HC Deb 04 April 1949 vol 463 cc1798-822

8.29 p.m.

Mr. John E. Haire (Wycombe)

I have a little more than the usual half hour tonight to draw the attention of the House to the important subject of Colonial timber. As the House will be aware, one of our post-war scarcities is timber. Prior to the war our source of supply was mainly Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and North America, but owing to the war the former has largely been removed and it is now only slightly recovered. It is an uncertain source. As to the North American continent, it is a hard currency area and is still rigorously controlled so far as imports are concerned. These scarcities have brought the Colonies into high relief, and therefore, as timber producing areas they are much more important than ever. In fact, it is interesting to note that in pre-war years 5.9 per cent. of our hard-woods coming into this country came from the Colonies, but in 1946 that figure had soared to 26.5 per cent., in 1947 it was 20.2 per cent. and last year for the first six months it was 17.4 per cent.

I welcome the recent release of hardwoods for our timber consuming industries, but I regret that soft woods are still controlled. It will have been noted by hon. Members that the figures I have just given indicate that as a result of the recent improvement in our post-war supply, the Colonies may tend now to be neglected. I hope my hon. Friend will show us that, having developed some of our Colonial areas, we are not now proposing to neglect them. Pre-war Governments and private enterprise between them paid far too little attention to our Colonial timber resources and I hope that we are not now going back to that situation.

My purpose tonight, therefore, is to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies to draw attention to important developments which have occurred in the Colonies and to ask him to encourage and stimulate the use of Colonial hardwoods. It is so very important that we should ease the pressure on our home-grown timbers, which in my opinion have been over-exploited in the war and in the immediate post-war years. My first question to him is therefore—have we a long term programme for the development of our Colonial timbers? I should like him to deny that our efforts merely add up to a short-term development to meet an urgent present problem. Could he, therefore, say what is the anticipated production and export of hardwoods in each of the next five years from our Colonial areas, and has he any programme of importation from the Colonies into this country? It is important that w should have a fixed programme for a number of years ahead.

It would be disastrous if we allowed exploitation, even on a long-term basis, of our Colonial resources to go on in such a way that no attention is paid whatsoever to the problem of conservation and re-afforestation. It will not be necessary for me to point out that one of our greatest problems in the Colonies is soil erosion and the rapid removal of Colonial forests is going to aggravate this problem. Therefore, we must ask is the Under-Secretary satisfied that in the development of our Colonial timber resources he has got sufficient forestry officers on the spot to advise on and supervise the development?

West Africa is probably the most convenient source of Colonial timber, and, therefore, likely to be the most overworked. Would my hon. Friend let us know what development has gone on there and how far this Colony is being used as a source of supply? To turn to East Africa, I am told that a considerable amount of timber must be cleared from the groundnut area in Tanganyika. Some of it, I understand, suffers from one of the shortcomings of our tropical timber—it is very readily attacked after felling by beetle and insect. I should like to know if we have any plans for countering this menace. Can my hon. Friend release any information similar to that which he recently revealed for dealing with the tsetse fly.

The third of our important Colonial areas is the Caribbean. Before the war it was well-known to us as the source of our mahogany. The Honduras mahogany was deservedly very famous. There are 6,000 square miles of hardwoods and 100 square miles of softwoods in the British Honduras area. Could we be told if, in fact, this area is now being properly developed? It will perhaps interest the House to know that our Colonies are very deficient in softwoods, which are at present our greatest timber scarcity, but here in Honduras we have 100 square miles which may provide us with very useful relief at the present time if we could get the wood out. I should like my hon. Friend to give his attention to the development of areas like this as quickly and as carefully as possible. One might also refer to Sarawak and North Borneo, both of which are important timber areas. Could my hon. Friend give us some information about them?

I now turn to the facilities available in the Colonies for the proper working of the timber. It has been well-known for many years that the timber is there. One of the great difficulties is getting to it and the lack of proper equipment. We talk a good deal about getting felling machinery to those parts of the world where timber is available. Could my hon. Friend in fact, tell us whether his Department is providing sufficient felling equipment for our Colonies, because if we do not get it in the near future we may not be able to get the requisite amount of timber out of them.

The second great problem is to have sufficient railways to the forests so that we can get the timber out easily. Can my hon. Friend tell us what are the dimensions of the problem here? Are we being provided with sufficient steel rails to lay down railways into our timber areas, because without such supplies of rails valuable timber such as we require cannot be extracted. The House will remember that it was only last year that we had a hold up in West Africa because of lack of locomotives. Could my hon. Friend tell us whether that problem has been overcome or is the locomotive problem one that is facing us in all our timber areas? I understand that the biggest bottleneck, particularly in West Africa, is the provision of timber conveying waggons. Has any progress been made here?

