HC Deb 31 March 1925 vol 182 cc1210-24

Order for Second Beading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The object of this Bill is to increase the number of Forestry Commissioners from eight, who hold office at present, to 10, the change being necessary owing to the increase of work brought about by the resumption of the programme of afforestation laid down in the Acland Committee's Report, and also by the responsibility for the Crown woods having been transferred to the Forestry Commission under an Act passed a few years ago. These Crown woods include a good deal of matured timber in the New Forest, the Forest of Dean, and other places, and therefore involve a new class of problem not previously before the Forestry Commission, which has been dealing primarily with planting and with young plantations. The Crown land which has been transferred to them in connection with this new administration of the Crown woods amounts to no less than 120,000 acres. It is necessary to increase the number of Commissioners for this reason also, that it is advisable that, just as the Acland Committee included representatives of all political parties, the Forestry Commission should have that same advantage.

The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Cove) has been appointed to this Commission in anticipation of the passing of this Bill, Sir John Stirling-Maxwell, who was one of the Scottish Commissioners, having resigned to make a vacancy. The interests of Scotland are not suffering meanwhile, because Sir John Stirling-Maxwell, though he can no longer act as the second of the two Commissioners, to which Scotland is entitled under the original Act of 1919, is acting still in an advisory capacity. If the Bill passes Sir John Stirling-Maxwell will be appointed to one of the new vacancies, and it is not proposed to fill the place of the tenth Commissioner just at present. It is thought better to wait a little before appointing the logging expert who will be necessary before very long in connection with these Crown forests. The House will note that no increase of expenditure is involved in this Bill, the new Commissioners being unpaid. The Bill does not add to the existing powers of the Forestry Commission to pay three, and three only, of their number. I hope the House will allow this little Measure to pass, because I believe it is necessary for the greater efficiency of the working of the Forestry Commission, and it is based on the experience they have now had of five years under the new system.


I beg to move, to leave out from the word "That," to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof the words this House declines to assent to the Second Reading of a Bill to authorise an increase in the number of members of a Commission which, in the exercise of its powers and duties of promoting the interests of forestry, developing afforestation, and organising the production and supply of timber, is not responsible to Parliament. I am at a loss to understand why this Bill should have been brought forward at all. The last sentence which the right hon. Gentleman has just addressed to the House indicated that the five years' appointment which the eight Commissioners have held is now about up.


They have been reappointed.


At any rate the five years' term of office is about up. Sir John Stirling Maxwell, one of the ablest of the Commissioners, resigned office in order to allow one of the Members on the Labour Benches to be appointed a Forestry Commissioner, and after they had got the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Cove) to accept they came forward with this Measure to extend the number of Forestry Commissioners, and it has been brought forward for no other purpose whatever than to allow Sir John Stirling Maxwell to be appointed. I do not understand the motive for this, but I think we ought to take this opportunity to have a full dress Debate upon the whole question of the relationship between the Forestry Commissioners and the Government of the day.

We have no desire to cramp the operations of the Forestry Commissioners. On the contrary, I wish they would extend their operations. I would like to see the operations of afforestation in this country extending at a very much more rapid rate. My objection is fundamentally to the nomination of some eight or 10 gentlemen for a period of five years, and handing over to those gentlemen sums of money approaching to £500,000 and giving them practically the uncontrolled spending of that money without the Government of the day or any Minister on the Treasury Bench being responsible to this House for those operations. That is the worst form of Syndicalism. I do not care who the Commissioners may be, but I believe it is good policy that public money which is spent should be regularly and persistently under the control of this House, and it is bad public policy to hand over £500,000 or any other sum to a group of nominated gentlemen like this to spend as they may choose.

I have heard it said that we have some control over this money, and that the Treasury have a form of control. At present this House has no control whatever over this expenditure. We may put questions to the Prime Minister or anybody else in regard to this business of afforestation, but the answer is given to us by a back bencher, who may or may not /-e a Member of the party in power. It happens at the moment that the back bencher who is a member of the Forestry Commission is a Member of the party in power, but during the last Government the back bencher who spoke for the Forestry Commissioners was not even a Member of the party in power.

I for one take the strongest possible exception to a continuance of this syndicalist method of spending public money. When the Bill for the nationalisation of mines was introduced last year all sections of our opponents in this House fell upon it horse, foot, and artillery, because there was to be a number of commissioners appointed who ere miners. In this case you have appointed eight gentlemen as Commissioners, only one of whom is not a landowner. They may be none the worse for that, but the fact remains that objection is taken to any measure proposed for giving power to sections of the working class to control their own affairs, and I cannot see how the hon. Gentleman can get up and justify a system under which eight gentlemen are to be allowed to spend this money.

