HL Deb 29 June 1926 vol 64 cc659-68

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Lovat.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly:

[The EARL OF DONOUGHMORE in the Chair.]

EARL DE LA WARR moved, before Clause 1, to insert the following new clause:—

"Account of Expenditure.

"Expenditure by the Forestry Commissioners shall be included in the accounts of the Ministry of Agriculture as submitted to Parliament." The noble Earl said: I move this clause for the dual purpose of adjusting what is at the present moment the anomalous position of the Forestry Commission and at the same time in the hope of helping the future development of forestry in this country. At the present moment, if it is desired in another place to ask any Question with regard to the work of the Forestry Commission any member of the House of Commons who happens to be a member of the Commission is called upon or asked to answer the Question. The money that is spent by the Forestry Commission is, of course, Government money, but there appears to be at the present moment no sort of Government responsibility for the answers that are given to members in the House of Commons. It is extremely difficult to raise debates on the work of the Forestry Commission, and here I may say that I am not questioning whether their work is satisfactory or is unsatisfactory.

The first point is a constitutional point. It is really this, that the manner of running an industry, as forestry is, by a national Commission is really somewhat of an experimental departure for this country, and it therefore seems to some of us that it is extremely important that, in this new departure, the exact balance between, on the one hand, too much Parliamentary interference in the running of a technical matter, and, on the other hand, sufficient public control, should be adjusted. The second reason for my moving this Amendment is my desire to help in the future development of forestry. It should be easier to raise direct Questions—directed, that is, to the entity responsible for providing the money—on this vital subject, and we believe that by bringing this Commission into connection with a Department, and therefore under the necessity of having a direct Departmental Vote, we are going to help the development of forestry and increase its importance.

The Amendment asks that expenditure by the Forestry Commissioners should be included in the accounts of the Ministry of Agriculture as submitted to Parliament. There are some of us who believe that forestry is a sufficiently important department in this country to deserve a Ministry of its own. However, there is another school which says, I think on the whole rightly, that it is impossible really to separate forestry from agriculture. Progressive and expert opinion that deals with this question is, I believe, coming more and more to the realisation that the best way of developing forestry is by the system known as forestry holdings; that is, by the establishment of small holdings which shall provide work for those who are normally, or at certain seasonal times, engaged in forestry. If that is so it is, I think, impossible to separate these two subjects, and for that reason I move my Amendment as it appears on the Paper.

Finally, I would like, if I may, to appeal to the noble Lord opposite, who I know has the cause of forestry so much at heart. The Bill has received a certain amount of opposition in another place from colleagues of mine, and perhaps I may make it clear to him that they are in no way opposed to the Bill itself, or to the work that he is trying so earnestly to carry out. They feel, however, and I feel, that this constitutional question should, and must, be settled at this opportunity, because this Bill does deal with the constitution of this Commission. This is not a Party question, but at the same time I feel that the noble Lord, by accepting this Amendment, has a great opportunity of stopping this question from becoming a Party one. Until this question is settled there is going to be most determined opposition to the work of the Forestry Commission. This is an opportunity of removing what I might call a running sore, and I would appeal to the noble Lord to accept this Amendment and thereby help us to go forward all together, working for the same cause. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 5, at end insert the said new clause.—(Earl De La Warr.)


My Lords, in the first place I should like to say how much the Forestry Commission owes to all Parties, and not least by any means to the Labour Party, for the assistance it has received in carrying on forestry work. In saying this, however, I am afraid that the noble Earl cannot expect me to accept his Amendment as it stands. In the first place, it is not included in the Preamble of the Bill; in the second place we should have serious differences in another place should we deal with the privileged question as to how the accounts should be presented in the House of Commons. I am, however, very glad that the noble Earl has raised the question of the relations of the Forestry Commission with other Departments, because it gives me an opportunity of stating what I believe to be the attitude of the Government upon the subject.

May I say straightaway that the question is one which those who have been associated with forestry have envisaged from the very start? When the 1917 Committee sat, on which the Liberal, Conservative, and Labour Parties were represented, it was one of the matters which caused them most serious thought, and on which ultimately they reported unanimously. This matter was also raised in the Cabinet after that Committee had reported, and an examination of the matter was made by people no less distinguished than the late noble Marquess, Lord Curzon of Kedleston, the late Lord Milner and Mr. George Barnes. I am not sure whether Lord Ernle was or was not a member of that Committee. The decision was arrived at that it was most important to keep forestry clear of Party politics, not to have an official head in either House of Parliament, that the money voted for forestry should be voted in the first instance in the form of a block grant so as to ensure funds for a consecutive policy and that to preserve Parliamentary control such a block grant should be drawn on by an annual Vote.

