§ 11.5 a.m.
§ Mr. John Baldock (Harborough)
I beg to move,That this House welcomes the appointment by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture of a committee to investigate the marketing of home-grown timber; and urges them to invite the committee to do everything in its power to submit an early report.Some 18 months ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir I. Orr-Ewing) moved a Motion in this House very much on the lines of the one I am moving today. It might be asked what purpose is served in again asking the House to give consideration to a Motion rather on the same lines, especially in view of the announcement made by the Minister of Agriculture just before the Easter Recess that a committee was being set up to investigate the marketing arrangements for homegrown timber.
We believe that we are justified in raising the question again because of our feeling of urgency about the importance of the problem and because we want to go further than the proposed committee can go under its terms of reference. We believe that a national policy for the marketing of home-grown timber is required, and clearly national policy must be decided by this House and not by a Departmental committee.
Trees can be grown for three purposes. The first is for defence and stockpiling in preparation for emergencies. That aspect of the matter is largely taken care of by the Forestry Commission, and I understand that that was largely the purpose for which the Forestry Commission was set up. The second purpose is the commercial interest of the private owners who grow timber. The growing of timber is a commercial enterprise, but 1954 it is also of considerable national interest because the products of our forests must be made available for building and for similar operations. Otherwise, timber must be imported from overseas at an expensive outlay in foreign exchange and hard currency, frequently dollars. Timber growing is therefore a matter of considerable interest to the Exchequer and to the national economy.
The third purpose in the growing of trees is to balance the features of the landscape. This is of interest to the town and country planning section of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which has devoted considerable time to deciding where trees should be grown and what types of trees they should be. Trees also balance the national climate. We have debated in this House methods of inducing artificial rainfall and of controlling in other ways our climate artificially, but I think we are all agreed that little can be done in this direction at the present time. On the other hand, trees are generally understood to play an important part in the control of climate. It is, therefore, a matter of national importance that an adequate proportion of the acreage of this country should be covered with trees.
All three aspects of tree growing, whether for defence, for commercial and foreign exchange reasons, or for balancing the landscape or climate have a very considerable national interest. The whole community is very much concerned with what is done, so that anyone who plants trees must naturally expect to have the Government and their agents looking upon what he does from the national aspect, as indeed they do.
Perhaps it would be suitable at this moment to declare my own private interest. I am the owner of a very small acreage of woodland. I am not sure that it is sufficiently large to justify my declaring it at all, but I do so to put myself on the right side. I may add that I am in process of renting part of that very small acreage to the Forestry Commission and so helping it to find the further acreages it requires to carry out its planting-up policy.
This is a national problem, and the Forestry Commission is the principal national instrument for carrying out the policy of the Government with regard to the further planting of forests and trees. 1955 I should like to pay my tribute, as so many other hon. Members have done at different times, to the very fine job which the Commission has carried out over the last 30 or more years, often under quite difficult circumstances. That the Forestry Commission is not so much in the news as many other national concerns which spend Government money is, I think, only a compliment to its efficiency and businesslike methods. I hope that it will continue to carry out the Government's aims in this direction as efficiently and as well in the future as it has done in the past.
I suggest that there might be an important extension of the Forestry Commission's functions. The Commission is always very helpful, as I have found in my own personal experience with regard to the interest I have just mentioned. It is very pleased to give advice, in an informal way, to owners of woodlands as to how they should plant them. I think that something in the nature of a more formal advisory service on the forestry side—more parallel to the National Agricultural Advisory Service—would be most helpful, particularly to the smaller woodland owners who probably do not at present realise that they can seek help from the Forestry Commission.
I am sure that the National Agricultural Advisory Service is one of the most important factors in the whole agricultural scene at the present time. It is the principal method of increasing agricultural efficiency and of allowing farmers to make use of the experience and knowledge of the scientists quickly and freely in order to improve their methods and efficiency. Something of that kind is required at any rate for the smaller woodland owners.
We hear much criticism of the poor quality of our home-grown timber. I think that most hon. Members realise that this is, to a large extent, a result of the vicious onslaughts made on our forests in the two world wars. That has tended to leave only the inferior timber, under normal conditions, to be put on the market. That is not the fault of the timber growers. There is, nevertheless, a strong feeling that home timber is of poor quality.
If marketing of home timber is to be facilitated, everything should be done to eradicate that prejudice and to improve 1956 its quality as quickly as possible. An advisory service of this kind could do a good job there. It could help the smaller woodland owners to improve the quality of their timber. It could perhaps consult the trade to find out the types of timber required and the right way to present them. It could advise not only on how to grow but on what to grow—and advise also on profitable outlets. It might be asked where the finance would be found for such a service. I do not say that the cost should be borne by the Exchequer. It might be met by some kind of levy on imported timber, but I will return to that a little later.
A great deal of disquiet has been felt about the fall in the prices of homegrown timber. That point was in the forefront of my hon. Friend's speech when this matter was last discussed in the House about 18 months ago. Since then there has been a further considerable drop. Foreign timber has been permitted to be freely imported and sold and that has led to a further fall in prices. There has also been, of course, the unfortunate windfall of very large areas in Scotland and that has also tended to put a considerable amount of timber prematurely on the market.
In the previous debate, my hon. Friend said that the problem was urgent, that prices were falling and that unless something was done there would be little incentive for private owners, at any rate, to continue the planting they had done so well between the wars. Their record then was at least as good as, if not better than, that of the Forestry Commission. It was felt that that trend could not continue unless there was a reasonable return from the sale of the timber—not only because of lack of confidence but also because there would not be the finance available for the planting of new areas.
If the problem was urgent 18 months ago, it has certainly become even more urgent today. Prices have fallen further. Although my hon. Friend then introduced that note of urgency, it was only a few weeks ago that a committee was set up to investigate the problem and to propose improved methods for marketing homegrown timber. This Motion today asks that the committee, having now been set up after the lapse of this fairly considerable time, should produce its report as soon as possible. Time is running out.
1957 The nation is very much concerned with all aspects of forestry policy. It affects everyone. Naturally, therefore, it is subject to a considerable degree of regulation. The forestry owner finds that his costs and prices are regulated in many directions. From a forestry point of view he is instructed what trees to fell and what trees not to fell. In the southern counties, or if he is anywhere near one of the National Parks, he is also frequently instructed by the town and country planing authorities on what trees he may not fell even though, from a forestry point of view, those trees may be mature and in a condition for felling.
His principal outlay is on the wages of his men. Those wages are also fixed on a national basis. He has also to pay Schedule B taxation which, again, is regulated for him. Yet, with all these regulations imposed upon him in the national interest—and I would not argue against any of them—the sale of his product, by which he has to finance his operations, is not in any way supported or regulated on a national scale. His product has to compete on the open market with timber from foreign countries where conditions may be much easier and wage rates much lower. To me it rather seems that he is competing with one hand tied behind his back, while with his one free hand he has to try to get the finance to support his operations.
I think that in this respect it can be said that the forestry industry receives less consideration than any other important national interest, and certainly compares very unfavourably with agriculture. In many ways it is parallel to, or a branch of, the agricultural industry, but whereas agricultural prices are guaranteed in return for various restrictions and regulations, in forestry this is not so.
I believe that what is now required is a permanent national policy for the marketing of home-grown timber to give the whole industry confidence. This can only be done by arranging that the prices should stand at a better level than they do today. There are, I think on both sides of the House, many strong objections to any form of Exchequer subsidy, and therefore I return to the point that I briefly mentioned earlier.
