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The next item of business is stage 3 proceedings on the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill. In dealing with the amendments, members should have the bill as amended at stage 2, the revised marshalled list and the revised groupings. For the first division of the afternoon, the division bell will sound and proceedings will be suspended for five minutes. The period of voting for that first division will be 30 seconds. Thereafter, there will be one minute for each vote.
Members should now refer to the marshalled list of amendments.
Like members across the Parliament, I support the bill’s ambition to promote the sustainable management of forestry and the management of land for sustainable development. Amendment 29 is intended to ensure that the individual provisions of the bill are underpinned by a clear statement of those ambitions.
There is always a risk that ambiguous wording or narrow analysis of passages in a bill will result in unintended or distorted interpretations. Amendment 29 would help to protect against that risk, by ensuring that elements of the bill could not be taken out of context or wilfully misunderstood. A purpose section is not unique; such sections exist in other Government legislation.
During stage 2, my colleague Rhoda Grant lodged an amendment that would have inserted a purpose section. The amendment was supported by the Greens at that stage. John Finnie said that the proposed new section was
“a worthwhile addition to the legislation that is in front of us.”—[
Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee
, 6 December 2017; c 3.]
“in principle, we agree with Rhoda Grant’s suggestion that there should be an overarching purpose to the bill.”—[
Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee
, 6 December 2017; c 2.]
However, the Conservatives had concerns about the wording of the amendment, which they thought was “not sufficiently encompassing.”
Scottish National Party MSP John Mason said:
“A purpose section for a bill is an extremely good thing ... Such a section clarifies things and helps the courts to look at the spirit, rather than just the letter, of the law.”
He went on to say:
“However, like Jamie Greene, I have reservations about the wording of this particular purpose section.”—[
Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee
, 6 December 2017; c 2-3.]
The cabinet secretary said that he shared and applauded the sentiments of Rhoda Grant and John Finnie in proposing a purpose section, but he, too, expressed concern about the wording. I have therefore looked carefully at the wording of Rhoda Grant’s amendment, and I have amended it considerably to take account of members’ concerns.
I have no objection to amendment 31, in Fergus Ewing’s name, but it will not add a great deal to the bill, if anything—certainly it will not add an overarching purpose. Labour will support amendment 31, but I urge members to strengthen the bill by supporting amendment 29.
I move amendment 29.
I share members’ ambitions for forestry in Scotland and I appreciate the good intentions of those who want to make clear our shared commitment to forestry and the purposes of forestry in future. I fully understand why some members want to see that commitment in the bill but, although I am sympathetic to the rationale behind amendment 29, I am afraid that I cannot support it.
That is because there are significant legal complexities to do with introducing a purpose section to a bill. All the sections of a bill must have legal effect and be capable of interpretation by a court. A purpose provision sits behind the individual sections of a bill and can affect how each is interpreted. Issues arise if the purpose is not relevant to every provision or duplicates or expands provisions.
The purpose that is proposed in amendment 29 would introduce legal uncertainty about how the powers and duties in the bill might be exercised. It therefore brings potential risk to the interpretation and operability of the bill, which is something that I am sure Mr Smyth does not intend and that I cannot support.
The purpose that is proposed in amendment 29 is in two parts, both of which must apply at the same time to every section. However, neither part fully covers the purpose of every section in the bill, and neither can be properly applied to every section.
For those legal reasons, I regret that I cannot support amendment 29. However, I have listened carefully to the aspirations of many members for a demonstration of ambition in the bill, so I suggest an alternative approach to address those aspirations, which responds to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s stage 1 recommendation that the bill contain a “statement of ambition” for modern forestry practice. I propose, via amendment 31, that the forestry strategy
“must set out a vision for forestry in Scotland”.
The strategy will be consulted on, so there will be opportunities for all stakeholders to contribute to the development of that vision, which must be a good thing. Ministers will be held to account for the strategy’s delivery and must, every three years, report to the Parliament on progress, including on delivery of the vision. I hope that that will serve as a risk-free alternative to the approach that Colin Smyth has proposed.
I offer amendment 31 in the spirit of compromise and seeking consensus on the vital issue of demonstrating our shared ambitions for forestry. Scottish Land & Estates supports the approach, and I hope that members will support amendment 31 as an alternative to amendment 29.
I declare an interest as a farmer and a partner in a farming business in the north-east, although we do not have any commercial woodland on our farm.
I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments on the amendments that were agreed at stage 2, which I believe have strengthened the bill.
The Scottish Conservatives will not support amendment 29 in the name of Colin Smyth. Although as a group we supported the principle of including an overarching statement of purpose in the bill, we now believe that that addition is not required and is not consistent with the bill’s long title. We cannot support the term “sustainable development” being put in the bill as a defining purpose, because the term has never been properly defined.
We support amendment 31, in the name of the cabinet secretary. Forestry is a long-term industry, and placing a duty on ministers to set out their vision in the forestry strategy will help to outline their goals for the industry and help those goals to be carried forward and adapted through each revision of the strategy.
I hope that the vision will include planting targets, which I have spoken about with the cabinet secretary. As the purpose of the bill is to grow our forestry industry, including measurable targets would be a logical addition for any future visions that the Government sets out in the strategy.
The Scottish Green Party will continue our support for this approach from Colin Smyth. It is important to see where it comes in the proposed legislation—obviously, it is right at the start, as an overview of the bill. People have talked about the ambition that is inherent in the bill, and they want clarity and direction.
I listened intently to and understand what the cabinet secretary said. Clearly, things are open to interpretation. Like Mr Smyth, we will support the cabinet secretary’s amendment 31, but we also support Colin Smyth’s amendment 29.
Briefly, I think that it is a good idea to have a purpose section in a bill. Ideally, it should be written out at the beginning of the process so that the rest of the bill follows on from it, rather than put in towards the end, as is currently proposed. As Peter Chapman said, there might be reservations about the wording and whether it fits in. However, as I think I said at stage 2, the principle of having a purpose section in the bill holds good, as it will help the courts focus not only on the letter but on the spirit of the law.
Very briefly, I simply reiterate that the wording of the proposed purpose section underpins and does not put at risk the implementation of the individual sections in the bill. Similar purpose sections are included in other Government legislation, and I see no reason why this one should not be included in such an important bill.
Amendment 30 seeks to extend the bill’s proposed statutory duty to promote sustainable forest management from ministers to other public bodies. The duty that is placed on ministers is a positive step, but we have an opportunity to go further and in doing so to implement recommendation 65 in the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s stage 1 report on the bill. That recommendation stated:
“The Committee recognises the benefits of sustainable forest management and agrees with those who suggested in evidence that there would be advantage in extending the duty. It therefore recommends that the Scottish Government gives consideration to extending the duty to promote sustainable forest management to all relevant public bodies.”
I am unsure why the Scottish Government said, in its response to that report, that it would consider that recommendation carefully but has not yet done so. We have an opportunity today to implement the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s unanimous recommendation and, by doing so, to help mainstream forestry and ensure a wider regard for issues affecting the sector.
Forestry impacts on and is impacted by a wide range of other policy areas. Extending the duty to all public bodies would reflect that and promote an integrated approach. Let me be clear—amendment 30 would not place unreasonable demands on public bodies. As the wording states carefully, the requirement would apply only
“so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of” their functions.
The Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 places a similar duty on public bodies in relation to biodiversity. Indeed, the wording in that act is the same as the wording in my amendment. That duty has been effective in advancing biodiversity and, critically, it has not undermined the ability of the affected bodies to operate. It would be bizarre and lacking in credibility for the Scottish Government to support such a duty in the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and then to claim that it is either unworkable or undesirable for the same duty to be contained in the bill.
I move amendment 30 and urge members to support it.
As the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee said in its stage 1 report:
“The Committee recognises the benefits of sustainable forest management and agrees with those who suggested in evidence that there would be an advantage in extending the duty. It therefore recommends that the Scottish Government gives consideration to extending the duty to promote sustainable forest management to all relevant public bodies.”
We will support amendment 30.
I thank Colin Smyth for highlighting the fact that sustainable forest management is not just the responsibility of one part of Government. The need to mainstream sustainable forestry in Scotland is one of the primary reasons for completing devolution.
Amendment 30 would not address the primary threat to sustainable forest management in Scotland, which is illegal felling. That is addressed by the amendments in group 7, which propose powers to stop suspected illegal activity immediately to allow proper investigation.
I am confident that the vast majority of forest management in Scotland is sustainable. However, I recognise that tree felling that is permitted, for example, as part of planning consent requires careful handling to ensure that it follows sustainable forest management principles. That is why Scottish planning policy includes the control of woodland removal policy, which requires appropriate compensatory planting when forest areas are cleared for development.
The requirement is having an impact. I note, for example, that the annual loss of ancient semi-natural woodland had reduced to an estimated 1.2 hectares per annum in 2016 compared with previous estimates reported in 2014. The Planning (Scotland) Bill, which is currently at stage 1, proposes that Scottish planning policy is given strengthened statutory status as part of the development plan. Those planning matters therefore go some way to achieving what Colin Smyth has set out to achieve.
As a further example of proportionate action, we will work in partnership with the sector to find ways of using new satellite imagery to provide better information on felling to enable us to act more quickly and decisively if we identify unsustainable activity.
In comparison, amendment 30 would place a duty on all Scottish public authorities to promote sustainable forestry across all their functions. While the amendment is well intentioned, I believe that it goes too far. There are hundreds of public authorities—for example, the chief dental officer, the Accountant in Bankruptcy, and many others—that do not have an obvious connection with forestry.
I recognise the attempt to limit the scope of the duty by including the phrase
“so far as is consistent with the proper exercise of” the authorities’ functions, but in law that would not limit the requirement for every Scottish public authority, including the chief dental officer, the Accountant in Bankruptcy and a plethora of other public bodies, to assess the extent to which the promotion of sustainable forest management is or is not consistent with each of their many functions.
Plainly, that would be a nonsense. Ensuring that forestry is at the heart of Government, strengthening implementation of the control of woodland removal policy and improving information on felling activity are, I submit, a more effective and proportionate approach to ensuring the objective of the sustainable management of Scotland’s forests and woodlands. I therefore argue that amendment 30 is not required.
For all those reasons, I encourage Mr Smyth not to press his amendment. If he presses the amendment, I encourage members not to support it.
I support amendment 30. I listened intently to the cabinet secretary and everything centres around the words; Mr Smyth is encouraging a consistent approach across the public sector, and I think that we should all sign up to that. The word “nonsense” was used. Realistically, no one would interpret amendment 30 as meaning that dental practitioners, administrators or indeed the Accountant in Bankruptcy should do anything practical in that regard.
Amendment 30 gives the public sector a direction of travel and I support it.
The proposal in amendment 30 was a clear recommendation by the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. It is consistent with provisions in other legislation such as the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009. By agreeing to amendment 30, we would underpin the importance of forestry across public bodies. I am therefore happy to press amendment 30.
During stages 1 and 2, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee discussed the important issue of woodland creation and how the bill could best ensure that there is a strong policy commitment from the Scottish Government on the matter.
Woodland creation is good for the economy because it secures future supply to the timber trade, is good for the environment and brings considerable social benefits. The committee concluded that the most appropriate place for such a commitment would be the forestry strategy; I agree with that approach.
Peter Chapman, Richard Lyle and I all lodged stage 2 amendments that would have required the strategy to cover that important issue, although we all took slightly different approaches and used slightly different phrasing. My focus was, and still is, on the importance of creating native woodland. I have highlighted the importance of promoting native woodland in recent meetings with the cabinet secretary, and will continue to champion the cause.
The underlying principle behind each of the stage 2 amendments on the topic was the same: it is important that the strategy contains policies, priorities and objectives on creating woodland of all types. The cabinet secretary indicated at stage 2 that he would be supportive of such an amendment, so I am pleased to have lodged amendment 3.
I encourage members to support amendment 3. We will support all the other amendments in the group.
I move amendment 3.
I will move amendment 41, in my name, which would require ministers to include planting targets in the forestry strategy. The main benefit that we want from the bill is more trees being planted
. Amendment 41 is logical in that what it proposes would lead to measurable targets throughout each report on the strategy, and it would ensure continuity, even with a change of Government.
We will support all the amendments in the group, other than amendments 6, 33 and 34, which we do not think would strengthen the strategy. My colleague Jamie Greene will speak to the other amendments in the group in more detail.
The bill includes an important new duty on Scottish ministers that has been welcomed by all parties and by stakeholders: namely, a statutory requirement to publish a forestry strategy. That is a big improvement on the current legislation and it is the centrepiece of the bill. The statutory framework for the strategy was improved by amendments at stage 2—specifically, the consultation requirements were enhanced by an amendment from Fulton MacGregor, and requirements on ministers to report on progress were introduced by an amendment from John Finnie.
In response to concern from members, the cabinet secretary acknowledged at stage 2 that more could be done to ensure that the strategy is kept up to date. I note that the current non-statutory forestry strategy is now more than 10 years old. The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee discussed the long-term nature of forestry and how to balance that with Parliament’s role in scrutinising progress and ensuring that the strategy does not gather dust. Suggestions for appropriate review and revision arrangements were lodged as amendments but not moved, following a signal from the cabinet secretary that he would support a proportionate approach for a cycle of no more than 10 years. I am pleased to offer an approach in amendment 4 that will meet those objectives, so I hope that it will be supported by members and the Scottish Government. I encourage Parliament to support the amendments in my name and the other amendments in the group.
