HC Deb 17 November 1983 vol 48 cc974-5
6. Mr. Canavan

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what area and value of forest land has been sold or is in the process of being sold under the terms of the Forestry Act 1981.

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

Between the passing of the Forestry Act in 1981 and 21 October 1983, the Forestry Commission received £28.5 million from the sale of land and other real assets. The area involved included 16,182 hectares of forestry land and plantations.

As at 21 October, a further 56,302 hectares of forestry land and plantations, with an estimated value of £36.5 million, were also in the process of being sold. That is, they were either on the market or had been approved for sale, and reserve prices had been fixed. Other real assets committed for sale at 21 October are expected to realise a further £3.5 million.

Mr. Canavan

Why are certain purchase prices still a big state secret—for example, the Glen Affric estate in Scotland, which was sold by the Wotherspoon family to the Forestry Commission about 20 years ago and which the Forestry Commission is now in the process of selling back to the Wotherspoon family? Are not the public entitled to know the original purchase price, the present purchase price, how much investment the Forestry Commission, has put into the estate, and what profit the Wotherspoon family is making out of this senseless public asset stripping which was initiated by the Tory Government?

Mrs. Fenner

The hon. Gentleman is given to exaggeration. The disclosure of such information would amount to a breach of confidentiality.

Mr. Kennedy

May I point out to the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) that the puchase price was announced last week? When will the Government recognise the effect of their economic policies on the Forestry Commission? By publicly putting pressure on the commission to raise money to help pay for the unemployment queues that the Government have generated, they are allowing the market to affect the Forestry Commission in such a way that it has to sell more and more land at lower and lower prices. The market knows that it has only to wait until the price drops because the Forestry Commission has to sell. Is that not an economic contradiction of a most abject kind in dealing with our natural resources?

Mrs. Fenner

There is no question of selling off assets cheaply simply to meet financial targets. The aim is to maximise income from individual sales for the benefit of the taxpayer. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the aim is to reduce that part of the Forestry Commission's grant-in-aid which finances the forestry enterprise—no more, no less.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Does the Minister realise that her answer will cause consternation among all who are interested in forestry in this country? Why cannot we be told, for example, the original purchase price of Glen Affric, the sale price, and how much money the commisssion has invested? We need to be satisfied that the sale represents a fair return to the taxpayer and is not a matter of plundering the public purse for private gain?

Mrs. Fenner

It would be a breach of confidentiality to announce the details.

Mr. Canavan

Public money and assets are involved.

Mrs. Fenner

I know the hon. Gentleman's fixation about disposing of anything that belongs to the state, but I repeat that the amount of plantable and plantation land sold is 1.5 per cent. of the total.