The Act gives them most extraordinary powers. Under the Act of 1919 they may purchase or lease land, erect buildings as they think fit, and they may sell or exchange any land; they may purchase or otherwise acquire standing timber and sell to a private owner; and they may make grants and allowances on such conditions and terms as they think fit to private individuals. They actually may grant public money as they think fit to their fellow landlords in Scotland and England, and all this without the control of this House, and no question can be satisfactorily raised in this House in regard to those operations.

I take further exception to this Bill because of the fact that a proper system of afforestation must go hand in hand with a proper system of land settlement. It is absolutely stupid to hand over half a million of money to a group of men outside this House, and say to them: "There you are; go and spend this money on afforestation." May I point out that there are three or four other Departments concerned with the business of land settlement, and these Departments are often found in competition for the possession of the same land and they do not need to consult one another before either Department spend money on the purchase of land.

My objection to this Bill is not met by the appointment of the hon. Member for Wellingborough or any other hon. Member on these benches. If you make all the Commissioners members of the Labour party my objection would still be the same. I speak without any feeling on this matter. I was asked during the last Government to become a Forestry Commissioner, and the Government got a member of the Forestry Commission to resign to allow me to be nominated, but I regarded it as a bit of an insult that my mouth was to be shut by being offered an appointment as a Forestry Commissioner. What I protest against is the fact that a number of nominated gentlemen outside this House are to be allowed to spend public money without somebody being directly responsible to this House through a Minister of the Crown. Of course, I feel considerable difficulty in criticising the technical efforts of the Forestry Commission. Many of those Commissioners have forgotten more about forestry than I have ever learned. I am ready to admit that they are absolutely disinterested, but I do say that this House is charged with the business of land settlement and the repatriation of people to the soil, and we cannot expect to have a proper repatriation of the people carried out by a handful of landlords who are more or less hostile to that policy.

What are the facts in relation to other countries? You have in Germany 270,000 workers getting employment on the State forests full time, and no less than 47 per cent. of those men are small holders who spend half the year getting wages from the State forests and the other half upon their small-holdings. That makes their small-holdings economic and enables them to live economically upon a system of rural food growing, which increases in Germany while it steadily decreases here. In Bavaria alone there are 74,662 workers employed in forestry, and in India from 5,000,000 to 6,000,000. In this country you have some 2,000 men engaged in afforestation on full time work at a time when we are importing £62,000,000 of timber from abroad, most of which we could grow at home.

Instead of pursuing this policy, we are steadily driving the people from the soil and they are not allowed to have small holdings. Our afforestation schemes very largely take the form of buying up estates, some of them covered with scrub, and not suitable for small holdings at all. The Royal Commission on Afforestation reported in 1919 that there was 9,000,000 acres capable of afforestation, and 5,000,000 of that total were in Scotland. That Commission recommended the afforestation of 150,000 acres annually, and they said this would give temporary employment during the winter months to 18,000 men, and that it would incidentally give subsidiary occupation to over 18,000 people; making a total of 36,000 men in all. They also said that it would give permanent employment to one man for every 100 acres of afforestation, rising to 90,000 men permanently employed when the scheme was completed. Of course, that total makes no allowance for the lumbering business, saw milling, the wood pulping industry, and the paper industry, all of which would grow as your afforestation scheme developed. Without taking these facts into consideration, every 100 acres employs 12 men to afforest. If we afforested 1,000,000 acres we should be employing 120,000 men permanently in a healthy occupation and in an economical and profitable employment, and after 80 years the State would have a property worth £562,000,000 upon figures, or a profit of £107,000,000 over the cost incurred by the State, after paying 3 per cent. compound interest on all the expenditure from the day the scheme was initiated.

