HC Deb 24 January 1979 vol 961 cc607-50

10.30 a.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. E. S. Bishop)

I beg to move, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Forestry Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time. Perhaps I may summarise the extent of the Bill in a few words by saying that the first objective of this short Bill is to correct a deficiency in the powers of the Forestry Commissioners to provide grants and loans for forestry purposes—in other words, to make the law what everyone thought it had been for a long time. The second objective is to metricate imperial measurements in the Forestry Act 1967 and to provide enabling powers to metricate those in other forestry legislation. The Bill therefore has a limited but important function. Hon. Members may be interested to know that it has been through all stages up to Third Reading in the other place.

That is the general background, but I have a responsibility to give the Committee a little more detail as to the intention of the Bill.

Since their establishment under the Forestry Act 1919, the Forestry Commissioners have had powers to make advances by way of grants or loan, or both, to persons in respect of the afforestation, including replanting, of land belonging to such persons. These powers were subsequently consolidated in section 4 of the Forestry Act 1967, and since before the Second World War it had been generally assumed that they were wide enough to include the management of land for forestry purposes, as well as the planting and replanting of trees on that land. Management was considered to include the planning stage of establishing a plantation; the preparatory work leading to planting or replanting, such as ploughing and fencing; and subsequent operations such as the protection of the plantations from fire, pests and diseases, the upkeep of fences and drains, fertilising, and harvesting the timber either as thinnings or as the final crop.

With the support of successive Governments and, since 1951, subject to Treasury approval, the Commissioners have from time to time introduced schemes to encourage the rehabilitation of old woodlands and the planting of new ones. These have included a scrub clearance grant, and a thinning grant that was designed to help with the removal of un-remunerative early thinnings in order to improve the crop. Neither of these schemes is still available, but I have mentioned them to illustrate the type of management operation that has been grant-aided in the past.

Since 1948, the main source of assistance has been the dedication scheme, under which woodland owners enter into long-term legal commitments in return for grants. At first there were two bases—basis I and basis II. Neither of these is now open to new applications, but there are still continuing commitments, legally binding on owners and the Commissioners, involving the payment of grants. Under basis I, owners receive 25 per cent. of their net approved annual expenditure, including expenditure on management, until the woodlands become self-supporting. Under basis II, owners receive a flat rate planning grant and, until 1958, they also received a maintenance grant for the first 15 years in the life of a plantation. In 1958 the maintenance grant was replaced by an annual management grant which has no specific time limit. Basis II remained more or less unchanged until 1972, when all the Commission's grant schemes then existing were closed to new applications.

Most grant-aided woodlands—amounting to some 490,000 hectares—are still managed under the basis II scheme, and last year these attracted management grants totalling about £720,000. Basis III of the dedication scheme, which is operative, was introduced in 1974. Initially the financial assistance available under it consisted only of a planting grant, but an annual management grant was introduced from 1 October 1977. The opportunity was also taken in October 1977 to reintroduce an improved small woods scheme, and the general level of forestry grants was significantly increased.

The Commissioners recently sought legal advice regarding the precise extent of their powers to give grants and loans under section 4 of the Forestry Act 1967, and were advised that those powers do not, as had been assumed, cover financial help towards the management of a forest as distinct from its planting or replanting. Grants and loans provided by the Commissioners for management operations both before and after the passing of the Forestry Act 1967, including the new basis III management grant introduced as recently as October 1977, are therefore without statutory authority.

With the agreement of the Treasury, grants are still being paid and expenditure now rests on the temporary authority of the Appropriation Act. Clause 1 of the Bill is intended to correct the deficiency by restating the Commissioners' powers to make grants and loans to include those made for management purposes. The wording is more concise than the wording of section 4 of the Forestry Act 1967, but it will allow grants or loans, or both, to be made for forestry purposes, whether in the form of a lump sum or by instalments, and for such period of time and on such terms as the Commissioners decide, subject to Treasury approval.

Clause 1 also clarifies the Commissioners' powers to assist lessees, in addition to owners of land. The present wording of section 4 of the 1967 Act does not make this clear, although, in fact, the Commissioners, with the benefit of legal advice, have been able in England and Wales to grant-aid lessees directly, and in Scotland by suitable legal arrangements. The clause simply confirms the power already possessed by the Commissioners to aid lessees direct in England and Wales, and brings their powers in Scotland into line, which will simplify the administrative procedures for aiding lessees of land in Scotland.

Clause 2 provides for the substitution of metric for imperial units of measurement in the Forestry Act 1967, and for powers to enable the Forestry Commissioners by regulations to amend other existing forestry legislation. The changes proposed for the Forestry Act 1967 are technical in nature, and have been fully accepted by the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee—comprising all sectors of the forestry industry, including the home timber trade—and individually by organisations representing woodland owners, the timber trade and other interests. All but one of the changes affect the felling licensing provisions in section 9 of the 1967 Act. As these provisions are still expressed in imperial measurements, licensing procedures are currently conducted in imperial terms, but this is out of step with general usage as the Forestry Commission went metric in 1971 and metric measurements have since been widely adopted in the forestry industry and the timber trade.

The metric measurements being substituted for the existing imperial ones correspond as closely as possible to those contained in the Forestry Act 1967, subject only to minor variations consistent with current mensuration conventions in forestry. I must emphasise that only the system of measurement is being changed; in no case will the size or volume of trees subject to felling licences be altered except to a very marginal extent, and the effect, in practical terms, will be insignificant.

The other forestry legislation referred to in clause 2, subsections (2) to (5) deals with the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, both of which are administered by the Forestry Commissioners. The Bill does not amend the relevant Acts directly for reasons of hybridity, and therefore it is intended that the Commissioners shall have power to make the desired amendments by regulations. The nearest metric equivalents will be substituted for the present imperial measurements, subject to minor rounding and to consultation with the interests concerned.

10.40 a.m.

Mr. John Peyton

I think that the whole Committee will be obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his lucid explanation of the Bill, to which I should like to give a reasonably friendly welcome. It is an unusual Bill in two respects. It goes against the current to which we are accustomed. It is both brief—and it is to be welcomed on that account—and comprehensible, which makes it quite unusual.

I do not wish, therefore, to delay the passage of the Bill, and I am sure that my hon. Friends will agree with me in welcoming it. Indeed, for once, I rather regret that it is as modest as it is and so completely unambitious. However, it offers an opportunity to make a few comments on the whole subject of forestry policy.

This country produces about 8 per cent. of its requirements of timber, and we have done little to improve upon that in recent years. We have apparently learned little or nothing from our disastrous experience following the rise in oil prices.

Before I leave the subject of imports, perhaps I should mention how high timber is upon our list of imports. It comes third after food and oil. I have no doubt that some intelligence and determination to pursue a long-term policy here would produce some useful results for our balance of payments.

We have a further spur to constructive activity in the devastation that has recently been caused by Dutch elm disease. Much of our countryside, particularly where I come from in the South-West, presents the spectacle of a First World War landscape. I hope that, some time or other, we shall address ourselves seriously to this severe problem.

I do not believe that forestry policy contains any source of pride for either party or for the Government's advisers in the Treasury and the Inland Revenue. There have been far too many chops and changes. It would appear that those who strut upon the political stage have found it difficult to reconcile themselves to the fact that the tree cycle is rather long and that chops and changes in forestry policy more often than not are very damaging indeed.

I regard the increased activity in forestry as a useful opportunity for employment and the creation of wealth in the countryside. One of the increasingly worrying problems of the countryside is the vicious circle that exists from the lessening of the amenities that can be enjoyed there to the reduction of employment opportunities. These two factors chase each other in a vicious spiral.

I look forward—and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman, if he has any further remarks to make, will look forward with me—to the development of a partnership between agriculture and forestry to replace the present hostility that one often finds. I have no doubt that the Forestry Commission has an important role to play here, but I believe that it will have to be careful to avoid the dangerous habits to which only too often large organisations fall prey. They are inclined to believe that if they possess the power and the opportunity to do something, they need not worry about consultation and they need not bother to persuade anybody. They just do what they want, without considering other people.

