HC Deb 22 February 1983 vol 37 cc906-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. — [Mr. Garel-Jones.]

10.52 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I am glad to have this opportunity to draw attention to what I expect will prove an increasing problem in many rural areas. Major industrial closures on the scale of the Consett iron works or the Shildon railway wagon works make rural jobs losses in forestry seem a small problem, but the reality is different. Job losses in forestry tend to occur in very small communities. The impact of the loss of even five jobs is as great in relative terms as the loss of 1,000 jobs in a large town.

Many of the villages concerned are like company towns. They were built in remote areas by the Forestry Commission to house their own employees. There is virtually nothing else to do. Harwood in my constituency and other Northumberland forestry villages like Byrness, Stonehaugh and Kielder, come into the same category. There are other small villages which, although not built by the Forestry Commission, are heavily dependent upon it for employment. This is the case in many parts of England, Scotland and Wales.

The irony is that large-scale forestry was brought to places such as the Cheviot hills, the Cumberland fells and the Borders on the basis that it would bring jobs Fanning had to make way for trees. Shepherds had to make way for forestry workers. This caused resentment at the time, some of which lingers on. One of the arguments used when forestry first marched across the hillsides was that it would bring a level of employment to the rural areas that sheep farming could not provide.

The reality has been different. In recent years there has been a decline in jobs in forestry. In Northumberland, the Forestry Commission's staff has fallen by 30 per cent., from 340 to 234, in the last 10 years. Although private contractors have taken over some of the work done previously by the commission's staff on Forestry Commission estates, barely half the number of jobs have been created by private contractors as have been lost. One of the problems is that forestry contractors are often not situated in areas where the jobs are lost. They may be much nearer towns, and not in the small forestry villages where there is little alternative employment.

That brings me to one of the two ways in which the Government's policies seem likely seriously to increase job losses. I refer to the sale of forests, upon which the Government are keen and which form part of their general privatisation programme. The sales result form the Forestry Act 1981, and I believe that they are the subject of a fair amount of pressure on the Forestry Commission by Ministers. I believe that the Forestry Commission has been told, not just in the statute, but behind the scenes, that it must get on and sell forests as quickly as possible so that the Government can demonstrate that they are actively carrying out their privatisation policy with forests, just as they are in other areas of industry, as diverse as heavy industry and British Transport Hotels Ltd. The consequences in forest areas can be serious. Work 'which would have been done by Forestry Commission workers will now be done by contractors probably from elsewhere.

In my constituency 5,600 acres are currently for sale, mainly at Uswayford and Harwood, and 2,000 acres of that land has been newly planted. When it comes to fruition it could provide work for 25 men, all of them living in remote villages. The remainder of the area which is for sale, particularly that of Uswayford, is still very young. Much of it was planted between 1974 and 1982. Men employed on maintenance will no longer be required if it is handed over to private ownership and contractors. A similar thing is happening in north Tyne and Redesdale, where a substantial number of forest villages lost many jobs during the earlier period that I described. They are likely to be hit further by sales.

There are a number of questions that I wish to put to the Minister about these sales. Why are such large plots of land in the northern forests being offered for sale? There is a suspicion—I put it no higher—that the Government are meeting considerable resistance to forest sales in some other parts of the country, particularly the south of England. There was plenty of evidence that that would be the case when we debated the Forestry Bill 1981. Many Conservative Members voiced anxieties about the sale of Forestry Commission land in various parts of the south of England.

There is a suspicion that pressure to sell land in the northern forests is that much greater because of the resistance that the Government know they will meet in a number of other areas. The pressure on our forestry villages, which are much more remote than comparable places in the south of England, will be greater. I should like the Minister to reassure me that there will be no unreasonable pressure for sales in the northern forests within the framework of the Government's policy.

What about the recreational potential of the forests, which the Forestry Commission has been developing, and which is creating some new jobs? It is providing work for people in the forestry villages. I do not believe that, for understandable reasons, it is likely that that potential will be similarly developed when the land is in private ownership. Private enterprise will not have that commitment in the forests and jobs will not, therefore, be created.

Above all, I wish to ask the Minister what happened to the criteria set out when we debated the Forestry Bill 1981. The Secretary of State for Scotland, speaking on Second Reading on 26 January 1981, said: the Forestry Commission will of course make every effort to minimise the effect of sales on jobs in the forest, particularly in those areas where it is the major employer." — [Official Report, 26 January 1981; Vol. 997, c. 652.] When replying to the debate the Minister's predecessor confirmed that one of the criteria to be considered in forest sales was the maintenance of employment and the viability of local communities, especially in the socially fragile areas.