I should like to suggest the consideration of an import levy on imported 1958 timber, which represents over 90 per cent. of the timber we use in this country, and therefore the levy could be on a very low basis, in order to provide adequate finance to make our own timber industry remunerative and stable. Something of this kind worked very well under the Wheat Act in rather a comparable situation, where the imported product was in preponderance over the home-grown product.
It is interesting to learn that a very small levy, as small as a penny a cubic foot, on imported timber would have introduced last year more money to the industry than all the Exchequer subsidies were able to do. Could that not be extended so that not only could the industry be put on a more remunerative basis and given more confidence, but also the Exchequer could possibly save all the money which has been spent in subsidies, thus effecting a dual purpose—the encouragement of further planting by private owners and the reduction of the present Exchequer payments to woodland owners?
In the past the private owners have had an excellent record of replanting, but I think this has mainly been, since the war at any rate, because of tradition. These woodlands are largely in the hands of men who for many years have been brought up to replant where they have felled, and they probably find it rather difficult to change their ways even though they may begin to suspect that it is no longer economic to do so.
I suggest that as new generations come along and as further death duties are paid, new owners of woodlands will have to consider the matter in the cold reality of economics, and they will appreciate that at present prices it cannot possibly be justified economically to replant on the scale that they have done in the past, which it is generally agreed they should continue to do in the national interest. I believe that some kind of a prop to the prices in this respect would give the incentive which is so badly required.
I should like to know where the Conservative Party stands with regard to its pledge of putting the home producer first in the home market. Some kind of support of this kind, some kind of small levy on imported timber to support the price of home-produced timber, would be a very practical demonstration that 1959 this party believes in what it has always said about putting the home producer first.
I wonder how the industry is being treated by the nationalised concerns which are such important consumers of home-grown timber. Is the home-grown producer really being put first in this respect? It has been suggested that a considerable quantity of imported hardwood is being used in the repair of railway wagons, some of which, at any rate, could be replaced by home-grown timber.
I have also heard that the National Coal Board, which is the largest user of the thinnings from forests, when negotiating for the purchase of pit wood from home sources, is inclined to have very much in mind the possibility of buying its pit wood overseas. The National Coal Board does not always give the impression that it is going to consume all the home-produced pit wood that is available before turning to foreign sources. I cannot imagine any other country where it would be considered good policy to use a foreign product in a nationalised industry if it were possible to use its home product or before making sure that the whole of the home product had first been used.
That brings me to the point of the disposal of thinnings, a large proportion of which are, or should be, inevitably consumed in the mines. From reports it would appear that the Forestry Commission is finding some difficulty in disposing of the whole of its thinnings to the National Coal Board. I should be very interested to hear what the Minister has to say on that point. I should like to know whether he is still satisfied that the National Coal Board will continue to be able to take up all of the future increased quantity of thinnings, or whether other outlets are going to be required.
I now come to the field of the committee which has been set up and which will presumably investigate other possible outlets for thinnings and second-grade timber of that kind besides pit wood. Various suggestions have been made, such as the manufacture in this country of more hardboard from softwood thinnings and the manufacture of wood pulp for paper. I believe there is considerable doubt whether the hardboard and wall-board industry will be capable of taking 1960 up much of the home-produced thinnings, because in most cases these are produced in countries where there is a considerable amount of forestry waste which it is possible to put into the factories at negligible cost. Therefore, I doubt whether thinnings, which have to carry a considerable amount of overhead expenditure to get to our factories, could compete with pure waste from foreign countries. It seems doubtful whether that offers a very optimistic outlet for further thinnings.
The pulp industry would seem to me to have better prospects. We all know that newspapers are very concerned about the shortage of pulp and the lack of newsprint. I am not suggesting that the small quantity that we shall produce in this country in the immediate future would make very much difference to the situation, but at least there is a strong demand. A very big proportion of what we now get comes from dollar sources, and perhaps some kind of pulping plant would be a valuable addition to the outlets for this kind of timber.
The capital outlay for such plant would be considerable, and I suggest that the Minister might consider whether some kind of grants or loans could be given to selected companies in suitable areas by the timber trade for installing plant of this kind for pulping. I suggest that the Minister should also consider whether such grants could be made available under any present legislation, or whether there might be some possibility of using some of the American credit which, I think, could be used for this purpose, on experimental lines.
A certain amount of unrest has been caused among the trade and among growers of timber because of the bad reputation of home-grown timber. This is certainly aggravated at the present time by the difficulty of obtaining felling licences for the better-class timber. It is easy to understand why that policy has been introduced; nevertheless, I should like the Minister to consider whether it might not now be good policy to allow a greater quantity of good timber to be felled in order gradually to rebuild the reputation of our home-grown timber, which certainly cannot be done whilst only the rather second-rate timber is licensed for felling.
It is very important that our reputation should be re-established in these 1961 days, when marketing is becoming the most essential factor in any industry. If no really good product is available on the market, it is very hard for the home-grown timber trade to begin to rebuild its reputation. Even if only a comparatively small quantity of timber were involved, it would at least form a basis for large supplies of well-graded and good quality English timber which we hope to see coming in later years both from the Forestry Commission and from private owners.
It is trite to say that many of our economic difficulties are the result of a lack of natural resources. In our forests and woodlands we have very valuable natural resources, which are greatly neglected by the nation. With a little more interest and concern by the Government and by those in authority—a little more help and a little more confidence in the industry—we could not only build up a wealth of natural timber for the future but could encourage a product which would strengthen our defences in an emergency and improve our balance of payments.
§ 11.32 a.m.
§ Colonel Ralph Clarke (East Grinstead)
I beg to second the Motion.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) on having chosen this subject, for, though it is not a very popular one, as may be seen by the attendance at debates on forestry, it is of immense importance. The products of forestry enter into our daily lives in an inconceivable number of ways. I need mention only the wood that forms so much of the places in which we live. Also, paper—it may be that Members of Parliament see more of this than we should like to. I, also, must declare an interest in this subject, as I am an owner of woodlands.
I want to speak, first, on what I may term the preamble to this Motion, which callsattention to the deteriorating markets for home timber …It is not necessary to bring forward much evidence in support of that statement. During the last 18 months all kinds of responsible bodies have furnished unfavourable reports. The regional advisory committees of the Forestry Commission 1962 have furnished theirs, and the Minister has no doubt seen them. The Country Landowners' Association, whose Council meetings I have attended, has discussed resolutions from many counties, as have the Land Agents' Society and the Royal Forestry Society. There have also been complaints from dedicated estates that their plan of operations, whereby they had engaged to sell a certain amount of standing timber each year and employ the money received in replanting, has been thwarted because it has proved impossible to sell the standing timber and there is, of course, difficulty in finding the capital from other sources.
Apart from these statements by public and other bodies, many of us have personal knowledge of what has been happening. In my own part of the country, some sawmills are closing, the staffs of others are being reduced, and there is a reluctance to buy new equipment or replace that which is wearing out. I also hear of quite ridiculous quotations being put in when timber is offered for tender. That can only mean that the merchants who put in those very low figures, while wishing to remain on the list of those invited to quote, would be very loth to take over the timber at the present time at all. There are few things which do more to show the existence of a rotten market than quotations of that sort.