I believe that the cause of forestry, intelligently pursued, can be of great assistance to small farmers and a source of enrichment to them, particularly those in upland areas who have only limited opportunities of making money and who have to contend with all sorts of obstacles and difficulties in the modern world. The Forestry Commission has a particular responsibility to help such people exploit their opportunities.

I do not wish to detain the Committee and I wish the Bill well. I should like to end my brief remarks with a plea that perhaps, on this very modest and totally unambitious foundation, we may base—I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) because his attitude has long been constructive—a sensible policy that will influence and be supported by all parties and that, at long last, there will be a realisation of how disastrously silly the activities of politicians can be when they chop and change policy in a matter such as this.

There is no comparable country in the world, with such an advantageous climate, that makes such a rotten and pathetic contribution to its forestry needs. With those words, I should like to wish the Bill well and to speed it on its way.

10.47 a.m.

Mr. Peter Hardy

Were the Bill merely to contain clause 2, it would provide us with the opportunity to hold a memorial meeting for the acre. I confess that I do not view that clause with any great enthusiasm. I can see an acre. I know what it is. I find it much more difficult to assess a hectare by the eye.

It may be that the bureaucrats feel that this sort of provision will remove the acre. However, while Yorkshire continues to play cricket on a 22-yard wicket, I am grateful even for Mr. Kerry Packer's attention to that sport. Yorkshire's time will come again; perhaps that of the acre will not.

A 22-yard pitch is one-tenth of a furlong. Opposition Members who have agricultural interests will understand the roots of the acre's origin and that of the other land measurements. I suspect that while the length of a cricket pitch is still 22 yards, the bureaucrats will not be entirely satisfied with that.

However, clause 1 is perhaps the most important part of the Bill, which, as my right hon. Friend the Minister said, is not a controversial measure. Nevertheless, there are a number of points that I should like to make, although I think that first it would be proper to respond to some of the comments of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton).

He is right to complain about and to condemn the chopping and changing policies of politicians who, all too often, have given only short-term consideration to various matters, particularly in recent years. However, I should point out that the most severe chopping and changing in forestry policy came about in the lifetime of the previous Conservative Government.

I do not wish to be controversial, but those Opposition Members who served on the Front Bench of that Administration—I say that deliberately, because I wish to acquit those Conservative Back Benchers who are present—were guilty of the most remarkable folly when they published a document, I think in July 1972, which, as Opposition Members will, I believe, agree, saw no prospect whatever for economic forestry in Britain. They relied upon the Treasury.

The right hon. Gentleman made a critical passing reference to the Treasury with which I entirely agree. Within some five or six weeks of that policy being announced, the Russians, perhaps to pay for the imports of grain following the collapse of their harvest, greatly increased their timber prices, with the result that that Treasury cost-benefit analysis was almost stillborn.

It took a Labour Government, coming to power later, to remedy that appalling misjudgment. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will not object to our putting right that serious defect.

Mr. Peyton

I particularly avoided the rather unattractive partisan note which the hon. Gentleman is now striking. I said that no party had any reason for pride at all. The hon. Gentleman has been only too content to go along the Treasury path in this matter. If he intends to press the partisan element, which I certainly did not want to do, I would say that his own Government's embarkation on capital transfer tax and all that went with it was equally unhelpful. But I do not want to go into that matter this morning.

Mr. Hardy

The right hon. Gentleman may recall that I spoke in debate on the Finance Bill 1975 and criticised the capital transfer tax provisions, particularly in their application to forestry, but also in their application to farming. I make the point because it is necessary that we on the Labour Benches, who are usually regarded as being ill informed on these matters and who are not entirely free from errors of judgment in our approach to rural activities, should occasionally emphasise that our record in these matters is not entirely a black one. I believe that the situation regarding forestry today is rather better than it was when the Labour Government took office in 1974. It is necessary for us to make that point.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend a number of questions, all relating to clause I, and, I think, all in order. One point reinforces those already made regarding the need to expand timber production in Britain. In 1945, some experts estimated that by 1980 we should be producing between 20 per cent. and 25 per cent. of our timber requirement. As the right hon. Member for Yeovil said, last year and the year before we produced about 8 per cent. of our requirement. That means that the 1945 estimates are grievously in error. However, that is understandable, because those concerned then did not forecast the rate of economic growth which the world has experienced since then. Their total estimates of quantities may have been correct, but the share was clearly grossly deficient.

Today experts are forecasting that we can reach the same level of sufficiency in 25 or 30 years' time as they suggested we could reach in 1945. I do not think that the world will experience the same rate of economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s as was experienced during the 1950s and 1960s, but that could be an underestimate.

The problem is that by the end of the century our traditional suppliers of timber will not be able to meet current demand, and that presents many problems. I want to ask my right. hon. Friend whether clause 1(2) can be made relevant to that problem, because we shall have to look for timber, even if we expand our own production, to the tropical forests of the world.

Mr. Patrick Cormack

Those are being chopped down.

Mr. Hardy

I ask my right hon. Friend whether the grants can cover that consideration.

Recently I discussed the question of tropical forestry with some of the people who work at the Royal Botanic Gardens—largely because the Council of Europe agricultural committee, of which I am vice-chairman, will be considering the matter next week. I believe that tropical forestry presents a very serious problem, of which the Western world is not yet taking sufficient account. Unless the clearing of tropical forests is carried out sensitively and sensibly—and it is not being carried out in such a way at present—by the end of the century, in the lifetime of some right hon. and hon. Members present and certainly in the lifetime of our children, that resource will, to a large extent, have been ruined.

Apparently much of the tropical forest, luxuriant though it may appear, grows on very poor soil. But if the tree is felled and if the branches and so on are burnt, as frequently happens, the soil is left without nutrient, and in the first heavy rainfall it is likely to be washed away. The activities of some companies of the Western world in removing the tropical forest in an unscientific and extremely greedy way will certainly cause problems.

I believe that Britain, with its considerable experience of woodland ownership and management, and with the Forestry Commission as a very long-established body, could be fully involved in the research and international deliberation which needs to be carried out with considerable vigour. I hope that subsection (2) of clause 1 can be used in part to promote this particular purpose. The Forestry Commission, as the forest authority, has an obligation to ensure that this country has continuing supplies of timber products. That is important.

I have two or three other questions which I consider important. There is reference in the annual report of the Forestry Commission to colliery spoil heaps and derelict land. I have been persuaded over a number of years that we could produce a great deal more timber by proper forestation on derelict areas. In my constituency there are colliery spoil heaps which produce good-quality timber. Hon. Members who drive on the M1 will notice that two or three miles north of the Harthill-Woodall service area, and two or three miles off the road, in the parish of Harthill in my constituency, there is a reclaimed colliery spoil heap with some impressive timber which has developed in the last seven or eight years.

I believe that proper forestation on derelict areas could be carried out on a much greater scale, and I hope that the Ministry will encourage the Forestry Commission to be substantially involved, or at least to ensure, if it is not prepared to be involved itself, that either other public bodies or private developers carry out plantation in such areas.

The total acreage available is substantial. The amount of derelict land cleared during the period 1975–79 in my constituency alone totalled almost 400 acres, at a cost to the State of £900,000. I believe that part of that investment should be reflected in a large crop of timber in 20 or 30 years' time. I hope that my right hon. Friend will comment on the encouragement which the Minister of Agriculture is giving to the Forestry Commission for this purpose. I notice that field trials are being held, and I hope that the Forestry Commission will not be limited in its expenditure in this area.

There are two further questions that I wish to ask my right hon. Friend. If he cannot reply this morning, I would be delighted if he could arrange for me to receive a reply. The report of the Forestry Commission states that there was a drop in demand for small diameter roundwood in the period ended March 1978. This seems surprising to me. If we meet only 8 per cent. of our home demand, it is obvious that should there be any small decline in demand for any particular kind of timber which is produced in the United Kingdom, it should affect our import bill rather than our levels of home production. I hope that home production can be sustained, and that if there is any dip in demand it will merely be reflected in a lower import bill, because the import bill for timber and timber products, at £2 billion a year, is ridiculously high.

