HC Deb 14 April 1967 vol 744 cc1536-40
Mr. Blenkinsop

I beg to move, Amendment No. 56, in page 9, line 28, after 'tree' to insert: 'or of topping or lopping a tree in such a manner as to be likely to destroy it'. We had a considerable discussion on the question of penalties in Committee. The sponsors were concerned lest the increased penalties proposed in the Bill should be related purely to the offence of cutting down or wilfully destroying a tree. It seemed to us, then, as it still does, that there were other forms of serious damage which would eventually lead to the destruction of a tree and that these might not be included as the Bill stood after the Committee Stage.

On behalf of all the sponsors, may I express gratitude to the Government in that, after further discussions, we have reached a satisfactory compromise in the Amendment, If the House agrees to accept the Amendment, which would bring in the question of topping or lopping a tree in such a manner as to be likely to destroy it we should meet the arguments raised in Committee and would satisfy all the sponsors of the Bill. I understand that the Government are in agreement with this.

Mr. Peter M. Jackson (The High Peak)

I am very happy to add my support to my Friend the Member for—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is the hon. Gentleman's "honourable Friend".

Mr. Jackson

I accept your correction, Sir. The way the Clause will operate will depend to a large extent on what is understood by the notion of destruction. I understand that a tree can be destroyed by destroying its character. Through topping or lopping, a tree may nevertheless live, but as a tree it is destroyed. I ask the Minister of State to confirm that it is the intention to institute prosecutions against persons who destroy the quality of a tree. That tree may nevertheless live, but it will be effectively destroyed visually as a tree.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I am grateful to the hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Peter Jackson) COI raising this point. This was the point on which I suggested that "mutilate" might be appropriate. The Amendment has mutilated my proposal. To me, "mutilate" means "mutilate". Everybody else, even courts of law, would know what the word "mutilate" meant. The hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) has sought to alter what I suggested only because there is some legal difficulty, perhaps to do with Scottish law, which does not allow the word "mutilate" to be included.

Dr. Dickson Mabon indicated dissent.

Mr. Cooke

Perhaps there is some legal difficulty, however. Lawyers are always making difficulties. Perhaps the Minister of State, in reply, will make it clear to the hon. Member for South Shields that it is not much use the House saying that this is what we intend it to mean. It is what it means in court that matters.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is speaking to an Amendment which is not on the Notice Paper. The Amendment before the House does not include the word "mutilate".

Mr. Cooke

I have made my point, Sir, and I hope that I have not gone too far out of order. I want this to mean what we all desire, not only between ourselves by agreement, but also in the courts, which is where these matters will be tried.

Mr. David Gibson-Watt (Hereford)

I did not have the advantage of taking part in the earlier stages of the Bill. I have some knowledge and experience of the difficulty, in both town and country. of deciding on a question such as we are now discussing.

If the Amendment is approved, the Bill will provide as follows: In relation to an offence of cutting down or wilfully destroying a tree or of topping or lopping a tree in such a manner as to be likely to destroy it. There are few people, either in the House or outside, who can say for certain at a time when a certain type of tree is pollarded or topped that the tree will die. In other countries, particularly France and Italy, the practice of pollarding is much better known to what I would call town foresters than it is in many towns in this country.

There is scope here for an improvement in forestry knowledge. There is also scope for improvement of knowledge amongst those who will have to judge, either in the local authority or in a court of law, whether the pollarding of a certain type of tree will eventually lead to the tree's death.

This is a complicated matter. It is known, for instance, that lime trees, and some nut trees, if they are pollarded fairly heavily, will recover with great ease. On the other hand, if pollarding or topping is carried out to poplars, which are dangerous trees to have in towns, which can do a great deal of damage to the foundations of any building within 100 feet of them, and which, incidentally, drink over 12,000 gallons a year, they may not be destroyed, but their form may be so destroyed that they are totally unrecognisable as individual trees.

The hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) has had more opportunity than I have had of talking to his hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, and, therefore, I do not wish to say anything which would embarrass him. I would just point out this difficulty. If people who sensibly pollard their trees with their forestry knowledge, whether in town or out of town, are to be threatened with a fine of £250, I think that is an excessive penalty. The Minister may be able to clear up this matter for me, but I think there is a larger question here than was foreseen by the hon. Member for South Shields. I just say this as a caveat, a word of warning, that in these times, forestry knowledge is limited to comparatively few people in this country when it comes to the question of topping or lopping or, as I prefer to call it, pollarding.

Mr. Skeffington

The Government advise that this Amendment should be accepted. It is an attempt to reconcile the two points of view which were stated in Committee. The sponsors of the Amendment rightly pointed out that it is possible so to mishandle a tree and to mutilate it, as the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) would like to put it, that ultimately the tree is destroyed.

I speak with some knowledge of this subject because I am at the moment dealing with an elm tree which was so badly lopped a few years ago that the tree has decayed, and the whole tree may now have to come down because it may become dangerous. On the other hand, unless we are careful how this question is defined, we might, as was feared by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Gibson-Watt), expose people who merely lop off the odd branch to a penalty. The Government, having considered this matter very carefully, feel that this Amendment provides the right compromise.

The hon. Member for Hereford referred to knowledge of the subject, and I Agree that this is one of the difficulties, particularly when one gets outside the normal sort of forestry management. There are certain societies—the right hon. Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) and I are both associated with one—which endeavour to spread, by proper training, real knowledge of what is called tree surgery so that expert advice and help are available. In any dispute in this matter, evidence would have to be adduced as to whether or not the action taken was reasonable in all the circumstances.

I was asked whether the Amendment would go so far as to deal with what might be called the artistic or ornamental characteristics of a tree. The Amendment does not go as far as that. The Government took advice as to whether the word "mutilate" could be used, but it would be far too wide and almost incapable of precise definition. It is not much use having in the Bill a word of that character if it is not possible to adjudicate upon it should the matter be taken to a tribunal.

In all the circumstances, we feel that this Amendment deals with a category of harm to trees which could cause trees to die, and we therefore hope that the House will accept it.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 57, in page 9, line 36, leave out '12(1) of the Forestry Act 1951' and insert '17(1) of the Forestry Act 1967'.—[Mr. Blenkinsop.]