It is only fair to say that from 1939 until 1949 prices were strictly controlled, so that the Forestry Commission and woodland owners, quite rightly, could not take advantage of the great rise in world prices at that time. They were given one small increase on the controlled prices, but the rising cost of labour and materials far outstripped this additional price, and by 1949, when decontrol came into operation, the industry was in a deplorable condition. Then, for about three years, until the autumn of 1952, things were better, but from then on they again worsened, and the complete freeing of imports of foreign timber last autumn precipitated what is almost a crisis.
I do not want to go into any detail about prices, because they are very difficult matters to deal with in debate. They can be given if anybody wants to ask 1963 specific questions, but they do not carry very much weight otherwise. But I want to point out that the present situation may lead to serious financial embarrassment for the Forestry Commission, and that affects the national purse; and has nothing to do with the private owners.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough has said, it will certainly lead to a discouragement of planting. It is also bound to lead to the closing of many small sawmills which were either started at the beginning of the war or increased in size then, and which, once closed, are not likely to reopen. They were started in those days largely because of the pressure put upon them by wartime conditions, and if they once close they are probably gone for good. They would represent the loss of an alternative source of employment to ordinary agriculture, which would be a pity.
My hon. Friend mentioned the fact that the round timber which we now produce is not competing satisfactorily with that which comes from abroad. This is largely due to the fact that home-grown timber is rougher, contains more knots, and is rather coarser. There is also an almost complete lack of the grading and sizing which is done by foreign importers. That is a great disadvantage to the purchaser, who is not able to order what he wants from a catalogue as it were, in the knowledge that he will get it exactly according to specification.
I should like, however, to add a word to what my hon. Friend has said about not blaming the quality of the English timber too much. In the two world wars, and in the economic crisis that followed the second, the cream of our home-grown timber was put on to the market, and we have now come back to the second grade. I have referred to this before, and I am not arguing that it is wrong, but deliberately, to preserve what is left of the top grade, the Forestry Commission, through its licensing system, is still allowing only the poorer qualities to go on the market, though not entirely, very largely.
However, it is a little unfortunate that persons and institutions such as British architects and others almost invariably encourage the use of foreign timber. Of course, they find it easier to work with. 1964 but the British Standards Institution also, I think, is a little hard on British timber as compared with foreign. I came across a case the other day in which, although the British Standards specification for wood poles for overhead lines for power and telecommunications gave the same strength values for both home-grown Scots pine and imported European red-wood poles, the specification for 11,000 volt overhead lines specified a factor of safety of 3.5 of home-grown poles and 2.5 for imported red fir poles. Although it was admitted that the strength value is the same it was insisted that there should be a very much higher specification when home-grown poles are used. I have no doubt that the explanation is that home-grown poles are more irregular in quality. Indeed, I have been told so, but it seems a little unfortunate that there is not a little more support forthcoming for home-grown articles.
I come to the second part of the Motion, in which we welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture have set up a committee with the object of promoting stability, and, bearing in mind output from both Forestry Commission and private woodlands, and the need to secure markets, to consider what measures may be taken within the home-grown timber industry to improve the arrangements for marketing the produce. I think that everybody who has any connection with the home-timber trade, as a producer or converter or distributor, heartily welcomes that, because we believe it is necessary at the present time.
Some people think that this debate is rather unfortunate in its timing because of the establishment of the committee, but I do not agree. I think it is unlikely that that committee will call any Members of Parliament to give evidence. I am not suggesting it should. After all, it wants expert evidence, and Members of Parliament are not necessarily experts in this matter. Nevertheless, through their contacts in their constituencies, they are very often able to make suggestions or start lines of thought that may be of advantage to the trade. I believe, therefore, that this debate is not inopportune but really rather fortunate, and, of course, there is no question in the mind of any of us of prejudging that committee's report. It is on those lines that 1965 I venture to make a few observations now on the marketing of home-grown timber.
First, it is very important that the products from both Commission forests and private forests should be considered as a whole, and that any organisations or schemes that are suggested should be applicable to both. If that is not done the work will be duplicated, and there may be a risk of buyers playing the one off against the other, the Commission against the private grower, and vice versa. I believe, too, that it will be impossible otherwise for all the timber producers, public and private alike, to work for the re-building of the home-grown timber trade, and to operate an agreed plan whereby they can endeavour to find what the public wants to buy rather than, as in the past, to put on the market what they happen to have grown. It is only by co-operation that a really sound trade for the future can be built up.
In many industries of which the forestry industry is one, we are now entering a stage where we have what is termed a mixed economy, in which we have public and private enterprise working side by side. It is very important, whatever one's feelings about the one or the other may be, that they should be encouraged and every help given to them to work together as partners, and I see no reason why that should not be so. It is the case in many other countries. Sweden is the one I know best, and there that system seems to work quite easily.
I believe that, by and large, producers should concentrate on production, and should not be drawn too far, at any rate, into distribution and conversion, and so on. From my own commercial experience in other directions I have noticed that generally the man or the company who is a really good producer is not often a very good distributor and marketer. Production and marketing are two quite different jobs, and it is a pity that one man or organisation should try to attempt both. As far as possible timber should be sold free on rail or free on lorry, and in the case of mature timber particularly, it should be left standing by the producer for the merchants to cut themselves.
I turn to the question whether a floor should not be given to the prices for 1966 home-grown timber. My hon. Friend has touched on that and I should like to support what he said. As practically all other agricultural produce has a floor under the 1947 Act, timber, which is really agricultural produce, too, should have a floor as well. After all, timber producers have to work under just as many regulations as farmers, and they are just as strictly under control and under the same surveillance as other agricultural workers.
We are now endeavouring to build up this industry from srcatch, or near srcatch; to build what is practically a new industry. In the past we never had the volume of timber or timber products to make it worth while—at any rate, we did not think it worth while—to build up a really skilled and businesslike industry. Times are changing. The Forestry Commission, year by year, now is putting more and more thinnings into the market, and more and more round timber will be coming in, too, as the forests grow older.
We are building up a new trade and industry and are doing so in the face of competition from countries where these industries have existed for generations, such as the Scandinavian countries, where timber has been the main source of income for many generations. In those countries the industries are highly organised and highly experienced and are often supported by Government funds. There is, therefore, a reasonable claim for at least a floor for the home industry. I do not like grants or subsidies if they can be avoided and I am asking only for some sort of floor.
As my hon. Friend suggested, something on the lines of the Wheat Act of 1932 might be applicable. I shall not try to explain the details of that Act, which was based on a levy on all imported flour which was ground. It was a highly complex Act and I remember the difficulties I had before the war in trying to explain it to my constituents. If anyone is interested, I suggest that they turn up the Quarterly Journal of Forestry for July, 1949, which, no doubt, is in the Library, and read the very comprehensive article on the subject by Mr. McGregor, the forest economist at Oxford University.
The great advantage is that a levy subsidy, where the home production 1967 represents only about 10 per cent. of the global figure, cannot have a great effect upon prices. I believe that the total figure for imported timber is about 93 per cent. to 7 per cent. from home sources. I do not suggest that those figures are accurate—they vary from month to month—but that is about the proportion, and where the disparity between imports and home production is so great, a levy subsidy represents a very minor addition to prices as a whole.