Instead of some attempt being made to repatriate the people on the soil, instead of some huge scheme of afforestation which would employ men in the-rural districts, relieve the unemployed market, and stop the drain to the town, and the perpetual emigration of people to Canada, some of them sent to grow timber; instead of that we have had a haphazard, timorous, half-hearted policy by successive Governments. I spent some considerable time last autumn going down to some of these afforestation schemes, I went, for example, to Inverliever. Before the scheme was adopted only 16 men were employed as shepherds. Now there are 47 on full time, and there is said to be a scheme for 10 smallholders. When cuttings begin 30 to 40 extra will be employed, houses will require to be built, roads will require to be made, and saw mills and pulp mills will require to be put up, and it was the considered opinion of the men I talked to on the spot that 107 men would be employed full time against the 16 previously employed. On the other hand there were accusations that many estates were being afforested which ought not to be afforested at all. Lands which ought to have been used for small holdings merely attached to forests were themselves being afforested. That particularly was the claim made for the estate of Duror. I have here a statement made by an authority whom the right hon. Gentleman, I am sure, will not dispute. Sir John Stirling-Maxwell gave a lecture, which was afterwards re-pub lished in pamphlet form, entitled "The place of Forestry in the Economic Development of Scotland." On page 14 he discusses the question of unemployment. That is what the Forestry Commision do not do. I defy the right hon. Gentleman to tell me where, in their annual report, there is any reference to the most important subject of the number of men employed on these schemes pre-war. The only incidental reference is when he comes to the extra money that is spent on unemployment where there are, I think, about 58,000 men weeks, or roughly full-time employment for 1,000 men. Outside that there is no reference to the number of men employed in our afforestation schemes. Here is what Sir John Stirling-Maxwell says: Let me give you the details of a small German forest in the Spessart. They come to me at first hand. This forest extends to 10,000 acres and attached to it are about 3,000 acres of agricultural land. This area of 13,000 acres would, in the Highlands of Scotland, compose one small deer forest, or a couple of fairly large sheep farms. As a couple of sheep farms it would support two tenants and, at most, 13 shepherds, or 15 families in all. Divided among a number of smaller tenants it might, following our former calculations, support at most some 60 families. In Germany the population is as follows. The permanent staff of the forest consists of a head forester and clerk and six forest guards and 10 unskilled workmen. 25 other men find employment all the year round as contractors. There is thus permanent employment for 43 men. In addition to these 80 woodcutters are employed for six months and 70 women and children are employed for about two months on nursery, planting and other light work. There are also 260 men employed in forest industries. The forest with its industries is thus giving constant employment to 303 men besides the 80 men employed for six months and the 70 women and children occasionally employed. The total population of the area affected by the forest is 2,500. It is calculated that 1,520 of them are directly dependent on the forest. The remaining inhabitants are small tradesmen—saddlers, smiths, etc.—or people employed in small agricultural industries, and many of them are indirectly dependent upon the forest and the work it brings to the district. 1,520 people directly dependent upon this small forest in Germany as against what we should have in the Highlands of Scotland, 13 families. Whatever view one may take about rural economy, this kind of thing cannot be justified any longer. The best life-blood of our people is being slowly drained away. The healthiest, the brawniest and the best types are being driven beyond the seas. Farmers, graziers, shepherds decrease census after census. The only increase in the rural population of Scotland is that of gamekeepers—an increase of 1,673 between 1881 and 1911. Whereas farmers and graziers decreased by 4,505, shepherds by 1,229, and farm servants by 49,420, but—lift up our hearts—gamekeepers rose by 1,673.

Let me give one or two further points. Perhaps when a brighter and better day comes the right hon. Gentleman will be ready with some more sympathetic statement on behalf of the Government.


I have Lot interfered with the hon. Member. I think he is quite entitled to give illustrations to make good what I understand is his purpose, that instead of increasing the number of Forestry Commissioners, the whole of them should be put under the direct control of this House. That is the con tention contained in his Amendment, and reasonable illustration in support of that is quite permissible, but I do not think he ought to go too widely into the whole question of afforestation when it is really a question of eight Commissioners or 10.


I quite appreciate the fact that you, Sir, have allowed me very considerable latitude upon the Amendment, but I am sure it will suit the convenience of the House that we should have full latitude on this occasion when we do not get it once in five years. I am seeking to show the Treasury Bench that it would make for good social economy and for the absorption of numbers of the unemployed in the healthiest possible occupation, that it would make for the better social use of our land if instead of merely proposing to add to the number of Forestry Commissioners, and to proceed in the old-fashioned, timorous, half-hearted and useless way, they adopted my Amendment to recast the whole policy and bring afforestation under the direct control of the House. But I will not stray far from the Amendment. In places where they set out to develop afforestation in this country, where they have had a dim perception perhaps of increasing the number of small land holdings, they have done exceedingly well. At a place in Herefordshire, for example, Snobden, where they had 1,800 plantable acres, there was no employment at all when the Forestry Commissioners took it over. The place was derelict in 1921. There are now 53 men getting full-time employment.