Finally, on the question of facilities, could my hon. Friend tell us about port facilities? There appeared to be great difficulty in loading timber at some of our ports, for example, at Takoradi. Are our development plans there proceeding rapidly enough? It is well known in the timber industry that it is much less economical to ship timber in the round, and it is feared that in order to overcome that, we must develop a sufficiency of saw-milling capacity. I should like my hon. Friend to indicate to us what is being done in this direction. I should like to see greater development in the dimensioning of timber so that we could ship right to this country in properly prepared and planned dimensions. I recognise that there are difficulties, because of such problems as humidity.

That leads me to speak of the local timber-using industries in the Colonies themselves. We should not regard the Colonies as merely to be exploited for our own industries. I understand that some local industries were established in West Africa during the war for the manufacture, for example, of local furniture, and that this product reached some 'quality and was not just crude native furniture. Has this industry continued under Government auspices in West Africa or has it been returned now to private hands? Will my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary say what the future is for these local Colonial industries? Is it the intention that one day they will attempt to market furniture in this country? I should like to know what encouragement is given to British manufacturers to establish local industries in the Colonies. Those manufacturers would bring to this job a great wealth of knowledge and experience. In many cases all that deters them is the lack of encouragement and particularly lack of finance.

Some of our manufacturers might well be encouraged to set up little local industries, for example in the Central Americas and in Colonies there where they would have a fairly ready access to the United States and to other nearby hard-currency areas. One other industry that might he encouraged in the Colonies is the preparation of plywoods and veneers. I believe that those local industries have not been sufficiently developed. In all this development of production, of equipment, transport, and local manufacture, it is clear that the Overseas Development Corporation ought to play a part. Is it doing so? Is it sufficiently conscious of the need for developing our colonial timber resources, or is it at the moment giving priority to food production?

Having taken the House on this brief tour of our colonial timber resources I would say that it is no good publicising them if we cannot make the timber-using industries of this country colonial-minded in their demands for timber. The good work done by the Forest Products Research Laboratory at Princes Ris-borough is not sufficiently known in this country. The laboratory is in my constituency, and I would pay a tribute to the work that it is doing. I have seen that work at first-hand. It is giving the most valuable help to users of colonial timbers and to the furniture industry, which is beginning to show some initiative in using new colonial timbers. Much more should be done to acquaint our timber users with the qualities of colonial woods and with their suitability for furniture.

We might have more exhibitions of furniture made from colonial timber. We might have much more illustrated literature. It seems that the Forest Products Research Laboratory is suffering from unnecessary parsimony in the matter of finance and in the matter of staffing. It is quite clear that if they are to rise to this occasion and to make our furniture manufacturers conscious of the value of colonial timbers the laboratory must have a much larger staff than they have at present. Their work would be incomplete unless it were accompanied by research in the Colonies themselves. Has my hon. Friend sufficient forestry research officers in the Colonies? Are we training sufficient men to undertake this responsible and important work?

Every means must be taken to popularise these Colonial secondary hard woods. There is no doubt that these woods will become popular if they are brought into this country at fairly cheap prices. The House is probably aware that we are suffering at present from excessive prices for timbers. These Colonial woods can be marketed in this country at cheaper rates than the prevailing rates and there is no reason why they should not become more popular. I hope the day is not far distant when such woods as Abura, Akomu, Silky oak and Mninga will be as much sought after as walnut, mahogany and oak. It rests with the Colonial Office to popularise them and I hope my hon. Friend will begin that useful work in his reply tonight.

8.46 p.m.

Mr. Orr-Ewing (Weston-super-Mare)

The subject which the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire) has raised is one which should be of great interest to us all. It is a subject on which a great deal of thought has been spent for many years and one which, before the war, provided very serious problems not only for Colonial Governments but for those who wished to make use in this country of the timbers the hon. Member has mentioned. It is quite true, to take one vast Colonial territory alone, probably the greatest use made of timber grown in Africa is still today that of fuel. It may well be that modern developments of transport and so on will make more efficient forms of fuel more readily available and make that timber which can be converted for use outside the Colonial territories exportable at an economic price. But the fact remains, unfortunately, that up to the war years the export of most of the tropical timbers from Colonial territories was economically unsound except for the very highest grades and some very special timbers.

I would go a little further in this story and ask the Minister how far—making use of modern means—do we know what timber we have in the Colonial territories? It was only in the immediate prewar years and in the post-war years that it became possible with any accuracy to make forest surveys from the air. Owing to the improvement in aircraft, cameras, definition and analysis of photography and so on by colour processes, it is now possible to make comparatively detailed picture surveys over vast forests which are practically impenetrable in their heart and centre to human beings on foot. I ask the Minister how far are we towards getting a full picture of the forest resources of the Colonial territories as a whole. I know a great deal has been done, but I have a feeling that we have only touched the fringe of the problem and this matter is of such importance, not just to the immediate present, but to the distant future, that the sooner we can get that forest survey completed and reported on, the better it will be not only for the Colonial territories, but for us in this country. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be able to give us some details about that.