My hon. Friend referred to processing plants, and here I apologise to him because I differ slightly from him. I have more faith in their future and I believe that there is some scope for them. There is scope for the manufacture of paper and wall-board in this country, for turnery and the making of brush backs. One day last week I visited a flourishing little factory in my constituency which employs 25 men and girls and which is turning out meat skewers and ladder rungs. One would not think so many would be required, but the factory is working full time and using as material much of the overgrown coppice-ash which we have in over-supply in some of our woodlands and for which it is not easy to find an outlet. In my opinion, there is scope for processing plants of that sort, although they should be well spaced to ensure that they do not clash with each other. Possibly money may be found in the development areas which will not necessitate a new Vote. The money may already be in suspense and available for such a purpose.
There is a corollary to it: something would have to be done to try to help with the price of the carriage of the raw materials. That difficulty has already been overcome in relation to the beet sugar factories, for a farmer at some considerable distance from the factory pays practically the same as a farmer much nearer the factory. It would not be difficult to devise a similar system for forestry products.
As the end of the Motion we urge the Ministersto invite the Committee to do everything in its power to submit an early report.We feel that this is important because there has not been a sufficient sense of 1968 urgency in this matter in the past. I know that round timber is coming mostly from private woods, and that is not a matter of such interest to the Forestry Commission. On the other hand, thinnings are coming from the Forestry Commission in ever-increasing volume. The last annual report of the Forestry Commission was issued at this time last year and was for the period ending 30th December, 1952. Unfortunately, there is nothing more recent.
That was before the slump started, but we do not find in it a sufficient sense of the importance of developing the marketing side of the industry. There is an excellent account on pages 13 and 14 of the Commission's negotiations with the National Coal Board, but that is almost the only reference to markets. The Commission must turn its attention to this matter.
One point is fundamental. The Forestry Commission was set up not to act as a purely business concern even in the sense that an ordinary nationalised industry exists to supply a need and to supply it on businesslike lines, making a profit. The Forestry Commission was set up to try to put into store a sufficient supply of timber to tide us over any emergency like that of the last two wars. The Commission's policy must, to a certain extent, be different from that of the ordinary commercial concern, but views are held in the timber trade that this may make it difficult for a long-term marketing policy to be put into effect and that it might be better if the Commission were to try to revise its policy so that, instead of having the final crop from the present forests about the year 2000, it reverted to what I believe is the more modern idea in forests at home and abroad of a rotation of 40 to 50 years.
It is easier with modern sawmill equipment to cut up much smaller logs and to make useful boards and timber from them than it was in the past. That line should be explored, since sections of the timber trade believe that the present long-term policy may be much harder to fit into a marketing scheme.
We owe a good deal at present to a similar debate which took place in the House rather more than a year ago. It was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-Super-Mare (Sir I. Orr-Ewing), who raised the question of 1969 the need for a comprehensive policy on the marketing of timber grown in the United Kingdom. He started the ball rolling, and since then many of us have been pressing for more to be done. The emergency has grown worse. I congratulate the Ministers on having set up this committee, and I hope they will accept our suggestion that they should invite the committee to do all in its power to report as early as possible so that some progress may be made before too many of these sawmills are closed and too many planting programmes cancelled.
§ 12 noon.
§ Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)
The hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) and the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke), on the Government side of the House, have declared their interest in the growing and marketing of timber. I want to declare my interest, not as a woodland or forest owner, but because I happen to be a Member of the Society of the Men of the Trees, whose objective is to inspire and encourage people to love trees and to plant them wherever they can be planted, not so much for the purpose of destroying them when they have grown to maturity, but to beautify the countryside. The British are a tree-loving people.
I want to sound a note of warning to the Minister of Agriculture, because I was a little disturbed when the hon. Member for Harborough was making recommendations to the Minister to solicit the trade of the N.C.B. for the purpose of using home-grown timber for roof supports in the pits. English-grown timber—and I speak from experience as a pit man, having had the opportunity of using it—will not do in British coal mines. Many of my hon. Friends on this side of the House would support me in that contention.
I had better be very careful, because, otherwise, I may start a controversial debate, and I do not want to do that. There is a use for home-grown timber in the pits, but its use cannot be such that it will give a sense of security to the miner. Home-grown timber can be used, but, in the main, it can only be used for chocking and lagging purposes. Timber from Scandinavia, Northern Russia and Finland gives a higher degree of security to the miner at work at the coal face than 1970 English-grown timber. I am not finding fault with the English or the Scottish growers—it just happens that it will not do.
During the two world wars we were compelled by force of circumstances to use English-grown timber, but we had to be extremely careful in our choice of timber for roof supports at the coal face. As I say, I do not want to strike a discordant note, but I warn, as a practical pitman, that care should be taken not to be too enthusiastic in suggesting the use of English-grown timber for straight roof support.
§ Mr. Baldock
Has the hon. Gentleman any knowledge of any tests that had been carried out—comparable scientific tests between English pit props and imported ones—which have shown that the English pit props are not comparable in strength?
§ Mr. Brown
Many of the scientific tests in which we have indulged do not always work out to be true. That is a sad thing to have to say, but it is a fact.
I want, now, if I may, to divide tree-growing into two categories. One is the growing of timber for the day to day work for which it is required—building and other things—and the other is the planting of trees for the purpose of beautifying of the countryside, which is even more important to me. On the occasion of the previous debate, 18 months ago, on this subject, the Minister gave a promise that he would see that some of the suggestions we made during that debate would be examined and, if possible, carried out.
I take this opportunity to express my appreciation to the right hon. Gentleman and his Department for the assistance they have given to the county councils and other local authorities in experimenting in tree-planting in the industrial areas. They have started that work. For a long time we plodded along and persisted, and sometimes we have made ourselves a nuisance, but, nevertheless, as a 1971 result of our efforts, we at last awakened the interest of the Department in the direction of planting trees in the industrial areas.
As I said 18 months ago, I represent a mining constituency which has been giving deep-mined coal to the nation since 1546—a long time. The scars of that industry are there to be seen. One urban authority in my constituency, in a survey which was made some years ago, discovered that 4½ acres per head of the population was waste land. There is an opportunity for the Minister, apart from the general forestry work which he is supervising, to intensify the good work which he has already begun. This work of planting trees in the industrial areas can be done. We have proved within the last few years that there is a type of tree which can be planted upon the pits. What is there more ugly than a pit heap or a number of pit heaps in the industrial North? They destroy the soul, destroy beauty and destroy the culture of the mind.
I am not asking that the Minister should move the pit heaps because I know that it is an extremely difficult question to handle. But what he can do, and what he is trying to do—and I want to encourage him to pursue that work—is to beautify these pit heaps in the industrial North. North-West Lancashire has a destroying effect upon the minds of the people who visit it because of its hideous pit heaps. Therefore, having expressed my gratitude to the Minister and his Department, I ask him to go forward with all speed to try to beautify the industrial areas.
There are one or two other matters which I should like to mention. There should be greater supervision exercised by the Department concerned, whether it is the Ministry of Agriculture or the Ministry of Health, which is responsible for the local authorities. I am not finding fault—do not misunderstand me. I sometimes say that I am the most misunderstood man in the House. I do not want the Minister to misunderstand me when I say that there should be greater supervision.
I have seen, to my regret, almost vandalism committed by nationalised industries. I consider it a crime to destroy a 1972 tree if it can be saved. I know that sometimes they stand in the way, but there has been heated controversy in many of our villages and hamlets when anyone has contemplated the destruction of a tree in the centre of the village. Villagers have risen in anger in their determination to maintain something that has been a thing of beauty to them.
