HL Deb 24 March 1927 vol 66 cc746-62

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. It was passed through all its stages in your Lordships' House last year, but owing to want of Parliamentary time it did not get a Second Reading in the House of Commons. It comes before your Lordships now in a state almost exactly similar to that in which it was passed last year. The only exception is in Clause 1. Formerly it was provided that there should be two additional Commissioners appointed, but no particular reason was assigned for their appointment. An Amendment inserted in another place last week states, as will be seen in the clause, that— For the purpose of assisting the Forestry Commissioners in promoting employment by increasing the acreage under timber, the number of Forestry Commissioners …. shall be increased from eight to ten. I do not know that this is a very significant Amendment and the Forestry Commission take no real objection to it, but I think it is probably right to say that from the point of view of the Forestry Commission it is not really an accurate statement of the reason for the appointment of these new Commissioners.

It is not in the power of the Commission to increase employment by increasing the area under timber more than they are doing at the moment because they are confined, by the Act of 1919 and the grants made under that Act, to a certain area that can be planted and while additional employment will certainly expand as the area under timber expands, any increase upon that natural expansion that is laid down under the Act can result only from a change in the policy of His Majesty's Government. One certainly hopes that when the new Forestry Bill comes in, as it will next year, His Majesty's Government may see fit so to increase the natural expansion of our operations that the number of employed may increase with it. At the present moment the maximum number of those employed by us is about 3,500, the minimum being some 800 or 900 less, and for the next few years there will be a natural expansion in accordance with the additional acreage that it is our duty to plant.

The object of this Bill is to increase the number of Commissioners from eight to ten and this is really due to the increased work that has had to be carried out by the Commission since the Act of 1919 was passed. At that date there was no State forestry in this country except what was included in the Crown woods, which were then and for some time after under the control of the Woods and Forests Department. Since that year the Forestry Commission has acquired an area of 374,000 acres of which, up to date, 90,000 acres have been planted, or will have been planted at the end of this planting season. The estates and acreage that we buy are divided into certain categories. We buy them for the plant-able land upon those estates, but in every case we find that there are other classes of land—agricultural land and, particularly in the Western Highlands of Scotland, a large amount of land that is unplantable owing to high altitude, poverty of soil or something of that kind, making it unsuitable for the growth of trees. The whole of that land has to be managed in some way, and the area coming in for planting has to be let annually so that something may be made out of it. It is generally let as hill grazing, but the agricultural land may remain for a time in its present occupation by farmers, though it is gradually coming into development under our small holdings scheme. Unplantable land has also to be managed in some way. Generally it can be let for summer grazings and, although at present it may appear to be permanently unfit for any other use, experiments are going on now in regard to the planting of peat by which we hope that a considerable area of such land may eventually become available for forestry.

That is the natural expansion of the Commission's work. In addition, since the year 1924, when the Government represented by noble Lords opposite allowed us to start on a scheme of forest workers' homes, we have been permitted to create five holdings per thousand acres, and up to date, in the two years' work, we have already secured and put into occupation 230 of these holdings and there are 170 more in process of being set up. Another very considerable addition to our work is caused by the transfer of the Crown forests. These were transferred to the Commission from the Woods and Forests Department in the year 1924. They extend in all to some 120,000 acres, of which the most important part is the New Forest, which covers 65,000 acres. Of that large area, we have control for planting purposes only of that quantity of land which was enclosed at the time of the New Forest Act, 1877, and which amounts to 16,000 acres. The rest is open forest, commons, sand and gravel pits, building land and a great many other things. The next planted area is in the Forest of Dean. It is 22,000 acres, of which we have been able to enclose 11,000. It is of a somewhat similar character to the New Forest and considerable mining rights have to be looked after.

The various areas do represent a very considerable agricultural estate, widely spread from the North of Scotland to the South of England, and they do involve not only a considerable increase of work but considerable problems of management, in which, so far, we have no trained assistance to help us. The extension of the works, the addition of the Crown forests and small holdings schemes are the main reasons why we ask for additional Commissioners. There is also one other reason which I think was placed before your Lordships last year. In the year 1923 it seemed desirable that there should be a representative of the Labour Party upon the Commission and to enable that to be done one of our Commissioners resigned. It has always been desired to find him a place on that Commission again. Directly this measure is passed it is hoped to find a place for Sir John Stirling-Maxwell, who was formerly on the Commission. That is the first part of the Bill—to increase the numbers of the Commissioners.

