HL Deb 01 July 1981 vol 422 cc261-81

7.36 p.m.

Read 3a, with the amendments.

Lord John-Mackie moved Amendment No. 1 Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause:

("Definition of "land"

. In section 49 of the Forestry Act 1967 there shall be added to subsection (1) the following words— land" for the purposes of this Act shall not include any growing crop of trees upon that land.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I have probably come into this Bill a little late in its life. It is no fault of mine. Somebody said that I had probably come into your Lordships' House a little late in life too! Nevertheles, with your Lordships' permission I should like to move the first amendment and to speak to No. 3 at the same time. That will save time, as it is getting late. I met my predecessor at the Forestry Commission, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, yesterday, and he said to me, "John, I cannot come and support your amendment. It has all been said before ad nauseam at the other various stages of the Bill, and you are just wasting your time". So I thought I had better read all that had been said, and I read through the Second Readings of both Houses, and the Committee stage in this House—I could not face the Committee stage in the other place—to see whether it had all been said. I have to admit that almost everything has been said, but perhaps I might be able to say something that is a little different on some of the subjects regarding my two amendments.

One thing that struck me was that on only one occasion in another place had a speaker ended by saying that he welcomed the Bill. That was on only one occasion and, quite frankly, the speaker on that occasion made some remarks which would not bear a lot of examination. I will go no further than that. If I may quote the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, who wrote to me and said that he could not be here tonight, he said: In conclusion, I hope that the Government will take account of the voices that are raised from practically every section and corner of the forestry industry, as well as from outside it".

He added later: and I hope, the Government, despite having resisted doing so in another place, will take steps to amend the Bill, and clarify it". The Government have done nothing about that at all—not one amendment—although the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, is bringing one forward tonight. In all my 16 years in another place and six years as a junior Minister, I have never seen it happen before that the Government, with all that against them, have not seen fit to accept some of the amendments.

I should like also to say that what perhaps my remarks may lead some people to believe is that I do not believe in private forestry. But that is not the case at all. When I was at the Commission, I met some people who were the finest foresters that one could wish in the private section. I do not want to mention many names, but there was the noble Lord, Lord Dulverton, and the noble Earl, Lord Bradford, to whom I spoke tonight and the noble Lord, Lord Gibson-Watt, who is a forestry commissioner. That is to name but three, but there are many others, private foresters, who are doing a tremendous job in forestry and I should like to pay tribute to them. My noble friend Lord Ross, in his original speech on Second Reading, made that point as well. You get to know people and agree with them, although you may not be in agreement with them politically.

I have put down this amendment to stop the Minister from selling trees. In a letter that I wrote to The Times, I mentioned that I was not against selling the odd plantation which is out and away from the main centre of a forest and which has been bad to manage. In fact, before I left the commission, we were discussing selling off a lot of plantations that had been planted just after 1945, when many people offered land away from forests. It was accepted then, in order to get going with forestry, and it makes good sense to sell now.

But I am very much against the large-scale selling of trees, which would endanger the commission in many ways. The main way in which it would endanger the commission is that it would affect the morale of everybody in the commission, particularly those in the field. I have kept in touch with a lot of people who are in the field of the commission's work, and they are definitely worried about the situation. I know that the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, and the Secretary of State for Scotland in another place have tried to reassure people about what they are trying to do, but that reassurance is not being accepted.

I should like to give two examples of what I mean. I do not want to mention names or places, but I know a head forester who was there at the planting of the new forest which he now looks after. He planted the trees, he has nursed them and he is looking forward to harvesting them, so he wants to stay in the commission long enough to do that. If those trees and part of that forest were sold, it would break his heart. I also know of a much younger man in another area. He has been thinking of buying a house, because he wants to make a career in the commission, but he now feels he has been deluded and does not know what to do. It is the same all over the country.

I cannot but feel that the Government are hell-bent on selling assets in order to make the books look better. No other business would do this. The noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, is a businessman himself. Would he sell assets for no other reason then to make the books look better? It seems quite ridiculous. I have no illusions about the fact that the commission are going to sell assets. I cannot stop them from doing that, but I should like to think that my amendment would mean that they could sell assets without selling trees. My main object is to stop the commission from selling trees.

What are the arguments for not selling trees and for selling something else? I do not think that the commission, however good they are at it, and however much demand there is, will get value for the money which they have spent. The cost of putting down a young plantation today and finishing it off would be around £450 per hectare. It might be a little more or a little less. I have made some inquiries into the cost of land now, and it is about £400 a hectare. So we are talking about £800 to £900 per hectare, and you have to wait 25 years before there is any income at all. If you tried to sell, you would not get value for what you had put in.

I have discussed this with various people in the private sector and they have agreed that the commission would probably lose money. When trees are 25 to 30 years old, there can be a little return from thinning. It is not a lot. The value of these plantations could be between £1,500 and £2,000 per hectare. But 20 years later a full-grown and mature forest which is almost ready to be cut down could fetch as much as £6,000 to £7,000 per hectare.

I should like to draw an analogy here with farming. What farmer in his senses would sell a crop just after it had come through the ground, was half way to maturity or was a couple of weeks from harvesting? That is what the Minister is asking the commission to do. I know he says that the commission will have their powers and they will decide, but, if they have been told to raise £40 million, pressure is on them to do this, and it is quite ridiculous.

What I am suggesting the Minister should do is to sell and lease back the land. I know he has said that the commission will have power to do this, but I want to make it mandatory. They must not sell the trees. They must sell the land and lease it back with the trees on it. The figures I have been given are £300 to £400, or a little more, per hectare, and an interest rate of 3 to 4 per cent. means that the buyers would receive a rent of £9 to £12 a hectare.