One reads the reports of the various institutions that are set up for the maintenance of trees. I say that there should be greater supervision. Let me draw again from my own experience. On the bank of the railway station in my little village, 24 silver birch trees were planted when I was a boy. The Joint Undersecretary of State for Scotland, who is present, knows the beauty of the silver birch; he knows the beauty that was described by John MacWhirter in "The White Queen" There it stands in that beautiful picture that he painted. It is a joy to see.
Those 24 silver birches were planted when I was a young man. We looked upon them with joy and pleasure. A few weeks ago, when I returned home, I found that somebody somewhere had given instructions that they should be destroyed, and they were all levelled to the ground. It may seem sentimental, but I can tell the Minister that the old man who cared for those trees actually cried when he knew that somebody in a remote office had destroyed the beauty which had been a joy to him since their planting at that station. To me it was a crime that somebody in a nationalised industry should have the audacity and impudence to destroy those beautiful trees, which had been growing on the station from the days of my youth.
There should be greater supervision of trees that are grown for the beautification of the countryside. I am not concerned about the commercial aspect. The hon. Member for Harborough and the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead who moved and seconded the Motion, are interested in it, but I am not finding fault. My concern is that greater inspiration and encouragement should be given to local authorities. They should be assisted in every conceivable way to plant trees on land which is now lying derelict and which is ugly and hideous. In our pursuit of this aim, let us plant trees in such places that we make our countryside a 1973 thing of beauty which will be a joy for ever. I cordially support the Motion.
§ 12.14 p.m.
§ Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)
I am delighted to hear that the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown)—perhaps on an occasion like this I can call him my hon. Friend—is a Man of the Trees. That is an organisation which does extremely valuable work, and I only wish that much more was known about it and more people were associated with it. I was interested in the hon. Member's remarks about the need to beautify the countryside. It might be a little easier to encourage, not only local authorities, but landowners and anybody who can plant, to beautify the countryside if at the same time there were a reasonably healthy home market for home-grown timber.
I want to approach this matter from the point of view of consumer interest—that is, from the viewpoint of the furniture industry, which is probably one of the largest single users of timber in the country. Certainly before the war it was the largest single user of hardwood and a very important user of plywood and veneers. It provides a fine potential market for the right kind of home-grown timber—and that, of course, is the problem.
It has been estimated that the furniture industry requires something like 420 million square feet of plywood a year and something like 35 million cubic feet of hardwood and softwood, mainly hardwood. This estimate was made two or three years ago and the up-to-date figures may be a little more or a little less. The industry uses principally beech and oak as hardwood, and for plywood it uses birch and poplar.
My constituency of Wycombe is famous for the best furniture made in the whole of the country. It built up its reputation because the Chiltern Hills were covered with the fine beech trees which are such a pleasure and joy to many people at weekends. In the old days, the craftsmen who made the chairs in the Wycombe area did it actually in their little huts in the woods, where they would fell the trees and trim and dry them and make the chair parts which were eventually assembled into the chairs which have gone all over the world.
1974 It was the beech trees of the Chiltern Hills which gave rise to the appointment of the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds. In the old days, the beech trees gave shelter to bandits and robbers, and even to pockets of Iberians who were not driven to Wales and the West Country with the advance of other races. Because of the need to protect the inhabitants of that locality, the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds was appointed, for which any one of us who at any time finds the House of Commons too much for him can apply. I shall be happy to welcome anybody who wants to take the Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds.
The furniture industry at present imports the greater part of its requirements largely from the Baltic countries. It takes a certain amount from Russia, a large amount of plywood from Finland, a certain amount from France and Italy, and a little from Japan, and so on. Some of these timbers could be supplied from this country; in fact, as far as they are available, they are used from the homegrown supply.
Plywood in Great Britain is being used far more today in the manufacture of furniture than ever before, for a number of reasons, with which I do not wish to weary the House, but it is a great problem to find sufficient plywood from home-grown sources. We make certain of the highest quality plywood but by no means sufficient of the normal average and reasonable qualities which are used in the furniture industry. One of the reasons for this is that in the case of the birch, from which plywood is principally made, we do not seem able to grow the right type of straight birchwood which is essential for good plywood.
In the Baltic forests, the growth of a straight birch is encouraged by inter-planting with firs. The result is that the birch has to struggle for light and in doing so stretches itself and produces a reasonably straight tree, from which good-quality plywood can be made. This is one line of thought for development which the Forestry Commission could follow—perhaps it is following it now—but the careful selection of the right areas and methods of planting trees is essential to produce the kind of wood that can be used by the furniture industry.
The other thing that is essential if we are to persuade this large user to take 1975 home-grown timber is to have a good grading system. The Forestry Commission has, I believe, submitted a scheme for the grading of softwoods. It could be applied also to the proper grading of hardwood. It is done in America, though they use a complicated system there. There is no reason why a simple system of grading of woods should not be adopted in this country. It would give great encouragement to manufacturers to buy home-grown timber, because grading, whether of home-grown or imported timber, is not very good at the moment, and a good system here would give an incentive to our manufacturers to go for the home-grown woods.
I urge the Forestry Commission to co-operate even more closely than it is doing at the moment with the furniture industry and to study with it the types of woods it requires and how best they can be grown, because we would thereby establish a sure market for many years to come. The industry would welcome it, because it would make it partly independent of the difficulties which arise in importing woods from abroad. There is the problem of importing plywood, which until recently was difficult. The industry could not get the quantity or the quality of plywood that it required, and it would welcome a really good home source of supply.
There is one question I should like to address to the Minister purely for information, and that is, what will be the effect of the "Green Pool" organisation which I understand was set up by the Council of Europe under the European agricultural organisation to study the marketing of timber in Europe as a whole? Is that going to have any effect upon the marketing of timber in this country? Is it going to help or hinder us, or is it going to lay emphasis more on importing timbers from European countries while discouraging the use of ours? I do not know what the effect will be, because I have not seen very much of the results of that organisation's investigation. I am sure that the industry, too, would like to know something about what that organisation is doing.
We all welcome very much the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) in moving 1976 this Motion. It is not a subject in which many people take much interest, and more is the pity, because, as the hon. Member for Ince said, one of the outstanding beauties of this country is our woods and forests. We do not know how much we miss them until we leave the country and go abroad. We seldom see elsewhere the varied woods which we get in this country, which make this land so much more beautiful than any other in the world. It is a great pity that more people do not pay greater attention to re-afforestation in different parts of the land.
I have been saddened to see so often large numbers of trees being felled and no attempt made at all to replant. I know that the Forestry Commission is doing its best to overcome that particular problem. I hope it will redouble its efforts, and will associate with those who are urging the need for a good, healthy home market which will encourage landowners and others to grow the timber that is needed and to make certain that one of our most valuable heritages, the trees of this country, are not lost to us.
§ 12.25 p.m.
§ Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)
As I listened to the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) I got the impression that he was about to suggest the nationalisation of still another industry, particularly when he emphasised the importance of timber to our economic survival and defence and the parlous state in which the home-grown timber industry finds itself today. But as he went on I found, as, indeed, I might have guessed, that it was nothing of the sort, but it was simply another unashamed approach by people from this industry for further contributions from the public purse.
Both the hon. Member for Harborough and the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke), who seconded the Motion, unashamedly declared their own interest in the matter and the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) has spoken from the point of view of the timber industry. The only other Member opposite who is present this morning, apart from the right hon. Gentleman and certain junior Ministers who have to be here although, no doubt, they would wish to 1977 be somewhere else, will declare an interest in this matter.
