HC Deb 10 November 1976 vol 919 cc400-1
10. Mr. Fairgrieve

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will take action to encourage an increase in planting in the private forestry sector in Scotland.

Mr. Hugh D. Brown

My right hon. Friend and his colleagues will be looking most carefully at the findings of the interdepartmental review group recently set up to consider the whole question of how private forestry is affected by Government policies on taxation, grants and amenities.

Mr. Fairgrieve

Does the Minister appreciate that timber represents our third biggest import bill, after fuel and food, and that Scotland has the largest percentage of area available for planting? Nevertheless, Scotland is bottom of the European league for the percentage of area under trees. Does the hon. Gentleman realise that if substantial tax incentives were given to the private sector of forestry this would make a great contribution to improving our balance of payments?

Mr. Brown

In general I would agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I must point out the inconsistency in increasing public expenditure to help the private sector. Of course, the balance of payments argument is one which everyone can accept. However, there is a dilemma here, and it is one which faces the Forestry Commission also: how much can any Government devote to an industry on which there will be no return for 40 or 50 years?

Mr. Robert Hughes

Will my hon. Friend resist totally the blandishments of those who wish to see valuable public resources going into private industry? Will he discuss the matter with the new Chairman of the Forestry Commission to ensure that that organisation has money available from the public sector for the growing of trees?

Mr. Brown

I share a lot of my hon. Friend's ideological ideas. We must, however, face the fact that about 50 per cent, of timber production comes from the private sector, and it would be irresponsible to ignore its contribution. Nevertheless, I have had discussions with the new Chairman of the Forestry Commission and one of my priorities is to ensure that the maximum effort is made in the public sector.

Mr. Thompson

Does the Minister agree that what is really needed is a long-term consensus policy, subscribed to by all parties, so that the timber industry can get on with producing timber in the way it was able to do between the late 1940s and the disastrous Tory White Paper of 1972?

Mr. Brown

As usual, the Scottish National Party is riding about three horses. [An HON. MEMBER: " And falling off all of them."] They can attack both Governments—

Mr. Thompson

Yes, both Governments.

Mr. Brown

I cannot reply to all these interjections. To do so would take too long. The hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) should appreciate that the SNP is in a unique position. It can attack both Governments on the basis of all sorts of unrealistic things, as it has done particularly with regard to forestry. There would be hardly any room for a sheep, never mind for beef farming, if the SNP had its way.