The one thing that would help is a review every 15 to 20 years. Keeping to my analogy with farming, we have a review in Scotland every five years, and in England it is every three years. So there would be fairness to a buyer who is leasing land back, and that would help the sale. In the early days, even before the war or not much after, the commission took a lot of land on a long lease at ridiculously low figures—1s. or 2s. 6d. an acre—with no review, and those people are definitely badly treated in many ways. I tried at one time to suggest to my fellow commissioners that we might do something about it, but nothing was done.

I now come to my amendment. I have spoken to the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield. He has told me that it is badly worded and I agree with him. I am no lawyer and I agree that the wording is bad. But I have a lot of good lawyer friends in your Lordships' House and they gave me some assistance. I consulted three of them—not altogether, but separately. The first suggested that my amendment was not too bad, except for a word here and there. The second said, "Well, it will need a lot of redrafting, but just speak on it and say that you are prepared to allow it to be redrafted." The third said "My goodness! You cannot speak on that. It is absolutely impossible. Let me write out a new one for you." I was not prepared to do that and I have put it on the Marshalled List as it was.

Clause 1 states: The Minister may dispose for any purpose of land acquired by him under this section. It does not say anything about trees. It just says that the Minister can dispose of land. I have had a word with various people about what the commission can do in selling trees. Under the 1967 Act, they are allowed to sell small parcels of uneconomic trees or trees that have not been a success. But I do not think there is anything in the Act which says that they can sell trees, and that selling land means selling trees. One of my learned lawyer friends produced a tome from the Library and showed me the part about contracts of sale. That makes it clear that there is considerable difficulty about selling land with something growing on it. I do not want to read out the whole story about fructus naturalis, fructus industrialis and so on. There is a big difference between planting on land by the labour of man and something that is grown naturally. I should like the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, to make it absolutely plain that he can sell land with trees on it. That is not quite clear. Therefore I put down my first amendment to make quite clear what he had to do.

My second amendment is, I know, very badly worded. It could be better drafted. I think the noble Earl knows what I mean. This clause would allow the commission to continue with its present acreage of trees, with the staff and equipment which is there now to handle it, and to sell the mature trees and to restock. The agreement to lease back the land would cover at least two crops of trees, as undoubtedly it would be a 99-year lease. My two amendments are designed to prevent the Minister from selling the trees. If, however, he is anxious to raise money, I would allow him to sell forest land, lease it back and raise money in that way.

Turning to other types of land owned by the commission which might be sold, there is hard hill land on the tops which provides shelter for grouse and deer and where ramblers walk. I should have no objection to the commission selling that land, but I doubt whether they could. There is a tremendous amount of arable or good grazing land, mostly in small pieces which is usually let on a tenancy basis or on a 364-day lease for grazing, within the forests. We have to be very careful about selling that land because of the question of access to it and because we are told by various conservation societies that there is no need for some of that land to be agricultural land. So it might in the near future become plantable land. Therefore I would be cautious about selling it.

There are over 2,000 commercial farms, large and small, all within the commission's forests. To a great extent there is integration of forestry and farming in a landowning sense. It would be a huge mistake to break up these estates. The noble Earl and many of his colleagues have given lip service to the integration of forestry and farming. Now they are suggesting that they would be prepared to break up this type of integration in a landowning sense. There are two big farms right in the middle of the Grizedale Forest. To sell those two farms on that estate would be ridiculous. There is a rapport between the tenants and the Forestry Commission. In the case of a small farm in the Dalby Forest in Yorkshire, a young man and his wife took over the tenancy three years ago. To put that farm on the market would be a crime. There is a big sheep farm in the middle of Gien Trool. Three men are employed on that farm, which, again, is right in the middle of the forest. Outside Campbell-town the commission have taken over a big area of land and are carrying out an experiment in integrating forestry with farming. That, too, could be put at risk.

I am all against selling off those farms unless it be a farm on the periphery of a forest which had to be taken over at the time. There are two such farms which I could mention just outside the Dalby Forest in Yorkshire. I do not know whether the noble Earl reads the Farmers Weekly, but in one of its editions there is an article by Donald Taylor which is headed, "Tenants in forests get a chance to buy". It speaks of sales at half the market value of the farms. No doubt the noble Earl will say, as do all noble Lords on that side of the House, "Don't believe everything you read in the press". However, I gather that tentative offers have been made to the farmers. It seems that they might get a 50 per cent. discount on the market price of a tenanted farm, on the basis that the Government are giving that kind of discount in the case of council houses. But there is a wealth of difference between council houses and farms. In the case of the council house, the owner has to pay back a mortgage. In the case of the farm, it will make you money. To sell it at a discounted rate seems to me to be the height of nonsense. The Government want money, the reasons for which the noble Earl explained, but I would not sell one farm unless it became vacant. A farm could be sold with vacant possession if the Government are hell-bent on making money.

Finally, I turn to the sale of plantable land from the commission's reserves. This is the stupidest of all the sales which have been suggested. In the past the commission were far-sighted enough to keep a reserve of land so that when they could not buy land they had something to keep them going at a steady pace. Now Her Majesty's Government say that that land should be sold. They also say that the commission will come back into its own in a few years' time and that then it can go into the market again. I cannot think of anything sillier than that.

However, there may be something more sinister behind this than I have been able to read into it so far. It may be that the Government are not thinking of the commission planting all that much land in the future. I should like the noble Earl to explain why the commission's reserves of land should be sold. They are there for a purpose. Those sales should be restricted. I beg to move the first amendment standing in my name.

7.58 p.m.

Lord Ross of Marnock

My Lords, I am very happy to support the amendment of my noble friend, and I should like to congratulate him on his first speech dealing with forestry. He is uniquely qualified to speak on this subject since he is the most recent ex-chairman of the Forestry Commission. His previous concern and experience had been in agriculture, something which tended at one time to upset certain foresters. However, my noble friend showed by his personal attitude and work that sensible integration was not only possible but desirable and that there was too much fear of clashes between two sets of opinions.