The hon. Member spoke almost entirely about hardwoods. I go a long way with him on that, but I wish to stress the fact that I do not believe that by any means the sole value of Colonial timbers, which in the majority of cases are tropical timbers, or the main value in the future is going to be only in hardwoods. I would therefore ask how far have the Colonial Office gone in their survey as to the possibilities of growing timber at exactly the other extreme, for instance, balsa wood which proved of inestimable value to us during the war in the construction of aircraft and other things and which, unfortunately, was largely confined in its more cultivated growth to territories of Central and South America, but which is of immense market value. Not only is it one of the finest insulators in the world, but, being so light, it has a very high degree of buoyancy and, as some of us know, it was used very widely by His Majesty's Forces during the war.

The production of balsa wood is something which should be taken up very actively by the Colonial Office and great interest should be taken in the whole field of exploration and experiment as to what territories are best suited to the production of balsa wood, possible users, manufacturers and Service Departments in particular in this country. How far has the drive gone to investigate whether that wood—I do not believe it is really a wood but a kind of glorified cabbage, but we will call it a wood and it is very useful—can be properly grown. Unless properly grown, it loses half its value, half its buoyancy and insulating power. There are certain definite areas in the world where it could be grown and I believe there are such areas, owing to humidity and so on, in our Colonial territories. I hope we shall push on in that matter.

The hon. Member mentioned the question of transport of timber. I have always felt that the conversion of timber on the spot in tropical climates was a matter which we should study. I have seen it applied in a small way. I know there are problems and it would mean transporting plant into difficult areas, but I do not think they are anything like the problems of getting the timber out in the rough from those difficult places. I do not think we have gone far enough in studying this matter and I suggest that we should try part manufacture. There is no reason why we should not manufacture shapes—chair legs and the rest—in the heart of Africa. It would be much easier to transport the timber in that form than by the wasteful forms of transport by which the waste wood is carried.

One of the troubles in dealing with these matters is that we have to treat the timber in extremes of climate and humidity through which it has to pass and very little regard has been paid to this problem because until fairly recently it was not an economical proposition. I should have thought in time that those with knowledge on that side of the issue should consider what methods could be devised to transport from difficult areas so that the timber should not suffer twisting and turning and doing the things it can do unless properly treated, quite apart from the question of seasoning in this country. I do not think nearly enough attention is paid to that question.

Then there is the question of the use of tropical timbers in making up ply-woods and packings of all sorts, as well as for building purposes and so on. I cannot help feeling that it is a scandalous thing that at present we should be told that we should slow down in the collection of waste paper because, under certain arrangements, we have to import so much wood pulp and strawboard from the United States of America and Holland. It seems inconceivable that we should spend dollars and slow down the collection of waste paper in this country as a means of saving dollars. The use to which it was put was largely in the making of certain kinds of boarding and in exactly the same kinds of boardings and plys Colonial timbers could be used.

There is no currency problem there and no exchange issue arises when we are dealing with that sort of proposition. I feel that, rather than spend dollars in importing stuff which we can find by collecting more waste paper here, if we are to be allowed to do so by the grace of His Majesty's Government, we should consider the alternative of not having at any time to import so much of this plywood and raw material by examining the possibilities of our tropical forests.

Mr. Haire

Will the hon. Member say on whose authority this relaxation of the collection of waste paper has been issued?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I would ask the hon. Member to ask his own Minister a question on the issue of whether it is not the case that a warning is going out to local authorities and all voluntary bodies collecting waste paper that if they go on collecting it at the same rate they will find that waste paper will be unsaleable because the mills of this country cannot produce the board and sell it in view of the fact that we have to import straw-board. To the best of my knowledge and belief it is true, and I am very sorry to hear it.

I have asked three questions, which I hope the Under-Secretary will answer. This is a big issue. The whole of the Colonial timber problem is not merely—

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Rees-Williams)

I must not be taken, by not accepting the hon. Member's challenge, as agreeing to the truth of what he says. I have never heard of the point which he has mentioned, and it does not come within the province of my Department to make any such pronouncement, if such a pronouncement were made.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I quite appreciate that point. I do not wish to be unfair to the hon. Gentleman. I appreciate that he is not fully primed on this matter and that he was not aware that the point would be raised tonight. I strongly recommend the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire), as I would recommend myself, to put down a Question which could be answered by the appropriate Minister at the appropriate time.

