HC Deb 12 May 1983 vol 42 cc994-1000

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

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

It is a pleasure to take the opportunity of almost the last Adjournment debate of this Parliament to raise again the issue of forestry job losses in Northumberland. I make no apology for raising the matter again, because since I raised it on 22 February a good deal has happened, including many of the things that I feared.

On that occasion, I contended that job losses would arise from three aspects of Government policy — the privatisation of forests, the privatisation of forestry work, that is, the cutting of timber still in the possession of the Forestry Commission by private contractors, and the management review taking place.

Although the numbers involved are not large by industrial standards, they are catastrophic in scale for the small villages of Northumberland, some of which were built or expanded especially for forestry.

In that debate, the Minister sought to allay my fears by suggesting that things might not be so bad as I had suggested. When I asked whether she recognised that the staff reductions to which she referred would involve compulsory redundancies, she went so far as to say: No. The point that I am trying to make and had hoped to develop … 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."—[Official Report, 22 February 1983; Vol. 37, c. 914.] The Minister may argue that in saying that there would not be compulsory redundancies she was referring especially and perhaps exclusively to the management review, which is one of the three policies that I contend are leading to job losses.

Since then, 70 redundancies have been proposed in north-east England, 30 of which have been in Northumberland which have particularly affected Thrunton, Harwood, Rothbury, Bellingham, and, above all, the Kidland forest, where the entire work force is to be dispensed with.

The chairman of the Forestry Commission, in a letter to me, said: Unfortunately, it will not be possible to avoid redundancies though we expect that some of these will be on a voluntary basis. The Minister will know that the trade unions have registered their complete disagreement with the 30 redundancies that I have described and others in neighbouring areas. Therefore, the matter has become one of national dispute between the trade unions and the Forestry Commission. That has at least halted the process of implementing some of these redundancies for a moment. It has given us a breathing space in which I hope that our brief exchange tonight will help to contribute to a little rethinking by the Forestry Commission.

When the chairman of the commission wrote to me he said that when the Minister had said that there would be no compulsory redundancies she was talking only about the management review in the district structure. I contest that. I think that she was reacting in the much wider context of the many points that I had made. However, let us assume for a moment that she was speaking purely about that narrow aspect. Does she still say that no redundancies will result from the management changes that she claimed then were designed to ensure that the management structure is fully compatible with the significant changes that have evolved in forestry operations in the last two decades? Is she saying that other than the 30 redundancies that are now under discussion there will be no redundancies among foresters and forest officers in those areas? Is she saying that there will be no redundancies among the clerks in those areas, or, indeed, among the cleaners who clean the offices that are part of this management structure?

Let us take the example of the Kidland forest where the entire office is to close. Clearly, there will be no management tier there at all. Therefore, the job for the senior employee will go, as well as the jobs of the clerk and the person who cleans the office. There clearly will be further job losses. I contend that over and above the 30 redundancies there will be further job losses at management, supervisory and clerical levels in this thinly populated rural area. Some of those are already known to the various trade unions concerned. The clerical grades do not yet know what will happen, but to some of them the writing is on the wall because of the clear implications of what has been said so far.

I expressed a particular fear in the last debate that forest sales and consequent redundancies were occurring more heavily in the north-east of England than elsewhere, where justifiable pressure from amenity interests against sales are particularly strong. There are areas such as the New Forest where, rightly, there is much pressure against sales on amenity and other grounds. Indeed, there is pressure in my part of the world, but we sometimes think that it is the voice of the south which is so readily heard by Government rather than the voice of those in the more remote places. The figures suggest that there is something in that fear and that there will be more attempts to sell off forest estates in areas such as the north-east of England than elsewhere.

The reaction in Northumberland, the debates and questions in the House, the resolute stand of the Transport and General Workers Union have all combined to force the commission to think again in the interval that is provided by the union's decision to make this a matter of national disagreement. So far, the commission has moved only fractionally in its thinking. All I have heard is the possibility of a couple fewer redundancies out of 30; and that is little progress indeed. Therefore, the Government must discuss with the commission the implications of what is being done in Northumberland.

The job losses in the forest villages will have the most disastrous consequences, particularly for employment. They will not be replaced by private forestry, because that tends to provide fewer jobs and at centres further away, not in the main forest villages where the unemployment is created. The Forestry Commission came to our villages to provide employment. We were told in those days that it would employ far more people than farming, that villages could be built up and that it provided a great hope for the future. Now the villages are empty and the whole fabric of life in them is disintegrating.

There are consequences for agriculture. Farming was told to make way for forestry as the great thing of the future. Much unhappiness and argument was caused when sheep farming gave way to forestry. Initially, there was much hostility between the farming and forestry interests. In time, they, became good neighbours. The good neighbour policy is becoming almost impossible to implement as a result of the constraints placed on the Forestry Commission. These measures will make the position much worse.