My noble friend was a little unfair to the Minister. The Minister has accepted two amendments. One of these was not asked for by anybody on this side. However, it was supposed to soothe us. It was what I call a pious declaration regarding how Ministers are to treat forestry. It was always there for the Forestry Commission but now it applies to Forestry Ministers. It is on page 2 of the "Hymn Sheet". Clause 4 says: After Section 8 of the Forestry Act 1967 there shall be inserted— 8A. In performing their functions under this Act the Ministers shall have regard to the national interest in main- taining and expanding the forestry resources of Great Britain.". It does not really mean anything and it does not take us any further forward. The Government are determined to sell, and sell they will. After years of generating the consciousness that now we have a Government in which everyone can have confidence, today the pound has reached a new low of 1.91 dollars to the pound. Is it not time that the Government hesitated about some of their policies, in particular this one?

The noble Earl has shown practical common sense. He cited instances of new expectations, of bargains in the tenant fanning field. Of course the actual fact is that there are certain limitations on the Government's activities—and even on the Forestry Commission's activities—with respect to tenant farmers. One of the things that I was most applauded for by farmers when I was Secretary of State was giving to the Scottish farmers what the English did not get for some time, and that was a measure of security of tenure to tenant farmers, it having been taken away from them some years before. Of course that is what council tenants did not have until the recent Act. It may well be that in respect of that that security will need to be bought out.

I do not think we are going to get very much change out of this. The Government are determined that they are going to sell trees, they are going to sell land, they are going to sell everything else they can get their hands on, and none of it seems to do them any good at all. The noble Lord was right in saying that, so far as the countryside is concerned, the interests of the private foresters are the same as the interests of the Forestry Commission. The views of the private foresters to whom I have spoken—and this was evinced in the criticisms and the efforts of this House to get some changes in the Bill—are that a healthy, vibrant, progressive Forestry Commission is necessary from the point of view of the success even of private forestry.

We are now in a very different ball game when we are getting to the question of speculation in forestry. I think what the noble Lord said is right, that it is foolish to go so far as to sell the plantable reserves. One of the amendments that we won was that the compulsory purchase under the Act shall not be exercisable in relation to land held inalienably by the National Trust or the National Trust for Scotland. Actually, the National Trust for Scotland was never worried about that and I do not think anyone should have been worried about the exercise of compulsory purchase by the Forestry Commission because, so far as I know, they never used it at all, whether on land that was alienable or inalienable. So once again that was a little hit of comfort that did not cost the Government anything at all.

So what we are left with is what we started off with. Of course there was the difficulty that my noble friend got into with regard to drafting—and I am sorry that he spoke to lawyers about this; he should have spoken to some of the ordinary people who have been trying to deal with the devious nature of the draftsmen. They have been very clever with this one. If you start with the business that you wipe out the whole existing clause then you are left with the fact that the Minister may dispose for any purpose of land acquired by him under this section—and there is no restriction. Let us not plead promises, let us not plead letters that were written; that is what the Act says: The Minister may dispose for any purpose of land acquired by him under this section. I know that my noble friend is proud of the work that was done, not only when he was chairman of the Forestry Commission but during the whole lifetime of the Forestry Commission. It was not Socialists who created the Forestry Commission, although it is one of the finest pieces of socialism that there is in the country. Hitherto it has had the support of all parts of both Houses, and for a Minister to take that power to dispose—they have gone sale mad. I am sorry that my noble friend was not here when we started our proceedings on this Bill and indeed that he had not made his maiden speech before the Report stage, so that he could have helped us. But I can assure him that if he had I do not think he would have tabled another amendment; he would have been pretty well heartbroken at the stubbornness of the Government and the failure of the Government to be at all flexible in respect of what words go into the Bill. It is nonsense to sell growing trees.

With regard to the definition of land, I remember as a young Member of Parliament, about 35 years ago, being amazed at the definition of land: land includes water. So if the noble Lord had just worded it in a different way he could have got this into order. If it is logical and sensible to sell land and to exclude what is underneath the land—namely, the mineral rights, which are easily separated—then one could equally sell the land without selling the trees upon it.

I am sorry that my noble friend has run into these drafting difficulties. The common sense of his proposal is right, but I am afraid he will discover that the Minister will give us no reassurance in respect of accepting an amendment on the main aspect of this Bill. They are just determined to sell. We have a Woolworth Government: crack-down prices; everything must be sold. I am sorry about it. I will support my noble friend but I will mourn with him.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I rise to support my noble kinsman, not because he is a kinsman but because he has brought a fresh proposal and a fresh look to the efforts which have been made in all parts of this House to make the Government think again on this Bill. He was quite right when he said that the opposition was practically universal and, as the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, said, those of us who have considered the Bill from the beginning are full of despair about making the Government see the impracticality of expecting the Forestry Commission to continue its splendid work—and it is said by all to be splendid work—if the ground is constantly to be cut from under them as they go about their work. Indeed, the noble Lord gave several examples of exactly the sort of thing that people from all parts of this House who know about forestry have been citing during the passage of the Bill through Parliament.

I believe that the Government should think again about this, because there are practical examples. The best market in farming land just now is in fact the market sought by the pension funds and by the cities, who are buying land to lease back to farmers. I personally have a great belief in the landlord and tenant system and I welcome this if the pension funds become—and remain—good landlords, which I think they well may. There is a market and they are not looking for a commercial operation; they are looking for a return on their money. I believe that is where the Government might get money and, if they want money in order to continue growing trees for the nation, to make up for the fantastic shortage of timber that we have, this is one way to do it. They would be well advised to look at this and to say, for once, "We will look at this and we do regard this as perhaps the most practical way of raising money to continue the good work in forestry".