We cannot look on this Colonial timber problem merely as a short-term problem. We have a vast store of wealth in the Colonial Empire if we care to see that it is properly used; and when I say "used" I include the point which was referred to by the hon. Member for Wycombe, that is, if we see to it that it is not unfairly exploited and unwisely used. To strip huge areas and fail to replant would be quite fatal from every conceivable angle, and any extension of the use and conversion of Colonial timbers must be accompanied by a proper replanting programme. I hope that we shall hear some good news in that regard, and that the Minister will be able to give some reassurance in all these respects.

8.59 p.m.

Mr. George Porter (Leeds, Central)

I intervene briefly to express the point of view of those who are concerned with, the use of timber. As one who for many years had the privilege of earning his living by the use of wood, I agree how interesting and how very desirable it would be from our point of view if we could devote our time to the use of hardwoods and in that way indulge in what at the moment are, from a timber point of view, the luxury trades in the building industries. While it is very interesting to hear talk of the possible new hardwoods that might be devoted to old processes—the making of furniture, office and shop fittings—we who are responsible for using this material in the production of the finished article in this country are mainly concerned with soft woods.

We are mostly engaged in building houses rather than in giving consideration to the possibilities of furnishings. Therefore, my particular interest is in the types of timber which we get or used to get from the Northern States of Europe, from Russia and from Canada. In view of the fact that the question has been raised particularly from the Commonwealth aspect, I wish to know what has been done in regard to speeding up the transference to this country of the timber products of Western Canada—Californian pine, Oregon pine and timbers of that sort—which are used extensively in the building of houses? We who are in the industry at the present moment are employed in making as much furniture as can be purchased and used in the houses at present. If the Under-Secretary can tell me that he can see the means whereby he could introduce more softwoods into the country so that we could employ in the building of houses a bigger percentage of wood than at the present time, I can assure him and the House that by the time we get all the houses which are needed we shall be glad to resume the luxury trades and use all the new woods mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire).

9.3 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire) has done the House a service by raising this subject. I am sure that it will be recognised on all sides of the House that any contribution to the problem of timber supplies at the present time will be heartily welcomed. I am quite sure that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland has attended this Debate, as I have, to find out what is the answer to the question which has been put to the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. Can the Colonial Empire supply the timber which is so badly needed as raw material for our housing schemes? I saw the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs flit in and out. I have far more hope of the Colonial Under-Secretary than of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. There was a time when it was frequently argued: Why not get the timber we so urgently need from the Baltic States and from Russia? It is because that source of supply has dried up, because there is very little hope now of the commonsense arrangement which prevailed for so many years—

Sir William Darling (Edinburgh. South)

Under capitalism.

Mr. Hughes

Whether under capitalism or Socialism, I do not wish to argue. I know that one of the reasons why we are discussing the shortage of timber is the lamentable breakdown in political relations between ourselves and the U.S.S.R. That has reflected itself in a serious shortage of timber which used to come from the Baltic States and from the U.S.S.R.

Mr. Haire

Would it not be right to say that we are getting as much timber from the U.S.S.R. at the moment as they will give us?

Mr. Hughes

I am not sure of the answer to that question. We find common agreement that one of the reasons for the shortage of timber which has seriously affected the progress of our housing schemes and about which the hon. Member for Central Leeds (Mr. G. Porter) expressed perturbation, is political disagreement which means that we no longer get the timber which we used to get from Russia. From what I can see of the international situation—I hope that I am not pessimistic—there is no possibility under present foreign policy of that relationship changing and the timber situation easing as a result of trade with Russia.

Therefore, we must turn to the Colonial territories. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire) has put a most urgent and necessary question: can we from our Colonies in all parts of the world eke out our supplies of timber? In Scotland the shortage of timber is one of the reasons why we have not made the progress that we wish to make in housing. Wherever there is a source of timber, whether it be in Africa, America or elsewhere, we would welcome any inquiry which would result in more hard or soft woods being imported.

I wish to make a suggestion which I have received from West Africa. I was rather surprised last week to get a registered letter by air mail from Gambia. It was addressed to "The Right Honourable Emrys Hughes, the Socialist Member for Ayrshire South." I am evidently more appreciated in darkest Africa than I am here, but after receiving that letter I am hopeful. The letter came from a gentleman named Sheikh Omar Fye, O.B.E. He wrote that in an issue of the "Daily Telegraph" he had read of a supplementary question which I asked about a warship called the "Implacable." I asked in view of the serious shortage of firewood in France, whether it would be possible to send back the "Implacable" to its original owners. This gentleman linked that question with the fact that there was a shortage of firewood in France and suggested that that meant an opportunity for West Africa. He supplied me with a statement which said that in Gambia he has acquired 10,000 acres of timber land from the Overseas Food Corporation. He writes: I have acquired from the Corporation the exclusive rights to all the timber trees felled in the area, and the total quantity is estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000 tons of timber. The least we can do is to explore this proposition. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies will get in touch with the Board of Trade or the Ministry of Supply to inquire whether some of this timber can be brought here in order to supplement the supplies which we need for our housing schemes.