The second part of the Bill deals with the giving of powers to the Commissioners to make and enforce certain by-laws, particulars of which are found in Clause 2 of this measure:— ….the Commissioners may make such by-laws with respect to any land, being land vested in them or under their management or control to which the public have or may be permitted to have access, as appear to them to be necessary for the preservation of any trees or timber on the land or of any property of the Commissioners, and for prohibiting or regulating any act or thing tending to injury or disfigurement of the land or the amenities thereof…. Those we believe are for certain reasons very necessary powers. They will probably be chiefly used in the New Forest and perhaps the Forest of Dean—in those areas in which the public have rights and which are now brought really in close proximity to our centres of population by the more rapid means of transit now in use.

In making these Regulations there is no wish whatever and no intention to restrict any rights. It is rather to regulate the rights which are now possessed and it is, as your Lordships will readily recognise, of the utmost importance to preserve for the public and for the country the beautiful features of such grounds as the New Forest. Unfortunately, in this country more than in any other places where people have a public right of access, there is always unthinking and unknowing harm done by those who use them for picnic and other purposes and who leave behind them a great deal of litter of glass, paper and the débris of their feast, which are really a great source of annoyance to other people who enjoy these rights with more regard for their neighbours. I should add that in those districts of the New Forest and Forest of Dean it is not proposed to take any action with regard to these by-laws without consultation with those who have control over those forests, and indeed, in other respects where difficulties may occur with regard to the New Forest, we are appointing an advisory committee of residents and those acquainted with the forest to assist the Commission in carrying out some of the details of their work.

That is so far as the Crown forests are concerned. The position of the Commission's own forests which they have purchased is somewhat different. They are private property and freehold and there is no right of public access at all. The by-laws which we speak of will rather increase than restrict the facilities of the public for visiting those places. Of course it is essential that people should be kept out of enclosed planted areas so long as the trees are in a state of growth. Obviously, considerable injury might unthinkingly be done to these trees at that time, but it is hoped that, by the use of these by-laws, in the later stages many of these Commission's forests will become suitable playgrounds for the public, as are the Crown forests. I might mention that besides the possibility of injury to the trees from public access we are always in the most serious danger from fire. We have not, of course, in this country, fortunately, so far had any experience of great conflagrations such as have occurred in the United States, in Canada and other parts of the world. In the United States alone, it is said, 10,000,000 acres of timber were burnt last year, and in Canada not much less. But we have had experience of fires already. There were 84 outbreaks last year. Fortunately we have a complete system of control, and we are very careful in the burning of rubbish, and the outbreaks did not do any serious damage. But the potential danger is there, and it has to be guarded against in the most careful way possible, by reasonable by-laws in this respect.

There are certain provisos in the clause relating to by-laws to which I should like to call your Lordships' attention. For example:— No by-laws made under this section shall take away or injuriously affect any estate, interest, right of common, or other right of a profitable or beneficial nature in, over, or affecting any land, except with the consent of the person entitled there to. I know some of your Lordships are very much interested in the question of common rights. I think it is clear that under this proviso the by-laws will not apply to common rights. Those are the provisions of the Bill to which I need draw your Lordships' attention. The measure does not differ to any significant extent from the Bill which you passed last year, and I hope your Lordships will be good enough to give it a Second Reading.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Clinton.)


My Lords, the noble Lord in proposing this Bill told your Lordships that it did not go through the House of Commons last year on account of the shortage of Parliamentary time. That is quite true, but I think we might go a little further than that, and say that the reason why there was not Parliamentary time is that the present position of the Forestry Commission is such as to render it a controversial matter, and that, at the present moment, such is the position of the Forestry Commission that it is extremely difficult to raise any point in regard to it in the House of Commons. We have, therefore, availed ourselves of the opportunity of the introduction of this Bill to make our protest—a protest which I hope, and which I think I am safe in assuring your Lordships, will one day be put into effect when we have the power to do so. On this point it is of interest to note the speech of the Secretary to the Treasury in another place on the occasion of the Second Reading of this Bill. One gathers from is speech that he felt himself completely unable to defend the existing position, and he specifically would not commit himself. He merely said that he did not think that the point that I am going to make was relevant to this Bill. What is this point?