Like the noble Lord, Lord Ross, I sit down to hear the Minister without any great hope that we shall get anything but a repetition of somewhat stale arguments. The noble Earl may think that ours are stale, but let me assure him that his are equally stale to us. However, I am a perennial optimist and I hope to hear something good from him.

Lord Noel-Baker

My Lords, I venture to support what has been said by my noble friends. I am not competent to comment on the drafting of the amendments; I want only to express a sense of grave concern at the thought of sales of forest land by the Forestry Commission and the diminution of the area of our country under forests. I remember the creation of the Forestry Commission—not by a Socialist Government—as a socialist reform of the utmost necessity and benefit to the nation as a whole. I have admired without limit the work of the Forestry Commission, although I have not always admired some of its results. I have known the work of the Commission in Cumbria better than elsewhere. When the valley of Emerdale was planted with conifers, I was one of those who thought that perhaps the lovely landscape of that valley, where there is the great pillar of rock which I have so often climbed, was not improved—but beyond all doubt the increase in forest land in Cumbria was of great benefit to that area and to the nation as a whole. I should like to express the hope that the warning will be borne in mind that if we continue cutting forests at the rate at which we are cutting them today, we may find that in 40 years' time we are almost without any forest land at all. I hope most ardently that the Government will listen to the protests which have been made and will change their policies.

8.12 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Mansfield)

My Lords, I was interested and indeed anxious when the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, rose to his feet, to hear whether he would in fact say anything about this Bill which one could describe as being "fresh". Indeed, the noble Lord would have had to be very ingenious to do so, because the attitude of the Government has now been made plain from the floor of both Houses of Parliament on no less than eight occasions—this being the eighth. I discount one occasion when the same statement was repeated in each House, and I also discount the occasions when the Government's policies were made plain in Committee in the other place.

There is very little to say that is fresh and I assume that what the noble Lord did say is what he would have said had he been a Member of your Lordships' House in December last and throughout the ensuing months. I do, of course, pay attention to what is said by the noble Lord with the greatest respect, because, if I may say so, he has had a most distinguished career, both in agriculture and in Government—and latterly, but not least, as chairman of the Forestry Commission. It would be idle and indeed impertinent for any Minister, even if he himself had the odd tree about his person, if I may misquote, to seek to denigrate anything said by the noble Lord opposite.

I am not going to restate all the principles which lie behind this Bill. The Government have determined that there is no reason why the Forestry Commission should continue to remain so dependent upon public funds as it has been in the past when the commission now has funds of its own, so to speak, which are worth well over £1 billion. One of the purposes of this Bill is to reduce the amount of grant in aid and therefore to reduce the strain on the taxpayer. I believe most of your Lordships would agree that that was an entirely laudable aim. The second aim is to raise money and to recycle that money so that we can expand forestry in this country, both in the private sector and in the public sector, at a time when we all agree that it is very right, proper and desirable that forestry in this country should be expanded.

However, one has to take into account many arguments—not least the ecological and conservationist argument, that we must have a wise and well-thought-out programme of integrated land use. Having said that, I do not believe there is anything between the parties or between the different sides of the House as to the desirability of an expansion of forestry.

I really do not need to remind noble Lords of the various safeguards which have been erected, if I may use that term, in relation to this Bill. I know that those safeguards are not statutory, and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, makes a pained face at anything that is not statutory, believing that it is not of any use. But anyone who has followed the debates in your Lordships' House will also have followed the various undertakings which have been given and which have been placed in the Library—for instance, in respect of the policy by which the Forestry Commission is going to carry out sales. We had some argument about the precise role, legal definition, character and complexion of the commission. I was called to task by another "double-barrelled" noble Lord for describing the commission as a "Government department". I see that the noble Lord in question—luckily or otherwise—is not in his place tonight, but nevertheless the fact remains that the Forestry Commission will choose the land which is to be sold. It will put the land on the market in a way which I think will commend itself both to the Accounting Officer and to the Public Accounts Committee.

The noble Lord said that there was really no welcome for this measure and, of course, a lot of people who love forestry and the forestry industry and who work in the forestry industry expressed—especially at the earlier stages when the matter was announced—their anxiety. None more so than my noble friend Lord Dulverton, who has contributed so much to our debates in a constructive way. As a result of the anxiety which my noble friend so constructively expressed, I tabled the amendment following his which is now Clause 4 of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, gave it scant welcome, but then, one does not expect much more from him. My noble friend Lord Dulverton and the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie (who says that he recollects all the debates because he has read them in the Official Report), will find in column 204 of the Official Report for 9th June the welcome which my noble friend gave to this provision, which puts in statutory form the duty of forestry Ministers in this respect. I cannot quote what he said but he made it quite plain that he feels grateful and to some extent better in his mind as a result of that amendment passing into the Bill. I believe that is a very fair way of summing up what was said by my noble friend.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, asked who wanted to buy these trees and what sort of investment were they going to make. Perhaps I might quote from SWOAC News (which is the bulletin of the Scottish Woodland Owners' Association Commercial Limited): The demand for stocked conifer plantations, which comes mainly from the pension funds, continues. Particular interest has been shown in plots of 100 hectares or more in favourable and productive locations. Recent sales have seen several unsatisfied offerers, proving that despite the depressed state of the timber market some fund managers are still taking a positive view of the longer term nature of forestry".

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I did not say there was not a market. I said it was a bad thing to sell. I said that to get that market you have to sell cheap.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I do not think they will sell cheap. I think they will sell by tender to the highest bidder and if the bid does not come up to the expectation in the good old Scottish manner they will not sell. I take issue with the noble Lord about that. If he thinks these woods are going to be sold off cheap to raise the odd bob or two—and the noble Lord, Lord Ross, I am sure knows much more about Woolworth's than I do—he is wrong; it is not going to happen that way.