At Downham, in Suffolk, where there were 5,000 acres, overrun by rabbits, completely out of cultivation, the cottages were unoccupied, and there were only six men getting a livelihood in the whole place, there are now five farms let, because the rabbits have been cleared off, 21 cottages occupied, and 22 men are employed in the summer, and 100 in winter. The same kind of thing happens in Scotland. At Inchnacardoch, in Invernessshire, in 1921, 4,000 plantable acres were taken over. There were only five men employed. Now there are 35. I press very strongly, first, that it is bad public policy that public money should be spent without the control of the House, and secondly, that the Government ought to make such arrangements as will enable those of us who believe that through afforestation and the re-settlement of the people on the soil we shall do more to alleviate unemployment than by any other means to have an opportunity at Question Time of putting our questions not to a back bencher, who may or may not be in sympathy with Government policy, but directly to a Minister of the Crown, who ought to be responsible for the spending of this new and growing sum of public money—and I hope it will grow. I trust it will be one of the largest spending Departments, and I hope to see the day when either this Government or the Government that follows it will see fit to appoint a Minister of Land, who shall be charged with the duty not only of afforestation, but of land settlement, controlling our land system, making the best possible social use we can of our land, and not, as we have now, a haphazard control through half a dozen different Departments, and a Department such as we are discussing to-night over which we have no control at all.


I beg to second the Amendment.

8.0 P.M.

If I need any new argument in favour of it I think the right hon. Gentleman gave it when he moved the Second Reading. He told us the reason for the Bill was the increase in the amount of work that has recently fallen upon the Commissioners, owing first of all to the Act of 1923, when the Crown Woods were taken over by the Commissioners, which brought with them some 120,000 extra acres of land. He went on to say there was a good deal of mature timber which would have to be disposed of in the very near future, and the increase in the number of Commissioners was due to the extra amount of work which would be involved in the disposal of this mature timber. It seems to me that if we have a large quantity of mature timber ready for sale to private individuals or firms, the least this or any other Government might expect is that they should have some control over the prices at which the timber should be sold. I remember fell well the statement made by Mr Acland in dealing with this question of forestry on 4th June last. In referring to the question of the Commissioners being, as it were, free agents to operate just as they wish apart, from any particular Department, he made this reference to the control that the Treasury have over the Commissioners of Forestry. He said first of all they could expend the amount of money that was placed at the disposal of the Commissioners, or they could refuse to allocate suitable sums to allow the development of afforestation to go on. But he said they do more. He said they control the wages that we can pay to 8.0 P.M. these men who work for the Commissioners in agricultural areas, and they actually restrict us from paying any better wages than those that are paid to agricultural workers in that particular district. It seems to me, that if that is the only control the Treasury have over these Commissioners, it is not sufficient, and we ought not to be content until the Commission is brought inside one Government Department, where the Minister for that Department will be responsible for the administration of the work under the Commissioners, and will, of course, respond to questions that will undoubtedly be submitted from time to time. It is fair to say, of course, that the Commissioners have done something during the past four or five years, and one could not disagree with a good deal of the work that they have put in. But, as the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston) truly stated, the least we might say is that suspicion is aroused when, of eight men who are Commissioners, not less than, seven of them happen to be landowners; and in the work they are performing we ought to commend them for the splendid business abilities they appear to have displayed in some of the land purchases they have made. I gather from the 1922–23 Report that, on, the whole, the price they have paid for land purchase. for afforestation reaches about £2 17s. 6d. per acre. But there is another side to their administration which seems to me to call for some little comment. On page 28 of the 1922–23 Report, under the heading "Operations on Properties belonging to Corporate Bodies and Private Individuals," there appear these words: Expenditure took the form of grants for planting (up to £4 10s. per acre to corporate bodies and up to £3 per acre to private individuals). So that they buy land for £2 17s. 6d. per acre, but they give £3 an acre to private individuals for planting, and, presumably, after they have paid the £3, they have nothing further to say so far as that particular land is concerned. The Report goes on: preparation of ground to be planted subsequently (up to £3 per acre in each case). That is to say, the Commissioners are paying £3 per acre to private individuals to clear their own land before they can commence to plant trees therein. That leaves something to be desired, and I think we are entitled to expect that some individual in this House should be made responsible for replying to questions, and for meeting criticism from time to time, It may be said that there is a good deal to be said in favour of the present Commission; that if they are not controlled by a Department, their work will be of a continuous nature, they will be enjoying a policy of continuity, and since, in this work, a continuous programme is the essence of good business, it would be folly to place them in the realm of politics, which is always a very moveable quantity. That may be all right from that particular point of view, but from the opposite point of view it seems to me there are so many objections to the present state of affairs, that we ought to press forward until the Commissioners are brought under a Department and made responsible to the House of Commons. After all, the Commission have got almost unlimited powers. They can rent land, they can buy land, they can lease land or they can sell the timber. They can do every one of a thousand different things under the direction of the 1919 Act, and if we look at the 1922–23 Report again, we find what is known as the Acland Report, on which, I think, the 1919 Bill was largely based, showing the figures of the developments over a period of years according to the terms of the Acland Report, and the figures of actual work taken in hand.