Let us first be quite clear. We are all of us agreed on the necessity for developing the afforestation of this country. And we go further than that. One of the chief reasons for the raising of this issue at the very beginning was that members of the Labour Party were not only as keen as members of other Parties, and as members of the Forestry Commission itself, on the development of afforestation, but they were more keen, and they were dissatisfied with the progress that was being made. I am not at this moment going into the merits or demerits of that dissatisfaction; I merely make that point in order that it should be quite clear that we do not oppose this Bill from any motives of opposition to the development of forestry.

Behind the immediate question of dissatisfaction with the progress of afforestation—and I gathered from some of the remarks of the noble Lord himself, when he said that he hoped that next year the Government would find itself in a position to proceed at a greater pace than hitherto, that he also shares that dissatisfaction—behind that lies a very much your more important point, the main point, the constitutional point. The noble Lord may say that here we are raising a merely doctrinaire issue. There I disagree with him entirely. Let him look back into the political history of this country, and see whether the question of Parliamentary control over the spending of public money is a merely doctrinaire point. I venture to suggest that it is a point around which as many great Parliamentary fights have been waged as around any other point. At the present moment you have the Forestry Commission in the position of disposing of public moneys—you may say that they are not of very large amount, and but they are sufficiently large, round about £350,000 a year—without its being possible to raise the question of the conduct of their business on the floor of the House of Commons.

But late developments render this particular question of even more interest than that. While we were discussing this matter the last time this Bill was introduced I suggested to your Lordships that this Forestry Commission was merely one of many Socialistic developments that were taking place, and were going to take place, in the organisation of the industry of this country, and further that it was a Socialistic development in a particular form which was likely to be very largely copied—namely, a non-political Commission of experts. When I put that before your Lordships I had no idea what justification that point was going to receive, but since then we have seen this Conservative Government going forward with regard to two great industries in this country in precisely that direction—the Electricity Commission and the Broadcasting Corporation. It does, therefore, become of vital importance to settle on what basis we are going to make these experiments.

There is also a further point. At least with the Electricity Commission and the Broadcasting Corporation you have got your Commission—and, mark you, they are answerable to Parliament very much more than the Forestry Commission—you have your Commission almost entirely composed of totally disinterested persons. That is not so with the Forestry Commission. I do not make any charge whatsoever against any member of the Commission; I see no reason to do so. But, quite apart from the conduct of existing members of that Commission, is it not highly undesirable that you should have a great Commission like this handling large sums of public money without public control when it is composed very largely of interested parties? Out of the existing eight Commissioners—the number is going to be increased, I know—but, out of the existing eight, six of the Commissioners are landowners, dealing in land, buying land from landowners, and making grants of public money, in the form of subsidies for planting, to landowners.

It is not in the least a question of whether they have abused their position, but it is a question of whether that is a desirable situation, and I believe that there are a good many noble Lords in all parts of the House—for it is not a Party question—who will have to admit that that is not a desirable position. I would appeal to the Government to realise that this is an issue that has to be faced. Further, I would appeal to the Forestry Commission to come forward and help the Government to face that issue, and help us to get this matter adjusted. I speak as one who is as keen on afforestation as any one, and I would appeal to the Forestry Commission to realise that this is a canker that has to be removed. I know that it is essential that the Forestry Commission should be kept apart from Party politics, but nothing will make afforestation in this country more a Party and controversial issue than a failure to meet this particular point.


My Lords, with regard to afforestation operations—personally I should prefer to call them planting operations—I should like to ask why the noble Earl opposite who has just spoken and his Party try to make this a political question. I have taken the trouble to read through certain speeches that were delivered in the course of a debate on this subject in the House of Commons and in some cases they do not show a very great knowledge of the subject. Your Lordships have heard to-night a re-hash of those speeches, but this is the first occasion, I think, on which it has been suggested that this is either a political or a Tory measure. I think it was originally suggested by a Committee presided over by Mr. Acland, as he then was, a very strong Liberal, and his recommendations were accepted. What does the noble Earl's suggestion come down to? What it really comes down to, if it is taken in its ordinary meaning, is that this is another political job to provide an appointment for some member of the Government.