This year’s parliamentary scrutiny of the forestry strategy was discussed during the
Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s consideration of the bill at stages 1 and 2. Scottish ministers will be taking on new duties in relation to a Scottish forestry strategy, which will be key in setting out the Scottish Government’s ambitions on what is an important sector for the rural economy, and will be key in our climate change ambitions, including the promotion of sustainable forest management. Those ambitions are shared by everyone in Parliament.
Amendments were lodged at stage 2 by Rhoda Grant that proposed additional parliamentary procedures for consideration of the strategy before it is published and laid, and for a consultation report to be prepared to accompany it. It was acknowledged during the committee’s discussions at stage 2 that the suggested additional parliamentary procedures in Rhoda Grant’s amendments were not necessarily proportionate for the strategy, and could delay rather than enable its production. I am pleased that the cabinet secretary acknowledged the issues behind the amendments and committed to a best-practice approach in agreeing that Scottish ministers should commit to producing a consultation report to be laid alongside the strategy. I therefore hope that he and members will support my amendment 37, which would deliver on that commitment.
On scrutiny, I suggest that improvements that were made to the bill at stage 2 on wider consultation requirements and a duty on ministers to report on progress have strengthened considerably the process for the strategy. A further requirement is proposed by amendment 32, which is that ministers should consult on a draft of the strategy and not be required just to consult. That would enable stakeholders with a wide variety of interests to have sight of the strategy and to contribute fully to its development. That is a proportionate approach for a policy strategy, and has a precedent in the approach for the land use strategy, for example. I encourage all members to support amendments 32 and 37 and all others in the group.
Amendments 33 to 35 all seek to ensure that Scottish ministers must have regard to existing legislation on climate change, biodiversity and deer management when preparing the forestry strategy.
Section 4 currently requires that regard be had to the land use strategy and the land rights and responsibilities statement. In my view and that of Scottish Labour, that regard should be expanded to include the similar fundamental issues in keeping the path of forestry sustainable. At stage 2, my colleague Rhoda Grant MSP highlighted the importance of grounding our practice internationally in order to preserve our climate change world leadership, especially in the context of Brexit. Forestry and land management have significant roles to play in climate change mitigation: amendment 33 aims to secure that focus in the bill.
Amendment 34 has similar intentions with regard to the code of practice on deer management. Deer are an important public asset, but Scotland has struggled for decades to control appropriately the huge deer populations in many areas of our country.
The voluntary code of practice on deer management places a responsibility on all land managers to manage wild deer in conjunction with other land use objectives in the deer management groups. Unfortunately, slow progress is being made on that, but if we are to safeguard against deer populations spiralling out of control, it must be an important consideration in the forestry strategy.
Amendment 35 would ensure that ministers have regard to the Scottish biodiversity strategy. Our forests cover 17 per cent of Scotland and play host to significant proportions of our precious biodiversity.
I reiterate that those issues will not fade away or achieve completion and then be forgotten. All three require constant effort. The delivery of such wide policy objectives was highlighted by the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, in its letter to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee at stage 1 and by the REC Committee itself. I recognise that the cabinet secretary expressed at stage 2 that bills should not include
“partial lists that risk becoming rapidly out of date.”—[
Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee
, 6 December 2017; c 25.]
However, the integration of those three issues—climate change, biodiversity and deer management—is integral to forestry and its long-term sustainable development. Therefore, they should be included.
I also highlight John Finnie’s amendment 3, on the creation of woodland—which is important especially in relation to native woodland, as he highlighted—and amendment 4 by Graeme Dey, on dates for the revision of the strategy, which builds on a stage 2 amendment. We will also support all the other amendments in the group.
Amendments 3 and 41 are on the important topic of woodland creation under the forestry strategy. I am in full agreement with Mr Finnie and Mr Chapman that the strategy should include policies on that vital matter. Woodland creation is important to help us to achieve our climate change and biodiversity objectives as well as for securing future wood supply for our valuable wood processing sector.
I acknowledge Mr Finnie’s interest in native woodland and assure him and others that I fully recognise the benefits that such woods can bring. As an example, last year, I made available increased grant support for native woodland creation in the Highlands and Islands, and I am pleased to report that that has stimulated demand.
Amendment 3 refers to all woodland creation. It takes a broader approach than amendment 41, as it includes woodland created by planting new trees and natural reseeding. Amendment 41 partially duplicates amendment 3 but, taken together, they provide a strong signal supporting woodland expansion, so I am willing to support them both.
In supporting amendment 41, I should place on record the fact that it does not have the effect of requiring the strategy to contain targets for planting. Rather, it requires the strategy to
“include … objectives, priorities and policies with respect to” targets. Those are different things. However, it is my intention that the strategy should reference the reason for planting more trees and the targets that we propose, scrutinise and agree with the Parliament.
Members will be aware that targets for woodland creation are set out in the Scottish Government’s climate change plan, which has been developed through extensive consultation and is subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The latest plan was laid before Parliament on 6 March. The forestry strategy will refer to planting targets that are set out in the climate change plan and amendment 41 is consistent with that approach. I make it clear to members that that amendment will not introduce a parallel process for discussions on alternative targets but will helpfully run in tandem with those targets by allowing the approach to achieving them to be set out in the Scottish forestry strategy.
I am pleased to support amendments 4, 32, 37 and 5, which strengthen the process for producing the Scottish forestry strategy. They are helpful additions to the bill and I hope that there will be consensus in the chamber on them. Amendments 4 and 5 from Graeme Dey provide a proportionate review and revision cycle for the forestry strategy and build on the helpful addition to the bill at stage 2 of a three-yearly reporting cycle. Amendments 32 and 37 from Fulton MacGregor respond to recommendations on improving parliamentary scrutiny of the bill.
Amendment 36 in my name responds to the comments that were made at stages 1 and 2 about the importance of policy alignment between the new statutory forestry strategy and the many and varied economic, environmental and societal matters to which forestry contributes. It achieves that by requiring ministers to prepare and revise the strategy with a view to achieving consistency, so far as practicable, with all their other functions. I am pleased to note that Scottish Land & Estates and the Confederation of Forest Industries support that approach.
The requirement that ministers should look to achieve consistency in the strategy across all of their functions means that the matters that are identified in Claudia Beamish’s amendments 33 to 35 are captured by amendment 36. However, I fully acknowledge Claudia Beamish’s particular interest in the interactions between forestry and biodiversity, deer management and climate change. She has been a passionate advocate for improving policy alignment on those matters throughout the passage of the bill. I agree that they are important matters. Forestry is already making a meaningful contribution to biodiversity, climate change and deer management outcomes, and must continue so to do. I have listened to the arguments that have been put forward by Claudia Beamish and am prepared to support her amendments 33 to 35. I also encourage members to support my amendment 36, to provide alignment with the other relevant policies now and in the future.
Amendment 6 is a technical amendment to section 6A. In supporting John Finnie’s amendment 130 at stage 2, I signalled that I would lodge an amendment at stage 3 that would change the start of the reporting period for the three-yearly report that is required on the forestry strategy. I think that it is more appropriate for the reporting period to start when the forestry strategy is published, rather than start on the day after royal assent. It is our intention that the first statutory forestry strategy will be available by 1 April 2019. I have discussed that approach with John Finnie, and I hope that he and other members will support amendment 6.
I believe that the amendments in this group demonstrate the common view that we share of the importance of the Scottish forestry strategy and the significant role that it will play in driving forward the direction of Scottish forestry policy and delivery in years to come. I therefore support all the amendments in this group and hope that members across the chamber will do likewise, in a welcome outbreak of consensus on one of the key functions in the bill.
I want to focus on Claudia Beamish’s amendments 33 to 35.
Amendment 33 deals with article 2 of the Kyoto protocol, amendment 34 deals with deer management and amendment 35 deals with the Scottish biodiversity strategy.
I voted against such amendments when they came to the committee at stage 2, because I felt that they came out of the blue and that we had been given no chance at stage 1 to take evidence on any of them. However, time has passed and I see the amendments appearing again at stage 3. The issues that they address are worth while, so Claudia Beamish will be pleased to hear that I will be voting for them this time. However, I would like to put on record the fact that, if people want to address issues, it is helpful to everybody if they can ensure that the committees have the opportunity to take evidence on them at stage 1.
I hate to be the one to break the consensus in the chamber, but I have some comments on the amendments. I will attempt to explain the rationale behind our approach.
On amendments 41 and 3, I support the concept of introducing targets for the planting of trees, which Peter Chapman’s amendment 41 deals with. It is no great secret that we have been failing to meet our planting targets for a fair number of years. I also support John Finnie’s amendment 3, on the creation of woodland. We see no harm in the inclusion of the additional wording, and I am pleased that the cabinet secretary agrees with that.
We are unable to support amendments 6, 33 and 34. We took a position on amendments 33 and 34 after stage 2. I appreciate that there is much merit in what the member is trying to accomplish with the amendments, but we believe that they unnecessarily complicate the bill with references to deer management and the Kyoto protocol. Those issues are adequately dealt with in other pieces of legislation, so the amendments are not entirely relevant to the bill. For example, with regard to amendment 33, our climate change targets are set out in the Kyoto protocol and have been in effect for nearly two decades. We felt no additional need for a provision in this bill in relation to them.
That said, we welcome amendment 35, on biodiversity. The biodiversity strategy vision for 2030 strongly supports the forestry industry’s conservation attempts and we feel that amendment 35 complements many of the objectives of the bill.
We are unable to support amendment 6, which, as we interpret it, might lead to an indefinite delay to the first reporting period. Unless any evidence can be suggested to the contrary, we will not support amendment 6.
Amendment 31 was debated and voted on previously. However, along with amendments 4, 5 and 36 it strengthens the requirement that the Government must set out its strategy over a nine-year period. Importantly, it would also mean that future Governments could deviate only after a fixed period. Forestry requires a long-term vision and strategy, and successive Governments should be required to pick up the work of previous Governments and see a strategy through. Our support for that is conditional, though, which is why we asked the cabinet secretary to ensure that the broadest possible consensus on the strategy is sought before it is delivered to Parliament.
This has been a good discussion. Consensus is always good, and in this case it reflects the committee’s scrutiny of the bill. I am a bit disappointed that Conservative colleagues will not support the amendments lodged by my colleague Claudia Beamish. I heard what Mr Rumbles said. The Deer (Scotland) Act 1996 has been referred to. The cabinet secretary summed it up well when he talked about policy alignment and the interaction between policies. Someone said that the issue is unnecessarily complicated. It is not. Deer eat trees, and we need a link between the two pieces of legislation. I would encourage people to see that as part of the strategy and vote for Claudia Beamish’s amendments, and indeed the other amendments in the group.
Amendment 3 agreed to.
Amendment 41 moved—[Peter Chapman]—and agreed to.
Amendment 38, in my name, is about research, which is an essential part of maintaining forested land and growing our forestry industry.
The issue of tree health research was raised by a number of stakeholders during stage 1 evidence on the bill, and I raised it again during stage 2. A number of members shared my concerns specifically about tree health research, but I agreed not to press my amendment at that stage and welcomed the cabinet secretary’s offer to work on an alternative. Therefore, amendment 38 seeks to safeguard research efforts by requiring that ministers have in place suitable arrangements for research. It anchors that requirement in the concept of sustainable forest management, which underpins the forestry functions in the bill. It also seeks to ensure consistency with the other forestry functions in the bill and to avoid unintended consequences by allowing a judgment to be made as to which arrangements are necessary.
The focus on sustainable forest management in the provisions should ensure that tree health needs are met and considered in a wider context. My understanding of how sustainable forestry management might work in practice is that it requires efforts to ensure that forests are managed to maximise their overall resilience and to take full advantage of the best scientific developments. I would welcome the cabinet secretary’s view on that and on how he sees tree health being addressed through such measures.
Finally—and crucially—amendment 38 allows for continued cross-border collaboration where that continues to be the most appropriate approach. It is essential and provides a statutory underpinning that makes clear the desirability of continued UK-wide co-operation on research and evidence relating to forestry into the future. I hope that all members will support my amendment.
I move amendment 38.
I support Peter Chapman’s amendment 38. In the previous session of Parliament, the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee took a lot of evidence on tree health, which is fundamental to the future of forestry in Scotland and, indeed, in the UK. Resilience through the development of native seeds and seedlings is important, and it is also important that, as any disease develops, we are quick off the mark in assessing the dangers and commissioning research, as in the example of ash dieback. I understand that there is now a disease threat to Sitka spruce, and I am sure that the same quick reaction is happening there.
I also agree with Peter Chapman about cross-border working.
During stages 1 and 2, we heard many calls for reassurance that devolution will not lead to a reduction in forestry research efforts, and I give members that assurance. Research that improves how we prevent and respond to forestry pests and diseases will continue to be a priority. I welcome the considered approach that Mr Chapman takes in his amendment 38. It will allow us to continue the important work that is being done in collaboration with other parts of the UK.
On the day of the stage 1 debate, we announced that Forest Research would continue as an agency of the forestry commissioners. As the chairman of the Forestry Commission, Sir Harry Studholme, said in his letter to me, forestry disease respects no borders.
Amendment 38 also maintains flexibility—for example, to supplement UK arrangements with work to answer questions of particular interest to Scotland. The new centre of expertise for plant health, which I launched last month, will build on the work that is already being driven forward by our chief plant health officer for Scotland, Professor Gerry Saddler, in collaboration with Forest Research. We are already taking action on the issue and we will maintain that effort.