The next point that the noble Lord raised was a legal point. He said in effect, does the sale of land by forestry Ministers include the trees on it? We come now to the point of his amendment, or part of the point. The answer is, it does; at common law trees growing on land pass with the land when sold unless the trees which are growing on the land are specifically reserved; it would have to be part of the conveyance, part of the bargain which is struck.

So I come to the amendment. If I say it is a wrecking amendment I hope I shall not be taken to be offensive; that is what it is and that is what it is meant to be. It was a jolly ingenious one, if I may say so, because there are very few wrecking amendments which could be devised which the noble Lord, Lord Ross, or the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, had not tabled at some stage of this Bill and which are within the rules of discussion on Third Reading. So I congratulate the noble Lord. Nevertheless, it is a wrecking amendment, because the effect of it would be that the Forestry Commission could only in effect sell their land. Therefore, there would be very few customers and the entire point of the Bill would be lost. This may well be something which would no doubt please the noble Lord, and indeed noble Lords on that side of the House. The fact remains that it would be more than a constraint on the freedom of action of the commission as we envisage it. If we are going to reduce the call on public funds that the commission make every year, if we are going to expand its forestry enterprise activities without being dependent on public money, we need to have these sales, and certainly they cannot take place if the Forestry Commission are restricted in the way suggested by the amendment.

I am quite sure that in fact, so far as the silvicultural point of view is concerned, the land will be properly managed and the trees will be properly looked after. The private sector certainly has the skill and expertise, throughout the United Kingdom, particularly in Scotland, to manage these woodlands properly, and I have absolutely no doubt that the pensions funds or whoever, who invest their (dare I say?) trade union money on occasion in these woodlands, will see to it that they are properly managed in order that they get the proper return on the money within their pensions funds.

I said, in what should have been a private place, in conversation with the noble Lord, that his amendment was defective; and so it is, because it would stop the Forestry Commission from purchases as well as disposals. It would prevent the Forestry Commission from buying any land which had trees on it, and it would make it impossible, for instance, to have exchanges of land or plantations in the interests of rational land management. It would also make the commissioners unable to rationalise their holdings by selling off small uneconomic plantations, which they can do under the present 1967 Act. So to that extent the noble Lord's amendment would put the clock back and would be even more restrictive than the present law allows. For all those reasons I cannot commend that amendment to the House.

The noble Lord then went on to his second amendment. I think I have dealt with all the points he raised on the first one. There was the matter of the selling of farms. The Forestry Commission—and I am sure that policy has not changed since he was the chairman of the commissioners—in fact is anxious to sell surplus assets where there is land which is unlikely to be available for planting. This of course includes land which is too good for planting but which has, as I think the noble Lord related, passed into the hands of the Forestry Commission from time to time. Where you have a tenanted farm—I am the very last person to decry the Agricultural Holdings Act 1948; the noble Lord, Lord Ross, may be surprised, but I assure him that is the case; I would be the very last person to try to overthrow that Act.

Lord Ross of Marnock

But, my Lords, it was overthrown by a Tory Government and we had to take action later in the 1960s.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, I do not think my tenants would agree with the noble Lord, and they would, I hazard, know a bit more about it than he does. Nevertheless, where such a sale as this takes place the obvious purchaser is the tenant. He must be. It is equally obvious that he is not going to give a vacant possession price, because he has security of tenure. I am sure the noble Lord accepts that. So if there is a sale under these circumstances by the Forestry Commission quite obviously it will not seek and it will not obtain the vacant possession price. There has to be a discount on the full vacant possession market price; that is what would happen, and that is what does happen.

I come shortly to the noble Lord's second amendment. If the noble Lord reflects, under the Bill as it stands there is every discretion to Ministers, and therefore to the commission, in the appropriate instance to have not a straight sale but a sale and leaseback. We have in your Lordships' House debated at very considerable length the sort of instances where it would be appropriate, and indeed very desirable, that there should be a sale and leaseback rather than sale. Therefore, the noble Lord's amendment, which is what I might call permissive in the way it is drafted, is unnecessary if it is intended to bestow upon the Ministers any power, because, as I say, they have it already. It would in fact make powers of disposal quite inflexible if the intention behind the amendment is that all sales should be by way of sale and leaseback, because outright sales would be ruled out. That would prevent disposal of any surplus assets, and that would include such minor assets, if I may so describe them, as cottages or agricultural land or land required for purposes such as road widening and so forth. All of these have taken place in the past and all should continue in the future. But if the amendment is desired to impose a mandatory qualification on the right to sell—I think that is what the noble Lord did mean—it does not say so, because it says "Provided he can recover the leaseback". That is why in this private place I did venture to suggest that the drafting was a little bit deficient.

The commissioners will be responsible for selecting areas for disposal, and for deciding, in the proper instance, the method of disposal would be by sale and leaseback. This is all in the guidelines we have issued and which are now in the Library for all to read.

So I do not—and I hope that I am not being offensive—consider that the noble Lord's amendment really contributes very much to the Bill, even if it were acceptable. However, I hope that, on reflection, the noble Lord will perhaps see the safeguards which we have—and I admit immediately that they are not statutory—as it were laid down through the Forestry Commission, which will be responsible for these sales, and will, perhaps, agree with me that his amendment is not entirely necessary and withdraw it.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, first and foremost, I should like to apologise for saying that the noble Earl had not accepted some amendments. Admittedly, as my noble friend Lord Ross of Marnock said, there were some very small amendments and they did not make much difference to the Bill. They were made in another place and I did say that I had not read the Committee stage there.