I would point out that there is just as much control over the financial operations of the Forestry Commission to-day as there is over the operations of any Government Department. At the present time the Secretary to the Treasury or any other Minister can perfectly well answer these questions and it would be a pure wast of public money that there should be some Government official appointed, I presume at a high salary and with a large staff, to answer questions that can be perfectly well answered by officials already existing. I recently listened to a speech made from the Bench opposite by the noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, pleading for a reduction of Departments, and with that plea I am in agreement. There is no argument in saying that if you are going to make a new appointment and put some supporter of the Government into the Forestry Commission the question is being turned into a political question. I cannot see how any one can possibly say that is the case. The noble Earl suggested that the Secretary to the Treasury, in the speech he made in the House of Commons, somewhat agreed with him, but he was careful not to quote from that speech. I have read through the speech of the Secretary to the Treasury and I was quite unable to see anywhere in it that any remarks he made bore out the statement of the noble Earl.


I never said he agreed with me. I merely said he was extremely non-committal.


The noble Earl insinuated that he was but was careful not to quote what he did say. This Bill, in itself, has nothing to do with any political question. It is solely a question of appointing two extra Commissioners. Whether that is reasonable or not it is not for me to say, but as long as Parliament is not asked for the salary of these extra Commissioners I do not see why they should not be appointed. The country has been very fortunate in having a large body of men of very great experience in afforestation, who have spent a considerable amount of money themselves on experiments in planting and whose knowledge is generally admitted to be great. The noble Earl opposite described them as interested persons. I suppose that is the view he and some of his colleagues take of the matter. They seem to be unaware that a man who gives his services to the country can do so without getting something out of it for himself. But I really do not think that the charge of the noble Earl is worth going into and I think, on reflection, he will be sorry that he made it.

There is something that might be a much more effective criticism of this Bill and that is in regard to the question of by-laws, but, as far as I can see, precautions are taken so that the public rights will not be infringed. As to the increased amount of land that will be planted with trees, the area can be kept either as it is or largely increased in accordance with the view of the Government of the day. I do not pretend to have the knowledge which some other noble Lords possess, but I have had over forty years' experience in work of this kind and I can assure noble Lords that it is not quite so easy to plant huge areas and turn on to them the unemployed, as was suggested in the other House, without some training and preparation. You require to have a staff with considerable knowledge, first to purchase the land and then to advise how it should be laid out. It takes a year or two sometimes to grow the plants before you can put them into the ground. There are many other intricate questions and many other expensive items which have to be considered. Having engaged in this industry myself I can say that it is a most interesting pastime though it is one in which you are very often disappointed.

It has been said that there is a danger of there being a great shortage of wood and that, therefore, all afforestation and tree planting will be very profitable. I sincerely hope that that will be so, but as far as my experience goes I doubt it. I have heard ever since I can remember of this great shortage of wood that is to take place and the great profits that are going to be made, but I am sorry to say that during the last few years my outgoings have been larger than any incomings. One thing that has to be considered in the sale of old timber is the cost of railway carriage. It not unfrequently happens that the railway carriage, even over short distances, will exceed the amount that is paid for the timber. I know one particular case. A merchant in the South of Scotland was sending pit timber into Yorkshire and the carriage from Archangel was only a few shillings a ton higher, including both the cost of sea and rail carriage, than it was from the South of Scotland, while the sea and railway carriage from Leningrad was only something like three shillings a ton higher. That is one of our difficulties.

I think a great deal could be done for afforestation and therefore I hope your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading, but we must not assume that afforestation is going to be a mine of gold. Nor will it solve the unemployment question at the present time. The numbers who can be employed will for some years be limited, but I hope in future we shall be able to rear and keep on the soil a population of the very highest class. In country districts it is more important that such a class should be retained there for the benefit of the country even than it is to have some temporary relief of our very formidable unemployment problem. And I appeal to noble Lords opposite not to make this a Party question. It may be, and probably is, the fact that a large number of Commissioners are landowners. Why? Because they are the only people who know anything about this subject. Certain others have been brought on to the Commission, very wisely, who have not the same practical knowledge but who will be able to learn much from other members. I assure noble Lords opposite and others that this is not done in order to exploit certain individuals. As regards this being a political body, I do not see how it is any more political than any other body which is not composed of active members of the Government.