So I pass on this matter to the Under-Secretary with my blessing, in the hope that something will materialise from it. I also hope that, as a result of the suggestions thrown out in the Debate, we may find some other source of the timber so badly needed for furniture, for housing and for every kind of building construction. May I also pass on to the Under-Secretary the suggestion that he should ask the President of the Board of Trade to see that, if timber does come from the Colonies, there should be no import duty attached to it, as there is now in the case of timber from Sweden? With these suggestions, I endorse what has been said by the hon. Member who initiated the Debate, and hope that there will be some material result from it.

9.11 p.m.

Squadron-Leader Kinghorn (Great Yarmouth)

All hon. Members must be very glad indeed that we have had the opportunity of bringing out further Colonial topics to add to the list of those which have been introduced week after week at this time of night. There has been general agreement on the desirability of making better and further use of the Colonial territories, in the interests both of the inhabitants themselves and ourselves. I suppose no other country in the world has at its disposal territories where timber of such variety is accessible and waiting to be utilised in the manufacture of many of the varied commodities which we need today.

For instance, perhaps as a result of this Debate, we may find that there have been discussions, not only with housing authorities and the Colonial Office and their representatives, but also with British Railways. I remember that when one used to travel up to London by L.M.S., as the newer coaches came along about 15 years ago, the woodwork in some of these modern coaches was quite different from that to which we had been accustomed on our journeys, and, in order that we should appreciate what they were and where they came from, labels were attached informing us that the wood came from West Africa or Queensland or some other part. I notice that I get verification from the Front Bench that that is being carried on now.

There has been and still is a great shortage of wood in this country, and I presume that it affects activities at places like Doncaster and Crewe and other railway centres, where there must be great activity now in the building of railway coaches. I hope that some discussions will take place with the Colonial representatives so that we may have some of these very fine woods, which polish up so nicely and so much better than the wood formerly used for that purpose. It would have the further benefit of doing what we are continually asking the Government to do—improving the economic connection between many of these Colonial territories, where the standard of living is so low, and the mother country.

The building industry has been mentioned as being particularly interested in this question, and we all know that the requisite for every house built by this Government is that there must be 1.6 standards of timber. If anyone was able to offer a timberless house, I am sure the idea would receive the heartiest consideration of the Government. It seems a pity that we should be facing this great shortage of timber for our housing programme when there must be miles of forests in these territories containing timber of one kind and another which would be extremely useful to us. I do not put the blame for this situation on this Government, nor even on previous Governments. I sometimes think that the blame might be laid on the conservative attitude of people in this country who have had to do with the working of wood.

We seem to have made very few changes in the course of our history in this country in the use of wood for domestic building and so on. We have never really exploited what is at our disposal in these vast territories. The only time one sees these rather nice articles of furniture built in these various territories and made from wood either from Australia or from the Colonial territories is when one walks along the Strand and sees these exhibitions in some of our Dominions and Colonial Offices. These articles should be more and more on sale in our bigger stores and we, as a Commonwealth nation, should be accustomed more and more to buying these things in London and in other towns instead of waiting until an uncle or a nephew goes abroad to serve with the 14th Army, or something like that, and comes back lugging a specimen as a rare curio.

It should be part of our ordinary life to use these woods. To bring this about I believe the Colonial Office should work in close touch with the Board of Trade, the Ministry of Supply, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Works and there should be somebody from the Colonial Office, for instance, working in touch with the Building Research Department. That Department has done a very good job of work in the last few years in helping to economise with those scarce materials which we use in our housing programme. But how many times have they considered making up for the shortage of soft wood from the dollar countries, or from Russia, Finland or the Baltic countries, by experimenting with the use of these other varieties of wood from Africa, Gambia, British Honduras or the other parts of the sterling area, such as Australia? I think something could be done in that way. The Building Research Department has a record in the last few years of which it might well be proud.

Let us take, for instance, the question of the hardwood which was released last week. As we go round and see the houses being built in our constituencies how often do we find that the housewife has to work on one of these modern mastic floors because not enough wood can be spared to give her a more springy, wooden floor on which to stand in her kitchen? People who can afford it, buy a kind of rubber composition to put over the floor or instead of the floor which has been laid down. I am certain that many of the woods, for instance from Rhodesia, could be machined here and would last much longer than the mastic floor and longer than the carpet which people have to buy. That would be better especially in these days when people have to pay Purchase Tax on top of the price of the carpet. Let us hope that we shall not have to pay Purchase Tax on Thursday.