I want to declare an interest, but not the same interest as that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), who said he was one of the Men of the Trees. My interest is that I am a taxpayer and I am here to represent the taxpayers. I hope the Minister will be careful about this continued approach by various sections of industry for subsidies from public funds. Both the hon. Member for Harborough and the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead revealed what it is that has been really worrying them. They continually referred to the subsidies paid to various sections of the agricultural industry. They mentioned the Act of 1947 and other agriculture Acts, and it seemed quite clear that the timber people have become jealous of the featherbedding given to the agricultural industry and want a share of whatever money from the Treasury that there is available.
§ Colonel Clarke
I would remind the hon. Member that it was his party which passed the 1947 Act, but that is not the point I wished to make. Does he realise that when the present national forest programme is completed—that is, the programme which embraces both the public and private, sectors of the industry—the position will be that about three million acres will belong to the State and two million to the private owners? What we are asking for today is the introduction of a marketing scheme which, in the long run, will be more important to the State than to the private owner because the State will hold a bigger amount of capital and a larger amount of forest land than the private owner. As I said in my speech, this is a case of a mixed economy, and a mixed economy in which, as time goes on, the State will inevitably have a larger share.
§ Mr. Hynd
That sounds very nice, but however it is disguised it comes down to the fact that both the hon. Member for Harborough and the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead want guaranteed prices, and both of them want those prices not on the basis of normal commercial considerations but on the basis of some kind of subsidy, either direct or in the shape of reduced freight charges, a levy on imported timber, or financial assistance with 1978 machinery, which were among the suggestions made, all of which would result in making this industry a more profitable undertaking.
As the hon. Member for Harborough said, this is a commercial enterprise, like any other commercial enterprise, and I ask myself why this industry any more than any other industry should feel that it has a claim to public financial help. I have already mentioned the agricultural industry, and the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead referred me to the Act of 1947. That, of course, is the whole trouble with a Labour Government or any other Government which attempts to help a particular industry for particular reasons. It is immediately taken as a precedent for similar help by other industries who have not the same case for assistance.
§ Mr. Baldock
I tried to make the point that we were not asking for a subsidy from the Exchequer. In fact, the suggestion which I made in regard to replanting would be an economy and if a small import levy were imposed it would result in relief for the taxpayer.
§ Mr. Hynd
That was one of the suggestions, but there were also suggestions about help in purchasing machinery and one or two other things, and when we consider the matter broadly what we find is that assistance is wanted for an industry which supplies only 7 per cent, of the timber used in this country. The suggestion put forward is that to help that 7 per cent, there should be a levy on imported timber of 93 per cent. That is not an argument which can be supported.
The hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead said that this is a new, struggling industry. That is nonsense. The timber industry was very much larger in the old days, and now large parts of the country have been denuded of timber. Large parts of Middlesex and Lancashire were forest land, but they are now no longer covered with trees. Home timber growing has been diminishing for very many years.
I have every sympathy with an industry which finds itself in difficulties. However, until recently, when there was restriction upon imports, and so on, the industry had a very easy time indeed. When the restrictions were removed, it 1979 began to feel the draught. It may puzzle persons listening to the debate or reading it afterwards to realise that the plea for special consideration to protect the industry from the draught of healthy competition is coming from hon. Members opposite who normally tell us that they are all in favour of competition and believe in the law of supply and demand. When it comes to their own concerns, they do not hold that belief, as they have revealed in the debate.
§ Colonel Clarke
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Member again. He said that the home-grown timber industry had had an easy time. That is not correct. He should remember that during the 10 years of the war, when prices were controlled, the industry could not participate in world prices. Also, at the beginning of that period the agricultural wage was about 33s. per week and at the end of it it was more like 70s. to 75s. per week. Labour is one of the principal costs in the production of timber. There was only one very small rise in price, which occurred towards the end of that period. The original price was fair enough at that time, but it has now become totally inadequate.
§ Mr. Hynd
In his third speech the hon. and gallant Gentleman has supported what I have been saying, that prices were controlled and that it is because price control has been removed that the industry finds itself in some difficulty.
Imported timber creates competition which the industry does not like. Imported timber has been spoken about as if it all came from foreign countries. A lot of it does, but a great deal comes from the British Commonwealth. We have to support Commonwealth trade and we want to encourage such countries to produce hardwood and the other timbers that we need. As to the other foreign countries, we have to have these imports in order to be able to sell our exports. We must be very careful about putting restrictions on imports, whether in the form of a levy or in any other way.
I was puzzled by one thing in the speech of the hon. Member for Harborough. I should like some enlightenment upon his reference, which amounted almost to a complaint, about lack of support from nationalised industries. My 1980 hon. Friend the Member for Ince has already referred to pit props. What is the hon. Member's suggestion? Is it that the nationalised industries have a duty to buy British timber even if it is at a higher price or of a lower quality than imported timber, or is he suggesting that, given suitable competition in the way of quality and price, the nationalised industries are deliberately giving a preference to foreign timber? I do not for a moment suppose that he would suggest that.
Surely the position is that the nationalised industries, like any other commercial concerns, must have regard to quality and price in placing orders for the timber which they require. If not, there is evidently a further suggestion of a hidden subsidy to this private industry from the nationalised industries.
There was also a suggestion for an extension of the free advice service. It is all very well for the hon. Member to say that he is not asking for a direct subsidy; he is asking for several kinds of indirect subsidy. He has not justified that application in anything that he has said today.
I was also struck by the suggestion of the hon. and gallant Member for East Grinstead about close working between the Forestry Commission and the private side of the industry. From the way he put it, it seemed that he was almost breaking one of the sacred principles of his party because he was suggesting something in the nature of a monopoly. He did not want any competition between the two sides. He wanted prices strictly controlled so that there would be no competition between the Forestry Commission and the private side of the industry. We do not like monopolies of that or any other kind.
Some of the arguments used by the mover and seconder of the Motion are dangerous from the public point of view. They might more profitably have directed their remarks to following up the very generous tribute which the hon. Member for Harborough paid to the Forestry Commission. He praised its efficiency and businesslike methods. If he had gone on from that and pleaded for the Forestry Commission to be encouraged to extend its operation, he might have produced arguments which would have been much more acceptable to the House 1981 than those which we have heard so far. We must think twice and twice again before offering the help of public funds to any kind of private profit-making industry.
§ 12.36 p.m.
§ Mr. John Morrison (Salisbury)
I welcome the opportunity of supporting the Motion moved and seconded by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke) respectively. They have performed a very valuable service in raising the subject so soon after the Minister, in reply to a recent Question by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead, agreed to set up a committee to look into the whole position of the future economics and marketing of this country's growing timber.
To follow the example set by the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd), I should like to declare my interest as a grower of timber.
§ Mr. Morrison
I hope that the hon. Member will give me credit in that I have broken the usual countryside doctrine that no one plants a tree until he is 50. I am still on the right side of that age, and I started planting timber a long time ago.
I look upon the problem as a national one in which both the Forestry Commission and the private woodland owner are as one. It is necessary and right that there should be a strategic reserve of timber, both under the Forestry Commission and in private woodland, in case of war, an eventuality which we all hope will never arise, but it is also necessary to have a market and a proper means of disposal for the timber grown by both the Forestry Commission and the private woodland owner.