There are of course these questions of buying land and, if you buy land, you have got to buy it from a landowner because nobody else has it, but I think they are cautious in these matters. My information from Scotland is that, instead of their paying too high a price, people will not sell to them because they will only give half what the land is worth. There are other ways in which they are doing good. They are collecting at the present time a great deal of information. It is said of this country that, although our officials in the past knew less about forestry and planting than officials in most of the Continental countries, there has always been a great deal more knowledge among landowners and landed proprietors here about the planting and growing of trees than in any other country in the world. It would be a great pity if use was not made of some of these gentlemen who have sat upon this Commission, simply because they happen to be landowners. Having a separate Department for this matter is a pure waste of public money and would lead to less instead of more efficiency.

I have noticed that the Chairman of the Commission has got another appointment and so, I presume, will shortly vacate his post. I would like to express, as one who has taken an interest in this matter although I have nothing to do with the Commission, the thanks which the country owes to him for the way he started this Commission and for the lines upon which it is run. I feel perfectly sure that, although he has many able colleagues working with him, there is no one in this country who could have run it on such able lines and with such enthusiasm. If this Commission is going to be a great success in the future and its result is going to be a great advantage to the country, it will be very largely owing to the initial efforts of the present Chairman of the Forestry Commission.


My Lords, I would like to say a word in order to prevent a misapprehension. The noble Earl who spoke raised not a Party question but a constitutional question. It is quite obvious that on that ground there may be different views—the views expressed by the noble Earl and the views expressed by the noble Duke. I do not want to embark on that topic at all; I only want to say one or two words on the subject of afforestation. The noble Lord, Lord Clinton, will know, from his own experience, that in the country where I live we have experience both of woods and of afforestation. It is a country in which it is very difficult to make afforestation in any way a profitable undertaking. Not only is it costly in itself at the start, but it must be a large number of years before any profit is obtained, and the difficulty of going forward without the assistance of the Forestry Commission is almost insuperable. I would like to express, from my own experience, my thanks for the assistance we have received in my country from the Forestry Commission and the noble Lord himself, Lord Clinton.

There is another point on which I would like to say a word and on which the noble Duke touched. It appears to me that there is in the proviso to which the noble Lord referred no protection at all for the public rights. I can find no words at all which would protect the ordinary public rights which exist to a very large extent over these unoccupied lands. I will give an illustration. About thirty years ago I was engaged in an inquiry in the New Forest, where the War Office was seeking to obtain a rifle range for exercise purposes. The verderers appeared and ultimately the scheme was not allowed to proceed. Have the verderers at the present time power to make by-laws in the New Forest and, if so, to what extent can those powers be exercised? Is it the intention of this Bill to give powers to the Forestry Commission beyond those which the verderers have at the present time? Further, can the noble Lord point to any words in his proviso which really protect the public rights? I take again the case of the New Forest, which consists of two parts—the enclosures made under statutory rights but limited in acreage and amount, and the ordinary outside forest which is used for the enjoyment of the public at large. Are additional powers to be granted, as regards the enjoyment of the public at large, beyond those which are vested in the verderers at the present time?

There is another point which I would ask the noble Lord and I am not now taking the case of the New Forest or the Forest of Dean, where the verderers are responsible, but I am taking the case of an ordinary common. Would it be possible for the Forestry Commission under this Bill, in accordance with the powers which they are seeking to obtain, to make special by-laws as regards ordinary commons or to utilise them for afforestation purposes? In the country where I live, on the Chiltern Hills, there is a very large acreage of land still under common rights and subject to common usage and it is a matter of great importance to us whether those are preserved or not. In conclusion, may I say that I thoroughly assent to this Bill? I believe the Forestry Commission have done and are doing a great public work and it is an advantage that they should have the powers which they are now seeking.