I do not think that I need to apologise for mentioning that we had a conversation and that the noble Earl told me that my drafting was not too good. I readily admit that my drafting was not good. However, I should like to make the point to him that I certainly did not raise this matter as a wrecking amendment. The first amendment was simply to clarify what the Commission could sell and what "land" meant. I shall send the noble Earl the quotation which I have from a legal tome in the Library. I think he will agree that he would not be on very sure ground if somebody were to try and stop him selling land with trees on it, but that is beside the point.

My sole reason for raising this matter was to give the noble Earl a let-out from selling trees which—and I know that he read out from a forestry document—I think will not be sold at their proper value in this year and age, especially the younger plantations. I drew an analogy with farming. That was all I wanted to do. The Government want to raise this money and that is well and good. I was giving them a way of raising it without selling the trees, which I think will harm a lot of things in the commission, including a lot of morale in the field.

I am not clever enough to produce wrecking amendments. I really quite object to the noble Earl saying that I was using this as a wrecking amendment. I put down the first amendment because I was not sure what the particular phrase meant. That is all that I want to say. In spite of the very disappointing reply which the noble Earl has given—as my noble friend Lord Ross suggested it would be—I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 1.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 [Disposal of land]:

8.33 p.m.

The Earl of Mansfield moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 8, after ("(2)") insert ("Subject to subsection (2A) below,").

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 2. This amendment is in fulfilment of an undertaking which I gave on Report and, in fact, Amendment No. 2 paves the way for Amendment No. 4 to which I shall also speak as I believe that that would be for the convenience of the House. This amendment gives statutory effect to assurances which were given at earlier stages of the Bill. The Government recognise that the Forest of Dean is unique and that its land should not be sold, except in the circumstances for which the amendment provides. The amendment will therefore maintain the status quo in the forest as regards disposals.

The purpose of the amendment is precisely the same as the one which the noble Lord, Lord McNair, put down in Committee and again on Report. Since the substantive parts of both amendments rely on Section 39(2)(a) of the Forestry Act 1967, it is perhaps inevitable that they look similar. However, there are some technical improvements that parliamentary counsel felt could and indeed should be made to the noble Lord's amendment and I am sure that your Lordships will agree that it is better for us to get it absolutely right, and that I believe we have now done. I commend the amendment to the House as it stands. I beg to move.

Lord McNair

My Lords, in welcoming this amendment, which I most certainly do, I want to make it quite clear that my acceptance of it and support for it is whole-hearted and unconditional. In saying that, I know that I am reflecting the feelings of the authorities in the Forest of Dean. I make that point because I want to go on to say that there are still some small residual doubts in some of our minds about the precise statutory definition of the Forest of Dean. I wonder whether it is possible for the noble Earl to say a little more about that because it might bring some comfort and tranquillity to some of the more suspicious and perhaps more legal minds in the Forest.

The point is that there are some peripheral plantations which were vested in the Forestry Commissioners by the Orders of 1924 and 1926, and which suffer exactly the same lack of any legal rights of common as the Forest of Dean proper. We are not entirely sure whether those are covered by the amendment or not. We would welcome an assurance, if such can be given, that at any rate the Forestry Ministers will look upon these, what I have called, peripheral plantations within the spirit of this amendment.

I take it that this is the penultimate stage of this Bill on its passage towards Royal Assent and the last word, of course, will be said in another place. The noble Earl has explained the difference between his amendment and mine, and I must admit that it took a magnifying glass for me to spot it. But, if it is now right, I am delighted and we are all the more pleased that it should come from the Government Front Bench, because that surely gives it a safer passage through the other place than it would have had if it had merely had our names on it.

Apart from saying, "thank you", I hope that it is not in any way presumptuous if I say to the noble Earl that I thank him not just for the amendment but for the open-minded and helpful way in which he has presided over this whole discussion of the very special question of the Forest of Dean. It has been a pleasure. Some noble Lords on this side may possibly feel that the noble Earl has set an example which some of his colleagues might follow with advantage in other contentious areas.

However, I think that there are perhaps just three things that I would like to say very quickly in conclusion. I want to thank all those other noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have given such eloquent and steadfast support to this issue all the way through. I want publicly to congratulate the councillors and the officials in the Forest of Dean for the extraordinarily skilful way in which they organised the presentation of their case. And finally, since this is, I take it, the last speech that I shall make on this Forestry Bill, I think that the House can congratulate itself because at any rate in this one respect it will be sending back a slightly better Bill than it originally received. I beg to support the amendment.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I am very happy to add our support to the amendment about the Forest of Dean. I think that the main thing it proves is that we foresters are such a splendid lot of people that not even a Scottish Earl can withstand us! He has given in to the representations from the Forest of Dean, graciously and sympathetically and I greatly appreciate it. The Forest of Dean is a very special place and it has problems of its own. I appreciate all that the noble Earl has said about differentiating the Forest of Dean from other forests in this country. I shall come to that subject, if I may, when we come to the next amendment. But for now I want to be gracious and happy, and as a forester to thank the noble Earl for what he has done; to say that I am very glad that we have had the debates in this place which will enable the Bill to go back to the other place with some improvements, and that this is perhaps the most important improvement of all.

I think that it would be ungracious to make any criticism. I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord McNair, has more detailed information about some anxieties which remain, but tonight I do not want to be anxious; I merely want to thank the noble Earl and be glad about what we have.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, if I may, I shall respond and, first, thank noble Lords and the noble Baroness for their kind words. Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord McNair, asked me two questions. He asked what was the difference between his amendment and the Government amendment. I can tell him that it is a difference of drafting. The mysteries of the draftsmen are quite beyond me and I shall not try to explain unless he really wants a technical explanation—and I can see him shaking his head.

