our forests. They simply could not do that under the CROW Act.

Likewise, I hope that the panel will consider Forestry Stewardship Council certification. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool tabled an amendment on this together with my noble friend Lady Quin. In 1999, the whole of the public forest estate received FSC certification, which recognises that these forests are responsibly managed according to environmental, social and economic criteria. We believe that that must continue. We want to ensure that this rigorous management standard is maintained for the future.

We should pay tribute to the way in which the Forestry Commission manages and protects our forests, ensuring maximum biodiversity and a strong ecosystem, as well as producing timber and making a huge contribution to meeting our targets under Section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008. That is another issue that is mentioned in an amendment by my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon.

I had a specific amendment relating to land in the Forest of Dymock. It did not enjoy special protection under the 1981 Act but, like so many forests and woodlands in our country, it is a very special forest. It is a major block of ancient woodland from which the seeds of sessile oaks are taken and exported throughout the world. There are glorious wild daffodils, dormice and so much more. Forests and woodlands such as these simply must remain as public national assets.

I have to ask, as is right on these occasions, why Clauses 17, 18 and 19 were put into the Bill in the first place. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, generously said that he thinks that perhaps it was a PR problem. That is one of the reasons why the campaign got off the ground up and down the country. I think that there was a real fear because when people read the clauses in black and white, they were alarmed about the future of these forests. Why were the clauses in the Bill? Sometimes we are told that it is because of the potential for increasing revenue, although the statistics show that the cost of the sale and the necessary grants would be more than the amount that we get in revenue. At other times, it is about the big society. In campaigns throughout the country the big society has spoken and people want their publicly owned forests to remain as national assets managed by the Forestry Commission. We all recognise that forests are part of our heritage. People recognise forests in terms of access, leisure, education, recreation and public well-being. They benefit our economy through timber sales and forest products. They support government commitments to biodiversity and carbon sequestration, and they provide a healthy natural environment. We want to ensure that our forests are safe now and for the future. For that reason, I warmly welcome the changes and amendments that the Government are bringing forward to the Public Bodies Bill.