My Lords, may I reply to some of the points which have been raised? I am very glad indeed to have heard my noble friend opposite express his approval of the work that is going on, because many of your Lordships know both of the interest which the noble Lord himself takes in the afforestation work and of the fact that he has given close personal supervision to his own beautiful beechwoods in Buckinghamshire, which I hope will turn out to be practically successful. He has done a great deal of work in this matter. He asked, first of all, as to the rights of commons. Now those by-laws are for the purpose of dealing with lands which are under our control. Of course the Commission, as such, has no control over commons. It cannot purchase any common land for the purpose of afforestation. It is in the same position as any other individual in that respect. But there are certain common lands in connection with Crown forests. It may be to those that the noble Lord refers. I gather that they are safeguarded by the first proviso in Clause 2. That proviso reads:— No by-laws made under this section shall take away or injuriously affect any estate, interest, right of common …. Is not that sufficient to meet my noble friend's point?


The public right is not really a right of common.


Nor is it a right at all.


As my noble friend reminds me, neither is it a right at all. There is, however, practical usage and custom.


There is no legal right at all so far as I learn.


I think you are right there.


There is no right of wandering, but there is a right of public access.


It is because I agree with the noble Lord that there is no public right but that as a matter of fact there is a great deal of public usage, that I wanted to know whether that public usage would be preserved. As regards any public right it is a very vague matter, if it exists at all.


In regard to the forests which are under the control of the Commissioners, there is land over which from time to time the public have wandered. When it is first planted that land will have to be closed and for a time there will be no access, but as the trees grow and pass the early stages, the dangerous stages, then the very existence of these by-laws will show that we intend under proper regulations to allow access to the land. It is rather enlarging the powers of the public than restricting them. Of course, there are cases—I think the noble Lord has mentioned this point—where there is a doubt whether plantations on the lower slopes of hills would affect the right of access to the higher points. Every care is taken to give proper access through new plantations so that people may get to the higher points to which they wish to climb.

With regard to the powers of the verderers they are laid down in the New Forest Act of 1877. I have not studied them very carefully, but I do not think that they have powers which we desire to exercise now. I think not, otherwise we should not have asked for the powers. But it is quite clear that we are going to issue no by-laws except after consultation with the verderers both of the New Forest and of the Forest of Dean. That is in the third proviso.

There were one or two points raised by the noble Earl with which I might deal. The noble Duke answered a good many. The noble Earl first of all complained of the progress made by the Forestry Commission. I do not think that the noble Earl has any right to suggest that the progress made by the Commissioners is not as great as they were able to make. He must recollect that we are acting under the powers of 1919. We are empowered to plant a number of acres and we are given a grant for the purpose in the first ten years. We shall just about complete, or very nearly complete, planting that amount of land.


I was not going to discuss the merits or demerits of dissatisfaction, but I said it existed.


There is no ground for dissatisfaction with the progress which the Forestry Commission have made with regard to the area they have been allowed to plant. He made, I think, a misstatement with regard to the number of landowners on the Commission. The point is not of very great importance, but as a matter of fact they number half the Commission and not six out of eight. A more important point probably is with regard to the control of public money. He accused me rather in advance of a crime I have not committed—that I regarded all control over public money as rather a deterrent point. As a matter of fact under the Act of 1919 Parliament laid down that in the course of ten years the Commission should spend a sum of £3,500,000, but the amount which they are allowed to spend each year is first of all controlled by the Treasury and then submitted to the House of Commons.

I do not know that you can get any more effective control over the spending of public money than that, though I admit that there is dissatisfaction in another place because they have not got there a Minister responsible for the expenditure of this money whose salary they can attack. It is really a matter for another place and not for your Lordships' House. On the general question, which has been thrashed out over and over again, it was considered to be entirely against the interests of the progress of forestry in this country that the Commission should be put under a Minister. It was clearly decided when the Act of 1919 was passed, and I am sorry to hear that the noble Earl's Party when it gets into power proposes to make an alteration.


My Lords, I do not think the noble Lord has very fully disposed of the point raised by my noble friend Lord Parmoor. There are certain presumptive residual rights of the public and it is understood they are at present safeguarded by the Ministry of Agriculture. We shall probably raise that point about the residual rights of the public on the Committee stage.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.