The last question I wish to ask is in regard to the awaited directive from the European Economic Community. This has been bouncing about for a very long time. Can my right hon. Friend say when we can expect that directive to be published and whether that directive will mean that the burden on the taxpayer of clause 1 will be in any way reduced, since it would be reasonable to suppose that, as we are net losers on the common agricultural policy, we ought to be striving to be net gainers on a common forestry policy, if one is ever established? Certainly, it would be useful for the Committee to have some information about the effect of an EEC directive on the total expenditure which the British taxpayer would properly incur in supporting forestry, because forestry needs to be vigorously supported.

11 a.m.

Sir John Gilmour

The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) highlighted the very bad advice that the Treasury has given to the forestry industry of this country. But I think that he was less than fair to my right hon. Friends who were on the Front Bench in the 1970s in blaming them for the loss of planting, particularly in the private sector, when paragraph 83 of the recent Forestry Commission report states; We are sorry to have to report a further drop in new planting by private woodland owners. It is true that the Treasury preduced a cost-effectiveness study on timber production which, as the hon. Gentleman said, proved to be out of date almost before it was published. What is far more telling about the situation is contained in a review, "The Wood Production Outlook in Britain", contained in a document issued in November, which states: The estimated average rate of new planting by the Commission and the private sector since 1919 has been 15,000 hectares per annum while the peaks achieved over a 3 year period in the early 1970s averaged about 40,000 hectares per annum. In other words, a disastrous change has happened—since we had a Labour Government.

When, under a taxation system, an arrangement is made for someone to plant trees which it is known will not be harvested for 50, 60, 70 or 80 years and then during the lifetime of that plantation that taxation system is altered, surely it is absolute crass stupidity to make such a change. If one wants to alter a taxation system, let it be altered for the new plantation, so that people know on what basis they are to operate. If one starts to tamper with the taxation system half-way through the life of a plantation, one is bound to have disaster. That is what the present Government have achieved.

I have three short questions to ask the Minister of State about whether the provisions, particularly of clause I, can help with the crises that we have seen. We need to do something more, for example, to get rid of Dutch elm disease and to replace trees which have died. I understand from the Forestry Commission report that about 11 million out of 23 million elms in the southern part of Britain have died. Fortunately, we in Scotland are not so badly off; I believe that we have only about 20,000 dead elms out of an estimated population of 2 million to 3 million. But there is a need to do something about getting rid of the dead elm trees and making certain that the hedgerows are replaced by something that will prove satisfactory in the long run.

It is also interesting to see in the Forestry Commission report mention of snow damage last year, particularly in the north-east of Scotland, where we had heavy snow. I was interested to see pictures on television of helicopters being used in European forests to remove snow from trees in order to alleviate damage. This brings to mind the question whether there is not a necessity for useful Government help in an area thus affected to save the damaged trees. One would need provisions to allow a special grant for snow clearance in a certain area at a certain time. Could this be done under clause 1?

My other point concerns the apparent lack of production forecasts for the private sector of forestry. Again, this is something which calls for a short-term operation to get the forecasts produced—particularly on existing plantations, which might require a little extra finance—as a once-for-all effort and not a continuing one.

There was an article about private woodland production in the journal of the Royal Scottish Forestry Society published in October last year. The article, by Mr. R. B. Tozer, states: Production forecasts offer a considerable amount of useful information. Regrettably, in the private sector very little information is available on the likely level of future production. While there are many reasons for this, I believe that if such information were available, the private sector would be in a much stronger position in influencing such factors as the location of new wood-using industries and in negotiating long term contracts with wood users. That, again, is something that might require help on a once-for-all basis, not a continuing one, and I wonder whether that would be possible.

11.5 a.m.

Mr. John Parker

I should like to follow what has been said about the need for a more ambitious approach to forestry, although I welcome the Bill as a minor advance.

We should try to put aside party battles on this issue. I take the view that the country needs a comprehensive policy for unification of planting by the Forestry Commission and by private woodland owners. I suggest that the two parties should try to come to some agreement on a 50-year programme of planting which would not be interrupted by any change of Government or Minister and would not allow the Treasury to upset any such agreement.

As my hon. Friend said, we need a big planting programme to double the hectarage under forestry in the next 50 years. An imaginative programme of that kind would interest foresters and the country as a whole, because it would demonstrate the real needs of the nation and show what could be done for the countryside as well as for our economy in terms of reduced imports. I suggest that there should be some kind of conference between the Forestry Commission and woodland owners and between the Front Benches, or those interested in forestry, to agree such a programme and to put it over.

That, however, would mean the need to acquire land, and that is the great difficulty. This is a small island and there are many claims on land. Land has risen in price and it is difficult both for the Commission and for private owners to acquire land for forestry purposes.

Mr. Peyton

I wish to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) about possible all-party agreement. I said that I welcomed the Bill originally as a small foundation for a different approach from the foolish approach of the past. I should like to respond to what the hon. Gentleman has just said, and I hope the Minister of State will take note of this point. If the Government were to take any initiative on this subject and to make proposals on which we could found a policy which might endure against the changes of political wind from time to time and might also stand against the dogmas of the Treasury, we should be glad to give it careful and sympathetic consideration.

Mr. Parker

I am grateful for the comments made by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). I hope that we can get discussions going and reach some kind of agreement. It is of vital importance.

The subject of land has to be seriously considered. As I said, this is a small island and there are many claims on the use of land. I do not wish to enter into conflict between agriculture and forestry. We must have policies which reconcile the claims of both.

I welcome the grants to small woodlands and forests which will encourage farmers, especially in the upland areas, to afforest land. From an amenity point of view, it is advantageous to have small areas afforested, and that could go ahead.

But we have to face the needs not only of agriculture but of a large urban population who want to enjoy the countryside—and so they should. Many people enjoy woodland walks. Much has been done by the Forestry Commission, and now by a number of private owners, to enable people to enjoy the forests.

Some amenity groups are opposed to the use of land for forestry. Many of the people who object to the use of land for forestry take the view that there should be no alteration in land use. But we cannot put the land into storage and never change its use. It must be used and developed as the needs of the country as a whole change.

Of course, the best features of our landscape need to be preserved. The National Trust, for example, has a constructive policy with regard to the Lake District. It provides financial assistance for sheep rearing, which is important, in order to keep the land clear of scrub so that people may enjoy walking there. But some of the proposals put forward by amenity societies, based largely in the towns, seem to ignore the needs of the countryside and of country people.

I have been a keen rambler in the past. There are large sections of open country—the whole of the coastline and all the areas above the treeline which are bound to remain free from trees—where people can enjoy walks in their leisure time. It is only reasonable that some of the areas which do not come in those categories should be made available for planting. Therefore, we must fight, by way of publicity, what I call the anti-conifer brigade.

I agree that in the early stages of planting the Forestry Commission made many mistakes by blanketing hillsides and so on. But since it had the advice of Dame Sylvia Crowe and her successors, much more constructive policies of planting followed. Indeed, many private owners, who plant on a large scale, also take account of advice on landscaping when carrying out their planting.

Mature forestry is very attractive from the town-dwellers' point of view. Forests tend to encourage an increase in wild life. Townspeople, who often do not know what they are talking about, frequently make the point that blanket forestry kills off all wild life. It does not. There is very little wild life on open moorland—birds or anything else. In a forest with trees of different ages all kinds of birds and other wild life will be found. That point needs making when attacks are made on the large-scale planting of conifers. It is a fact that many areas, such as Tarn Hows in the Lake District which is almost a honeypot for tourists, are mainly conifer-planted.

I fully agree with the policy of the National Trust that in the lowlands, where suitable, deciduous trees should be planted. I welcome the scheme whereby the planting of such trees is encouraged. But, from the commercial point of view, we need to consider the need for many of the uplands regions to be planted with conifers if they are the only trees which will grow and produce timber in such areas.

We need a publicity programme by the Forestry Commission, the Government and woodland owners to contradict and silence any attempts to limit planting in areas where it should take place. I hope that the need for publicity will be looked at by the various interests, by private owners, by the Forestry Commission and by the Government as a whole.

I turn to a minor point. Clause 2(3) refers to forest lands in England and Wales". Perhaps it could be explained why Scotland was left out. Is Scottish law different on the point, or why does the provision not cover the whole United Kingdom?