"Socially fragile areas" is a somewhat intimidating phrase, but it well describes many of the small upland villages of Northumberland. Already, there is virtually no employment and rural services are rapidly contracting due to depopulation, so those areas are socially very fragile indeed and it is a hard struggle to maintain a pattern of life so that people can stay and work there at all. In other words, they are precisely the type of area that the Minister had in mind when he replied to that debate, and they are already feeling the impact of the sales policy.

I therefore ask the Government to reconsider their whole sales policy and the application of those criteria, which seem to have been forgotten.

Another aspect of Government policy likely to threaten jobs in the rural areas is the management review that the Forestry Commission is undertaking—again, at the behest of and under some pressure from the Government. As in so many management reviews, it is the lowest tier that seems likely to be removed or to be most drastically affected. So far as I can gather from my own area, the tier that will disappear will be not the district offices but the local offices within the forests. That means that local forest offices in places such as Harwood, Thrunton and Harbottle, where the Kidland forest office is, will be closed. Similar small offices in Redesdale and north Tyne seem likely to be affected in the same way. Jobs for foresters, clerks and cleaners will therefore disappear. District offices will be kept in places such as Rothbury and Bellingham, but in the tiny remote forestry villages jobs will be lost.

The impact of all these measures on rural employment must be considered against the background of other rural job losses. Job losses due to mechanisation in agriculture have been very heavy in Northumberland over the years. More recently, due to the depressed state of the country, there have been job losses in quarrying and brick works, which are staple providers of employment in rural areas. In addition, there has been a serious decline in rural services, which cannot be sustained by the much reduced population in many of the villages.

The Minister and her Department must take a close interest in the countryside. Is she prepared to see our countryside become a depopulated museum? That is the danger inherent in these trends—not only in forestry but through the combined effect of a number of trends. I would expect a Department responsible for agriculture, forestry and fisheries to be a powerful advocate to maintain the pattern of life in our rural areas. I therefore expect it to do a great deal more than it seems to be doing to moderate the thrust of Government doctrine and policy in a matter such as forestry sales so as to ensure that drastic job losses in very small communities will not further undermine the ability of our countryside to remain a living part of our nation in years to come.

11.2 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Peggy Fenner)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has raised the question of Forestry Commission policy and jobs in the countryside.

First, the hon. Gentleman sought an assurance that there was no undue pressure for sales in northern England. All the commission's conservancies have been asked to select areas for disposal. The sales are being evenly spread and there is no bias against northern England in favour, say, of the south of England. Indeed, the commission's experience is that woodlands in the south of England at present provide a more ready market—contrary to the hon. Member's suggestion and, I hope, of some reassurance to him. As I shall describe in more detail later, in addition to direct employment the commission has provided a substantial amount of employment for small rural businesses.

The Government's support for forestry was made clear in our policy statement in December 1980, as follows: the Government believe that long-term confidence in both forestry and wood-processing industries in this country is fully justified. We look for a steadily increasing proportion of our requirements of timber to come from our own resources. A continuing expansion of forestry is in the national interest, both to reduce our dependence on imported wood in the long term and to provide continued employment in forestry and associated industries."—[Official Report, 10 December 1980; Vol. 995, c. 927.] We are therefore well seized of the importance of forestry in terms of employment. In our policy statement, we stressed the increased contribution to be made by the private sector in future forestry expansion. We nevertheless decided that the commission should continue to have a programme of new planting, and we laid emphasis on the fact that some of that should take place in the socially fragile areas—the hon. Gentleman picked up that phrase—where even the maintenance of a few jobs is importance.

The importance we continue to attach to the commission's role in providing employment in the countryside, especially in the remoter rural areas suffering from depopulation, is one that I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would endorse. But in fulfilling that role, the commission—both as a commercial enterprise and as a public body which is still at the investment stage and necessarily dependent on Exchequer funds for part of its revenues—must balance the need to operate efficiently and cost-effectively. That is behind the review that the commission has carried out into its management structures, a matter which the hon. Gentleman raised tonight. It would help the House if I were to put that review into its proper perspective.