We are indeed grateful to the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire) for having introduced this topic tonight. I hope we shall be given an answer from the Under-Secretary of State to show—as he usually shows—that somebody is working on this matter in the Colonial Office; that we are building up an economy which is becoming more and more knitted together, as it should be with a great Commonwealth country, and as should have been done many years ago; and that we are now making efforts in this difficult post-war world to bring about this result.

9.18 p.m.

Mr. A. Edward Davies (Burslem)

Anything which will help us to obtain supplies of timber or any other necessary commodity from the so-called soft currency areas will ease our burden. We feel that throughout the Colonial territories much work might usefully be done in respect of timber. I was impressed by the argument adduced by the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing), who asked what was being done by way of surveying the territories to ascertain, in the first place, what was the actual position. Take, for example, a country like Nigeria where some of us were at this time last year. The Chief Conservator of Forests told us that much of that land—the forest land—needed to be examined and scheduled as forest land for development in the future and that there was much common land, or fallow land as he described it, about which a decision had to be taken. In short, we had to decide what land we were going to develop in terms of capital equipment if it were to become a paying proposition over a period of years, perhaps a decade or a generation or several generations of time.

Under Lord Milverton, in 1945, the Chief Conservator said that something had been done by way of arranging a programme to that end, and particularly with reference to trained staff. He said that if afforestation was to proceed satisfactorily the land must be communally worked, though that was not to say there was to be expropriation, but rather that plans should be laid in advance and agreed. The Chief Conservator said that one of the difficulties was the absence of trained staff. The scheme for training afforestation officers during the war had broken down. I imagine that this is a problem common to all the Colonies. When the Under-Secretary of State replies to the Debate I hope he will tell us what progress has been made with the solution of this problem, especially in getting more European staff, because they are the sort of experienced men who have been responsible for the training of the Africans in West Africa.

I would draw attention to what was said in evidence before the Select Committee which went out to Nigeria and is published in the Fifth Report of the Select Committee. The Chief Conservator said: It is in respect of the European staff initially required that the plan is threatened with stultification. Forestry training was broken during the war and service in Great Britain has more attractions than that in the Colonies. The Nigerian service now is some 13 field officers short out of a total of 55. What he is saying is that insufficient men are being trained in this country, and such men as are being trained find more attractive conditions outside the Colonies. He went on to suggest that in those circumstances, in the absence of properly trained staff, we should devise some meantime arrangements, and find men with practical knowledge of the woodlands, possibly without academic training, to be employed on the job. May we be told what progress is being made in that way? In West Africa and other parts of the Colonial Empire there are great resources at our disposal. We ought to examine them and plan to use them. I hope we shall have from the Under-Secretary of State tonight some encouragement in the hope that we shall have more building timber in the near future.

9.24 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Rees-Williams)

I am sure the House is very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Haire) and also to the other hon. Members who have spoken, for raising this problem. It is a most important subject. We shall have more and more to rely upon these sources of timber. The problem before us is to preserve sufficient areas of forest to maintain soil fertility and water supplies. I put that before the second problem, which I shall mention in a moment. It is particularly important to preserve these areas of tropical forests because owing to the heavy rain and strong wind and sun if there is destruction of the trees it leads to orchard bush, to savanna and finally to desert. Thus the end of the process is, of course, little short of disastrous. Anyone who has seen the film which was shown quite recently in the "Modern Age" series, the name of which for the moment escapes me, will remember how tragic has been this cycle in history. We must take steps to ensure that in our forest policy we do not create fresh deserts.

Another important matter is that these great tropical forests create humus and when they are stripped little remains, and certainly no humus remains, in which to re-establish the forest. Therefore, this forest policy must be carefully safeguarded with regard to the cutting out of trees. It has been calculated—although I am not able to vouch for it personally—that in the last 5,000 years two-fifths of the world's forests have been destroyed, and as the population of the world increases so does that population impinge to an ever-greater extent upon the remaining forest land.

The second problem—and I put it second purposely because I think that it is of lesser importance than the first—is to meet the increasing world demand for timber. It is on that aspect, rather than the first, that most of the speeches have been made tonight. Before the war, the United Kingdom imported 379 million cubic feet of softwood and 46 million cubic feet of hardwood every year. Now, with the need to turn to soft currency and sterling sources, we find that many of the pre-war sources of timber both in softwood and hardwood are no longer available. Hardwood exports from the Colonies to the United Kingdom rose from 2.7 million cubic feet before the war to about 6.6 million cubic feet in 1947, and the total export of hardwoods from the Colonies in 1947 was 13,540,000 cubic feet. It is expected—and here I answer the hon. Member for Wycombe—that by 1953 the total export will have risen to 22 million cubic feet.