It would be appropriate if I added my congratulations to those already given to my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir I. Orr-Ewing), who inaugurated this line of thought more than a year ago. I was also very glad to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) something of the uses made of timber in the furnishing trade, which is such an important outlet for our forestry products.
1982 I was particularly glad to hear something of the use of beech and birch. Birch is sometimes not the easiest timber to dispose of. The hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) told us about an unfortunate instance of the disposal of birch, in that 25 lovely silver birch trees which would have been put to better use in improving the appearance of the landscape were cut down.
There is no doubt that, unless there is a clearer picture in future of the marketing of timber in this country—and I say that in no criticism of the Forestry Commission—both the Commission and the private owner of woodlands will be in dire difficulty in regard to the economics of the production of homegrown timber. Therefore, I welcome very heartily the fact that the Minister is setting up this inquiry. Not only that, but it is important from the point of view of the taxpayer there should be an adequate outlet and means of disposal for Forestry Commission timber.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough, in his admirable opening speech, mentioned the question of artificial rain, which has been mentioned in newspapers and discussed to some extent in this House recently. Those who have been to the country which is now known as Israel will know what an important part the growing of trees has played in the cultivation of many of the more barren places in that country, and I venture to say that, from the long-term point of view, the growing of trees may be more important to the land than the at present problematical and in-the-air proposal to produce artificial rain.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe referred to the importance of the grading of timber for the furniture trade and of the necessity for certain standards of quality. I am sure that those who realise what has been going on. recently will appreciate that the Forestry Commission is making every effort to improve the grading of timber by good example in its own operations, and this good example is also being followed by the private grower, who is now trying to improve both quality and grading up to the standard which is necessary but which, up to now, has been achieved in better degree in countries other than Britain.
1983 I should also like to support the idea that the committee which my right hon. Friend is setting up will consider the suggestion of some form of levy subsidy, as has happened in the past. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) that this is a charge on the taxpayer. In a situation in which a very high percentage of our timber is imported, I think it is worthy of consideration as something likely to encourage the long-term growing and the marketing of timber.
The subject on which this committee will deliberate is really a very urgent one. Yesterday, I was at a meeting of country landowners when the hope was expressed that the work of the committee will be completed and its report produced at as early a date as possible, so that discouragement should not grow among those who are responsible for the replace-cent of our woodlands. Particularly is that the case because of the heavy fellings which were inevitable in both recent wars. Then, quite rightly, prices were limited to the growers, who are now faced with difficulties on account of enhanced expenses and higher costs of growing and marketing. The markets are gradually decreasing, and some growers are finding it very difficult to secure markets at all or to get a reasonable return for their products.
The two main purchasers of the products of our forests are the National Coal Board and the railways. Like the hon. Member for Ince, I do not want to be controversial, but I know that in the old days there was some feeling of prejudice against home-produced pit props and timber for the mines. I do not think I am giving away any secret when I say that I had a talk with the Chairman of the Coal Board, who is himself doing all he can to help the home timber industry.
However, by the efforts of the Forestry Commission and the owners of private woodlands, through better production, cleaning and an improved standard of production generally, much of this old prejudice is gradually being broken down, and I hope that that process will continue in the national interest, and that the mining industry will be able to take more of our home-grown timber.
It is a fact, however, that the supply of pit props in Scotland has virtually 1984 reached saturation point, and I should like to support the idea put forward by several of my hon. Friends for increasing the number of processing plants at appropriate strategic points, so that timber could be made available more readily throughout the whole country. I hope that some form of incentive will be given to those likely to carry out this idea, to increase the outlet for our thinnings and lesser standard woods. It is worth remembering that the Mosquito aircraft, used in the last war, was made almost entirely of wood, and perhaps there are other new inventions in which wood might be used and which might produce further outlets for home-produced timber.
During the war, many substitutes for timber were used in building, and it may well be that, now that timber is more readily available, the use of wood may be considered in other respects and be found useful to an even greater extent in the building industry.
There is one point to which I should particularly like to refer, and that concerns the question of the Minister's adviser on forestry affairs. When the Forestry Commission was set up, it was regarded and has always been accepted as the chatelaine not only of Forestry Commission land and growing timber, but also of all timber grown under private auspices as well. It is now in the position—and it is not its fault—that its products are appreciably increasing, while it is faced with difficulties in marketing and is a rival of the private producer. It may be worth while considering in future, in order to give more confidence to the private grower, that an independent committee or authority on the lines of the U.K. Forestry Committee should be set up to give independent advice to the Minister on questions on which there is rivalry between the private producer and the Forestry Commission. I hope that that suggestion may be considered in due course.
The report on the position of hedgerow timber, which, we hope, will be forthcoming very soon, is important, because this timber can play a considerable part not only in the developments of the amenities of the countryside and in providing shelter for agricultural production, but in the production of more timber in odd corners, where suitable.
1985 I hope I shall be excused if I add my congratulations to the Minister of Works on what he has achieved by the use of shrubs, which come under the heading of timber for this purpose, between the Cavalry Memorial at Stanhope Gate and Hyde Park Corner. When one remembers what a mess there was at that place previously, one appreciates what a remarkable achievement it is. The shrubs were given by private growers from all over the land. I should also like to say that I was glad to see, after the removal of the huge stands, that the yew hedge in St. James's Park, which I never thought was suitable, has been removed.
I support my hon. Friend's Motion, and hope that it will help the Minister in setting up the new committee.
§ 12.50 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries (Sir Thomas Dugdale)
I wish at the outset to join in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) on putting this Motion on the Order Paper, and for the debate which has taken place upon it, because I believe that this is a most important problem at the present time. Moreover, I do not think that this debate could have taken place at a better time than on the eve of the deliberations of the committee regarding the disposal of homegrown timber crops in future years.
The Government are most anxious that private owners should continue to play an important part, which is so essential if the aim of the White Paper, Cmd. 6447, is to be achieved. I think it is realised that everything that can reasonably be done by the Government to assist private owners to overcome their difficulties must be a good investment for the country as a whole, and. indeed, for its safety in the years to come.
I wish to put the matter into its proper perspective. It is well known that this country has to import a large part of its timber needs, but I do not think it is so well known how large a proportion of those needs are met today from our home resources. The position in 1953 was that about 40 per cent, of our mining timber, 40 per cent, of our hardwoods and 4 per cent, of our softwoods were home-produced. The House will realise from those figures that we have never had great supplies of softwood upon which to draw, 1986 and most of our limited reserves were used during the war years. Hence the low figure of 4 per cent.
The fact is that about 17 per cent, of these requirements—my figures are slightly different from those given by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for East Grinstead (Colonel Clarke)—are met from home timber. But if the total consumption of wood and wood products is taken into account, home-grown timber contributes substantially less than one-tenth of our current requirements against an estimate of one-third when the full effects of the White Paper programme to which I have referred are achieved.
That is roughly the position today, but there are many promising signs of increases all the time. I would say that the most promising of all is that recently the nation's coal-mines have taken an ever-increasing quantity of home-produced pit-props. The House will be interested to know that in 1953 deliveries to Scottish pits alone consisted of about 85 per cent, of home-grown timber, and generally the supply of home-produced round props increased by about 25 per cent, last year as compared with 1952. That will. I hope, help the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), who is very interested in this matter, to realise that the prejudice against home-grown props in the minefields of this country is today rapidly disappearing. I think that is a very satisfactory trend, and it is very largely due to the higher standards of manufacture at home at the present time.