If, to use the noble Earl's own words, we are brought into some connection with the Department of Agriculture, that position will automatically cease. May I point out to the noble Earl that it is not only a question of bringing forestry into touch with one Department of Agriculture; you will have to bring it into touch with both the Ministry of Agriculture in England and the Board of Agriculture in Scotland, with the result that we in the Forestry Commission will have to report to two separate Departments, and our Parliamentary Vote, instead of being divided into, say, twelve Parliamentary heads, will have to be divided into twenty-four Parliamentary heads, so that the whole of our system of preparing Estimates will be enormously complicated, and eventually it must end in the division of the Forestry Commission into two halves, one for Scotland and one for England. May I explain how this is absolutely unworkable, and how both the 1917 Committee and the Cabinet Committee which sat upon their Report were persuaded on examination that it was unworkable?

Let me give three examples—there are many others which I could give. Between a third and a fourth of the Forestry Commission's money is spent every year in the acquisition of land. At the present moment, being a single Department, we can acquire land in England, or in Scotland, or in Wales as opportunity arises. For the first five years of our work, quite contrary to what was the opinion of those who had studied the question before, it was found that better land was more cheaply acquired in England than in Scotland. Economic and sentimental conditions led to this. If we had had two Departments the Scottish Department would certainly have insisted on a considerable quantity of our land being bought in Scotland, and we should have lost the turn of the market. Now a change has taken place, and in the last six months we have acquired more land in Scotland than in England. That may continue, or it may not. Your Lordships will see, therefore, that if forestry had been divided into two departments, with a hard line between the two countries, there would have been much greater difficulty in getting the best bargains which were going.

If that is true of the administration it is even more true of the personnel. I happen to be at the moment sitting on a Committee at the Colonial Office, and there our main difficulty in recruiting the best agricultural officers is that many of the non-self-governing Colony services are so small that good men will not go into them. We have been sitting for a year and a half, and we are in process of making recommendations to get over this and other difficulties. Surely it would be retrograde and foolish to divide this service into two halves. If you have a single forestry service you recruit better men, because there are more chances of promotion and bigger salaries at the top.

Thirdly—and I think this is the most important point—there is the question of research. We have got very little money to spend altogether. We have a definite job set out for us, and we allot such money as we can spare from the more visible work of planting trees to the work of prosecuting research. Running your research from one centre you are able to allot to an individual University or group of workers anywhere certain problems which you ask them to solve. In the same way with applied research or experiment, you have got the whole of your nursery research, the whole of the research into plant growth, the whole of the question of sample plots, of which we have several hundreds running all over the country; we are able to organise all those from one centre and to co-ordinate research so that the ground is covered without overlapping. If this work were divided into two parts, under the Board of Agriculture for Scotland and the English Ministry of Agriculture, with the best intentions in the world it would be very hard to co-ordinate the effort.

I think I have said enough to show that it would be a great mistake to put the Forestry Commission into a subordinate position to these two Boards of Agriculture. The noble Earl said something about that being the way that thought was tending in other countries. I absolutely deny that. I have only just come from a World Forestry Conference, and I can assure the noble Earl that I was often congratulated that England had started by keeping its Forestry Commission separate from the Ministry of Agriculture, because one and all of the older countries said: "We are always having our money taken away from the long-distance demands of forestry to the short-distance demands of agriculture." That is only reasonable. If you have money voted under a Department which shows its results from year to year how can you expect the head of that Department to allow money to be spent in another Sub-Department which cannot show its results for twenty, thirty or more years? I think those arguments are fundamental, and they are the reasons which induced the Committee of 1917 and the Cabinet in 1918 to decide that the Forestry Commission was not to be subordinate to the Ministry of Agriculture.

There is another point. If it is not subordinated to the Ministry of Agriculture the only other Department to which it could be subordinated is the Treasury. But we have the very greatest care taken of us by the Treasury to-day. As you will see by the Act of 1919, all payments out of and into the Forestry Fund, and all other matters relating to the Fund and monies standing to their credit must be made and regulated "in such mariner as the Treasury may by Minute laid before Parliament direct." I can assure your Lordships that in the Forestry Commission one cannot employ a clerk or buy an Acre of land unless it is inside the regulations laid down by Treasury. This control by the Treasury is a very real one and not the loose general control indicated by the Estimates Committee Report of 1926.