In order to comply with the two prerequisites which I have mentioned, what is the policy of the Government? First, the policy is to ensure that the climatic and physical conditions of the country are preserved by control and maintenance or rehabilitation of vegetation and water supplies. Secondly, to supply in perpetuity all forms of forest produce, and, thirdly, to ensure that enough forest trees are available to provide shade for certain crops, such as cocoa, which must have shade in order to survive. All the Colonies are taking steps to ensure that their forestry policy is designed to meet the considerations which I have enumerated. Most of them have substituted systematic block felling of trees for the selective felling that went on in the old days. We have increased the research on the properties and uses of lesser known timbers on which I shall speak at greater length in a few moments.

The Forest Products Research Laboratory, of which my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) spoke, has done most valuable work as a link between the timber producer and the timber consumer, and throughout the Colonies we are improving transport facilities and communications as rapidly as supplies permit. So, too, we encourage sawmill, plywood, and veneer production in the Colonies. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe that everything is being done to work the timber on the spot, because as a rule about 50 per cent. of any tree is waste, and if we bring it over here it means bringing double the quantity we can use. It is obviously more convenient and economical to process the timber on the spot.

In order to encourage this processing the United Kingdom Government have informed all the Colonies that we shall continue to buy all the available sawn timber they can produce, subject to price and quality, almost indefinitely. I think that should prove a great inducement, not only for the production of timber but also for its processing on the spot. Then we are encouraging the production of softwoods in every way we possibly can.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

May I intervene before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point? Many of these Colonial woods are poisonous. For example, the obeche wood in West Africa produces dermatitis when its dust contacts human skin. Others, like African boxwood, when used in this country produce general poisonous symptoms amongst workers handling them. Would it not be better to have these woods brought here in bulk, where medical services and the best treatment might be available, rather than have the cutting up of these woods done in Africa amongst African or native workers, where medical services may be in short supply?

Mr. Rees-Williams

My hon. Friend has raised a most important point. It is one to which we have given consideration. I believe that it is quite possible to have the necessary regulations in force in the Colonies to protect the workers there. I shall certainly see that the point he has made is brought to the notice of Govern- ments where there is any intention to process the woods locally. I have been in some of these sawmills, and I was not told by anybody there that there was any difficulty on these lines; but I shall certainly take that up with the Governments concerned, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing it to my attention.

The only indigenous softwoods are in pines found in British Honduras. As the House knows, the softwood, the coniferous type, is found in temperate climes; most of the Colonial territories are in tropical climes, and as a general rule very few softwoods are available. The only one available at the moment on a commercial scale is the Caribbean pine in British Honduras.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

Is there no Colonial balsa wood available?—if the hon. Gentleman is calling that a wood; I am not quite sure if he is.

Mr. Rees-Williams

I had intended to answer that point later, but I shall do so now. There is some balsa wood—which seems to have dangerous properties, not so much to the workers as to the soil—being grown in Trinidad, but I am told by the forestry experts that they do not consider it the sort of wood which we ought to encourage, owing to its effect upon the soil. I am in their hands; I cannot myself answer whether that is so or not, but that is what I am advised.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

This is a rather important matter. The Minister is not suggesting that in other parts of the world where balsa wood is grown, to great profit and advantage, the soil is all poisoned? Is he really saying that that is the only one of our Colonial territories where investigation has been made, and where it has been proved possible to grow balsa wood at all?

Mr. Rees-Williams

That is what I am told. I can only give the information with which I have been supplied on this particular wood. It is being developed—I do not say grown—only in Trinidad. The forestry departments are rather suspicious of it owing to the effect it is alleged to have on the soil. I shall take the matter up further, and if there is any change in the advice I have been given I will get in touch with the hon. Member.

Finally, the last way in which we are carrying out the policy I mentioned is by bulk purchases. We try in every possible way to use primary timbers, and bulk purchase has certainly been a powerful factor in developing the use of secondary hardwoods.

Having dealt with the principles underlying our policy, I shall try now to answer some of the specific questions that have been put. I have been asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Wycombe and Burslem (Mr. Edward Davies) what we are doing about staff. I must admit that we have not nearly enough staff by way of forestry officers, although we are prejudiced here by the fact that very few forestry officers were being trained during the long period of the war. I am informed, however, that the recruitment of forestry officers is now proceeding satisfactorily. In three years time, as they come out of the universities, we shall have filled the vacancies which now exist.