So much for softwoods. As far as hardwoods are concerned, the position is rather different. I realise that much of the finance for improving and replanting devastated woodlands will have to be found from the sale of low-grade hardwoods which form too large a proportion of our home-grown stocks of standing timber. I would see difficulty ahead were it not possible to find remunerative outlets for much of this material.
The Utilisation Committee set up by the Forestry Commission is giving special attention to this problem all the time, and I think it true to say that it is having considerable success in its work. My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough referred to the fact that the trade took up a smaller proportion of thinnings in 1953 than it did in 1952. But this fact does 1987 not mean that there was any loss of timber. What happened was that the Forestry Commission worked a greater proportion of the thinnings with its own labour, and in all cases was successful in marketing the products. A market was found for the thinnings which were cut and processed by the Forestry Commission and not sold to the trade as standing timber.
§ Mr. Baldock
Does my right hon. Friend consider that that is the best way of making use of the rather short supply of labour available to the Forestry Commission? Would it not be better to allow the trade to do the processing, and for the Commission to use its labour for the other demands made upon it?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I do not think that is a suitable subject on which to debate, but I think that the Commission would rather sell direct to the trade. However, if the trade is not prepared to take some of the Commission's thinnings direct, then, quite rightly, the Commission uses its own labour in order to prepare them for the market.
One word with regard to marketing generally. It has been suggested that forestry interests fear a fall in prices now that most of the controls over the importation of timber from abroad have been removed. I do not want the House to think that I am complacent about this matter, because timber growers are bound to be anxious about the position. However, I wish to say that at the present moment such fears are not borne out by the facts.
The position is this. Since the war, prices of home-grown timber have, it is perfectly true, followed a rather erratic course. I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Accrington (Mr. H. Hynd) when he says that timber producers have had an easy time. During the period of control, the private owners of timber maintained that the prices fixed in 1939 remained unchanged long after increasing costs of production would have justified some revision.
In point of fact, revision took place in 1946. In 1949, control was lifted altogether. From then until 1952 prices of timber over most of the world rose steeply. They reached the peak during 1952, and since 1952 world prices have 1988 fallen. The trend of world prices has been reflected in the prices of homegrown timber. I am glad to be able to inform the House that over the last few months the market has shown a very welcome steadiness in prices. It is difficult to compare today's prices for timber with those prevailing in 1939 without also comparing costs. But I think the House will agree that, in spite of the recent fall in prices and of rising costs, the timber-growing industry in this country is in a better position than it was in 1939.
I am not criticising my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough when I say that I thought the tone of his opening speech too pessimistic. The position is not as gloomy as he indicated. We still have very high quality timber in this country. Naturally we have to keep a lot of it standing for use in future years. May I point out to hon. Members that a very large part, if not all, of the panelling in the Chamber in which we are now sitting is made entirely from home-grown and home-produced timber.
Now let me look for a moment to the future. There may be cause for anxiety, but on the other hand there are many good signs. I have indicated to the House that the mining industry is taking a very much larger proportion of its requirements from home-grown material. It may be that we have not yet seen the full effect of the removal of restrictions on imports, but we must also remember that restrictions on consumption have also been removed. Many people who are particularly interested in the timber trade hold the view that, taking both sets of circumstances together the result may well be a better market for home-produced timber, if it can be produced and marketed efficiently to the best advantage.
Because we recognised the importance of this subject my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and myself felt that we could readily accede to the suggestion made by the United Kingdom Forestry Committee last year for the setting up of a committee on home-timber marketing. The House will remember that on 1st April I announced the setting up of the committee and the fact that Mr. Hugh Watson, Deputy Keeper of the Signet, had agreed to become its chairman. I was very glad to 1989 note that both in the Motion we are debating and in the speeches that have been made there were references welcoming the setting up of the committee. I shall be very happy to advise the House to accept the Motion.
When I made the announcement on 1st April, I promised to make known the names of the other members of the committee as soon as possible. I am very glad to be able to inform the House today that the following gentlemen have agreed to serve on the committee: Mr. Harold Collison who, as the House knows, is General Secretary to the National Union of Agricultural Workers; Mr. John Corbett, accountant; Mr. Norman French, who is one of the publishers of the "Timber Trades Journal," which is widely known in forestry and timber marketing circles; Colonel Sir Eric Gore-Browne, banker and barrister-at-law; Sir Patrick Laird, who until recently was Secretary to the Department of Agriculture for Scotland; Mr. Charles Rhys who, as hon. Members will remember, was at one time a Member of this House and is very well acquainted with conditions in Wales; finally, Professor H. M. Steven, who is Professor of Forestry at the University of Aberdeen, a post he has held since 1938.
§ Mr. A. G. Bottomley (Rochester and Chatham)
The Minister said that the Government would accept the Motion. Does that mean that the right hon. Gentleman is inviting the committee to submit another report? Can he give us some idea of the date by which the report will be submitted?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I suggested that the House should accept the Motion on the Order Paper, but I could not possibly give an indication when there is likely to be a report. We have invited the committee to start deliberations. I have only today announced the names of the committee and I am sure the House will agree that the committee must have an opportunity to consider all the facts. I am sure that the committee will be guided by the wishes of this House.
I should like to turn to other speeches made during the debate. The main point which appeared in nearly all of them was that there might be a levy subsidy or that the principle of the Wheat 1990 Act might apply to the timber industry. I appreciate what hon. Gentlemen have in mind, but I am sure that they will all realise that such a proposal inevitably raises issues of the widest possible character, including our commercial import policy and international agreements covering a very wide range indeed. I cannot develop that point in the debate, and I should be wrong if I gave the impression that there is much hope of solving the problem on those lines.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) made an interesting point about the furniture industry. In co-operation with the Forest Products Research Laboratory, a committee has been set up to consider grading rules for timber. If grading rules acceptable to producers, can be formulated, they will be of the very greatest help and will make a very great step forward to satisfactory marketing. Everything possible will be done in that regard.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much for letting me interrupt him once again. His hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe referred to the "Green Pool" which has been considered by the Council of Europe. Has the right hon. Gentleman any observation to make on the matter?
§ Sir T. Dugdale
I have no observation to make upon it but it is a point which I must keep in mind. It has not had any effect one way or the other in this country.
Many other points have been made during the debate, and will be very carefully considered. I am certain that the debate will be read with the greatest interest by the committee when it starts its deliberations.
I would say one word about pulp. Home-grown softwoods are suitable for the making of pulp. The problem here is that one must have a very large output and a regular supply of pulp, but I think that there is much hope in that direction in the future.
The Forestry Commission can help in many ways to find and develop markets for our timber. I should like to comment on the note struck by my hon. Friend the Member for East Grinstead to the 1991 effect that the Forestry Commission is only too anxious to recognise its responsibilities to the individual forestry producer as well as in regard to the work within the Commission itself. I should like to give the widest publicity to the fact that much of the valuable information gained as a result of the Forestry Commission's work is available to everyone, whether in the Commission itself or private forestry owners.
§ Question put, and agreed to.1992
That this House welcomes the appointment by the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture of a committee to investigate the marketing of home-grown timber; and urges them to invite the committee to do everything in its power to submit an early report.
§ Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;
§ House counted, and 40 Members not being present, the House was adjourned at Fourteen Minutes past One o'Clock till Monday next.