I am heartened to see that the requirement is tied back to the duty to promote sustainable forest management. That will allow a rounded view to be taken of all aspects of forest management, including increasing our resilience to new pests and diseases. I see the approach as ensuring that Scotland’s forests, relying on the best research that the scientific community can provide, are the most resilient forests that we can grow.
I stated during stage 2 that I have sympathy for anyone who is working to provide a sure footing for such an important issue. I believe that Mr Chapman’s amendment 38 does that and I encourage members to support it.
I place on record the fact that the purpose of amendment 7 is to place on ministers a duty to supply and publish information about certain characteristics including the ownership of forests that are not held in the public sector. We have very little information on that, and the information that we have, which the cabinet secretary revealed to me in answers to written questions, is very out of date. If we are to have forest policy that is designed, for example, to encourage farmers and estate owners to plant trees, we need better sight of the range of owners of forests in Scotland and how that changes over time in order to be able to develop policy that is targeted at getting the kind of forest expansion that we want.
I also place on record and want to clarify something in relation to a letter that was written by the cabinet secretary to members and distributed at half past 8 last night. The cabinet secretary enclosed a letter from the accountable officer at Registers of Scotland and said:
“This further information about costs is concerning, given that funding would likely need to be found from within forestry budgets.”
I remind members that subsection (1) of amendment 7 says:
“The Scottish Ministers must gather and publish in such manner as they consider appropriate information on forest holdings in Scotland that do not fall within forested land as defined in section 10.”
The duty is to gather and publish information
“in such manner as they consider appropriate”.
The letter that Mr Ewing sent from Janet Egdell, the operations director and accountable officer at Registers of Scotland, stated:
“Information from Rural Payments colleagues indicate that there are around 17,500 holdings in Scotland with more than 5 hectares of woodland. We estimate that it would cost Registers of Scotland around £600,000 to search for the named owner for each of these holdings.”
I clarify that there is nothing in my amendment 7 that requires Registers of Scotland, the Scottish ministers or anybody else to search for who owns Scotland’s forests. The kind of information that my amendment envisages is information on the gender of owners, on size classes and on the characteristics of the owners—whether they are charities or in local government, whether they are investors, whether they live here, whether they are farmers, whether they are owner occupiers or whether they are tenants. Collecting that kind of data is common right across Europe. Mr Ewing’s intervention last night was highly regrettable.
I turn to the cabinet secretary’s amendments. Amendment 7A would replace the word “extent” with the word “area”. I am perfectly happy with that. Amendment 7B would delete a reference to the information to be gathered as being “natural characteristics” of forests. I am very happy to support amendment 7B. That information is gathered in other places, not least in the national forest inventory.
Amendment 7C, in the name of Fergus Ewing, would leave out the word “ownership” and replace it with “proprietorship”. Until half past 8 last night, I was happy to support amendment 7C. However, in the light of the letter last night that clearly implies that his understanding is that we need to spend £600,000 to find out from Registers of Scotland who owns Scotland’s forests—a proposition with which I do not agree, but that is clearly his understanding—I would like the cabinet secretary to confirm that he is in no way suggesting that replacing “ownership” with “proprietorship” is tied to his understanding of the duty that is placed on ministers.
Amendment 7D would leave out “management”. Again, I am content with that, as that information is gathered in other places.
Fergus Ewing’s amendment 7E would delete the whole of subsection (5) of my amendment 7, which states:
“Information under this section must be—
(a) first published no later than 3 years after the day of Royal Assent,
(b) subsequently published no later than 5 years after the date of the previous such publication.”
Amendment 7E would place no timescale whatsoever on ministers to ever publish any kind of information, limited or not. Therefore, I urge members to vote against amendment 7E.
Amendment 24, in my name, is a consequential technical amendment that relates to secondary legislative provisions.
I repeat that subsection (1) of amendment 7 would require ministers to
“gather and publish” information
“in such manner as they consider appropriate”.
The cabinet secretary is well aware of that, as I have been in correspondence with his office for a number of days on the matter. Ministers either of this Administration or of any future Administration might well sit down and consider their duties under subsection (1), and they might consider that the manner that they deem appropriate is no more than a pie chart.
I draw members’ attention to the Scottish Parliament information centre briefing on Scottish forestry of 21 November 2016. Under figure 8, there is a pie chart that is titled “Breakdown of Scottish woodland by ownership”. It shows that 33 per cent of Scotland’s woodland is managed by the Forestry Commission and owned by the Scottish ministers and that 67 per cent is owned by others. That information could be gathered and published easily because it already is, and it would certainly fall within the manner that a minister who did not want to publish very much could consider appropriate. Therefore, it wholly fulfils those duties. If any minister were to publish information in the form of one pie chart, I would be very disappointed but I could not argue that that was not fulfilling the duties that would be placed on ministers under subsection (1) of amendment 7.
I cannot understand why the Government is so resistant to providing better data and information on how Scotland’s forests are owned or why ministers would seek the support of a public official to misrepresent the purposes of amendment 7 and imply that it places on them an obligation to pay up to £600,000 for that information. Because I know that the minister calls Scottish Land & Estates in support whenever he can, I am pleased to see that it supports amendment 7. Confor does not.
I move amendment 7.
I understand the desire to improve availability of information on ownership of forested holdings, and transparency of land ownership. In 2014, we asked the keeper of the registers of Scotland to complete the land register by 2024 and we committed to registration of all public land by 2019. We are introducing plans to establish a register of controlling interests.
Accordingly, I have lodged amendments to amendment 7, seeking to work with Mr Wightman to find a deliverable outcome and to avoid disproportionate cost. Sadly, we have not been able to agree. I ask members to vote against amendment 7, even if it is amended. That said, I am keen to see what might be achieved on an incremental basis from information that we hold, primarily in the national forest inventory and the land register, without a statutory provision. I will set out proposals for how we might proceed, should amendment 7 be defeated.
Amendments 7A to 7D would change the information that is to be published to information concerning the area and proprietorship of forest holdings by replacing terms that are ambiguous. They are technical amendments that will bring the terminology into line with terms that are already used in information collection—changes with which, I understand, Mr Wightman is content.
Amendment 7E would remove subsection (5) of the proposed new section, which would require that the information be published within three years of royal assent. With respect, I suggest that subsection (5) will not accomplish what Andy Wightman intends. I make clear for the record that I do not object to the intention behind subsection (5), but I am concerned about its potential impact. If Scottish ministers were to be required to gather all the information that would be required for publication within just three years of royal assent, it is likely that the resource requirements—the costs—of so doing would substantially inhibit early publication of information that might otherwise be available for publishing. It seems to us that if technical or data protection issues, for example, were encountered within that three-year period, subsection (5) would require us to overcome them, no matter what resource or cost was required. Make no mistake, Presiding Officer—there would be substantial costs involved.
In seeking a workable outcome, I instructed my officials to examine potential sources for the information that would be required by amendment 7, including integrated administration and control system data that had been collected for rural payments purposes. The advice is very clear: the IACS data is not intended to be, nor can it serve as, a source of land-ownership information. Taking that approach would be a substantial change to how information is collected and held.
The only reliable source of information on land ownership in Scotland is the land register and register of sasines, which are held by Registers of Scotland. The IACS data did, however, reveal that there are about 17,500 pieces of land in Scotland containing more than 5 hectares of forested land. On that basis, Registers of Scotland was commissioned to provide an estimate of the costs of identifying ownership of those 17,500 pieces of land.
I draw members’ attention to the letter that I received from the operational director and accountable officer at Registers of Scotland, which sets out that to do that would cost about £600,000. The letter went on to state that
“In addition to this, there will be many more holdings with areas of woodland less than 5 hectares and other forestry holdings that are not held within the rural payments database.”
“If these were to be included, the total costs to Registers of Scotland of providing this information might be very much more.”
Those matters were not canvassed earlier in consideration of the bill and were not considered in the financial memorandum. They have not been budgeted for and are entirely uncosted. I am therefore very concerned that agreement to amendment 7 would necessitate diversion of precious finite resources, which would have to come from forestry budgets. Those resources are for spending on maintaining forestry, creating more woodland and planting more trees. My amendments—amendment 7E in particular—are designed to ameliorate that, but I am not content that the risk would be reduced sufficiently.
As I said, I am sympathetic to the intention behind amendment 7 and to the overall ambition of increasing the amount of information that is available about Scotland’s forests. Therefore, I will make undertakings to members if amendment 7 is not agreed to.
First, I would be happy to enter into dialogue with members from all sides to develop a shared approach to the publishing of information about forest holdings. In particular, I am keen to investigate what information may be published in advance of the three-year timescale to which amendment 7 refers.
Secondly, I would like to examine whether an incremental approach to publication of information can be taken. That would happen with the intention of publishing information at the earliest possible time, with more and better information being published subsequently. It should also be considered what information additional to that which is specified in amendment 7 could be included.
I make those commitments today and am happy to undertake to inform Parliament regularly of progress. I understand the appetite to know more about forested land and am keen that we do so in a balanced and proportionate way that dovetails with other work that is under way in that regard.
I hope that the proposals that I have outlined are accepted in the good faith in which they are intended and that, if members are still minded to support amendment 7, they will support amendments 7A to 7D, and especially amendment 7E for the reasons that I have set out. However, my strong preference remains that amendment 7 not be agreed to, in view of its uncosted nature and the risk of imperilling other expenditure on our important forestry policies that are to be developed in due course. I respectfully ask members not to support amendment 7, even if amended.
I move amendment 7A.
I will be brief.
We support all the amendments in the group, apart from amendment 7E.
We agree with amendment 7 on the basis that it would make it easier for the public to access information about forested land. An increase in information about forestry ownership and management would be useful for many companies that are involved in the industry and would add transparency for the public. However, I state for the record that implementing the new duty would, as Andy Wightman rightly said, not result in undue costs for forestry owners, managers or the Government.
We also support amendment 24, which will facilitate open and transparent data on proprietorship of forest holdings.
Amendments 7A to 7D, in the name of the cabinet secretary, are all technical amendments that we support. They would make minor changes to Andy Wightman’s amendment 7 and make it better aligned with the bill’s aims.
We will not support the cabinet secretary’s amendment 7E, which seeks to remove subsection (5) from amendment 7. It would remove the deadline for the duty to publish the information that there would be a duty to gather, and it would remove the requirement to publish updates every five years. Subsection (1) of the proposed new section would allow plenty of latitude to publish more modest information if that is required, in particular because of data protection concerns, for example.
I speak in support of Andy Wightman’s amendment 7, on a “Duty to publish information on forestry”. It is really important for public transparency and accountability, and in relation to the points that my colleague Peter Chapman raised.
We will listen very carefully to what Andy Wightman says in summing up before we make a decision on amendment 7C, on replacing “ownership” with “proprietorship”.
We will oppose amendment 7E, because removing subsection (5) from the proposed new section would mean that no timescales would apply, which would not be appropriate.
I am concerned that the cabinet secretary wrote to members about the costs of obtaining information at such a late stage—last night, after 5 o’clock. I am not convinced by his letter that amendment 7E reflects Andy Wightman’s intention in amendment 7 to gather information.
We support Andy Wightman’s amendment 7 and the technical amendments to it. I am concerned about amendment 7E, in the name of the minister. To be fair to the minister, I say that he has made it clear that he does not support amendment 7, which I understand. However, I do not understand why the only substantial amendment that he has lodged to amendment 7 would remove the subsection that requires a timescale. The minister could have proposed a different timescale, but he did not. If his amendment 7E is agreed to, the timescale would be removed altogether.
This stage 3 debate was delayed as a result of the adverse weather that we had a week and a half ago. As other members have said, we received letters as late as last night throwing doubt on the costs of publishing forestry information. That is a scandal. It is a disgrace that members are being pressured like this when we have not had the time to go through all the additional information that we have received. I deprecate it as bad practice; the minister should not have done it. Furthermore, it is most inappropriate to bring a public official into the debate at this stage.
I do not like what has been going on with the minister, given some of the letters that have been sent to us across the piece. As I have said, this is a delayed stage 3 debate and we have not had a proper look at the information. The minister is becoming increasingly desperate to try to change people’s minds at the last minute with disinformation. When we are deciding on a stage 3 debate, it is really important that we get right the letter of the law. The minister, by sending the letter last night, has achieved the opposite of what he had intended.
The cabinet secretary still appears to be labouring under a misunderstanding about the intention of amendment 7. I understand that what is said in Parliament during the passage of legislation matters and can be taken into account by the courts when interpreting what the legislation means. I could not have been clearer in my remarks that amendment 7 does not place a duty on ministers, or anybody else, to spend £600,000, or any sum of money, in order to gather information from the Registers of Scotland. That information is already in the public domain—it may cost a fortune to obtain it, but that is an argument for another day.
As I have said, information such as I seek publication of is routinely published across Europe. It would give us a better understanding of the age profile of forest owners and their gender. I understand that gender has been an important issue in recent debates on agriculture and farm occupation, given the need to encourage more women into agriculture. We also need to encourage more women into forestry, so having an idea of the gender breakdown of forest owners is important. There are countries in Europe, including Hungary and Bulgaria—my head is too full of other matters to give a full list—that have very high levels of women engaged in the ownership of forest holdings.