For the record, I should just like to state the position as regards the Forest of Dean. In our correspondence I think I explained that, except for the kind of sale which has been traditionally carried out in the forest, we were prepared to exempt from the provisions of Clause 1 the former Crown woodlands in the forest which were transferred, by order, to the Forestry Commissioners in 1926 under the provisions of the Forestry (Transfer of Woods) Act 1923. As the noble Lord well knows, the old Royal forest has had a long and chequered history and its boundaries were last defined by perambulation by commissioners appointed under the Dean Forest Commission Act 1831, although now there are, of course, significant areas within those confines which are privately owned and which for obvious reasons are outside the scope of this Bill.

There are certain other old Crown woodlands which were also transferred to the Forestry Commissioners in the 1920s which do not fall within the area of the former Royal Forest of Dean as defined 150 years ago, although they are contiguous with the forest and are commonly regarded as part of it. Because of their former Crown status and their long and intimate association with the Dean Forest, I confirm for the record that in implementing the disposal powers these areas too will be treated in all respects as though they are part of the forest. These areas include High-meadow Woods, Clearwell Woods and Hope Woods, and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, is more familiar with them than I am. I think that that should describe precisely what is meant by this amendment.

Lord McNair

My Lords, may I thank the noble Earl for that information. It completely clears up the anxieties that we had.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 3 not moved.]

The Earl of Mansfield moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 1, line 9, at end insert— ("(2A) Subsection (2) above shall not apply in relation to land acquired under this section which is in the Forest of Dean; but the Minister may sell any such land if in his opinion it is not needed, or ought not to be used, for the purpose of afforestation or any purpose connected with forestry, and may exchange any such land for other land more suitable for either of the said purposes and may pay or receive money for equality of exchange.").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

8.46 p.m.

Baroness Jeger moved Amendment No. 5:

Page 1, line 9, at end insert— (" (3) The power of disposal in subsection (2) of this section shall not apply to Forest Parks nor to Crown Woods.").

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I move this amendment partly out of gratitude for the amendment which we have just accepted from the noble Earl. It seems to me that, if we are able to exempt the Forest of Dean from Clause 1(2) of this Bill, there must be other areas in this country which have similar anxieties and similar claims. In fact, I have received many letters from different parts of the country—for instance, from the New Forest and from Sherwood Forest—asking, "What about us? What is so special about the Forest of Dean that the Government can make an exception?"

In the amendment I refer particularly to the forest parks, of which there are seven in this country being run by the Forestry Commission. Of course, the first of all was the Forest of Dean which was established as a forest park in 1935. These forest parks cover about 450,000 acres of the country and, therefore, are not to be dismissed as unimportant. They have been maintained by the Forestry Commission with high standards of public access and facilities for recreation and education about flora and fauna, with school camps and day visits, and lectures on geography and botany. I believe that they are a really precious part of the Forestry Commission's activities.

It is a great disaster that they should be liable to be sold off. I appreciate much that the Minister has said about the intentions of the Government in this connection, but he has not really cleared up my anxieties. It is very unusual, but my anxieties seem to be shared by one of the leader writers of The Times because on 24th April 1981 there was a leading article which said: The Government disclaim any thought of wholesale actions of National Park Woodlands or of letting royal forests pass under the plough. But in legislation it is always the letter of the Bill that counts, rather than ministerial assurances. If limited sales are all that is envisaged, means of limiting them should be written into the Bill". That seems to me to be quite reasonable, and that is one of the basic arguments for this amendment.

We are referred to the Crown woodlands and, having expressed my appreciation for the reprieve of the Forest of Dean, I must ask the noble Earl why he is taking a different attitude towards the New Forest, towards Alice Holt, to Bedgebury, to the Isle of Wight forests, to Sherwood and to Savernake. Many people in the Forest of Dean area and in Gloucestershire will ask why the Tintern Woods and Beddgelert in Wales are to be treated so differently from the Forest of Dean.

I know that there are these sort of legal explanations about the situation in the Forest of Dean, but the question is, what makes sense to ordinary people?—and to ordinary people it does not make sense to allow some of these very well-established and traditional Crown woodlands to be liable to be put on sale when the Minister has agreed to make this differentiation. If I understand the Act of 1923 aright, if these Crown woodlands were sold, the original owners—that is, the Crown—would collect the money; so the money would not go back from those sales into the Consolidated Fund, as is one of the intentions of this Bill. So the Consolidated Fund would not benefit. Therefore, I cannot see why we do not leave these woodlands alone and let them rest for the enjoyment of the public and for the usefulness of forestry.

The noble Earl said on 9th June, at col. 186: We have made it abundantly clear that there are to be no wholesale disposals of the New Forest; in fact, any disposals will be limited to the type which has been disposed of under existing powers". What I have to ask the noble Earl is, if he does not want wholesale disposals of the New Forest, why cannot we have it in the Bill? It seems to me that we are trying to legislate by assurances. If he does not want there to be these sales in certain places, it is fair for Parliament to expect there to be statutory strength given to those reservations.

I have before me the guidelines which were placed in the Library about the sales. These were guidelines sent to the chairman of the Forestry Commission by the Government. I find there a reference to the New Forest, which I may quote to your Lordships: The special status of the former Crown lands in the New Forest and the Forest of Dean where disposals will, as hitherto, be on a very limited scale". We have the Forest of Dean dealt with, but surely it is not unreasonable to ask them what about the New Forest?

Then I have to ask about forest parks, to which I refer in my amendment. There is not one word about forest parks in the guidelines. It is not mentioned at all. The noble Earl has said that the use of forests for public access and recreation is one of the factors which will be taken into account. But if it is only to be one of the factors, some of us have to ask how far down the list this particular factor comes?