The Acland Report suggested that, from 1919 down to 1923, they ought to lease over that period 35,600 acres, and they ought to purchase 88,000 acres. What have the Commissioners done?—and Mr. Acland happens to be one of the Commissioners, and this is one of the questions we ought to be able to submit in the House of Commons, but which we are prevented from submitting because there happens to be no direct representative of the Commissioners here. Instead of leasing 35,600 acres over a period of four years, they have actually leased 91,000 acres; and, instead of purchasing 88,000 acres, according to the Acland Report, they have only purchased 29,500 acres. I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman in charge of this Bill if he does not think we are entitled to have some information on such important points as these. The Commissioners who drew up the Acland Report make a report on which, subsequently, a Bill is based, but when they commence to operate under the terms of the Act, we find that they do the very opposite from what is actually laid down in this Report. Further, they not only lease them instead of purchasing, but they give to private owners of land £3 per acre, either for clearing or planting, when they can buy land, and have bought land, at £2 17s. 6d. per acre. It is perfectly true to say that one member of the Commission must be a Member of the House of Commons, but, as the Mover of the Amendment rightly says, he may be a member of any one of the three parties, or he may be an independent Member, but, worse still, he can refuse to be in the House to reply to any questions at all. He can be unfortunate enough to be ill for a long period, during which time the House of Commons can get no answers to any questions that may be submitted. On the other hand, he may deliberately remain away from the House, thereby refusing to give the House any information at all.

For those reasons, I submit, very respectfully, that notwithstanding any good work the Commission may have done, it is not sufficient to allow such an important question as this to be left entirely in the hands of eight or ten people who are not attached to the House of Commons. I well remember the Debate on the 4th June of last year, when the then Prime Minister, who had had time to look into this question, intimated to the House that it was the intention of the then Government to introduce a Bill at a suitable moment which would couple the question of land development with that of afforestation, and bring both these Departments under one Ministry, who would be responsible to the House of Commons. I think the ex-Minister of Agriculture also agreed that if this Commission were allowed to continue their good work, they must do so under one or other of the various Departments whose Minister would be responsible to this House for the administration.

The importance, already emphasised by the hon. Member for Dundee, can be further emphasised if we examine very closely this Report of 1922–23, in which we find that a delegation was sent to the Empire Forestry Conference that took place in Canada in 1922. I think they did a wonderful amount of good when they attended that conference. They ascertained, at all events, what was the Empire position so far as soft wood is concerned, and this country is largely dependent upon imported timber for a thousand industrial purposes. They gathered the information from the Empire Forestry Conference that not only had America denuded her own woodlands, but she was fast helping Canada to denude hers, and, unless we did something on Empire lines, the chances were we should be as dependent upon some foreign countries for soft wood as we are upon foreign countries for oil at this particular moment. When the delegates returned, what was the first thing they did? This, I submit, is very important indeed to this House. When the delegation returned from Canada, the first thing they did was to report to the Government, who were at that moment taking part in the Imperial Economic Conference. Various recommendations of the Forestry Commission made to the Imperial Economic Conference were approved by the then Government, and embodied, I believe, in the proposals that came out of that conference.

Here is a Commission who are not responsible to the House of Commons at all. They are operating in a semi-detached form. They are buying land, they are selling land, they are renting land, they are spending money in various ways and they are attending Empire Forestry Conferences in Canada and elsewhere. They are coming back home, and, without consulting the Government at all, they are making recommendations to an Imperial Economic Conference, and pledging this House of Commons, without the Members having a single word to say. If only for these reasons, I respectfully submit to the House that, instead of electing two more Commissioners, we ought to bring the Forestry Commission under one De partment, which would be reponsible to this House. Then we should not have the Treasury sometimes retarding and sometimes inspiring, but we should have a definite Ministry responsible for inspiring the Commissioners, for seeing that the work was done, and for doing much more in this direction than has ever been done up to this moment.

It being a Quarter-past Eight of the Clock, further Proceeding was postponed without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 4.