The 20 years following the second world war saw a rapid expansion of the commission's estate. During that period there was a large programme of land acquisition, new forests were created, the labour force grew and, at the operational level, the structure of forests and districts became firmly established. But during the sixties there were dramatic changes both in society in general and within the commission. In England and Wales the acquisition of land slowed down and during the decade from the mid-sixties many forests moved out of the labour-intensive stage of planting and establishment on to a care and maintenance basis prior to the harvesting stage. The investment in research and development and in work study began to pay dividends and, increasingly, the mechanisation of forestry operations and the introduction of new techniques, such as chemical weeding, resulted in substantial increases in productivity and a drop in the forest labour force. That, in turn, led to reductions in the numbers of foresters required for supervision.

Major changes outside the commission contributed to changes in the commission's structure. The improvement of road communications made it possible for foresters, who were responsible for individual forests, and district officers, who were responsible for groups of forests, to manage larger areas. The changeover from coal-fired to diesel trains largely removed the threat of forest fires which had, until that time, tied down many supervisors to living locally in the forests.

All those factors made it practicable to increase the size of management units, and the continuing decline in the direct labour force, with its concurrent reduction in the need for supervisors, provided the impetus for change. In the mid-sixties a process of forest and district amalgamations began and has continued steadily since that time. The number of manual workers has declined from about 11,000 in 1964 to just over 5,000 at present, a drop of over 50 per cent. During the same period, non-industrial staff declined by 22 per cent. In 1964, there were 118 districts and 447 forests compared with the present 56 districts and 211 forests, a reduction of some 50 per cent. It was also in the mid-sixties that a review of the commission's management structure resulted in the removal of the English, Scottish and Welsh directorate offices, which formed a level of management interposed between the headquarters and conservancy offices.

Despite those changes, the commission continued with a two-tier management structure below the conservancy, that is, the regional level. This was mainly because it considered that there were distinct jobs to be done at forest level by the technically trained forester grades and at district level by the professionally qualified forest officer grades. The commission has now reached the stage, however, when it acknowledges that the distinction between the forest and district tiers of management has become increasingly blurred and that it would be sensible to consider a single level of management under the conservancy. It is against this background and the pattern of continuing change in the industry in the past 20 years—a period which has seen a revolution in forestry techniques and machinery comparable with that in agriculture in the previous decade—that the present review of the commission's management structure has taken place.

The Forestry Commissioners rightly see the review in the context of their responsibility to improve management efficiency and to reduce overhead costs to match workloads and manpower resources over their scattered estate. They set up an internal working group which reported in the spring of 1982. After a period of consultation with staff representatives, the commissioners decided last December that the way to proceed was to have one level of management below regional level by setting up some 70 forest districts in place of the present 211 forests and 56 districts; to consult with the trade unions with a view to a start being made on the introduction of the new forest district structure on 1 April 1983; and to merge the forester and forest officer grades. They also decided to set up a new working group to review the functions, organisation and staffing requirements at headquarters and conservancy levels, which will report at the end of September.

The new forest districts will offer distinct management advantages through a greater flexibility in the deployment and delegation of work. They will put greater emphasis on functional responsibilities and team work; improve communications between the commission's regional and local offices; and streamline office work at the operational level, which takes advantage of the opportunities afforded by the introduction of computer terminals at operational level. Last, but not least, they will provide a more realistic size of management unit for organising the rapid expansion of timber production that is expected in the next decade and for efficiently deploying the sophisticated harvesting machinery which is now being introduced.

Consultations with the trade unions about the new forest district structure are now in progress. Until they have been completed, it is not possible to say what its final shape will be. What is clear is that it will result in significant staff savings at the operational level. This should not, however, be regarded as a crude staff-cutting exercise. The commission's first aim has been to see that it has a management structure that is as efficient as it can make it and is fully compatible with the significant changes that have evolved in forestry operations in the past two decades.

Mr. Beith

Does the hon. Lady now recognise at this stage of the process that the staff reductions that she has described will involve compulsory redundancies?

Mrs. Fenner

No. The point that I am trying to make and had hoped to develop in the brief time that is available to us is that this is still a matter of discussion with the trade unions. It would be wholly pessimistic of the hon. Gentleman to arrive at that conclusion.