The Forestry Commission did its reputation much good trying to be a good neighbour to the farmer. The National Farmers Union did its best to make the relationship work in areas such as Northumberland. In recent years, however, there have been increasing problems as local forests have been starved of cash. If fencing is not adequately maintained then stock strays into the forests; sheep may be lost if they wander for miles and their wool is damaged if they get among the trees and fallen timber. Ewes are not mated because the rams are unable to find them if they have wandered into the forest. There are very real financial problems to the farming community.

Fencing is a very important subject. The Minister knows, from debates which have taken place on the bill, about the fear that fencing responsibilities will not be taken on by the purchasers of forests when they become private. That state of affairs will apply to Forestry Commission forests as well if there are insufficient men to carry out forestry maintenance work, that decline has already started as a result of the lack of cash that is available to local forests. If the men are not available, that work will not be carried out, and serious problems will be caused to farmers.

Decline in the maintenance of drains and ditches has similarly damaging consequences. The Minister understands that heather burning must take place on upland areas to maintain good sheep grazing. Burning must be carried out with careful co-operation between the farmer and the forester. A proper boundary must be kept between the burning area and the forest which is vulnerable to fire. If there are no forestry workers in the area who can cooperate with the farmer, then the job cannot be done properly.

Consequences exist for the fabric of life in the countryside. When forests were established in areas such as Northumberland people were told that they would help to support the schools, the shops, the post offices and the social life of the villages. Forestry workers and forestry officers make a tremendous contribution to those aspects of life. They are involved in all types of community activity. If they are removed, a further hole will be knocked in the community life of the rural areas. As there is so little other employment in these areas, it is difficult to maintain the fabric of life in the countryside. There is a danger of the countryside becoming a museum and not a living area. In this case, the pattern will be clear. The Forestry Commission will have come in to the area offering great hopes and it will in effect have gone away taking such hopes with it and leaving a savagely depleted countryside.

When the Forestry Commission's sales policy was debated, hon. Members were told that the plots would be sold in circumstances that were administratively convenient because a separate area of forest was to be treated in that way. The position now is that the basic investment in the main forestry areas is affected. Kidland, for example, is an important area for the commission in Northumberland. The Government are trying to produce quick cash for the Exchequer out of forestry and they are not taking heed of the consequences for Britain's future timber needs or of the consequences for the countryside where forestry exists. The philosophy of the fast buck is applied to a great national asset that involves jobs in rural areas. The Government must examine the implications in such a vulnerable area as rural Northumberland and the implications of what they are doing. I sense that the Forestry Commission is under great pressure to carry out the privatisation policy and the management changes that I have described. I wish the Forestry Commission to be relieved of some of that pressure so that it can recognise the social needs of an area such as Northumberland and the damage that may be done there.

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

I apologise to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for taking my seat as he started his speech. I listened with interest to his speech, and my reaction is to welcome the opportunity to deal with the points raised by him and to correct some misapprehensions.

The hon. Gentleman will recollect—indeed, he has given us quotations—that during our earlier debate on 22 February he concentrated very largely on the possible effects on employment of the disposal of forest land and on the commission's management structure review as it would affect the forest and district levels of management. My reply on 22 February dealt with those matters. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said, I dealt not only with management but with disposals. I believe that those subjects were dealt with comprehensively. At the same time, I took the opportunity to explain some of the background to the continuing reduction in the number of people employed by the commission and to make the point that although I agreed that the commission had an important role to play in providing employment in rural areas, that had to be balanced against the need for the commission to operate efficiently and cost-effectively.

In the previous debate I made the point that although the disposals programme was likely to lead to some redundancies, they would be kept to a minimum. The effect so far of the disposals programme has been minimal in Northumberland. It may come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman to learn that no plantation sales have been completed in Northumberland since the passing of the Forestry Act of 1981. Plantations are, of course, being placed on the market there and it is not possible to say what will or will not sell. However, what can be said is that sales will represent a very small proportion of the 50,000 hectares managed by the commission in Northumberland. The hon. Gentleman's comments were a little exaggerated, and I think that that explanation serves to put the disposals programme into perspective for Northumberland, and is very much in line with what I said in the previous debate.

Changes in the commission's management structure at forest and district levels will certainly result in fewer people being employed in local management—I made the point during the previous debate that there would be significant staff savings—but with the provision that is being made for voluntary early retirement and other arrangements, which are being worked out with the unions, there will be few, if any, redundancies, with the possible exception of forest clerks. Even here, consultations are continuing. None of the recently proposed redundancies in Northumberland arises from the management structure review.

A number of other factors have persuaded the commission of the need to reduce the size of its work force in Northumberland, which in turn has led to the proposed redundancies.