The question of access is of great importance. I do not apologise for repeating the sentence from the evidence that we had from the Association of County Councils in their memorandum on the Bill, when it was stated: Private ownership usually reduces opportunities for access and public recreation". So it seems to me that it is quite impossible to make sense of a Bill—and I am trying to keep myself in order and limited only to this amendment—which will, under Clause 1, make possible the sale of Crown woods, of forest parks, of areas of this country which have been enjoyed as a public right for generations. If the Government are determined to sell off some of these assets in conformity with their asset-stripping philosophy, then surely we have a right to ask that other parts of the national heritage, like the Forest of Dean, shall be exempt from this piracy. I beg to move.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, we had a good debate in Committee on this issue. We had precisely the same amendment moved on Report by the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, who smartly withdrew it after my explanation. Now once more the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, has raised the same amendment yet again. Far be it from me to pronounce upon the Companion to Standing Orders in your Lordships' House, but I really wonder whether the raising of amendments again and again in these circumstances is either fruitful or edifying.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, would the noble Earl allow me to intervene? I was encouraged to put the amendment down again by the fact that he had been so kind and welcoming to the Forest of Dean situation, and therefore I thought it only right to raise again the question of the New Forest and other similar forests.

The Earl of Mansfield

My Lords, with respect, it is not really a question of whether the noble Baroness feels it right to have yet another debate. It is whether it is an abuse of the processes of the House. I say that this very nearly is.

Baroness Jeger

It is a new situation.

The Earl of Mansfield

Nevertheless, the amendment has been put down, it has been moved, and I must deal with it. May I first of all turn to the Crown woods, where the noble Baroness refers to the old Crown woodlands transferred to the Forestry Commissioners under the Forestry (Transfer of Woods) Act 1923. She may have in mind—the noble Lord, Lord Bishopston, certainly did—various other areas which are held on lease from the Crown Estate Commissioners. I said on the last occasion that the expression "Crown woods" in this context is imprecise, and it is as imprecise now as it was then.

The two main areas under the 1923 Act are the Forest of Dean and the New Forest. We have dealt with the Forest of Dean in Amendment No. 4, and that I think reflects the unique circumstances which obtain in the Forest of Dean and do not obtain in the New Forest. There are, for instance, special legal rights which obtain in the New Forest, and this is not the case in the Forest of Dean. Of course, we accept that the New Forest has, and deserves, special consideration. This is recognised in the guidelines. The people who live in the New Forest, the people who resort to the New Forest and who value it as a nature reserve, need fear absolutely nothing from this Bill. The only disposals which will be permitted, and which will be carried out by the Forestry Commission, are of the nature that have already taken place under existing powers.

The trouble with the noble Baroness's amendment, as in the case of the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, is that it is so restrictive that it would put us back even beyond the 1967 situation, and the small disposals and national realisations which the Commission have enjoyed up to now could not take place even for such mundane purposes as road widening, and so on. So I have to say that.

Other Crown woodlands transferred in 1923 we believe do not come into the same category as the Forest of Dean or the New Forest and do not deserve to be put in any particularly special category. But exactly the same considerations will apply to them; exactly the same guidelines, from which the noble Baroness has quoted, will apply as to any other wood, whether it is Crown woods or any other woods. The application of those guidelines militates against disposal except in the right instance, and of course there is the further safeguard of the sale and lease-back, and that is what the guidelines are for.

So far as leases are concerned, if those are troubling the noble Baroness, of course a lease, which is an amicably negotiated agreement in these instances, remains a lease. It is for a term of years at the end of which it can be renegotiated—and a great many are being renegotiated at the moment because they are coming to an end—but nevertheless there is no question of sale because the Forestry Commission is only the leaseholder.

Now I turn to forest parks. Unlike national parks, forest parks have no legal status. None at all. They are designated as forest parks because usually they have important landscape features. They really were designated on the basis of information being made available to the public so that they could repair to those parts of the forest for recreational purposes. Of course, the fact that they are, and have been, designated as forest parks will, I have no doubt, weigh very heavily with the commissioners when they decide their sales policy. It would be absurd to write this into the Bill because if the hard-faced monetarist Ministers were of the complexion and mind that the noble Baroness no doubt thinks they are, then the day after the Bill, with her amendment in it, went on to the statute book, the Forestry Ministers, if they were so minded, would instruct the Forestry Commissioners to say, "As from tomorrow all forest parks will be abolished", and they would then be known as something else of which I could think. Therefore, the whole point of the amendment would fall to the ground because she would be preventing the sale of forest parks which no longer existed.

By raising the matter in the way she has, she has ventilated once more the natural anxieties she has and which I hope I have managed to assuage, but for the reasons I have given, I remain of the view that this is a thoroughly badly drafted and ill-thought out amendment which I could not possibly accept, and I therefore hope the noble Baroness will appreciate my point of view.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I am willing to accept in all modesty criticism of my drafting abilities, but I resent, if only slightly, the noble Earl's strictures in suggesting that I was getting near to the rules of order in tabling the amendment; if it had been out of order it would not be on the Order Paper tonight. It was tabled because we were in a new situation in view of the noble Earl's amendment—which I hoped I had graciously praised—about the Forest of Dean in that it raised a different situation. I therefore felt it was right to suggest that there might be other areas which could receive similarly sympathetic consideration.

While I do not wish to delay the House, I feel that I must quote this comment—it was made not from my side of the House—by the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, when we debated the Bill in Committee: It is not what people say during the debate that matters, whatever their personal integrity, and nobody's integrity is in question in this case. It is what is actually in the Bill that matters". I feel it is absolutely right for us to ask that many of the assurances that have been given, in letters and speeches, should have statutory force. It is a serious constitutional position that we should be asked to legislate by reference to letters placed in the Library of this House. It was in that spirit that I tabled the amendment, which I have no alternative tonight but to withdraw. I feel that it was a fair and proper amendment to have moved, one which reflects the anxieties of many noble Lords in more than one part of the House. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill passed, and returned to the Commons.