I welcome the Bill and hope that it will be the prelude to further planting and to a constructive approach by the industry and by Government and Opposition to working out, say, a 50-year planting programme which, once it has been agreed, will be considered binding on whatever Government may be in office.

11.15 a.m.

Mr. George Thompson

I do not think that hon. Members should apologise for lengthening the deliberations of the Committee. We rarely have an opportunity to debate forestry in the House.

It is an infinitely subtle pleasure for a Member from one of the minority parties to see hon. Members on both sides of the Committee standing in white sheets confessing to the chopping and changing of forestry policy in the past decade by Governments of both parties.

The hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour) found a means of uniting both sides by blaming the Treasury, and I notice that hon. Members have then taken the opportunity to unite in kicking the scapegoat. I do not wish to pursue that point, as I fear I may bring in a note of unpleasantness to the Committee. I always find that my meetings with foresters are pleasant occasions. Those men, who are used to an industry where they plant what others will reap, are not so prone to jump from one position to another and indulge in altercations as are those who work in other industries sometimes. A measure of consensus is certainly necessary in public policy for forestry, and I heartily agree with hon. Members on all sides of the Committee who have supported that view.

It is appropriate, in this early month of 1979, to wish the Forestry Commission many happy returns of the day, because 1979 is the sixtieth anniversary of the Commission. We owe it an immense debt for having come in to plant trees and provide employment in an area such as my own where the great estates had begun to disappear, where there was far less work for country people than there had been, and where the manpower in agriculture was also declining. We in Galloway have no cause to complain of the Forestry Commission's activities in providing employment.

This is a small Bill, and no doubt that is the reason why it was relegated to a Second Reading Committee. But that this was done is an unfortunate sign of the lack of general interest in forestry in the House of Commons. At least in another place it had its Second Reading on the Floor of the House. I do not know what forestry will do when another place is abolished—if, in fact, the people of England ever bring themselves to the point of ending so archaic an institution, to which they may, for all I know, be passionately attached.

I wonder, too, whether, if another place were abolished, certain noble Lords with forestry interests in Scotland would not then regret that they had opposed the devolution of forestry to the Scottish Assembly.

I am certain that, despite the resistance to that proposal, as soon as the Scottish Assembly shows that it is a powerful voice for Scottish interests and a powerful lever for moving Whitehall into action, these same people will be running to the Assembly to ask its help in getting proper attention paid to forestry. I shall not blame them for doing so, but I shall blame them for resisting the Government's desire to devolve forestry in Scotland.

It has been rightly said that wood will be scarce and more expensive. I have looked into the communication from the Commission of the European Communities to the Council concerning forestry policy in the European Community—document 542/78 dated 20 December 1978—and I see that 20 per cent. of the land area in the EEC is forest. My own region of Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway, has now exceeded this percentage. I understand that we are now above 21 per cent. of forest. Yet I was astonished to find that every country in the EEC at present, without exception, is a net importer of timber. Only if Portugal enters the Community will we have one member country which is a net exporter.

These figures give us reason to pause, because they mean that the Community will still require to look to imports to satisfy the need for this most versatile raw material.

As to the British Isles, Scotland appears to be fairly well endowed, because 11 per cent. of its land surface is covered with trees, whereas only 7 per cent. is covered in England. Yet the figure for the United Kingdom as a whole is only 8 per cent. If we look at our EEC partners, we find that 20 per cent. of Belgium is under trees, 25 per cent. of France and 30 per cent. of Germany. But in Scandinavia—I think Scotland can look to Scandinavia for lessons, because it is far north—Sweden has 64 per cent. of its land under timber and Finland, incredibly, a massive 74 per cent. I often wonder how Finland can still manage to export butter to us and sell it cheaper in our shops than our own Scottish butter can be sold.

From the figures that I have recently received in parliamentary answers, the most worrying thing to emerge was that many of our woodlands are now very elderly and starting to decline. Only 16 per cent. of woodlands is under 50 years of age, so the message of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) should be very much taken to heart by the Government and we should proceed as rapidly as we can.

I am always amused and amazed that we sometimes have to pass Bills to correct defects in previous Acts, and I always find strange the amount of labour that is lavished upon the preparation of legislation. However, I shall certainly lend my aid to correcting this defect because I believe that management operations deserve aid.

Mention has been made of the problem of acquiring more land for forestry. It seems to me that there are two possibilities. The first is the acquisition of areas which are at present totally unproductive in any way. That would include the derelict industrial areas, about which the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) spoke.

But I was interested to read in the debate of the proceedings in another place that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe drew attention to the fact that there are vast areas of Scotland now lying unproductive. That is a refreshingly candid statement from the former chairman of the Forestry Commission. My impression has been that the Forestry Commission has been going very gently on this issue for a long time—no doubt because no Government have ever had the willpower to make it plain and do something about it, either by persuading landowners to put land into reasonable productive use or by acquiring the land compulsorily for management by the Forestry Commission. The other possibility is to encourage owner-occupiers of farms to plant trees.

I am not a lawyer and I am not very clear whether the person referred to in the Bill as a lessee is what I should call a tenant. However, I suppose that that is what the word means. Again, I agree with the hon. Member for Dagenham. We must avoid the blanket planting that has occurred in some areas certainly in Dumfries and in Galloway. The way to do that is by encouraging the owner-occupier to plant trees and, if it can be done, also to encourage the tenant to plant trees.

I understand that consultations are going on to see whether low-interest loans could be made—for instance, loans that would be repayable when the trees were felled. I urge the Minister to proceed with those consultations with all speed and to try to reach a satisfactory conclusion to them.

The problem of what to do with early thinnings is still with us. It seems to me that it is incredible folly to import cheap chipboard, simply because it is cheap, while allowing thinnings to rot at the rideside, or actually having to postpone thinning, which could lead to spoiling of the final crop for want of thinning at the right time.

I am constantly bombarded by people who complain about the lack of broad leaf planting. However, I am bound to defend the conifer. In that, I again join the hon. Member for Dagenham. To a generation that in my area has known no other type of forest except the coniferous, it is beautiful and it will be just as dear to that generation as the broad leafed woodland that we had from plantings in earlier centuries was to others.

After all, the conifer has been able to inspire the words "O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum"—although, regrettably, the tune has been used for another purpose—and we have been able to import the idea of the Christmas tree, which is such a pleasant companion during the 12 days of Christmas. Therefore, I see no reason why it should not be appreciated more generally.

It is certainly true that some of the people who complain have no idea how to grow trees. If they looked at broad leaf trees that exist in places where they really will not do, they would see perfectly clearly that the only sort of tree that will produce a reasonable crop is the conifer.

There is another matter that I should like to raise, because it has come up in the planning committee of our regional council. It is the question of Crown privilege, when the Forestry Commission is not bound to seek planning permission, and when the local authority charged with the responsibility for planning is unable to impose its wishes. I agree that the Forestry Commission always holds consultations and I am pretty certain that, if a planning authority were to manifest disapproval of a scheme, the Forestry Commission would give heed to its wishes. I do not wish to press the point; I raise it only so that the matter may be in the Government's mind.

I should pay tribute to the work that has been done by the Forestry Commission in respect of amenity. In my constituency we have a wild goat park, a red deer park, a deer museum and a forest drive down the Raiders' Road, as it is called—from Clatteringshaws to the Bennan on Loch Ken. It is regrettable that, because the Forestry Commission has opened so much of its forests to the public, there was a forest fire in Glentrool. However, I am confident that the damage will be made good.

I should like to turn to the second clause of the Bill, and to the problem of metrication. Perhaps my previous remarks were not bound very closely to the first clause of the Bill but I hope that they were not too far from what the Bill is trying to correct.

I do not like metrication. I prefer the old ways, but that may be because for nearly seven years I was a forestry worker: two years as a labourer and five years as a forest surveyor. It was a humble job but it involved me in working with a chain, which was in fact one chain long. The chain, although it was 22 yards long, was not for the purposes of dividing into 22 yards or 66ft. We were not decimalised, we were contesimalised; there were 100 links in the chain. I suppose even here we must yield to the French Revolution, science and the spirit of geometry. I do so with reluctance. At least I have to shed a nostalgic tear, metaphorically speaking, for the chain. I do not regret having worked hundreds of thousands of chains in the service of the Forestry Commission.