Another category of information that could be collected is the characteristics of the legal owner—whether it is a partnership, a limited liability partnership, a company limited by guarantee, a Scottish limited partnership or a Scottish charitable incorporated organisation. All legal persons would not be asked the question, and they would not be required to deliver an answer, on the gender of a Scottish charitable incorporated organisation. [
I ask members to listen carefully to what I have to say about amendment 7C. I was minded to support amendment 7C, which would change the word “ownership” to “proprietorship”. However, I specifically asked the cabinet secretary to address the significance of such a change, in his mind, and I did not hear an answer. “Proprietorship” is far more closely associated with the actual identity of the owner of land, and that is not the intention of amendment 7, as I said. I am not interested in the identity of who owns forest land. My amendment is about gathering information on the broad characteristics of forest land ownership.
Therefore, having failed to hear any clarification from the cabinet secretary, and having heard that he continues to believe that amendment 7 would require the gathering of detailed information about ownership at an incredibly high cost, I will vote against amendment 7C. I want the word “ownership” to remain in amendment 7.
I repeat that subsection (1) of the new section that amendment 7 would insert in the Forestry and Land Management (Scotland) Bill would place a duty on the Scottish ministers to
“gather and publish in such manner as they consider appropriate information on forest holdings”.
I really do not understand how words that are specifically designed to frame a duty in the widest possible terms, to give ministers the widest possible latitude as to the manner in which they choose to gather and publish information, should be so problematic. I press amendment 7.
This debate has not been without interest and I want to reply to some of the points that have been made.
First, Mr Wightman says that he is not interested in information about ownership. That is a surprise to me, because his amendment 7 would insert a new section, entitled “
Duty to publish information on forestry”, subsection (2) of which says:
“The information to be gathered must include in particular information on the ... Ownership” of forest holdings. I am generally perplexed as to how Mr Wightman reconciles his statement that he is not interested in the ownership of land with the fact that in his amendment he calls on the Scottish Government to publish information about ownership.
I made clear in my opening remarks and again a moment ago that nothing in amendment 7 is designed to place a duty on ministers to publish detailed information about the identity of owners. That is not the purpose of the amendment. As I said, SPICe published information on the ownership of Scottish woodland in figure 8 in its briefing, “Scottish Forestry”, to which I referred earlier. Figure 8, which is entitled “Breakdown of Scottish woodland by ownership”, is a pie chart. It is very straightforward, and I think that we could do with a bit more information; the 67 per cent of woodland that is owned by “Other” could be broken down a little further. That is information on ownership, and if a minister in this Administration wishes to fulfil the duty to gather and publish information in such a manner as he considers appropriate by producing a pie chart, I will be perfectly content that that meets the spirit and intent of the legislation.
None of that really answers my question about why, if the member is not interested in ownership, amendment 7 would require ministers to publish information about ownership.
I also point out that subsection (4) of the new section that amendment 7 would insert says:
“Regulations ... may in particular make provision about whether the information is to be in the form of a statistically representative sample of, or comprehensive information on, all such forest holdings.”
Anyone with a passing familiarity with statistics knows that to provide a representative sample, one must first establish the identity of the whole population.
That is why I sought expert advice, and that advice comes from the keeper of the registers of Scotland. If this Parliament and the Opposition parties choose vote for the amendments, they will be creating law—a legal obligation—and we, as ministers, will obviously be required to respect and comply with that. The way in which that would be done in Scotland would be to invite the Registers of Scotland to identify any information about ownership that is required.
I will point out a few other pieces of information that I hope will persuade members that Mr Wightman’s arguments should not be accepted. He appears to argue that information about ownership of land is held within IACS data. That is not the case. It is not the purpose or the ambition of the IACS system to capture information about the legal owner of land. He appears to believe that the rural payments and inspections directorate would be able to provide information about ownership. That is not correct. The purpose of the RPID is to administer the rural payments system.
To get any information about ownership—and plainly the proposed new section specifically imparts on us an obligation to get information about ownership, although it does not go on to say precisely what information we should get, which is what we are trying to improve—we have to consult the keeper of the registers of Scotland. The keeper has identified that there are 17,500 holdings in excess of 5 hectares and a very large number under 5 hectares. Plainly, the keeper would have to get information about all those holdings, apparently within a period of three years. In her letter, the keeper’s accountable officer states that the impact of the additional work that that would require could detract from other priorities, such as completing the land register and implementing the new register of controlling interests.
Finally, references have been made to the fact that the information from the keeper has been presented late. That is because these matters were not canvassed at stages 1 and 2, when, frankly, they should have been canvassed in detail, with costings. Those costings are not available to Parliament.
If Opposition members, as they are quite entitled to do, vote for the amendments today, they will be responsible—
The Presiding Officer:
I call amendments 7B, 7C, 7D and 7E, all in the name of the cabinet secretary and all previously debated. I invite the cabinet secretary to move—[
.] No, no, I am just going to ask the cabinet secretary to move the amendments en bloc, but we will vote on them individually.
Amendments 7B to 7E moved—[Fergus Ewing].
Thank you very much to all the experts in the chamber. [
Amendment 7B agreed to.
The question is, that amendment 7C be agreed to. Are we agreed?
I declare an interest as a member of a farming partnership.
I will speak to amendment 1, in my name, and amendment 8, in the name of the cabinet secretary. Amendment 1 seeks to remove from section 16 the provision on the compulsory acquisition of land for sustainable development. The Forestry Act 1967 contains the provision on compulsory purchase of land for forestry, which the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee was told in evidence had never been used. It was suggested that its use might have been threatened on one occasion, but no details of that were ever given.
In its stage 1 report, the majority of the REC Committee supported the compulsory purchase powers for forestry but did not support those for sustainable development, yet the cabinet secretary still seeks to enhance the unused compulsory purchase powers so that they extend beyond forestry to sustainable development. One must ask about the reasonableness of the proposal. Is it reasonable to ask for more powers to supplement the existing unused powers? I propose that it is not.
The REC Committee was told of a hypothetical scenario in which compulsory purchase powers might be needed for sustainable development. I could not follow the example that was given.
I am sure that the cabinet secretary knows that there are nine different ways in which compulsory purchase powers can be used. They can be used under sections 189 and 190 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1997 and under the Enterprise and New Towns (Scotland) Act 1990, the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, the Natural Heritage (Scotland) Act 1991, the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. Given that all those options exist, we do not believe that the cabinet secretary has proven the need for additional compulsory purchase powers that widen the scope of the powers in the original 1967 act.
Therefore, as a group, although we accept that there might remotely be a need for compulsory purchase powers for forestry, we see no need to widen the scope of the existing powers and provide supplementary compulsory purchase powers for sustainable development. I remind members that the 1967 act has been in force for 51 years, which gives a good idea of whether the powers are needed.
We will support amendment 8 in the name of the cabinet secretary.
I move amendment 1.
Amendment 8 is a technical amendment lodged following helpful discussions with Mr Rumbles about his amendments 1 to 3 at stage 2. I supported amendment 1 at stage 2 and agreed to support amendments 2 and 3 on the understanding that they were consequential.
In doing so, I indicated that I wished to examine the effect of amendments 2 and 3 before stage 3 to understand whether they would have any unintended consequences.
That scrutiny revealed that amendment 3 was not consequential to amendment 1. I have discussed that and my rationale for seeking to remove the provision from the bill with Mr Rumbles, and I hope that he will be able to support amendment 8 accordingly.
My amendment has no effect on the policy outcome sought and achieved by Mr Rumbles’s amendments 1 and 2 at stage 2. I fully support the objectives of those amendments. They amended the bill to require the forestry strategy to include objectives, priorities and policies with respect to the acquisition and disposal of land and to require Scottish ministers to have regard to the strategy when disposing of forested land. Those are helpful and constructive additions to the bill.
Moreover, a further safeguard has now been built into the bill through Mr Finnie’s amendments at stage 2, which restrict the application of income from disposals of land, including the national forest estate, solely for purposes within the functions of the bill. That ensures that there are appropriate checks and balances that I trust are sufficient to have similar effect to that which Mr Rumbles was seeking to achieve.
On amendment 1, I recognise that the power has attracted considerable interest, and I have listened carefully to the concerns that some continue to hold. I believe that they are based on a misunderstanding of the legal effect of the power. I hope to allay those concerns today by setting the power in context and clarifying its scope.
There is nothing unusual in having compulsory purchase powers. They are a necessary and common part of the statutory landscape and there are more than 20 acts that include such powers in Scotland. Indeed, some of those—ranging from the Education (Scotland) Act 1980 to the Roads (Scotland) Act 1984 and the Enterprise and New Towns (Scotland) Act 1990—were passed by the Conservatives when in Government in a different era, under a leader who I do not recall as being a noted land reform campaigner. They broadly still have effect today.
In some acts, such as the National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000 and the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, which were passed by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat Administrations, the inclusion of such powers did not seem controversial. Nor indeed was their inclusion controversial in acts such as the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009, which was introduced by an SNP Government.
Powers of compulsory purchase are rarely used, and Mr Mountain is correct in that respect. They are a power of last resort, but that is not an argument to support their removal from the bill. They are a useful power to have, and the existence of those powers informs and influences transactions, enabling negotiations with private landowners to reach a satisfactory and affordable conclusion. Indeed, my clear recollection is that that argument may have held sway with some members of the REC Committee when it considered the matter before.
I am concerned that there is a misunderstanding about the extent of the power and that some believe it to be an unfettered power for ministers to buy property that they simply want to manage. If that were the case, I would agree that it would be a matter of concern. However, it is not the case. I am happy to provide assurances on the scope of the power.
The section 16(1)(b) power—to acquire land compulsorily for the purposes of furthering sustainable development—does not give ministers powers to compulsorily purchase land where there is no connection to land already managed under the duty at section 13. Ministers will be able to use the power to purchase land only when that land is required by ministers to exercise an existing land management function under the bill. To put it another way, ministers will be able to use it only to purchase land that is required to help them to manage land that they are already managing.
The power is provided to support the new duties placed on ministers by section 13 to manage non-forested land for the purposes of furthering the achievement of sustainable development. Around one third of the national forest estate—216,000 hectares of land—is non-forested land that will be managed under the section 13 duty. Mr Mountain’s amendment 1 would mean that ministers would not have a specific power of CPO to support management of that substantial land holding. The situation of a ransom strip might arise in relation to that land, as it could for forested land. There may be issues with access to a site or management of a particular ecosystem for environmental considerations or issues with unlocking a piece of land’s economic potential.
It is not at all clear that current powers would cater for all the situations that the new agency may face, such as if important mineral deposits were found on ministers’ land. This power would be clear in its scope. It is purely for the purpose of facilitating sustainable development on land that is already managed by ministers and it would be proportionate in its application due to the existing very strict tests that must be met when exercising any CPO powers.
Scottish ministers could be placed at a significant disadvantage in negotiating a land transaction for public good with a private landowner if the CPO power is not there as a backstop. From the manner in which he spoke to his amendment, I am sure that that is not Mr Mountain’s intention. That position seems inconsistent and anomalous when set against the context of there being general support for ministers to have a CPO power to manage land under section 9. That land includes the two thirds of the national forest estate that is forested.
There is a robust procedure for the exercise of the power of compulsory purchase, which is set out in the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) (Scotland) Act 1947. The bill provides for use of that existing, established procedure. The exercise of the power requires public notice of the intent to purchase and notices to be given to owners, lessees and occupiers. There is the opportunity for objections to be made. A local inquiry can be held if necessary, which will weigh the public benefit of the order against the private interests of those with an interest in the land, and ultimately a challenge can be made through the Court of Session. There is a robust process that no acquiring authority, including Scottish ministers, embarks on lightly in deploying the use of any compulsory purchase power, and there would be no exception in this case.
At stage 2, colleagues from the Greens and the Labour Party were pleased to vote for compulsory purchase powers; I await with interest their contributions this afternoon.
I ask Mr Mountain not to press amendment 1 and I ask members not to support it if it is pressed.
So that members know exactly what is going on here, I will tell them that we took a lot of evidence on this at stage 1 and it was quite clear that in transferring powers from the 1967 act into this bill, we are transferring compulsory purchase powers that the Government already has.
Because we are getting into sustainable development, the proposal is to expand the compulsory purchase powers of ministers again. When we took evidence about that, we heard that compulsory purchase power in the 1967 act has never been used in the half a century since it was passed.
I have been asked why I oppose the Government proposal. I will tell members why—it is because there is a theme to what ministers do. From my experience of previous ministers in the coalition Government, I know that ministers of any party—not specifically the SNP—want to gather in ministerial power and take power away from Parliament. It is happening again here. It will happen again in tomorrow’s stage 3 debate. [
.] Whether members like this or not—
I have been listening to the debate very carefully and I have looked at page 4 of the bill.
It is about the minister taking a power for the
“Management of land to further sustainable development”.
For the life of me, I cannot understand where the harm is in the minister taking a power “to further sustainable development”. Can the member please explain to me where the harm is in that? I am, frankly, bamboozled by the approach that is being taken in amendment 1.
I am happy to explain to the member, because he obviously has difficulty in following this. [
.] Well, he does, does he not? That is what he has just said. [
.] He asked the question and I am trying to answer the question—if members will let me.
The proposal is to expand the power of ministers. When I discussed the matter with the ministers’ team and challenged them, asking what use could be made of the power, the only response was, “Well, we want to future proof this.”
