HC Deb 17 May 1963 vol 677 cc1707-12

Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

12.32 p.m.

Sir Colin Thornton-Kemsley (North Angus and Mearns)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This small Bill, which was introduced and piloted through Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan)—who greatly regrets his inability to be in his place this afternoon—is of limited scope and probably is of interest to only a few hon. Members. Nevertheless, it would be discourteous of me, particularly since Second Reading was obtained formally without debate after four o'clock on a Friday afternoon, if I did not explain briefly what the Bill is about.

Section 4 of the Forestry Act, 1945, which was a United Kingdom Measure, empowers the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in England and Wales and the Secretary of State in Scotland to sell any land vested in or acquired by him…which in his opinion is not needed or ought not to be used for the purpose of afforestation or any purpose connected with forestry. It will be noted that it does not empower the Ministers to sell land which is used for forestry or which ought to be used for forestry purposes.

In England and Wales, the Minister of Agriculture has held himself free—whether rightly or wrongly, I should not presume to know—to sell forestry land under powers given in Section 90 of the Agriculture Act, 1947, which says that The Minister may manage, farm, sell, let or otherwise deal with or dispose of land acquired by him. In Scotland, we very often complain that our legislation follows far too slavishly the English model. Often, in Scottish Standing Committee, we regret the fact that our legislation is modelled on the English and follows it slavishly, but in this case difficulties which have arisen since might well have been avoided had we adopted this provision. What we did was to qualify the provision in the English Act which I have read to the House and this qualification is made in Section 61 of the Agriculture (Scotland) Act, 1948, by adding the words, "under this Act".

So, in Scotland, the power to sell forestry land was limited to land acquired under the Agriculture Act. By this unintended provision—I am certain that it was unintended and that its effects were unforeseen—the Secretary of State is denied powers to sell forestry lands which are possessed by the Minister of Agriculture in England and Wales. This limitation has been found inconvenient, in practice, in a number of cases.

There have been cases when the Forestry Commission has wanted to adjust boundaries, or to sell outlying portions of land. This has resulted in the fact that lands which could be used more effectively for forestry purposes by private landowners has had to remain in the hands of the Commission because it lacked the power to sell. I shall give one or two examples of the kind of difficulties which have arisen.

The first is the case of an estate of about 5,000 acres which the Forestry Commission acquired in 1954, and on part of which, by an agreement which had previously been made, timber was reserved to a firm of timber merchants for felling when it attained maturity. Some of those reserved trees, then thirty or forty years old, required maintenance work, such as the filling of wind-blown gaps, which the merchants were either unwilling or unable to do themselves and which the Forestry Commission could not do because the trees belonged to the merchants.

Another firm of merchants was prepared to buy the timber and take on responsibility for management provided it could buy the land as a whole from the Commission. Although this arrangement would have been eminently desirable from everyone's point of view, the Secretary of State had no power to sell and was debarred from helping to resolve the difficulty in that way.

The second example was one in March, 1961, when a landowner whose land adjoined that of the Forestry Commission wanted to acquire by exchange two areas of land, totalling about 80 acres, for forestry purposes. If this disposal of land had been permissible, the Commissioners would have been prepared to recommend it, on the ground of tidying up the boundaries of the adjoining estate and their own.

The third case, again in 1961, but in July, concerned a landowner whose land adjoined that of the Forestry Commission and who wished to purchase quite a small parcel of land—about five acres—for planning purposes from the Forestry Commission. The Commissioners had no access to the land, which was cut off from the main forest block by a railway line, and a sale, if it had been permissible, would have been desirable in the interests of rational land management". a phrase which is used in the Bill. But it could not take place for the reason which I have given.

I could give other examples. My hon. Friend the Member for South Angus gave examples in Committee which I will not repeat here, but I hope that I have made it clear that there is a need in practice for legislation on this matter.