I think we should record as a country our thanks to the Forestry Commission and to all its workers who have worked so hard to produce the national forest estate that we have at present and express the hope that both the Forestry Commission and the private owner will be allowed to go ahead in building up the forest estate in Scotland to the million acres that the Scottish National Party would wish to see established there.

11.32 a.m.

Mr. Richard Buchanan

It is with some hesitation that I enter into a forestry debate because hon. Members will know that I have hardly a single tree in my constituency. However, I am a member of the Forestry Committee simply because my ancestors did quite a lot around Perthshire to plant forests, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) bullied me into the Forestry Committee when I came into the House so that the voice of Scotland could be heard. At that particular time there was not on our side an hon. Member on the Forestry Committee. I often feel that if the politicians who make the decisions regarding forestry had my experience of touring the forests and mingling with foresters and those who are interested in forestry, we might have a more settled policy on forests in Britain.

Mr. Thompson

I am constantly using the hon. Gentleman as an example of Glasgow Members of Parliament who are interested in the countryside and the rural areas. In my part of the world far too often people take the view that the inhabitants of Glasgow are a species apart who detest the rural areas and the countryside. May I express my thanks to the hon. Gentleman for the stand that he takes in relation to forestry?

Mr. Buchanan

I am grateful for those kind words. Since this is the injunction of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), and not wishing to bring any party controversy into the Committee, when the hon. Gentleman was talking about chains, I was going to say that our objection to the Scottish National Party is that, hankering after the chain as he does, he still wants to turn back the clock 300 years.

My constituency is an industrial desert. It is one of those constituencies that has been redeveloped, as has much of the city of Glasgow. Surely it is hardly beyond the wit of woodland owners, whether they be city councils or the Forestry Commission, to plant some trees in the midst of this urban wasteland.

Many of us in the city of Glasgow have to travel quite a distance to see a tree and to get to our public parks, of which there are many. The concrete jungles could be in many ways improved if an attempt was made to plant some trees in the middle of these urban constituencies. Whether the two-legged animals would allow them to exist is another matter, but I think that it should be attempted.

As the right hon. Member for Yeovil said, on the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of the Forestry Commission this is a rather unambitious Bill. I wish that it did much more. On my tours with the Forestry Committee, in addition to finding out that agriculture is probably our most valuable and efficient industry, I discovered that forestry plays a most important part in the development of agriculture. The Bill rightly gives aid to the landlords and tenants, and private foresters are given the incentive to plant and improve. It is hardly enough to compensate them for the devastation that was created by the capital transfer tax, but those of us who travel up the M1 by car or by the railway almost beside it must feel anxious about the idle acres that exist on that stretch and throughout the whole length and breadth of England and in parts of Scotland. Clearly, it is not good land—it would be developed if it were—but if there were a study to find the balance between forestry and agriculture, that land would indeed pay dividends.

It has been said this morning that we import £2 billion-worth of timber. As one of the noble Lords said in the debate in the House of Lords, we stick medals on people for exporting, and plaques appear in factories saying that the firm has an export award But the noble Lord was right when he said that we should award medals—or whatever the award may be—to people who save imports. Our agriculture and forestry industry is unique in that respect, and it is an aspect which should be encouraged to a greater extent than happens at present.

I, as a highlander once removed, want to make an appeal for the broad leaf trees that have suffered great devastation from Dutch elm disease. We have a duty to replace many of those trees—not necessarily elms, which, if the disease spreads, will again be subject to Dutch elm disease, but birches, beech, sycamores and oaks. Our forebears have left us a tremendous and a beautiful heritage of trees, and we should do something now about them.

It is interesting to note that the Forestry Commission did not take up £3 million of the money allocated to it. I believe that much of that £3 million could have been spent in financing private woodland owners for their planting of broad leaf trees.

If we are to find the balance between forestry and agriculture, and if we are to cut our import bill and improve our forestry, we should not be as cheese-paring as we have been over the past few years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham said, we must look ahead 50 years. Forestry is not a short-term investment; it is a long-term investment for the people who come after us.

I want to say a word about the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. James), on whose estate in Mull some beautiful trees have been planted. One of the tourist attractions in Mull is to visit the beautiful broad leaf trees on that estate. It is a 100-year investment, but it is protecting our heritage. I hope that this morning we shall be able to inspire the Government to do more to encourage forestry in this country.

11.40 a.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack

Everything that has been said on both sides of the Committee this morning has illustrated that this is a very inadequate Bill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) was totally right to give it the sort of welcome he did. Of course, one cannot object to it, but it is far too modest. It is a wood-mouse of a Bill. It is rather like planting a privet hedge as a windbreak. In forestry we face real crises and problems which have been pointed to and underlined by many hon. Members, not least hon. Gentlemen opposite. I wish that their knowledge and understanding of forestry were shared by more of their colleagues.

Mr. John Watkinson

And yours.

Mr. Cormack

Indeed, on our side of the House too, perhaps. But I think that we can claim a few more.

We need a charter for forests. We are talking of the most crucial of all our home-produced raw materials. This came out most noticeably in the speech of the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy). It is not just our landscape that is in danger and is being distorted before our eyes. The gaunt, lunar landscape of the South-West that is being produced by Dutch elm disease is but visible evidence of what is happening to forestry in this country. It is time for Governments to realise this. I welcome most warmly the statement by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) that we need a bipartisan approach. In this area, perhaps more than in any other, we can see tangible results.

The staggering height of the import bill has been referred to many times. Realising how our European neighbours—even though they may re-import, as the hon. Gentleman indicated—do much better than we do, and realising the vast timber resources of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, we ought to think more seriously about our native forestry. We should set a target. In the next 25 years we should aim at producing 25 per cent. of our own timber. Eight per cent. is a derisory amount.

The hon. Member for Dagenham suggested a 50-year plan, and I welcome that. But we should set ourselves a tangible target in figures. We should try to produce 25 per cent. of our own wood from our own resources. We should make a better job of implementing the policies in "Food from Our Own Resources" than we have in the two or three years since that document was produced.

The hon. Member for Rother Valley referred to derelict land. There are about 107,000 acres of derelict land in this country. Although some of that can be reclaimed for other purposes, a vast number of those acres could and should be used for forestry.

Most important of all, however—with all the help that we might give to the Forestry Commission and the tributes that have been paid from both sides of the Committee—is to realise that forestry can have no future in this country unless the individual farmer and landowner is encouraged to plant. He must have the same sense of confidence, stability and security as those people had who planted 200 years ago the great landscape parks that we enjoy today. The 50-year plan of the hon. Member for Dagenham would go far towards giving that sense of stability, security and confidence. That is what we should aim for.

I hope that the Minister, impressed as I hope he is by the sense of unanimity in this Committee, will go back and talk to his colleagues in the Cabinet and in his own Department, and say "This is not good enough. The Bill has received its Second Reading. It has been given a welcome, a fair passage and a fair wind. But the unanimous resolve of the Committee this morning was that it does not gor far enough. It is unadventurous, unambitious and lacking in vision."

I believe that in the House of Commons there are sufficient people with the vision and the appreciation of the real issues. Unless we take the sort of action that the hon. Member for Dagenham has suggested—my right hon. Friend's welcome of that initiative is something that should again be reported upon—we shall not be producing 25 per cent. of wood from our own resources in 25 years, but we shall still be staggering along with 7 per cent. or 8 per cent. The landscape in many areas will have altered beyond recognition. We shall be the poorer as a nation, and our children who inherit it will never enjoy the riches that we have been able to appreciate.

Let this be a spur to further action and not just cause for self-congratulation on the Government Benches because they have produced one Bill that has received universal support.

11.46 a.m.

Mr. John Watkinson

May I apologise, Miss Fookes, to you and the Committee for arriving late this morning? I have the misfortune to live within the environs of British Rail's Southern Region, and it would be a gross understatement to describe the situation this morning as unmitigated chaos. Travelling is extremely difficult at present. I am sorry, therefore, that I missed the no doubt scintillating introduction on this Bill by the Minister. It is, as has been pointed out, a modest but welcome Bill.