I am a parliamentarian, as is Bruce Crawford, and it is Parliament’s duty to do the sort of thing that I am doing, because power must be given to ministers only sparingly. When Parliament gives power to ministers, we must be very careful about what we are allowing ministers to do. The fact is that the power that was given in the 1967 act has not been used in half a century. I say to Mr Crawford that the question, surely, is why the minister wants the power. That is the question that I have been asking. Why does the minister want the power? To that question there has been no answer.
I am not even sure that transferring the power from the 1967 act is a responsible thing to do. In a spirit of compromise, I am happy to allow that power to be transferred, but I am not happy to have the power increased. We are in a stage 3 debate and it is very important that the Parliament realises what the minister is trying to do here, because it is going to be reflected in the stage 3 debate that we will have tomorrow. We are discussing the power in section 13 of this bill, but section 13 of the bill that we will discuss in tomorrow’s stage 3 debate is even more important. That is why I am getting exercised about the issue. The Parliament should not be giving ministers powers that they do not know what to do with. I therefore support Edward Mountain’s amendment 1.
I speak in support of my colleague Edward Mountain’s amendment 1, and I will be brief. Compulsory purchase for sustainable development is a red line as far as the Conservative group is concerned. We have said all along that the compulsory purchase powers in the existing legislation will remain and will be rolled over into this new bill, so compulsory purchase powers will be there. However, as Mike Rumbles has said, those powers have never been used in 50 years. We are amazed that the cabinet secretary now thinks that he needs additional powers.
Further, as sustainable development has never been explained in a proper manner, in terms of what it actually means in practice, we would be opening the door to forced compulsory purchase for almost any situation that the cabinet secretary chose to support. To answer Bruce Crawford’s question: that is the danger.
First, I am somewhat taken aback by the degree of controversy attaching to an issue that has not given concern to Parliaments here or at Westminster during every decade since the second world war. I have a list of the acts concerned in my hand; I will not go through them, but there are 24 of them. Under Labour Governments, Tory Governments and Scottish National Party Governments—I think that there was even a Liberal Government for a while—every Parliament has passed bills in which, if there was any conceivable need for the compulsory purchase power, it was granted. I personally cannot remember any controversy in the Scottish Parliament about previous legislation in which we sought to confer the power of compulsory purchase.
Secondly, the fact that the power has not been used does not mean that it is not required. That point is very simple. All of us who, in our previous professional lives, were involved in negotiating know that the power exists as a backstop to ensure that, where land is required for a new road or railway development, for example, there are powers to force the deal to a conclusion. That is why there are compulsory powers, and they cross all functions of Government and have never been controversial previously.
I turn to land reform, because we are talking about land reform. I am surprised that we have not heard from the Labour Party or the Greens in this debate, because it is specifically about providing the possibility of compulsory purchase powers when the land reform provisions of the bill come into play. I was pleased that I got the support of Rhoda Grant and John Finnie—members of the committee—on the issue at stage 2. At that time, I thought that it was a routine expectation that the Labour Party and the Scottish Green Party would support compulsory purchase powers for land reform.
I am a bit surprised by the cabinet secretary’s direction. I have not heard from the Green Party on amendment 1. Is the cabinet secretary suggesting that the Greens will vote for it and not allow him the power to purchase land for sustainable development reasons? Is that really the situation that we are in?
The Greens and I will be happy that I do not speak for their party. I am afraid that I do not know what is in their minds. However, I find it a bit odd that, like the case of the dog that did not bark in the night, we have the case of the land reform parties that have not spoken in the debate. There will be a lot of explaining to do should it emerge—I cannot imagine that this will happen—that parties that have supported land reform for decades have suddenly abandoned it to do a deal with the Conservatives.
I always bow to the cabinet secretary’s knowledge of compulsory purchase. I suggested that there were such powers in nine acts. When he started his speech, he said that there were 20 and, when he concluded, there were 24. They seem to be multiplying. Therefore, I cannot see the need for legislation to cover compulsory purchase for sustainable development. We still have not been given any examples of why the power is needed. I reiterate to the Parliament that it is abundantly clear that the Conservatives have understood the need for compulsory purchase as a backstop for forestry. However, we will never accept a power grab for more powers the need for which we do not understand.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will try to be brief.
Amendments 2A and 40 seek to give effect to the recommendations that the REC Committee made at stage 1, but before I cover them, I will say that I strongly agree with the cabinet secretary about not supporting amendment 39, on a single agency. As the REC Committee’s deputy convener, I know that we did not deliberate on that issue, nor did we make any recommendations on it at stage 1 or stage 2. Claudia Beamish talked in her speech about uncertainty. After what has just been said about the difference between a “single agency” and a “sole agency”, about what amendment 39 is meant to do and about the two agencies in amendments 39A and 39B, there is more uncertainty on what the aim of amendment 39 is.
A single agency would bring more uncertainty to the structure of the forestry sector in Scotland. The REC Committee attended a briefing, which Claudia Beamish and Colin Smyth were not at, and was told that the loss of public corporation status would mean the loss of the ability to carry over funds, the loss of the VAT exemption, and the loss of the regulatory functions that we currently have between the Forestry Commission Scotland and Forestry Enterprise Scotland.
As the cabinet secretary said in his opening remarks, the Forestry Commission and Forestry Enterprise have stated that a single agency would be a disaster and would mean a loss of transparency.
I will not, just now. Colin Smyth’s argument about lack of engagement with the trade unions in the organisations is a slight not just on the cabinet secretary, but on the bill team and all the staff who have worked so hard to get the bill to where we are.
That brings me to amendment 2A to Claudia Beamish’s amendment 2. I am not sure that amendment 2 is needed, given that the cabinet secretary did as the REC Committee asked and provided members with a full and detailed statement setting out how the planned arrangements would work. I accept the rationale for that and welcome the cabinet secretary’s indication that he would meet its requirements should members accept his case for the Government’s planned administrative arrangements.
I agree that it is important that Parliament has the opportunity to be fully informed on the future administrative arrangements for a sector that generates billions of pounds of value for the economy every year. A requirement to lay a further report on the arrangements should not interfere with the central purpose of the bill, which is to devolve forestry and all its functions fully to the Scottish Parliament.
To have sections 68 and 70 put on hold would be disproportionate and unnecessary. My amendment 2A seeks to attach a distinct timetable to the process of laying the report, such that it must be done by 1 April 2019. I hope that members will agree, and that Claudia Beamish accepts that my amendment will add to her proposal.
Just as we, as a Parliament, should expect scrutiny before measures are implemented, it is appropriate for the new administrative arrangements to be scrutinised by Parliament once they have been implemented and have had the opportunity to bed in. I believe that it would help to provide reassurance if a further report was made after five years, as is set out in amendment 40. That would appropriately recognise the post-legislative scrutiny role that we rightly have. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s intention that someone independent of the Government with suitable expertise will produce the report. I have it on record that he has said that that will be the case.
Amendment 40 provides a substantially similar approach to Claudia Beamish’s amendment 2, but with the important difference that it acknowledges that some people are rightly concerned about lack of scrutiny by Parliament, should there be further changes to the administrative arrangements in the future. I consider it appropriate to provide a statutory underpinning to that commitment, which is what subsection (4) in amendment 40 would achieve.
In the interests of time, I will keep my comments short and let my colleague pick up on the amendments.
If the cabinet secretary presses amendments 33 and 36, we will vote against them for a specific reason. The REC Committee made it quite clear in its recommendation 30 at stage 2 that, to save the status that is attached to forestry under the new structure,
“the head of the new division should be designated as ‘chief forester’. It calls on the Scottish Government to give consideration to this proposal.”
Unfortunately, the two amendments do not give consideration to that proposal.
I think that there are good reasons for the creation of the position and I have not heard much to the contrary in terms of potential negative consequences of creation of the position. For that reason, we will not support amendments
33 and 36 if they are pressed. I ask the cabinet secretary not to press them.
On amendments 2 and 2A, we will support amendment 2 in the name of Claudia Beamish. One of the potential positive impacts of amendment 2 is that ministers would have to justify their decisions before making them—for example, on removal of any forestry commissioner functions. They would have to come to Parliament and explain their reasons. Amendment 2 seems to be a sensible amendment that we are happy to support.
I will not go into too much detail on amendment 39. It has been one of the more controversial amendments in the whole debate, alongside amendments on compulsory purchase. It has been an interesting subject to follow. In the past few weeks, we have had a flurry of emails and letters to and from interested stakeholders and the cabinet secretary. There has been an element of lateness, perhaps, in relation to when we have debated all this. In the future, the REC Committee should dedicate a bit more time to such issues.
That said, we are minded to support amendment 39 in the name of Claudia Beamish because there are reservations about what is happening. It is nothing to do with whether devolution of forestry should or should not happen; it is nothing to do with trying to make life more difficult for Government or with trying to increase costs through potential financial consequences. No one on the committee wants that, no Conservative member wants that, and I do not believe that it was the purpose of amendment 39. The purpose is to react to the very detailed reservations that people have expressed about loss of expertise and the loss of the Forestry Commission brand.
I do not agree that there will be a disaster if a new body is created. The existing structure, which works very well, is going to disappear under the existing Government plans. Amendment 39 is trying to replicate the very positive structures in the organisations that already exist. For that reason, I support amendment 39. It and subsequent amendments from Colin Smyth on clarifying whether there will be one body or two would create a structure that would allow the new body to be more arm’s length than what the cabinet secretary is trying to achieve.
It was very telling that the cabinet secretary said earlier that the purpose is to try to bring the functions as close to Government as possible. Therein lies the problem and therein lies the concern—the fact that the expertise, which is currently reasonably arm’s length from Government, will now be soaked up by the civil service. We have not had guarantees that there will be no loss of expertise and I think that it would be a real shame to see the loss of the Forestry Commission brand in Scotland, as do many other stakeholders. For that reason, I support amendment 39.
The amendments in the group seek to improve our ability to respond when investigating illegal felling. They reflect the input of conservancy staff and will provide them with a stronger statutory underpinning to take action more effectively to tackle potential illegal felling.
The amendments, which complement existing powers of entry by allowing a halt to be imposed on the felling operation by way of a temporary stop notice, will enable staff to safely gain access to the site that is under investigation. Notices will require felling to stop and are underpinned by an offence that is in line with other offences in the bill.
Safeguards are built into the amendments. For example, notices can last no longer than 28 days and, where it transpires that felling was, in fact, permitted, any losses may be compensated.
Illegal felling is a particular concern in ancient and semi-natural woodlands, which means that it disproportionately affects those with high biodiversity value or those that have particular value to local communities. Illegal felling is a deforestation and environmental impact issue. However, the use of the powers of entry is an issue of safety—the safety of staff. The notices are important in order to maximise our chances of addressing the former without compromising the latter. They are proportionate and necessary to enable us to protect woodlands but also, crucially, staff. I urge members to support them.
I move amendment 9.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of the amendments, which relate to the introduction of temporary stop notices. I urge members to back these amendments today because, from a frankly appalling local experience, I know that there is an absolute need for them.
A few short weeks ago, Monikie, in my constituency, was the site of an act of what can be described only as environmental vandalism, when a developer all but destroyed an amenity woodland as Angus Council stood by, claiming that it had no locus. Not only were the trees felled on an unacceptable scale, but a variety of biodiversity was destroyed—biodiversity that had been supported by public money. Local residents had raised concerns over the developers felling a small number of Scots pine and willow trees but, as the Forestry Commission Scotland sought to identify the owner of the site and instruct them to desist, in the absence of a felling licence, the developer took a digger into the woodland and decimated it, in spite of a request from our local wildlife crime officer to stop.
I commend the efforts of the Forestry Commission, Scottish Natural Heritage and Police Scotland on the issue, and welcome the fact that an environmental impact assessment enforcement notice has now been served on the owner. However, it would have been much better if we had been able to prevent what happened rather than having to seek to force the perpetrator to restore the woodland, in so far as that can be done.
As things stand, Forestry Commission staff can alert operators that they may be acting illegally and that there is an intention to access the site, but those warnings can be ignored or can perhaps even spur the operator on to complete felling before it is stopped. The amendments will strengthen the hand of the Forestry Commission and I urge the Parliament to support them. We cannot turn back the clock in Monikie, but we can ensure that regulatory staff are in a stronger position to prevent something similar from happening elsewhere in the future.
I urge Parliament to support the amendments.
One of the key issues with temporary stop notices, which are dealt with by this group of amendments, is a test of reasonableness. I say at the outset that the amendments stumble at that hurdle, for the simple reason that they were submitted only shortly before the Government deadline for amendments. As a member of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee—I stress that I speak as a member, not as the convener—I am extremely disappointed that the cabinet secretary considers that it is in any way appropriate to lodge amendments that cannot have any proper parliamentary or committee scrutiny. To me, that demonstrates a lack of respect and a complete lack of thought by the Government bill team.
In the situation in which we find ourselves, in which there has been no scrutiny of the amendments or explanation of the requirement for them, I have tried to examine the rationale for their introduction. The only situation in which a temporary stop notice would apply, as explained in amendment 13, is one in which
“the felling is not carried out in accordance with a felling permission, a felling direction, a restocking direction, a registered notice to comply, a remedial notice, or a registered remedial notice”.
