HL Deb 12 March 1986 vol 472 cc624-7

2.52 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy in relation to disposal of Forestry Commission assets.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Gray of Contin)

My Lords, the Government's present policy on Forestry Commission land sales is aimed at rationalising the commission's estate with a view to improving the efficiency and commercial effectiveness of the forestry enterprise. Details of this policy were given by my right honourable friend, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, in response to a Question in another place on 8th November 1984.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful comment and the indication that there is no change in the Government's policy. Let me add that that will give some assurance to all parties in the forestry industry who were alarmed at recent reports that it was the intention of the Ministry of Agriculture to privatise all of the Forestry Commission's estates. Will the noble Lord assure me that the Government recognise the importance of the continuing partnership between the private sector and the state sector in this important industry which would be upset by these arrangements? Finally, will the noble Lord convey to his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland our congratulations on his ability to head off this unfortunate scheme?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I appreciate the tribute which the noble Lord has paid to my right honourable friend and I shall certainly convey it to him. However, I must say that I think we should look at the situation in the knowledge that the disposals' policy is, from time to time, reviewed. That does not necessarily mean that there will always be a change at the end of any review. However, I think that the Government would be rather unwise not to carry on a continuing review of many of their policies, and that we seek to do.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, will the Minister tell us which Ministry actually deals with the Forestry Commission? The rumour came from the Ministry of Agriculture but it was then scotched by the department in Scotland. It would greatly help us if we knew exactly who was controlling the Forestry Commission.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, the noble Lord is a former Minister of State in the Ministry of Agricul- ture, Fisheries and Food, and he is also a former chairman of the Forestry Commission, and therefore I imagine that he is as well aware as I am of the procedure. However, let me remind him that the home countries have their Forestry Ministers. The lead in forestry matters is normally taken by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the whole point of establishing the Forestry Commission was to redress the situation whereby over 90 per cent, of the timber used in this country came from abroad? In fact, it still does so. Does my noble friend agree that as that is the whole object of the Forestry Commission, provided the trees are grown it makes no odds whatever who owns them? Further-more, bearing in mind the slow rate of return, the fewer owned by the Government rather than by the private sector the better, because it is a bad investment financially, but it is good investment for the timber.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I accept what my noble friend says, and of course he will be aware that part of the present forestry policy which the Government have been pursuing is that planting should be increased in the private sector and reduced by the Forestry Commission in the public sector.

Lord Hunt

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the sale of nearly 100,000 hectares of Forestry Commission land to private owners has already created problems as regards public access which was previously enjoyed when those forests which have now been disposed of were under Forestry Commission control? In the light of that, does the noble Lord agree that the further sale of 10,000 hectares, which is planned for this year, is bound to increase that problem and that matter for concern?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I take careful note of what the noble Lord has said, but it is not in accordance with my information. Public rights of way are not affected by a change of ownership. So far as concerns public access, we have no reason to believe that those parts of the Forestry Commission estate which have been sold have led to difficulties in regard to public access. Indeed, before the sales take place the Forestry Commission itself goes to some trouble to discuss with potential buyers the desirability of continuing access. So far as I am aware, there have been no major difficulties in this field.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the money that goes into private forestry does so for one reason only—that is, the tax advantages offered? If the noble Lord wants production in the country and money to go into productive industry, then it is a great foolishness to sell large tracts of land for large sums of money which are therefore frozen and cannot go into productive industry.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I would not accept that large areas of land have been sold by the Forestry Commission indiscriminately. As at 21st January this year just over 50,000 hectares of plantation and plantable land had been sold in Great Britain as a whole, and that raised approximately £77.9 million. I must remind the noble Lord that that is a very small percentage of the total forestry estate. Indeed, the areas which have been sold have been selected by the commissioners themselves and have been seen by them as not interfering with their long-term development policy.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, am I right in thinking that in reply to my noble friend's question, the noble Lord said that the lead Minister with regard 10 the Forestry Commission is the Secretary of State for Scotland? If that is so, will he explain how that applies and how it works out in connection with the large forestry estates in Wales and parts of England?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, when more than one Minister has responsibility in a particular area there obviously has to be a leader somewhere. As 60 per cent, of the forestry estate is in Scotland it is not unreasonable that the lead should be with the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Lord Somers

My Lords, will the noble Lord give some assurance that the commission is aware of the increased need for British hardwood? I know that softwood gives a quicker financial return, but there is a very great need for more hardwood.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I accept that point and it is well known by the commission.

Lord Roberthall

My Lords, would not the Minister agree that the whole problem of forestry, especially for European countries, has become much more difficult and important in the past few years because of the rapid destruction of the great forests in other parts of the world?

Lord Gray of Contin

Yes, my Lords, this is a fact, but of course it does not really bear on the Question regarding the Forestry Commission.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, would the Minister care to answer my question? Would not the £77 million received have been better invested in manufacturing industry?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I do not quite understand what the noble Lord is getting at. The money which was received has gone to the Treasury, and it is not the Treasury's custom to hypothecate for any particular purpose.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, is the noble Lord the Minister saying that a capital asset has been sold in order to put the proceeds into current consumption? Is that not very bad housekeeping?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, the policy was clearly enunciated by my right honourable friend in his Statement of 8th November 1984, and the selling of forestry lands has been done in accordance with the best discretion of the Forestry Commission itself. The fact that these lands were surplus to their requirements is I think sufficient reason that they should be disposed of, and I think it is quite wrong for any Government sponsored commission or corporation to retain land which it does not require.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I welcome the statement that the policy is the policy outlined in November 1984, but in reply to the Question the Minister somewhat ominously remarked that disposals policy will always be reviewed. Can I have some assurance from the Minister that any major disposals, such as have been suggested in the press commentary on the proposals of the Ministry of Agriculture that there be a total privatisation of the Forestry Commission estate, will not be pursued without the permission of Parliament? I know you have the power to do so, but it would be a major change of policy, and can I have some assurance in that regard?

Can I also have an assurance that the social obligations which are recognised by the Forestry Commission access agreement, the research and development in forestry, will be taken care of in any changes that might be envisaged?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, as to the second point the noble Lord raised, I think I indicated that where disposals have taken place the Forestry Commission have gone to considerable efforts to ensure that access will be continued. So far as the first point is concerned, if the Government were at some future time to decide upon any major change to the policy already enunciated in November 1984, then of course Parliament would be informed in the usual way.

Lord Moyne

My Lords—

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend but I feel that we have spent considerable time on this Question. Having had a long question, if I may humbly say so, from a very important figure who has been chairman of the Forestry Commission and therefore who had a right to be heard, I hope the House will feel, with all apologies to my noble friend, that we should pass on to the next Question.