Clause 1 refers to the extension of the right of the Forestry Commission to make grants in relation to the management of land. It is interesting that in this particular area of our economy—forestry—we actually have planning agreements in operation. This is a matter of dispute between the two parties in the industrial sphere, but it is a happy omen that at least in this area there is agreement between the private sector and the public sector that there can be a planned approach to forestry, however modest.

The interest which has been expressed in this Committee on the needs of the forestry industry is mirrored in Europe at present. Within the EEC a paper has been written on the subject, which is to be discussed by the Council and the Commission. Likewise, in the Council of Europe my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) and myself serve on a committee which will consider the subject of forestry in the wider context of Europe this year. So there is an awareness and an acceptance of the importance of this subject within Europe.

It is clear to us all from the debate today that there are three principal purposes of forestry. One is to provide the nation with a vital raw material—the economic argument. Of course, the crucial point about forestry is that it is one of the few raw materials which is actually renewable. This point has already been made, and I think it is worth emphasising.

The second purpose is the environmental purpose of forestry. The third is recreation. I shall deal briefly with each of those points.

Hon. Gentlemen have referred—and it is well known—to the extent to which we in this country rely on imports of our timber needs. We produce only 10 per cent. of what we consume. That is worrying in itself. The position of the United Kingdom in relation to forestry is made worse when we consider the situation in some other EEC countries. There has been reference to certain statistics in this context. I was sent an excellent information sheet by the British Paper and Board Industry Federation, called "Home Grown Timber", which sets out the facts of the case clearly and precisely.

As has been pointed out, the percentage of woodland area, both State-owned and private, in this country is only 8 per cent., whereas in Belgium it is 20 per cent., in France, 24 per cent., in Italy 26 per cent., and in Luxembourg 31 per cent. In West Germany it is 30 per cent. So it is clear, either for historical reasons or for a present-day perception, that European countries have at least accepted and realised the importance of forestry to their nations.

I listened with interest to the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), whose interest in this subject goes back over many years, and to the response of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton).

I wish that we could come up with a plan which the Treasury could accept on the nod. Unfortunately things in the real world do not happen in this way. The Treasury is there to ask whether we are spending our money wisely as a nation and whether we are getting the right kind of return. I have no doubt that, as soon as the forestry argument comes up, the Treasury has recourse to Riccardo's argument and the law of comparative cost to justify the expansion of forests in this country at a time when timber can be grown six times as fast in tropical countries as it can here, when it can be transported from countries far away for less than it costs to produce here. I think that there is an international trade argument on that basis.

We also have to justify the fact that the return on forestry is limited. We must accept that 3 per cent. is the going rate, and if one takes away the subsidy it is 1 per cent. to 1½ per cent. These are not the kind of figures that impress Ministers of any Government in charge of the Treasury.

One point which should be made about these figures, which were given to the Public Accounts Committee and which I have given to the Committee, is that this 1 per cent. to 1½ per cent. after deduction of subsidy is a return in real terms. That is significant.

When we consider the two arguments, the law of comparative costs and the low level of return, how do we react? We must quite clearly say that the balance of payments question is very important and will become increasingly important. With an asset such as the forestry industry of this country which can utilise our land to grow timber in conditions that are most acceptable for that purpose, if we can save on imports we should do so.

All estimates point to the fact that the worldwide price of timber products will rise during the latter part of this century and the bill that we must pay will be that much greater. We must also ask ourselves what the effect would be if we and our European partners made ourselves utterly dependent upon the rest of the world and if the rest of the world began processing its own timber and we became totally reliant upon other parts of the world for our processed timber and materials.

There are arguments to suggest that we should maintain and expand our forestry interests in Britain. We cannot deny the overall strategic importance of having some form of viable timber-producing industry in this country. As every hon. Member in the Committee has emphasised, it is a vital raw material and we ought to maintain and expand it.

It is also important that we maximise our present usage of timber in Britain. It is a fact that 45 per cent. of a tree is left on the ground after it has been felled. We must consider whether we are making sufficient use of the stumps and branches of our trees. We also need to ask whether we are recovering sufficient waste paper and decide whether we can save money there. Should we not also be exploring methods of extracting new chemicals from our timber? These are important considerations.

I do not wish to dwell on the environmental aspect. This is something which I think we all accept—the importance of forests from a landscaping viewpoint and as a means of preserving wild life in this country.

I wish to dwell for a few minutes on the recreational facilities of the forests. I believe this to be a very important aspect of forestry in this country, which tends to be under-estimated. However, the figures presented to the House last year showed that over 15 million people visited and enjoyed the forests of this country. The forests now are as significant a recreational area as our coastline. This must be developed.

I was disappointed to hear, when the matter came before the Public Accounts Committee, that the returns available to the Forestry Commission on the commercial recreational side have been only 2 per cent. compared with a target figure of 10 per cent. The Forestry Commission did indicate that there had been difficulties with pricing policy, but I consider these figures amazing in the context that in my constituency the camp site in the Forest of Dean is literally full up from the moment it is opened until the moment it is closed. Likewise, I am told that it is virtually impossible to get hold of forest cabins, such is the demand. I find it extraordinary that the returns made for that area are so low.

If it is deliberate forestry policy—I do not object to this—to ensure that the greatest number of people can get into our forests for the smallest amount of money, so be it. But I am surprised, when the demand appears to be so great, that the returns the Forestry Commission is at present receiving are as low as they have been.

I return to the Bill itself, which refers in clause 1 to enabling the Forestry Commission to make grants and loans to owners and lessees of land for and in connection with the use and management of the land for forestry purposes. It is time that we in this country were prepared to look to Europe and the way in which Europe treats its so-called "private" forests. It is time that we said—this may already apply to a limited extent—that if private owners are to receive taxpayers' money to develop forests, those taxpayers should be entitled to have some form of access to those forest lands, unless there is good reason why this should not be the case.

It is desirable that we open our forests as widely as possible. I have already indicated that in my view there is a great demand by the urban population of this country to get into our forests, and I see no reason why private owners of forests who are subsidised by the State should not be prepared, unless there is good reason, to open up their forests for the benefit of the people of this country.

11.58 a.m.

Mr. Jasper More

In winding up this short debate on behalf of the Opposition, I am in the happy position of being able to say that I agree with almost everything that has been said this morning. I do not want to repeat what has been better said by others.

I reluctantly accept the conclusions of clause 2. Fortunately the word "kilometre" does not appear, which makes me slightly more favourably disposed towards the clause, although I suppose we must resign ourselves to the fact that we must turn over to these metric words.

I should like to add a few remarks on clause 1. Although much has been said about the Forestry Commission, the Bill, in fact, deals with the private forestry owner. I think we realise that if a large advance is to be made in forestry—I welcome everything that has been said by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) with regard to the desirability of an all-party effort on this front—a large part of it must be done by the Forestry Commission, the principal effort must be made in the conifer section and the largest contribution must be made by Scotland.

Speaking as an English Member and with reference to the private sector, I think that there must be a second form of co-operation and not merely one between the political parties. There must be definite co-operation between agricultural interests and forestry. We have too many farmers—certainly in England; I do not know about Scotland—who take no interest in forestry. We see farms where not only no trees have been planted but all hedges have been removed. We see farms where, regrettably, the only contribution made by forestry is that trees come in useful in the place of posts for the purpose of fixing nails or barbed wire.

The National Farmers' Union, in one of its periodical productions recently, had an article by a farmer advocating as a matter of national policy definite co-operation between farmers and forestry with the object of getting trees planted on farms. It was a very welcome thing to read. The article pointed out the seriousness of the position, saying that we had to import every year £200 million-worth of timber products. I took occasion to write to the editor of the paper saying how much I applauded the article and that I hoped it was a matter of carelessness and not ignorance that the figure of £200 million had been given when the correct figure was £2,000 million. I also emphasised the importance of what he was saying.

If we are to get co-operation on this front, we really must have a change of heart among the farmers. I suggest to the Minister, as he is the Minister responsible for both agriculture and forestry, that he might consider whether we could not set some targets. Might it not be sensible to set a target that every farm in this country should have a minimum of 2 per cent. of its land planted with trees? Might it not be sensible to suggest that every farm in the hill farming category should have 5 per cent. of its land covered with trees? With proper advice as to the siting and species to be planted, there are very few farms in this country which would not positively benefit agriculturally from that degree of forestry.