The commission, in its forestry enterprise capacity, is a business. Like any business, it needs to be competitive, and to be competitive it must be efficient. Having undergone a dramatic process of mechanisation which has resulted in impressive increases in productivity, the commission would be failing in its duty if it were to cling to an outmoded management structure. It also has special responsibilities in its role as a forestry authority.

The hon. Gentleman was worried about employment at the last tier. The new management structure will be felt at the supervisory level. However, the commission will not, and could not, place all of its local managers into the New Forest district offices. It will still have people outstationed at forests and villages where there is a clear need for a local presence, and the effects will not, I believe, be as great as the hon. Gentleman fears. I stress that it is not the intention of the commission to diminish the level of contact and co-operation between the private woodland owner and the local commission officers which presently exist.

The commission's aim is the most effective structure to manage its own forests and to support private forestry. Commission staff will therefore continue to be available to give help and guidance.

For the reasons that I have mentioned, the number of people employed by the commission has dropped significantly over the past 20 years. If we are to take a balanced view, I suggest that we must take account of not only the numbers employed by the commission but those employed in the private sector. In addition to its own employees, the commission provides an increasing amount of employment to private contractors and small rural businesses. It has, for example, been the policy of the commission to make some of its timber available standing to give an opportunity to local harvesting firms.

It is also the Government's wish that the expansion of forestry should increasingly be undertaken by the private side of the industry, with the assistance and support of the commission, and the significant contribution that private forestry makes to rural employment should not be overlooked. We have been encouraged by the figures for new planting by private owners, which have increased significantly since our December 1980 policy statement and the new package of grant-aid announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in July 1981. The area of private afforestation grant-aided by the Forestry Commission in the year ended 31 March 1982 was about 50 per cent. higher than in the previous year. The response to the Forestry Commission's new grant scheme, which started in October 1981, has also exceeded our expectations. In its first year of operation nearly 1,800 applications were received covering about 70,000 hectares.

The hon. Gentleman has expressed his concern about disposals. The sale by the commission of land and plantations is seen by some as posing a major threat to jobs. It was made clear both here and in another place during the debates on the Forestry Bill 1981, which gave powers to put the disposals policy into effect, that this was a limited programme. I tried to reassure hon. Members on many occasions that there is no intention of jeopardising the commission's commercial viability, and certainly the disposals are not being undertaken in order to dismember the commission. The present programme up to and including 1985–86 amounts only to some 8 per cent. of the commission's total assets. Plantations are sold as going concerns to private investors who will wish to look after their investment, and although some redundancies in the commission are likely to prove unavoidable these will be kept to a minimum. It is likely that some at least of the workers affected will be offered employment by the private purchasers.

It must also be remembered that the commissioners, in deciding which woodland to put on the market, have been given a set of guidelines drawn up by forestry Ministers. Included in these guidelines—a copy of which is in the Library of the House—is one which requires the commission to take into account the maintenance of employment and the viability of local communities especially in the "socially fragile areas". That is not the only consideration. Other factors must be taken into account, but the question of jobs is given due weight.

As I have explained, in speaking of the change in the management structure, the Forestry Commission has always sought maximum efficiency. At the same time, it has had a special care for the well-being of those who work in the industry. We do not have to look far to see an example. Despite the difficulties of the past few years, the number of people actually made redundant by the Commission has been surprisingly small. I say "surprisingly", because the effects of the recession have been quite marked on the forestry industry. The commission, faced with a buyer's market, could easily have sat back and discarded workers to await the better times which lie ahead. But it did not. When the roundwood market in this country collapsed in the wake of the pulp mill closures at Fort William, Ellesmere Port and Bristol, the commission—along with the private sector—set out to find an alternative market. This it did, in Scandinavia. If ever there was a case of taking coals to Newcastle, this was it.

Although that market is not as strong as it was a couple of years ago, nevertheless it has provided an important breathing space. It has helped to mitigate the effects which the pulp mill closures might otherwise have had. It has also helped to retain the infrastructure of harvesting and haulage of timber towards the time when we can process it once more in this country. In brief, it saved jobs—not in the towns but in the very heart of the forestry industry, in the rural areas. And it is these people, the forest workers, who will have a major part to play when the forestry industry in this contry begins to expand. That day cannot now be far off. The Commission's actions in seeking export markets, singles it out—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree—as a caring employer. It is this same care which will ensure that the restructuring process will be done with as much sympathy and understanding as is possible for the needs of its employees.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Eleven o'clock.