I have been asked about the development of West African timber, and also timbers in various other parts of the Colonial Empire. It would be wearisome to the House if I were to go through every part of the Colonial Empire and specify in detail what is happening. For those Members who are interested, I would direct their attention to the second report of the Colonial Primary Products Committee which is available and which was published in January this year. That report contains exact details of the forestry situation in practically every Colony and it will give all the information that is required. I was asked one point on the ground nut scheme, namely, the use of the timber which is becoming available there as the area is cleared. There are three classes of timber becoming available. The first is the fine timber, which is usable but forms a comparatively small proportion of the whole. The second is a larger proportion, the hard and heavy timber which is not impervious to attack by termites. The third is of mixed and uncertain value.

In the first class Mninga is predominant. It is a hard, heavy, durable timber, resistant to white ants, and is used for constructional work. It can be left for two years in the log without deterioration. In the second class we have the tough, coarse grain timber, which could be used for sleepers but would require creosoting under pressure. This timber requires pre- liminary arsenical treatment within two weeks of felling, and the main preservation treatment has to be done after six months seasoning in a central plant. As to the density of trees, there are only two trees per acre that can be used for sleepers, involving complicated questions of transport as well as treatment and saw-milling, which make it uneconomical for use in any quantity.

I was asked about wagons in the Gold Coast. The House will be glad to know that we have on order low-sided wagons that are being specially built for timber carrying. There are 220 on order, with 20 to be delivered in May, 40 in June and the remainder at frequent intervals. We should have plenty of rolling stock to deal with the timber situation in the Gold Coast. I am glad to say that the Colonial Development Corporation are taking a very keen interest in the timber possibilities of the Empire and, with the Timber Department, are investigating the position in various Colonies. I understand that their report is to be published quite soon, when hon. Members will see how far they have gone in this direction.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Mr. Orr-Ewing) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe asked what use could be made in this country of timber which had been prepared in the Colonies. I am glad to say that the Timber Control will licence up to one million cubic feet of timber for flooring material. They will also licence all the short length strips and floor blocks which are available, up to £70,000 worth of broom and brush handles, and up to £50,000 worth of tool handles. They also permit non-utility furniture for re-export and parts satisfactorily cut, sawn, shaped and planned to specific dimensions. So, on the whole, there is a considerable market here, quite apart from bulk timbers, for timbers which have been processed in Colonial territories.

The hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare asked how we knew what timber we had available. We do not. We have had an aerial survey made during the last few years, and have photographed an area about four times the size of the United Kingdom, mainly in Africa. This has given us a considerable amount of information about tropical forests, and the Director of Colonial Surveys, Brigadier Hotine, is now in British Guiana making the necessary arrangements for a survey there. We are also having a survey made—some of it has already been done—in Malaya, and eventually the survey team will move up to North Borneo. But here, again, we have to cut our coat according to our cloth and remember that trained specialists, particularly on the mapping rather than the photographic side, are limited.

On the question of wood pulp, while it is true that 90 per cent. of the world's paper comes from wood, the bulk of it is made from coniferous timbers which are, of course, softwoods. There are very few softwoods in the Empire. The only ones saleable at the moment are in British Honduras, but we have considerable softwood development schemes in hand in Kenya, Tanganyika and Nyasaland. They will not, of course, come to maturity for a very long time. I do not suppose any Member here now will ever see these softwoods developed. In forestry, we have to plan for posterity and work to a long-term programme. The House will be glad to know that in these territories we have a big programme in view for the production of softwoods, which will rejoice the heart of the Labour Government which will be in power when that time arrives.

The hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes) read a letter, the object of which I am not quite sure, but it was from a gentleman in Gambia. I take it he was offering the hon. Member for South Ayrshire an agency for the sale of this timber in this country. We may expect to see a headline in "Forward" that the hon. Member is now going into the timber industry in a big way.

I should not like to confirm or deny the allegation made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth that the building industry in this country is conservative—I hope it is the only sense in which it is conservative—in the use of timber, but I would ask it to regard very seriously what he has said tonight in this respect and to make use of the services which are available to it in this country in the Timber Research Institute. The Institute is doing a tremendous lot of work on these exotic timbers; many of them are delightful and would afford great pleasure to the people of this country. I hope the House will be satisfied that within the means at our disposal the Colonial Office and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State are doing everything they possibly can to develop and husband the special forestry resources of the Empire.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

Could the right hon. Gentleman say if the Aerial Forest Survey is devoting its time to areas the timber of which is more likely to be of immediate value and use?

Mr. Rees-Williams

The Aerial Survey Squadron have to operate according to the weather, and, therefore, they have to move from various places, because during heavy rains in the tropics photographs cannot be taken. Within that limitation, they take photographs of large areas not merely from the forestry point of view, and the ultimate object is to photograph the whole of the Empire. It is being done systematically and forestry has a definite importance and place in the steady advance of our photographic survey.