So much for the question of this Amendment. The noble Earl then raised the matter of Questions in the other House and said that no responsible Minister, but only a Forestry Commissioner, answered Questions in the other House. That is a matter for the Government to decide. If the Government wishes to do so it can authorise the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to answer Questions, without putting anything in the Bill itself. There is nothing in the Act of 1919 which provides that Questions in another place shall be answered by any particular person. All it says is that one member of the Forestry Commission shall be a member of the House of Commons. As your Lordships are aware, the Prime Minister has already dealt with this subject in an answer to a Question in another place. He said, in effect, that while he did not propose to express an opinion one way or the other as to the advisability of having answers given by members of the Government, he thought the matter had best be raised at a time when the review of the forestry position as a whole would take place. That must be in not less than one year from now.

Might I point out to the noble Earl that the Forestry block grant has only a ten years' life, seven and a half of which have already expired. It will be necessary next year to ascertain the views of Par- liament as to what is to be done, so that the purchase of land, the purchase of seed and other necessary measures can be considered in preparation for the next ten years programme. That will afford an opportunity of coming to a decision upon this particular point, unless it is thought necessary to do so beforehand. I shall be only too delighted if Questions are answered and Bills brought forward by one of the noble Lords sitting below me and I believe that my colleague in another place would be equally glad. But it must be remembered that the experiment in connection with the Forestry Commission is being carried out on a ten years' basis, and it is questionable whether it would not be better to finish the period of ten years without alteration. One point I should like to make in this connection—namely, that if the Cabinet decides to answer Questions by a responsible Minister either in your Lordships' House or in another place, this should not be regarded as a step to subordinate the Forestry Commission to another Department. It is of primary importance that the Forestry Commission should be outside Party politics and should have its own block grant voted for a definite period so that it may lay out its plans and carry them into practice. In forestry it is necessary to take long views; the period of preparation for planting operations extends over not less than four years. Your Lordships will recollect that for a very short period our work was interfered with by the Geddes Committee of Inquiry; during that period forestry had a set-back which lasted two years and I calculate that £100,000 was wasted without the least good being done. I am satisfied, speaking with seven years' experience of the work, that any change in control would lead to a corresponding waste of public money.

I hope that the noble Earl will do his best to influence his colleagues to give this Bill an easy passage in another place. The Bill is conceived in the first place in the labour interest. We have fulfilled our promise of bringing on to the Commission a Labour member. We welcome his presence and he is a most valuable member. But we had to accept the resignation of one of our members, Sir John Stirling Maxwell, who has done more work in investigating the problems connected with growing timber at high elevations on peat land than any one in Europe. We accepted his resignation on the definite understanding that he should return to us at the earliest opportunity and at the request of the Prime Minister he acts in an honorary position on our Commission.

The second half of the Bill deals with the question of by-laws. The main object of these by-laws is to control the visits of the public in the earlier stages of forestry and in the latter stages to give the people the freest access to what is after all their own property. I trust, therefore, that the noble Earl will either be able to curb the anxiety of his Party to have their Questions answered by a responsible Minister or that representations will be made to His Majesty's Government that such Questions shall be answered in the way he desires. I can assure him that as far as I am concerned I shall most willingly acquiesce in the decision arrived at by His Majesty's Government on the subject.


I thank the noble Lord very much for his sympathetic reply to my proposal. He has shown that certain difficulties exist regarding the division of the forestry service into two separate services, though how far it is going to be really necessary to subordinate it, or, as in some ways we feel, promote it to be part of the two Boards of Agriculture, remains to me very doubtful. But in so far as he has shown it to be undesirable, I cannot help feeling that he has proved conclusively the value of the suggestion I threw out—that the solution of this difficulty lay ultimately in the establishment of a special Ministry for forestry, so important do we consider this particular industry. However, the chief point was the question of Parliamentary control, and I gather that while the noble Lord is not prepared to adopt the suggestion made in the Amendment, he is prepared in some ways to use his influence in obtaining a satisfactory settlement of the difficulty that exists. If that is so, I will withdraw my Amendment in the hope that by the time the Report Stage is reached some sort of settlement will have been arrived at. I should warn the noble Lord that unless he can go a very considerable way towards meeting the point, it will not be possible to guarantee quite such an easy passage in another place as I know the Bill will obtain here at the hands of your Lordships.


I should like to say a word or two in reference to what the noble Earl has just said. He has rather intimated that he hoped to bring the matter up again on the Report Stage in this House. I suggest to him that is really undesirable. It is a matter on which a question of privilege will be raised at once and it is far better, having heard what was said by the noble Lord behind me, that the noble Earl should leave the matter to be discussed by the noble Lord with members of the Government and should not endeavour to raise the matter again in this House.


Is it the suggestion of the noble Viscount that it should not be raised in another place?


That it should not be raised again here.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill reported without amendment.