It is a very unwelcome suggestion to make to any farmer who does not happen to have forestry as a hobby that he should have to divert part of his energies to forestry. The fact should be faced that there must be a carrot. Whether there should also be a stick is a more difficult question. We should now be thinking in terms of farmers being paid some small retaining fee if they establish and annually manage properly more areas of planting on their farms.

Mr. Thompson

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that colleges of agriculture ought to play a role in educating the young farmers of the future in the benefits of forestry and in the practice of forestry, at least to some extent?

Mr. More

That would be most desirable. The difficulty about suggesting forestry to a farmer is that unless the farmer is very young indeed he knows that he himself will get virtually no financial return in his lifetime. But, if we could start on the younger generation, I would certainly agree with the hon. Member.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Spring-burn (Mr. Buchanan) is no longer in the room. I should have liked to suggest to him—and I suggest to the Minister—that the topic might be investigated of a much larger programme of tree planting in our cities. Trees are now being planted on a remarkably large scale in our new towns and even in cities such as Glasgow. Surely it would not be stupid, during a slum clearance scheme or something similar, to consider the establishment of a stated number of trees, preferably hardwoods. If this were done nationwide in all our cities. I believe it would make a remarkably large contribution to tree planting.

Whatever arrangement is to be made with farmers on planting—this has specific relevance to clause 1—it must be a very simple form of management grant or management agreement. If thoughts could be turned towards this subject in the Forestry Commission or the Ministry of Agriculture, I am sure it would prove to be of benefit in the future. It gives me great pleasure to support the proposed measure.

12.8 p.m.

Mr. Bishop

I rise to speak a second time in order to answer some of the comments.

First, I welcome the support given by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and his hon. Friends, and, indeed, by hon. Members on both sides. This is a subject of great importance. It is not merely a matter of considering the best use of our resources, important though that may be—along with food production, forestry and fisheries have a very important part to play in adding to our rather limited national resources—but, of course, forestry these days has a leisure role to play as well. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Watkinson) mentioned that about 15 million people have access to the forestry and leisure areas. I believe that the actual figure for last year was about 24 million and I am sure that the trend will continue. My hon. Friend will no doubt welcome that.

This has been a good debate because, although the scope of the Bill is limited, the Committee has—strictly within the rules of order—taken the opportunity to express its interest and concern.

We are fortunate to have on both sides hon. Members who have been identified with conservation and with this interest for many years.

The hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) asked why we had not taken the opportunity to produce a much more ambitious Bill. I think that I should remind him of the point I made in my speech, that, following the recent advice of the Commissioners, who recently sought legal advice regarding the precise extent of their powers to give grants and loans under section 4 of the Forestry Act 1967, we were advised that the powers do not, as had been assumed, cover financial help towards the management of the forest as distinct from planting and replanting. I also made other points in my opening speech.

In other words, we are taking the earliest opportunity to deal with this particular area, which is limited but very important from the financial angle, and to bring in changes with regard to metrication.

Mr. Cormack

Does the Minister agree that it would be a good thing to have a more ambitious Bill?

Mr. Bishop

Perhaps I may pursue the point, because I want to paint in the general background.

First, I endorse the tributes paid to the Forestry Commission and to all connected with the promotion of forestry and timber-growing in this country and with leisure pursuits. That tribute is well merited, not least for the very good annual reports which have been published—the last one only a few days ago—and for the many other publications put out by those authorities. The Ministry is in close touch with the Forestry Commission on all these points.

Hon. Members have expressed their concern about the relationship between forestry and the need for timber-growing in this country and our other resources. A number of reports abound. There has been the recent report by the Countryside Commission and there was the Strutt report on agriculture and the countryside—two reports which dealt with the complementary interests in the use of the countryside. Hon. Members have sometimes hinted at the conflicting interests. There should be no place for conflict, only for greater co-operation, to make sure that these resources are used in our mutual interests. The right hon. Member for Yeovil also made that point.

I was pleased to recall that on 5 July 1974 the Ministry put out a statement about grants. The statement began: Timber production to feed our wood-processing industries continues to be recognised as the ultimate goal for woodlands managed under the [Basis III Dedication] scheme. Later the statement said: The Government share the concern expressed about the loss of small woods whose importance lies not only in their aesthetic, nature conservation and amenity value but also in the significant contribution they make towards the country's timber resources, a contribution capable of being enhanced through effective management. Those comments will be supported on all sides of the Committee. Over the years all Governments have played their part in the promotion of timber as one of our great resources.

The right hon. Member for Yeovil referred to our heavy dependence on imported wood and wood products and the desirability of reducing this by a greater expansion of forestry in this country. Certainly any increase in the production of British timber will have a corresponding effect on the level of imports. Reference has been made to the extent to which we depend on imports. Higher production from the present forest estates over the next two decades should, despite an expected increase in demand, reduce our dependence on imported wood from the present 92 per cent. to about 86 per cent. This import-saving role of British forestry has understandably been advanced as a justification for a continuing and increased expansion of afforestation. The extent to which this will be feasible, however, will depend on a number of factors, not least of which is the amount of suitable land which will come on to the market and can be released from agriculture without undue detriment to food production. This was a theme of the two reports to which I referred. The review recently initiated by the Forestry Commissioners on "The Wood Production Outlook in Britain", which they have circulated as a consultative document, will serve as an important starting point for further consideration of this matter.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) raised the point about the availability of land for forestry. I emphasise that forestry Ministers are very conscious of the fact that the amount of land being acquired for forestry is falling short of what is needed. The amount of land on offer has always fluctuated from one year to another, according to the various influences, and it is to be hoped that the present shortage of plantable land being offered for sale will be eased.

The Committee may be assured that the Government will keep a close watch on the position. This is one of the factors that will emerge from the studies suggested in the Commission's report "The Wood Production Outlook in Britain"—an important report which is now receiving consideration by the Ministry and by other organisations connected with the industry. It recognises that land and land use are major factors in future expansion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) also made a useful contribution. He referred to the use of imperial measures. As I said in my opening remarks, metric measures have been largely used in the industry since 1971 and been widely accepted. My hon. Friend asked various questions about clause 1, to which I shall refer in a moment as other hon. Members also asked about definitions.

The hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir John Gilmour) raised the question of Dutch elm disease. Financial help in this respect comes under two headings. First, there is help for felling, which is the responsibility of owners. Although the Government have expressed sympathy, they have consistently taken the view that owners must pay the costs themselves. Some local authorities have given help on a local basis, but there is no general assistance.

Regarding help for planting, which is very important, planting grants are available from the Forestry Commission within its normal allocation for grants. The Countryside Commission also gives assistance for planting, with special emphasis on areas where Dutch elm disease has made a major impact.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley mentioned forestry in the European Economic Community. The Committee will be well aware that, in contrast to agriculture, the Community has no common forestry policy because forestry is not included in the Treaty of Rome. It does, however, receive consideration by the Community. A draft forestry directive has been under discussion for some time. Although it would encourage afforestation, it is seen as one of a number of measures designed rather to improve the structure of agriculture, and would be funded on that basis.

As the directive stands, the Government take the view that it is not well geared to our specific needs and circumstances. We are ready to consider on their merits any proposals affecting forestry, but the conditions under which forestry is practised in the Community are so diverse that it would seem preferable for our national policies to continue to be developed separately, taking account of any agreement by member States on the broader aims. One difficulty is that, as presently constituted, the directive will result in the United Kingdom paying into the Community funds substantially more than it would get back. This fear also was expressed by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend also asked whether clause 1(2) was relevant to the problem of overseas supplies, particularly the removal of tropical timber. The Forestry Commission is charged with promoting the interests of forestry—the development of forestry and the production and supply of timber in Great Britain. The Commission is therefore much more aware of the relationship between imports and home production, and more recently produced the report to which I referred—"The Wood Production Outlook in Britain"—which looks at the situation to the middle of the next century.