Owners who act in such a way would be acting unreasonably. If an owner or contractor is willing to go against what has been agreed, even when it has been pointed out to them, that is wrong. I have no way of assessing how often that has happened in Scotland in the recent past; that is why it would have been good to discuss the matter in the committee. Therefore, we are in a quandary. We have to make a decision to support or oppose the amendments based on a lack of detail. In fact, in my 15 years of experience of being a land manager, I would say that I have never seen such a situation arise. However, perhaps that is because I am reasonable.
Having said that, I could conceive of situations—such as the one that Mr Dey pointed out—in which some people might be unreasonable. As the notices have a time limit and there is provision for compensation, we are prepared to accept this late and unscrutinised group of amendments.
I am pleased that the measures have found support and that we are agreeing to implement them, not least because they emanate from a staff member in one of the conservancies, who identified the need for temporary stop notices for the sake of staff safety and good silvicultural practice. I commend the amendments to members.
Amendment 9 agreed to.
The bill provides for felling permissions to be granted with or without conditions. Those conditions may be varied or revoked. For example, conditions relating to when someone may fell can be adjusted if necessary after permission has been granted.
The amendments seek to introduce some flexibility, in limited circumstances, in felling permissions, which is consistent with our aim to create a modern and adaptive regime to support a modern and adaptable sector. I give the assurance that we will be reasonable and proportionate in the exercise of these powers, but to offer further reassurance I will set out the safeguards that are built into the amendments. Variation will be possible in two circumstances: first, with the agreement of the permission holder or possibly even at their request; and secondly, where we believe that, in order to prevent or minimise harm to the environment or any living thing, felling should stop immediately or not begin.
Suspension of a felling permission will also be possible in two distinct circumstances: either where compliance with the permission is in question and in order to investigate any harm to the environment or any living thing felling must stop immediately or not begin; or where it is necessary to suspend felling specifically in order to prevent or minimise such a harm. Revocation will be possible only where the risk to the environment or any living thing is such that felling must stop immediately or not begin and there is no other solution. The limited circumstances in which those powers can be used will protect permission holders and guarantee that the powers are used proportionately. All those decisions will be open to appeal.
I move amendment 10.
These amendments, too, were published very late in the day and have received no scrutiny by Parliament or indeed the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, of which I am a member.
The amendments stumble on the first hurdle of reasonableness, and I have no option but to criticise the Government and the cabinet secretary for allowing that to happen. Good legislation is that which has been through the full process of scrutiny, and these amendments have not been through that process.
My concern is that the timber grower who has entered into a legal agreement with the regulatory body will be faced with that body having the right to withdraw unilaterally from that agreement for as long as they want—potentially indefinitely—without agreeing to review or compensate. Those who know the industry realise that much work—for example improvements to roads, loading areas and stacking areas—often goes on before the actual felling takes place. All such work incurs costs, which, should the process of suspension or revocation be allowed to proceed, will remain uncompensated.
According to the bill, variation, revocation and suspension can be implemented if there is
“harm to the environment or to any living thing”.
What is the definition of harm “to any living thing”? It makes me wonder whether members of the Government bill team have ever seen a 20 tonne forwarder at work in a forest. I would go further. Have they ever seen a tree being felled? Either operation will result in harm to a living thing, including the tree, which is one of the definitions that the cabinet secretary used at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. The definition is so wide that any felling could be used as a trigger to launch a variation, revocation or suspension.
For those reasons, we cannot support the amendments in this group. What a pity it is that the cabinet secretary did not bring them forward at the outset, so that a solution to the problems that I have identified here could have been found earlier, in which case we might have been able to support them.
I make the following points on the proportionate use of powers. The overarching aim of the powers is to allow the forestry regulator to act where there is an overriding conservation concern. Ministers would exercise the powers reasonably and proportionately—as they must, of course, exercise all powers. In addition, the threshold tests that are built into all three new sections should give comfort. For example, the power to revoke may be used only where there are no other options, which is right and proper.
Mr Mountain asked about the definition of “any living thing”. References to
“the environment or to any living thing” frame powers that ministers must exercise reasonably and proportionately, which is a test that is used in other legislation. For example, in freshwater fisheries the overarching aim is conservation, so ministers would exercise the power with a view to protecting both species and the environment.
The Presiding Officer:
I hear the point that Mr Stewart makes, but perhaps if I read the result of the vote, the member could take a view. I note, for the record, that Mr Stewart tried to vote in the division and was not able to. [
.] I am not rerunning the division.
The result of the division is: For 89, Against 32, Abstentions 0.
Amendment 10 agreed to.
If any member’s terminal is not working, I urge them simply to find another one that is.
Amendments 11 to 22 moved en bloc—[Fergus Ewing].
Does any member object to a single question being put on amendments 11 to 22?
The Presiding Officer:
The question is, therefore, that amendments 11 to 22 be agreed to. Are we agreed? We are agreed.
I am sorry—did we not agree to amendments 11 to 22? Did Conservative members say no? [
.] Wait a second, please—we have to hear what members are saying, if I did not hear them correctly. I asked first of all whether the amendments could be moved en bloc. No one objected, so they were moved en bloc. The question was then that amendments 11 to 22 be agreed to. Are we agreed?
The Presiding Officer:
We turn to g roup 9. Amendment 23, in the name of the cabinet secretary, is grouped with the other amendments as shown in the list of groupings. I point out that if amendment 39A, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, is agreed to, I will be unable to call amendment 39B as it will have been pre-empted.
The Scottish Government is focused on ensuring that there is a bright future for forestry in Scotland and that forestry’s substantial contribution to economic, environmental and social outcomes continues to be both recognised and celebrated. I know that many members share that ambition.
I know, too, that we all value the hard work and commitment of the staff in Forestry Commission Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland, and that this group of amendments is largely motivated by a desire to promote their interests. I understand that and I have listened carefully to all that members have said to me.
In relation to amendments 23 and 26, on a chief forester, I start by reassuring Mr Rumbles that I have given careful consideration to his desire to provide for a chief forester role in the bill. However, there are legitimate concerns about the drafting of the provision. I am of the view that having a chief forester heading up Scottish forestry at the heart of Government will be an important protection for the interests of forestry and it is right to consolidate that view and role in legislation.
I will therefore move my amendments 23 and 26 in order to hear what members say, but I may not press them, depending on the views that are expressed. Indeed, I do not believe that we will achieve our ambitions for forestry, which I believe are shared by members across the chamber, without the skills and dedication of FCS and FES staff. Ensuring that they have a very bright future has been at the very core of my considerations.
Since last May, when I announced the Government’s planned administrative arrangements, I have continued to listen and respond positively to concerns. I have met staff around the country, I have taken account of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s stage 1 report and the discussion at stage 2, and I have put on record my agreement with the vast majority of the committee’s recommendations.
Therefore, I published the “Forestry in Scotland” statement last month in response to the helpful recommendation by the REC Committee that we should publish further details of our arrangements. The statement has provided considerable reassurance to a wide range of stakeholders and senior forestry figures. I want, in particular, to pay tribute to the Forestry Commission trade unions for the series of positive and constructive meetings that we have held since November 2016. They, like me, are keen to end the uncertainty for staff and to get on with agreeing the best deal possible for their members on transfer to the Scottish Government.
Having done everything that Parliament has asked us to do to date, I find myself somewhat perplexed to be considering a complex set of amendments that seek to put into law administrative arrangements that have not been fully specified, costed or worked up. I will address each of the amendments in turn.
Amendment 39 was lodged by Claudia Beamish, and I thank her for her continued interest and for the discussions that we have had since stage 2. I want to assure members that, during the consultation process in 2016, I considered fully whether a single body could take forward the functions of Forestry Commission Scotland and Forest Enterprise Scotland, as set out in the bill’s policy memorandum at paragraph 64. I concluded that it would be inappropriate to merge the body that is being regulated, FES, with the body that does the regulating, FCS.
The argument against a single agency is that it would, in all likelihood, put at risk the public corporation status of the successor agency to FES, which allows for valuable financial flexibilities. That risk is addressed fully in the chief financial officer’s analysis, which has been made available to members. In short, the financial consequences could be—I use the word used by Simon Hodge, the chief executive of Forest Enterprise Scotland—disastrous. The likelihood of the loss of public corporation status might result in a vastly depleted budget for forestry, so we would not be able to meet our economic, environmental or other aims.
I know that some have been concerned that the analysis has appeared relatively late in the day. However, the proposal for a single agency was lodged only at stage 3. At stage 1, the REC Committee did not recommend such an approach, or even that the Government should explore any other options. I hope that the analysis that I have circulated to all MSPs has persuaded members not to support amendment 39. I intend to resist amendment 39 for this core reason: the people and businesses that work in forestry now oppose the single-agency proposal.
The Confederation of Forest Industries, which represents forestry and timber businesses all over the country, has been fairly clear throughout the bill process. It originally had concerns, but it supports the Government’s planned arrangements. The Forestry Commission trade unions have also confirmed that they do not support the single-agency proposal. Therefore, I appeal to members to oppose amendment 39 and to support the Government’s planned arrangements. I offer that further reassurance.
I turn to amendments 2, 2A and 40, which are on reporting. Should amendment 39 not be agreed to, even as modified by either amendments 39A or 39B, I want to give Parliament and members as much reassurance about the new arrangements as I can.
I accept the need to bring forward a further report to Parliament that sets out the arrangements. I therefore support amendment 2, as amended by amendment 2A, to prevent delays to the commencement of other work on the provisions in the bill. In line with amendment 40, we would produce a report for Parliament within five years of the new arrangements, which would set out how those functions were working.
I acknowledge that it would not be desirable for the Scottish Government to produce such a report on one of its own divisions. Therefore, that report would be conducted independently by someone with appropriate expertise and, as laid out in amendment 2, there would be consultation and Parliament would be notified before any significant changes were made to the new arrangements. I believe that all that provides appropriate assurance for Parliament about its role in scrutinising the new administrative arrangements, and it provides public documentation on those arrangements. I therefore respectfully ask Ms Beamish not to move amendment 39 and, should she do so, I ask members not to support it.
I turn now to amendments 39A, 39B and 39D, on two agencies. I appreciate that members might not want to support a single agency, and might see two agencies as an appropriate compromise. Amendments 39A and 39D from Stewart Stevenson and 39B from Colin Smyth provide for two agencies to be set out in statute, and I have given much thought to them. If amendment 39A or 39B were passed, it would at least prevent the worst possible option of a single agency going ahead. Therefore, I will support amendment 39A and, if it falls, 39B.
Colin Smyth’s amendment 39B is problematic, as it does not make clear which option would be pursued, but merely presents the options of
“a single agency or two agencies”.
I do not see how the amendment could be fulfilled without some further thought to determine which of the two options should be pursued. That would serve only to add further very unwelcome delay. The letter from the Forestry Commission trade unions makes clear that they want to get on with this. That is really important.
The FCTU want further positive engagement on the new arrangements that we have been discussing with them. Since November 2016, I have met them to discuss the matter in detail on six or seven occasions, each lasting an hour or more. I am sure that Mr Smyth will agree that we should not be doing anything that creates further uncertainty for staff, whom I fervently believe want to get the matter concluded on the basis of the Scottish Government’s proposals as set out in our statement. Therefore, I ask Mr Smyth not to move his amendment 39B and to vote for amendment 39A, which provides more clarity and certainty.
Amendments 39A and 39D from Mr Stevenson offer a welcome tightening up of amendment 39, so that the scope of the functions focuses on the relevant forestry and land management parts of the bill—in other words, the functions currently delivered by FCS and FES. That avoids the current very broad definition, which could, for example, require the Scottish Government lawyers responsible for drafting regulations to be located within the agency. I hope that members will support amendments 39A and 39D.
I turn now to amendment 39, as amended by either 39A or 39B. While it would be helpful to turn amendment 39 into a two-agency proposal, those administrative arrangements would be far from ideal. Like the proposal for a single agency, this one has not been fully debated nor its implications fully considered by Parliament until now. No preparations have been made to establish FCS as a separate Scottish Government agency. It would be likely to involve additional cost, as was specifically explained and mentioned in the policy memorandum at paragraph 65. It could also add delay to getting the new administrative arrangements up and running.
If we have to put resources into creating another agency, we cannot apply those resources to other key aspects of the bill, such as beginning work to prepare the new forestry strategy that all members support. Such delay would be compounded if members also vote through amendment 2 unamended, which would mean that we would have to prepare a fresh report on the two-agency arrangements and present it to Parliament before being able to commence the legislation, thus risking further delay.
I am particularly concerned about Mr Wightman’s amendment 39C. It would require ministers to introduce, within two years, further primary legislation to set out the structure and powers of the agency. That would require two years to prepare and consult on the legislation, and two years to pass it and move to implementation. I contend that that would be devastating to staff, who are anticipating transferring to the Scottish Government in April. I believe that, were amendment 39C to be passed, it would be greeted by amazement, astonishment and consternation by stakeholders, who expect us to complete the job this afternoon. As I have said, it would lead to significant and unacceptable delays—which would be measured in years—in completing the devolution of forestry, which is a policy that the Parliament unanimously accepted at stage 1.
As forestry minister, I have a responsibility for the wellbeing of FCS and FES staff, and I could not in all conscience support such an amendment, which would serve only to add many years of yet further uncertainty for them. It would slow down productivity, which would result in our missing our planting targets, and would potentially risk other vital woodland creation and maintenance work. That would be an outcome that none of us wants. I would not want to do anything that puts that in jeopardy, so I ask Mr Wightman not to press amendment 39C. If he does so, I ask members not to support it.