The hon. Gentleman will recollect that during the previous debate I was at pains to point out that the commission could not escape the effects of the recession. As we know, the closure of the pulp mills at Fort William, Ellesmere Port and Bristol resulted in the collapse of the market for small roundwood. Although the commission has managed to find alternative markets, especially in Scandinavia, the depressed state of the market in general has inevitably had its effects at forest level because of the need to avoid uneconomic working. Two years ago the commission was aware that in north east England it had more workers than it required to produce timber economically for the market. It did not declare redundancies at that time, in the hope that markets would show some improvement, and it employed its surplus workers on less essential tasks. There are now difficulties associated with the export markets, however, and although there are signs of recovery in the home market it will take some time for this to be reflected at forest level.

At the same time, the commission has continued to introduce measures to cut unnecessary costs and to improve productivity. Advances in mechanisation have been taking place. This has been particularly the case with harvesting machinery, which is becoming increasingly efficient. Fewer machines are required to carry out the work, and fewer people are needed to operate and maintain them. Better methods of extracting timber mean that a lower density of roading will have to be constructed or maintained, and this leads to smaller or fewer road squads. As the number of people employed falls, fewer light vehicles are required. The Northumberland fleet is being cut by about one third and that has an effect on the workshops. That is part of the trend towards forestry operations becoming less labour-intensive. The maintenance of jobs in the countryside is important, but that must be balanced against the need for the forest industry to be efficient and progressive.

Mr. Beith

The Minister has listed a number of activities which have become less labour-intensive. What about the maintenance of the forests? That has not become significantly less labour-intensive, nor has the need for it diminished.

Mrs. Fenner

I shall comment on maintenance later, and the hon. Gentleman will appreciate the balance. In a previous debate I said that one of the reasons for a drop in the commission's labour force was the transition in forestry from the labour-intensive stage of planting and establishment to a care-and-maintenance basis prior to harvesting. That is the stage that has been reached at Kidland forest in Northumberland, for example, where there is no planting programme and where the production of timber will not get under way for another 15 years. That forest is being put on a care-and-maintenance basis and the work can be handled from a nearby forest. The forest squad at Kidland is no longer required.

Let us look more closely at the situation in Northumberland. I certainly do not wish the House to be given the impression that we are talking about a large number of redundancies. I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman's figures. The commission had proposed to make 16 redundancies out of a work force of 215, but, as if to emphasise the ever-changing position even within the past few days, the number has been reduced to 12. Of the 12, three are young people who are likely to take up college places later this year, making their redundancies unnecessary.

However, the commission's proposals are still the subject of consultations with the trade unions. The hon. Gentleman said that the trade unions had intervened, but a consultation procedure already exists and changes will be made as a result. Redundancy notices have not yet been served on any commission employee in Northumberland.

If, at the end of the day, redundancies are confirmed, it is likely that most can be achieved by voluntary means. The number of compulsory redundancies will be very small indeed. Any redundancies are, of course, to be regretted, but I am satisfied that the commission has done its best to avoid them and that even now it is keeping them to a minimum. It is worth noting that, with the exception of a part-time clerk who was declared redundant in 1979, the last redundancies declared by the commission in Northumberland were in 1968.

We have been debating the outcome of the Forestry Commission's managing its enterprise against a background of rapidly changing circumstances. There is a positive side to all this. The Government are very much alive to the need to stimulate the growth of our forestry industry. That is why we have been encouraged by the recent announcement by United Paper Mills, a Finnish company, that it is to build an integrated pulp and newsprint mill at Shotton in North Wales, with full Government support. The Government have always expressed their conviction that there is a good future for the forestry and wood processing industries in Britain and that development bears out our confidence.

However, we must bear in mind the long lead-in time before the benefits of development such as at Shotton work through to the forest. That cannot happen overnight. A great deal of effort is being expended by the Forestry Commission and others to try to bring about further developments. For example, in Scotland the recently established Scottish Forest Products Development Group is actively seeking further investment in the wood processing industry. This and other initiatives, if successful, will help to ensure the health of our forest industry, with all that that means in terms of employment.

At this stage, nobody in Northumberland has been made redundant by the commission. Such redundancies as have been proposed are the subject of consultations with the unions. The numbers involved are small and could well become smaller in an ever-changing situation. If redundancies do take place as a result of the present discussions, they will not be because of the disposals programme or because of the commission's review of the management structure. Again, if redundancies do rake place it is likely that most, if not all, will be by voluntary means. The commission does not lightly make people redundant, as can be shown by its record over the years. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about job losses in Northumberland. The commission is an important provider of jobs in this area, but it must be allowed and indeed encouraged to operate efficiently in a competitive industry.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Thrunton. Again, I do not know where he gets his figures. The present labour force in Thrunton is two gangers, 20 workers and one ranger. The only discussions on possible redundancies affected six workers, of whom two are now to be retained. Four workers were young persons expected to attend college in the autumn, one of whom has subsequently resigned.