On my hon. Friend's question about clause 1(1), I refer to the points I made in my opening speech about the need to clarify the goal. The clause will enable the Commissioners, with the approval of the Treasury, to provide financial aid for work connected with the use and management of the land for forestry purposes. It is wide enough to cover all the schemes for which grants and loans have been or are currently being provided, both for planting and for management. "Management", in this context, includes the preparation of ground for planting, the protection of plantations, weeding, fertilising, maintenance of fences and drains, and harvesting operations.

Mr. Hardy

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Forestry Commission can take, and actually does take, an interest in those areas of the world from which we shall have to obtain the balance of our timber requirements, and ensure that there is adequate knowledge, and adequate transfer of the knowledge which the Forestry Commission has amassed over the years, to ensure that there is adequate management of areas perhaps a long way from the United Kingdom but upon which the United Kingdom will depend for a long time?

Mr. Parker

Also bearing on that point, in areas such as Siberia, growth is very slow, so that, although there are enormous reserves there, they are not likely to be replaced very quickly when they are cut.

Mr. Bishop

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for those observations. I am sure that they are important because we must look at timber and resources not only in the national but also in the international context.

The point that I was making about clause 1 was to assure the Committee that it is sufficiently wide to cover all the schemes for which grants are known to have been provided and are now being provided. It also brings in lessees of land as well as owners of land which are referred to in section 4 of the 1967 Act. It really helps the private forestry section in those respects.

With regard to the matter raised by the hon. Member for Fife, East about the clearing of snow from trees in Scotland being grant-aided under clause 1, I am advised that in principle any expenditure incurred in such snow-clearance measures could be covered by the clause, as it is a management expense.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham referred to the application to Scotland in clause 2(2). There are no Acts relevant to Scotland that require amendment by clause 2(2). The only Acts covered by that subsection refer to the Forest of Dean and the New Forest.

Regarding the comments made by the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson), I note what he said about the other place, but he may have been referring to what are known as the backwoodsmen of that institution, if that has any relevance to this measure, Miss Fookes. I am not sure that that term, which is historic, necessarily still applies.

The hon. Member for Galloway mentioned the loan scheme proposals, which were also mentioned in another place during the passage of the Bill. Certainly the aim of the proposal, which is to bring more land into forestry by interesting owner-occupying farmers in planting projects, is to be commended. The Forestry Commission is studying the proposal and has not yet reached a firm view. It will clearly need to be satisfied that a scheme of this nature is not only administratively and legally watertight but that there are no alternative and simpler methods of achieving the same objective.

On comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan)—

Mr. Peyton

Before he leaves the matter raised by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), will the Minister react to the suggestion made by his hon. Friend that there might be some all-party approach and that the Government might actually make a useful and constructive initiative? That is the only point in which I am interested. I shall not go so far as to expect the Minister of State to take the risk of incurring Treasury wrath by endorsing the criticisms which have been made of that awful Department. I hope that at least he will not wholly ignore the comment made by his hon. Friend or my reaction to it. So far his speech has been very disappointing.

Mr. Bishop

I am dealing with the questions raised by hon. Members and I thought that they wanted some replies.

Mr. Peyton

The Minister glossed over the matter.

Mr. Bishop

I have in mind the issue raised by the right hon. Member for Yeovil and by my hon. Friend. I had intended dealing with it a little lataer. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I shall not overlook it. If hon. Members want replies to their questions, some of which are very important, I think I should be able to give some information.

It is true that broad leaf woods form only 7 per cent. of the Commission's total area of plantations, but this is a reflection of the emphasis placed on the Commission's objectives by successive Governments, including the Conservative Government in the past, against a background that some 96 per cent. of timber used in Britain is in the form of softwoods. There has been criticism by hon. Members on both sides about the general financial implications of timber. That is a very important point.

I have no need to remind the Committee that my right hon. Friend the Minister has consistently said that we are at all times pressing upon the Treasury and indeed, other Ministers the consequences of financial or taxation policy both on agriculture and on forestry. I remind hon. Members that in discussions on the Finance Bill in 1976 Ministers decided, in the light of representations made, that there should be a reassessment of the effects of Government policies on private forestry and, indeed, on agriculture in general. I was very pleased last year, going around the country to agricultural shows and meeting farmers' unions, to be asked to convey thanks to the Ministry and to the Government for the changes made with regard to agriculture in the Finance Act 1978. It is true, of course, that we have carried out very much the same kind of review of the consequences of other policies on forestry, and changes were made in the Finance Act 1977.

Following discussions on the Finance Bill 1976, on 13 July 1976 we set up an interdepartmental review to consider the whole question, including looking at policies, taxation grants and amenity. The Government's aim was to finish the review in time for action to be taken in the next Finance Bill. A review group was then set up, under Treasury chairmanship and comprising representatives of the Forestry Commission and other departments concerned, whose terms of reference included review of taxation, grant arrangements for private forestry and so on, to report by the end of 1976. That was a commendable initiative on the Government's part in looking at ways in which private forestry, and indeed forestry generally, could be given a greater momentum.

The new grant-aid and tax measures were announced by the Minister of State. Treasury in March 1977. I draw hon. Members' attention to the annual report of the Forestry Commission which mentions these points. As a matter of interest, I note that the current issue of The Field says that Credit for getting the present government to reverse that, and their own initial attitudes, is due not only to private forestry's sound and persistent arguments. It goes to the Government and Civil Service for setting up the Interdepartmental Review of two years ago. I mention that because the Civil Service and Ministers have been under some attack on this point.

The editorial in The Field also says: The past year has been an encouraging one for foresters. Fiscal changes which accompanied it included increased planting grants, reintroduction of a small woodland scheme and amendments to taxes. They have encouragd a more positive and confident attitude among private foresters for the first time"— I do not want to be political here, but I must read the full quotation— since the Conservative Government made such a nonsense of the issue in 1972. I am not making a political point. I am merely saying that that journal, which is not always identified with our line of thinking, has put the situation in perspective.

Mr. Cormack

What about quoting Tribune?

The Chairman

I remind the Committee that seated interventions are deplored by this particular Chairman.

Mr. Bishop

I have no doubt that all Governments could be criticised for what they have or have not done, and I can understand the feeling of the Committee that we would want to go much further.

With regard to the aspect which I raised earlier, the integration of forestry and farming, is a very important point and one wants to avoid any sense of conflict here. I was interested to hear the remarks of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. More), who wound up on behalf of the Opposition, about the potential for greater integration between forestry and agriculture. I can tell him that the Government accept fully the desirability of achieving the most effective interrelationship between those two major users of our rural land and we should be willing to consider any proposals to promote schemes to that end, whether in the private or in the public sector. A working group is being set up under the chairmanship of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland, and it will include private sector interest groups. The Forestry Commission is to explore more means of encouraging planting by owner-occupiers and farmers and will examine the economics of small-scale planting, with particular reference to the benefits of woodlands to agriculture.

This has been an interesting debate and we are grateful to you, Miss Fookes, for your tolerance. In seeking to clarify the law, we are anxious that all the help contained in the grants and loans which have been available in the past shall continue, possibly to a much wider extent. Forestry is a subject which has no party boundaries. There is a great anxiety by all hon. Members to make much greater progress. When some of the reports to which I have referred today are considered, I hope that the views of hon. Members on all sides of the House will be made available so that we may be able to agree on policies which are in the interests of the countryside and so that we may maximise this very limited but important national resource.

Mr. Parker

Will the Minister convey to his right hon. Friend the unanimous feeling of the Committee that there should be discussions between the parties to try to agree a long-term programme on policy?

Mr. Bishop

I note that suggestion because, as in agriculture, there needs to be confidence in the future. That

Fookes, Miss Janet (Chairman) More, Mr. Jasper
Bishop, Mr. Parker, Mr.
Buchanan, Mr. Peyton, Mr.
Cormack, Mr. Roderick, Mr.
Gilmour, Sir John Stradling Thomas, Mr. John
Hardy, Mr. Thompson, Mr.
Jopling, Mr. Watkinson, Mr.
Lewis, Mr. Ron

confidence depends a great deal on long-term planning and continuity, regardless of any changes.

With those remarks, I trust that the Committee will recommend a Second Reading for the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommend that the Forestry Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.—[Mr. Bishop.]

Committee rose at twenty-eight minutes to One o'clock.