I assure Mr Wightman that I scrutinised his proposal before I arrived at a view. Indeed, my approach throughout the bill process has been to listen carefully to members’ views if they wished to present them to me and to seek consensus and compromise where I thought that that could be achieved. My metric has been a simple one: what will work best for the future of forestry in Scotland and the staff in our forestry bodies now and in the future?
That leads me to the conclusion that I am profoundly convinced that the administrative arrangements that I have announced—a division and an agency—provide the best solution. Those arrangements are closest to the current ones. The discussions that we have had with the unions to date to take forward those arrangements have been positive and constructive. The FCTU said in its letter to me:
“We absolutely recognise and welcome the very significant commitments made and measures put in place to allay our members’ concerns. We look forward to liaising with your office further in the devolution programme and coming negotiations.”
That could not be clearer. The FCTU anticipates moving forward to negotiate for staff interests in the planned arrangements. In the same letter, it rejects a sole agency arrangement, and I welcome that. The planned arrangements have been designed to have the optimum beneficial impact for staff in forestry in Scotland.
“The setting up of the Scottish Government Agency, Forest and Land Scotland, including the retention of FES’s Public Corporation status ... is to be welcomed. The identification of a dedicated forestry division, Scottish Forestry, within the Scottish Government headed by a Chief Forester is an important recognition of the ... need for such grounded expertise within government itself, especially with the duties placed on Ministers in relation to forestry.”
Those are not my words; they are the words of Sir Harry Studholme, who is the current chair of the Forestry Commission in the United Kingdom and a hugely respected figure in the forestry sector.
I understand that members want to do the right thing for forestry in Scotland and for staff, and that their aim, like mine, is to ensure that we put in place the right arrangements to take forestry into the future. However, a single agency is not the right way forward. Although a two-agency approach might work—at this stage, we cannot say—it has not been at all sufficiently scrutinised or tested.
I ask members to listen to what the unions that represent their staff say, to organisations as diverse as Confor, the United Kingdom Forest Products Association and Community Land Scotland, and, of course, to Sir Harry Studholme.
Should all the amendments be pressed, I ask members to vote for amendment 39A and, if it falls, for amendment 39B. I ask members to vote for amendment 39D and to oppose amendment 39C, and to vote against amendment 39, whether it is amended or not. I would then join members in voting for amendment 2, as amended by amendment 2A, to give further reassurance that Parliament will receive a report on the administrative arrangements. I also ask members to support amendment 40, to provide additional safeguards for Parliament’s role in being notified of the arrangements and any future changes.
I will listen carefully to what the movers of amendments 2, 2A and 40 say about how they relate to amendment 39, either amended or not, before I sum up.
I move amendment 23.
Amendment 39 would require the Scottish ministers to establish a single agency to carry out their forestry and land management functions, as we have heard from the cabinet secretary. That is not a “notion”, as was stated in the cabinet secretary’s letter, which he issued last night, but a real possibility for the future of sustainable forestry in Scotland.
We seem to be fighting over the issue today, but my amendment seeks to effect a lift and shift of existing forestry arrangements in order to preserve invaluable knowledge and expertise, respected brand identity and successful working arrangements. The phrase “lift and shift” cannot be used if the shift is greater by bringing the agency into the civil service.
Members will know that that argument has been repeated since the consultation stage and that there are serious misgivings about the Government’s plans for forestry centralisation. With that centralisation, there is a risk, if we do not vote for my amendment, of possible privatisation, which is a risk that we have seen previously—not with this Scottish Government, but perhaps with a future Government. Forestry needs a long-term vision; it cannot operate under the shadow of a minister’s changeable whim, a Government department restructuring or a new Government’s manifesto.
The cabinet secretary has raised concerns about the public corporation status of Forestry Enterprise Scotland. Colin Smyth’s amendment 39B offers a solution to those concerns, and I add my support to that amendment.
On the call for a single agency, we have the support of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society, the Woodland Trust, which is a charity, the Institute of Chartered Foresters, Ramblers Scotland, which is another charity, Reforesting Scotland and the Forest Policy Group. Colin Smyth will further delineate the trade unions’ concerns about the future of forestry. Their views do not concur with the cabinet secretary’s interpretation.
Amendment 2, which is also in my name, would require Scottish ministers to lay a report before the Parliament, detailing
“the administrative arrangements they intend to make” before sections 68 and 70 come into force.
Amendment 2 details which arrangements must be set out, as well as committing ministers to consulting appropriate persons and notifying the Parliament before making any significant changes. The amendment follows the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s recommendation in its stage 1 report. I acknowledge that I am not a member of that committee, but my committee—the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee—asked me to be its reporter on the bill.
The inclusion of amendment 2 would ensure greater scrutiny of the process of devolution both by the Parliament and by stakeholders with a wealth of forestry experience. I thank the cabinet secretary for the recent statement on the issue in advance of stage 3, but significant uncertainty remains among a wide range of stakeholders. Whatever the cabinet secretary argues, we have met those stakeholders, too.
I did not move a similar amendment at stage 2 after listening to what the cabinet secretary had to say on the issue, but I have brought the issue back at stage 3.
We all want certainty for the future of forestry. There is disagreement between the Government and many in this Parliament about the vision for the administrative arrangements, and the report that would be required under amendment 2 would add an important layer of scrutiny. Allowing the Parliament and appropriate persons sight of ministers’ administrative intentions, whatever the outcome of today’s vote, should not be seen as constricting ministerial powers, but as giving the opportunity for transparency and improvement. I hope—and I understand—that the Government can welcome that.
I support Gail Ross’s amendment 2A, which would insert a deadline to prevent any further unnecessary delay to the future sustainability of our forestry.
I will briefly respond to the chimera of privatisation brought to the chamber by Claudia Beamish. I suggest to her that no particular structure that we might end up with either enables or protects one way or the other, because any Government would have to introduce legislation to undertake that. As we heard earlier, the real challenge arises when we get an alliance of the Labour Party and the Conservatives on compulsory purchase, because that brings forward the power of the Conservative Party and does not serve our shared interests in effective forestry.
Amendments 39A and 39D, in my name, would improve amendment 39, in the name of Claudia Beamish—if the Parliament wants to agree to an amended amendment 39; I say at the outset that I support the bill as it stands. The financial consequences of having a single body that would be unable to carry forward and hold funds could be extremely severe. That is the basis on which we need two bodies.
As far as I am aware, there is no legal construct that allows a division of the Scottish Government to be set out in statute. Amendment 39A would therefore require ministers to establish two agencies, rather than the single agency that is proposed by Ms Beamish. As I understand it, it is the final, clear and unambiguous position of the Forestry Commission trade unions that two bodies are required, not one. I accept that that is not the position that the unions took earlier and that their position has evolved.
Of course, an agency would not be as close to the centre of Government as a division would be, but the proposed approach would not be as detrimental as would subsuming functions into a single agency. Forest Enterprise Scotland’s effective management of the national forest estate has been a spectacular success, and that success has been predicated on the body’s public corporation status; if that were lost, we would lose much that I think that all members value.
Amendment 39D tidies up the drafting by specifying, in the interests of clarity, that the functions to be covered by the two agencies would be those under parts 2 to 4—on forestry functions, management of land by ministers and felling—and sections 61 to 64.
Amendment 39B, as an alternative to amendment 39A, is not specific and would probably require further consultation, as the minister said in another context. There is enthusiastic support for moving forward as quickly as possible.
I do not mean to be insulting, but Andy Wightman’s amendment 39C is a wrecking amendment in relation to the whole prospect of taking forestry into the control of this Parliament effectively. Imposing a two-year stop is simply unacceptable.
I find myself in the slightly unusual position of asking for members’ support for my amendments 39A and 39D while asking Claudia Beamish not to move amendment 39, and hoping that she will not do so. The provisions in the bill as it stands are the provisions that we should end up with.
Much has been written and said about amendment 39, most of which—including today—has been scaremongering rather than fact. Let us be clear: no one in this Parliament is proposing that forestry in Scotland be run entirely by a sole organisation. We have clear advice that the reference in amendment 39 to “a single agency” would allow organisational arrangements to be established for forestry in Scotland that respect the current set-up, albeit in a devolved context—that is, a Forestry Commission Scotland and a Forest Enterprise Scotland, which is currently an agency of the Forestry Commission, with the latter able to retain public corporation status. Claims to the contrary are, in my view, based either on partial advice that is designed to shore up the Government’s proposals or on insufficient research.
The dividing line between the Scottish Government and, it seems, every other party in this Parliament and—more important—the forestry sector is that the Government wishes largely to subsume the current functions of the Forestry Commission into a Government division. I will not rehearse the many arguments against such an approach, as they are well documented.
In contrast, the Government has singularly failed to make the case for its proposed division. It is difficult to understand why it appears to have such an obsession with scrapping the Forestry Commission. The cabinet secretary again failed to make any positive case whatever for the establishment of a Government division.
The positive case is that the Scottish forestry commission, as the Scottish forestry division of the Scottish Government, will be right at the heart of Government and accountable to this Parliament, thereby completing devolution.
I would be grateful if Mr Smyth could confirm that the trade unions now oppose a sole agency and that the Labour Party is not pressing the matter. I would also be grateful if he agreed that the unions have not supported a two-agency solution.
I will come to the trade unions in a second. The reality is that Fergus Ewing has misled Parliament in his comments about the letter that the trade unions have sent. The wording of the letter was very carefully chosen by the trade unions—I will come to that point in a second.
Once again, we have seen the cabinet secretary’s tactic of not listening to the concerns of a large number of organisations. I could list them. The cabinet secretary knows exactly who they are, and he has failed to engage with them in any meaningful way. Instead he has simply sought to bat off the many deep concerns that there are across the sector—frankly, at times, in a very unsavoury manner.
Some of those concerns have been allayed following the publication of the Government’s statement on forestry in Scotland and in further discussions. However, the Government’s divide-and-conquer approach has not secured much in the way of positive support for the structure that it proposes—simply statements that some fears have been allayed. I hope that the Government will reflect carefully on its efforts to secure support in recent weeks, which, in my view, have backfired.
Let us also be clear that the Government’s attempts to allay those fears—in particular, the concerns of the trade unions over terms and conditions—would never have taken place had my colleague Claudia Beamish not lodged amendment 39. The cabinet secretary had no meaningful discussion whatsoever with the trade unions until after the bill should have been voted on at stage 3 and until today.
I will give way in a second. I t is unfortunate that, when he commented on the trade unions’ letter, he said that they opposed a single agency. The letter from the trade unions talks specifically about a “sole organisation”, which no one on this side of the chamber supports. They make no reference whatsoever to a “single agency”, and it is unfortunate that the cabinet secretary should say that they did.
The trade unions oppose a sole agency, which is a single agency. Does the member accept that—as I actually said in my remarks—I have been engaging with the trade unions in a respectful fashion and not just in the past couple of months? Since November 2016, I have met them on six or seven occasions. We have built up a good working relationship, the negotiations have been carried out by senior Government officials according to the Cabinet Office statement of practice, as they should be, and the Scottish Government has given a number of guarantees during that period to FCTU officials. It has been a respectful, long, protracted process—as it should be—and was not begun in just the past few weeks. Mr Smyth will surely wish to withdraw that comment.
I certainly will not withdraw that comment about the cabinet secretary. The reality is that meaningful negotiations did not take place until recent weeks, and the package of terms and conditions that were offered to the trade unions were offered only days ago, not months ago, although the cabinet secretary claims otherwise.
In an effort to be constructive with the Government and to put beyond any doubt that the aim of amendment 39 is to achieve an agency structure that is close to the existing one, I have lodged amendment 39B, which would slightly amend amendment 39 by making it refer to
“a single agency or two agencies”.
I mean the amendment to be helpful on the basis that it aims to ensure that the Government brings forward proposals for an agency-based structure that is similar to the Forestry Commission and Forest Enterprise. If the amendment is successful, I hope that the Government will respect that aim, which is now a matter of public record, and get on with the job.
I appreciate that Stewart Stevenson has lodged a very similar amendment in amendment 39A. On balance, I believe that my amendment 39B better respects the views of those who believe that an amendment on a single agency would still have allowed a structure based on a Forestry Commission Scotland and a Forest Enterprise Scotland and that, by referencing two agencies, my amendment ensures that the Government can move ahead with an agency-based solution that effectively retains FCS and FES.
In one of the many clumsy letters that we have received from the cabinet secretary in recent days, he expressed concern that a proposal to create two agencies would lead to delays. I would simply say to the Government that, if it is not capable of replicating a structure that is similar to the one that currently exists but within the context of devolution by April 2019, to be frank, it should not be in government.
I also strongly support amendment 2, in the name of Claudia Beamish, which provides for parliamentary scrutiny of any proposals on the organisational structure. I regard the amendment as crucial, not least given today’s debate and likely vote and, more importantly, the debate that has taken place in the forestry sector in recent months and weeks.
Andy Wightman’s amendment 39C seeks a statutory underpinning for the organisational arrangements. I have a great deal of sympathy for the amendment and I understand fully his reasons for lodging it, given the conduct of the Government in recent weeks. My only concern is the fact that it would delay matters further. I hope that my colleague Claudia Beamish’s amendment on parliamentary scrutiny will ensure that the Parliament has a clear role to play in scrutinising any proposed organisational arrangements.