The powers which the Bill seeks to confer on the Secretary of State are narrower than those possessed by the Minister of Agriculture. Those powers are limited by the Bill to transactions which are desirable in the interests of rational land management and which would facilitate the discharge by the Forestry Commissioners of any of their functions". The Forestry Commission's functions include a general duty to promote in the United Kingdom the interests of forestry, and they include the development of afforestation and the production and supply of timber. If the House accepts the Bill, a sale could thus be made if, in the opinion of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, it would benefit rational land management and afforestation. The Bill does not confer upon the Forestry Commission the power of sale at large. To do this would, in my view, and, I am sure, in the view of the House, too, effect a major change in forestry policy, and a Bill on those wider lines would raise controversial questions.

This Bill, limited in scope as it is, has been discussed with and is supported by the Scottish Landowners Federation, the Scottish Woodland Owners Association and the Home Grown Timber Merchants Association of Scotland. They like the Bill and they would like to see it through. It received all-party support in Committee.

With these brief words of explanation, I hope that the House will give the Bill an unopposed Third Reading.

12.43 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley). This is one of the best forms of Private Member's Bill, because it takes exactly one page to state what it wants to do and has no Schedule or anything else attached.

May I refer to the way in which the heart of the Bill was carefully set out by my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan) in a masterly speech which occupies two columns of the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Scottish Standing Committee. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus will subscribe to that view. I know very little about forestry, but by reading those two columns I was able to see that the Bill to some extent puts the legislation in Scotland on a parity with that for England, with the exceptions which my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns mentioned.

There are two points on which I should like the opinion of my hon. Friend the Joint under-Secretary of State for Scotland. First, does he think that the powers which the Secretary of State for Scotland has been given under the Bill will be sufficient? Secondly, am I correct in saying that the powers in Clause I are at the entire discretion of the Secretary of State?

If hon. Members look at line 4 of Clause 1 they will see that it says notwithstanding that in his opinion… That refers to the Secretary of State for Scotland. I presume that the Bill gives him absolute discretion—as I think it ought—subject to the provisions in Clause 1 (a) and (b). I should like a little clarification on that point and I should also like him to say whether he considers that the powers which are given to the Secretary of State are sufficient to ensure that this great industry of forestry in Scotland is carried out as efficiently as possible.

I pay my respects not only to my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns, but also to my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus, to whom the House owes a great debt for summing up the whole Bill in Committee in those two columns of HANSARD.

I hope that the House will give the Bill a Third Reading.

12.45 p.m.

Mr. Malcolm MacPherson (Stirling and Falkirk Burghs)

The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley) has made a most lucid, exact and precise exposition of his hon. Friend's Bill. I am sorry that his hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan) cannot be here today. I congratulate the hon. Member on having sponsored the Bill, which seems to us to be a sensible and useful addition to the legislation governing our forestry system, and I am glad to be associated in helping it on its way.

12.46 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Gilmour Leburn)

I should like to express, on behalf of the Government, a welcome to the Bill, which, as the hon. Member for Stirling and Falkirk Burghs (Mr. Malcolm MacPherson) said, makes a useful addition to our legislation in Scotland on forestry matters.

In view of the very full and lucid explanation given my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley), I do not think it necessary to expand in any way on the Bill. He explained clearly the differences between the powers which the Bill gives to the Secretary of State for Scotland and those which are held by the Minister of Agriculture in England.

May I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) that, notwithstanding this difference in powers, we consider that the Bill gives the Secretary of State sufficient powers to carry out these desirable sales of land which can be in the best interests of rational land management. I also confirm that the discretion lies absolutely with the Secretary of State for Scotland. But this is not a Bill which gives great powers to the Secretary of State. Nor is there any intention to use these powers in any way to upset existing policy about forestry matters. The Bill simply gives the desirable power, where it is required, to allow the Secre- tary of State to sell land when that is in the best interests of rational land management and when it would facilitate the discharge by the Forestry Commissioners of any of their functions". I should like to add my congratulations not only to my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns, who moved the Third Reading, but also to my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Sir J. Duncan), who had the good fortune to introduce the Bill, and I express thanks to all those who have helped in seeing its passage to this stage.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.