We have an opportunity to take forward the devolution of forestry in a way that brings all the stakeholders together behind the right organisational structure for the future of forestry. That will mean supporting my amendment 39B and Claudia Beamish’s amendments 39 and 2. Labour will also support amendments 39D, 40, 26 and 2A.
I have been involved and interested in forestry affairs since I left school, in 1979 or 1980—I cannot remember which year it was. I was very active in the forestry debate in the early 1990s, and I was actively involved in discussions on the extent to which forestry should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament back in 1997.
The bill will complete the devolution of forestry. Across the chamber, members agree that we wish to complete the process of devolution, which should have been completed on the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. The Forestry Commission does not own any land; according to section 1 of the 1967 act, it manages land that is put at its disposal by the Scottish ministers. The cabinet secretary said that there has been no debate in Parliament about future structures. That is correct. The deficiency of the bill as a whole is that it completes devolution but, in so doing, allows the management of Forestry Commission land—the public estate—to fall back into the hands of the Scottish ministers without saying anything about the structures that should be set up to manage the public forestry estate. That is why we are having that debate rather late in the day.
Other public bodies, such as Scottish Natural Heritage, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Water, are underpinned by statute. Just as Parliament decides on the governance of the assets that those bodies own, Parliament should determine the governance of the 1.6 million acres of public land that the Forestry Commission manages on its behalf. If we leave future governance arrangements to ministers, a future Government could change those arrangements in a way that would be detrimental to the public interest and without reference to Parliament. In the 99 years of public forestry that we have had since the Forestry Act 1919, it has never been the case that the arrangements governing the structures, the governance, the duties and the powers of those who are charged with managing public land have not been underpinned by statute—they have always been underpinned by statute.
I have lodged amendment 39C to ensure that, in the future and for as long as Parliament deems it appropriate, the governance, duties, powers and structures relating to the management of public forests will remain under statutory scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament.
Earlier, the cabinet secretary made some comments about my amendment 7, in which he attributed to me remarks about, for example, statistical surveys. For the record, I make it clear that those remarks were made by me in private correspondence with a special adviser and they are not in any way relevant to anything that I said earlier in support of amendment 7.
The Presiding Officer:
I am conscious that another amendment in the group remains to be spoken to and that a number of other members are interested in taking part in the debate. Therefore, I am minded to accept a motion without notice to extend the time limit for this group, in which there is a lot of interest, by up to 30 minutes.
That, under Rule 9.8.5A, the time limit for group 9 be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[
Motion agreed to.
The time limit will be extended by up to 30 minutes—it depends on the length of members’ contributions.
For the record, I note that decision time is now likely to be at 6.45 rather than 6.15.
I call Gail Ross to speak to amendment 40 and the other amendments in the group.
We cannot support amendments 23 and 26 in the name of the cabinet secretary. Although there was some confusion at stage 2 regarding what exactly the role of chief forester would be, it received cross-party support in the committee at stage 1 and again at stage 2. If the Government was unhappy with section 64A, which relates to the establishment of the chief forester role, there should have been amendments to that effect. We cannot support removing the section entirely from the bill.
Amendment 39, in the name of Claudia Beamish, is probably the most contentious in the whole marshalled list. It seeks to prevent the Scottish Government from subsuming the FCS into the heart of Government. Our group has never been happy with the centralisation of powers into Government hands and we are not in favour of such a move here. Neither, may I add, are the unions or the staff. Unlike what Fergus Ewing said earlier, they are not in favour of such a move.
End-of-year flexibility has been the subject of much debate. In recent years, Forest Enterprise Scotland has had end-of-year flexibility to carry over funds from one year to the next. If that flexibility were lost, the funds would simply be surrendered to the Scottish Government, which could make up the difference the following year quite simply.
I would just like to confirm that the Scottish Government’s chief financial officer has confirmed that what Mr Chapman indicates cannot readily happen. In that officer’s view—I hope that members would respect his view as an impartial, professional and expert civil servant—the risk of what Mr Chapman proposes is such that, through it, we would potentially have lost over £31.5 million last year and, in the past five years, £78 million of underspend carried forward in Forest Enterprise. It would surely be an act of irresponsibility for any MSP to support that.
The important words there were “readily happen”. I firmly believe that if the Government wants it to happen, it can make it happen.
Amendment 39B, in Colin Smyth’s name, would take away that possibility, because we would be looking at two bodies. There is a real fear that expertise will be lost from the sector if FCS staff are taken into the heart of Government. It is important to recognise that FCS staff have a long history of staying in post for a long number of years and gaining experience, whereas civil servants who are employed by the Government regularly move on.
I disagree with amendment 40, in the name of Gail Ross, as it proposes an alternative arrangement to that set out by Claudia Beamish in amendment 39. We in the Conservative group prefer amendment 39, as amendment 40 would not stop the Scottish Government taking Forestry Commission Scotland into the heart of Government.
We will not support amendment 39A, in the name of Stewart Stevenson, because it would entirely eliminate the option of a single agency, which we think should be left on the table. As I said, amendment 39B, in the name of Colin Smyth, would change the phrase “similar body” to “two agencies”, which would widen the options of amendment 39, so we will support amendment 39B.
We will not support amendment 39C, in the name of Andy Wightman, as it would introduce another bill and cause further delays to the establishment of new forestry agencies. We want the provisions in amendment 39 to move forward after the bill is agreed to provide all stakeholders and staff peace of mind about the future of their agency. We will not support amendment 39D, as it would mean that the provisions in amendment 39 would not relate to the whole bill and would stop short of referring to the chief forester in section 64A, which is not acceptable. The implementation of a chief forester role had cross-party support at stages 1 and 2, and it should not be removed at stage 3.
Amendment 2, in the name of Claudia Beamish, would act as a check on the Scottish Government with respect to the removal of the functions of the forestry commissioner because, during the commencement of the act, the Scottish Government would have to publish a report setting out the administrative arrangements that it intended to make to facilitate that. It is logical to expect the removal to be justified and for the Government to be accountable for that before it takes place, so we support amendment 2. That is why we cannot support amendment 2A, in the name of Gail Ross, as it would remove that check in seeking to remove from amendment 2 reference to section 68, on “Modifications of enactments and repeals”, and section 70, on “Forestry Commissioners’ functions no longer exercisable in Scotland”.
First, I will address amendment 23, in the name of the minister. At stage 2, I was pleased when the committee accepted section 64A into the bill. At a meeting after stage 2 with the minister, he certainly left me with the impression that he accepted the need for a chief forester as the head of the professional service, as it were, because it would assist him and other ministers in the performance of their duties. I therefore thought that the chief forester proposal had all-party support. Again, the minister said in his opening remarks that he was in favour of having a chief forester, and he is nodding his head to that just now. I was therefore absolutely astonished when I read the minister’s amendment 23, which seeks to remove from the bill the introduction of a chief forester.
The bill states:
“The Scottish Ministers must, for the purposes of assisting and advising them in the carrying out of their functions under this Act, appoint an officer to be known as the chief forester.”
“The Scottish Ministers must by regulations prescribe qualifications to be held by the person appointed as chief forester.”
I thought that that had all-party support. The minister is nodding his head and saying that he supports that now, so why did he lodge an amendment to remove that section? I do not know. If he would like to intervene and explain why, I would be happy to give way.
The explanation is simple. There was advice to the effect that, because statutory provision relating to a chief forester related to the civil service, the matter might be ultra vires. However, on reconsidering it, we concluded that it was a grey area and, because, as Mr Rumbles knows, we are all in support of having a chief forester—indeed, when I promoted it in our statement “Forestry in Scotland”, most stakeholders warmly welcomed it—I concluded that it was safe to leave the section in the bill. Therefore, I confirm that I will not press my amendment to that effect.
We are all struggling to reach an agreement—an agreement that has never been in doubt. We have supported the idea of having a chief forester. It is a sensible step that was recommended by the committee and I accept it. As with many of the other amendments that we have considered today, it was purely technical legal issues that guided our approach. Of course, from the point of view of Government, one has to consider such issues carefully.
That was a long but welcome intervention. I welcome it whole-heartedly. I am glad that the cabinet secretary has backed down and will not press his amendment, but I was a bit shocked that he even lodged it in the first place.
The most important amendment of stage 3 is Claudia Beamish’s amendment 39. She lodged a similar amendment at stage 2 and was convinced by the minister not to move it but to bring it back at stage 3, when we could perhaps get agreement on it. That was a forlorn hope and I am glad that I moved the stage 2 amendment instead.
Amendment 39 is extremely important and I am disappointed that no agreement could be reached with the minister about it. Gail Ross said that she could not understand what the aim of amendment 39 was. It has already been explained. It is simply to lift and shift—that is the phrase that was used and it is a good phrase to have used because that is how I envisage it happening—the UK Forestry Commission into Scotland and have a Scottish forestry commission and forest enterprise at arm’s length from the Scottish Government.
Having listened to all the evidence that the committee heard, I could not understand why the Scottish Government wants to centralise control over the Forestry Commission and make its staff civil servants. I do not understand it. Every political party in the Parliament bar one can see that. For some reason—I do not know what it is—the SNP cannot see that amendment 39 is the right way to go.
Does the member accept that we did not examine that proposal in the committee because it was not in the bill? It was a given in the background, so the reality is that the committee did not take evidence on or consider it.
I am sorry, but we certainly did take evidence on it. We had witnesses give evidence on it at stage 1. To be frank, it is beyond me why John Mason says that that did not happen.
Amendment 39 is the most important amendment. I also support Colin Smyth’s amendment 39B, which adds something. It does not say that we must have a single agency or that we must have two; it gives ministers the option to do the right thing. The Parliament is trying to tell the cabinet secretary to do the right thing for the future of our forestry in Scotland. It will not delay reaching our forestry targets and I would hate to think that that might be used as some sort of excuse.
I understand that the Conservatives are not going to support amendment 39C, in the name of Andy Wightman. However, I will support it, as will my Liberal Democrat colleagues, because he is absolutely right. [
.] Members can laugh, but there have been divisions all afternoon and with regard to nearly all of the votes, all of the parties in the Parliament bar the SNP, have taken a particular position, because we can see the merits of the case. However, the Government wants to move forward with its proposals. I ask the Government to take a step back and listen to the evidence that the all-party committee took on the issue. If it does so, it will see that we are trying to do the right thing for Scotland and for the Forestry Commission in Scotland. I urge members to support the amendments that I mentioned.
I wish to address Claudia Beamish’s amendment 39. The minister is keen to talk about consensus. A lot of audiences have to be satisfied here. The issue of the late submission of amendments has been an issue across the board. That is entirely competent under stage 3 proceedings. What I would say is that, for the majority of people in here, consensus and pragmatism seem to be in reach, particularly with regard to the information that was helpfully shared about public corporation status. That is reflected in what Stewart Stevenson has said.
We will support Claudia Beamish’s amendment 39, for those reasons, along with amendment 39B, in the name of Colin Smyth.
I will be brief, as we have had a long debate.
If Parliament votes that we should have the option of a two-agency approach as opposed to a single-agency approach, we will seek to make that option work. The single-agency option would lead to disastrous consequences, as we have set out. I am pleased that Mr Finnie welcomes the fact that we provided that information.
Mr Rumbles says that the committee took evidence about the organisational structure. Evidence was taken on that; that is correct. However, the committee did not recommend that the Government consider and examine either a single-agency approach or a two-agency approach. On the contrary, the committee asked us to provide more detailed proposals for organisation, which are set out in the relevant memorandum attached to the bill, and upon which there was a substantive previous consultation. I have to say that the Government did everything that the committee asked. Had the committee asked us to explore further the single-agency option or the two-agency option, we would of course have considered them carefully. However, the committee did not do that. That is why there has been further analysis that I have had to share with members to try to inform the decisions that we are all about to take.
Mr Smyth talked about Forestry Commission and perhaps Forest Enterprise staff being brought into the civil service. I have to point out that they already are civil servants. With respect, that reflects some of the misunderstandings that underlie some of this debate.
We have given a detailed statement setting out our plans, which we believe are in the best interests of forestry in Scotland. We have responded to the recommendations of the committee. I have warmly endorsed the proposal for a chief forester and the proposal for a head of professional development. We have confirmed that the conservancies will remain in place, and I have visited every one of them. Silvan house will continue to be the headquarters for the staff of the Forestry Commission. Forest Enterprise offices will remain in situ. We will bring forward further proposals for placement with stakeholders at the national and local levels. From my lengthy engagement over the past 18 months or so with the workforce representatives and from extensive dialogue and engagement with all stakeholders—contrary to what Mr Smyth said—I believe that, although there is not unanimity and there are still some concerns, the majority of stakeholders now believe that the proposals that we brought forward offer a sound basis on which to take forward forestry policy in Scotland and build on the great legacy that we will have bequeathed to us by Forestry Commission Scotland.
In particular, the staff with whose representatives I have engaged do not wish the delay that would be pursuant upon us rejecting the options that the committee was apparently happy for us to accept and flesh out and instead agreeing to proposals that were made at the last minute of the parliamentary process, which has led to the unnecessary complexity of the debate this afternoon. If Parliament is so minded, we will make a two-agency system work, and I am confident that the staff in both agencies would be at the heart of government.
Amendment 23, by agreement, withdrawn.
Amendment 39 moved—[Claudia Beamish].
Amendment 39A moved—[Stewart Stevenson].