HL Deb 27 July 1988 vol 500 cc255-6

2.50 p.m.

Lord Vernon asked Her Majesty's Government:

What actions they propose to take to reduce the importation of hardwoods from tropical countries.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Lord Young of Graffham)

My Lords, the Government share the general concern about the depletion of the rain forests, but the major cause of forest reduction is domestic consumption for fuel, fodder and agricultural land in the producing countries themselves. International trade accounts for only about 10 per cent. of tropical hardwoods. We believe that the trade-related aspects of this complex problem are best addressed through the work of the International Tropical Timber Organisation.

Lord Vernon

My Lords, despite what the Minister said, is he aware that millions of acres of tropical forest are being destroyed annually? The size is estimated to be the area of England, Wales and Scotland. That is having disastrous ecological and environmental consequences. Does he appreciate that Western Europe is one of the main importers of some of those tropical hardwoods? Should this country not give some lead to the EC by reducing, or preferably halting altogether, those imports?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am aware that most felling is for domestic consumption. As my Answer reveals, international trade accounts for some 10 per cent. only of the sales of tropical hardwoods. It is a difficult problem. There are complex social, economic and environmental problems involved in the shrinkage of tropical rain forests that require a global solution, which is why we believe that it is best addressed through the International Tropical Timber Organisation.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the total bill for timber imports into this country now runs at £6 billion, and that 75 per cent. of those imports are in softwoods (conifers)? Will he assure us that to avoid the problem which the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, has raised this afternoon increased planting will take place in this country to ensure domestic supplies? Will he also take steps to monitor the impact of the abolition of tax incentives on the future of planting programmes?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, in your Lordships' House we have questions whose main purport is that we have too much planting, followed by questions whose main purport is that we do not have enough. That may mean that we are getting the balance about right.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere, which is causing tremendous concern to scientists all over the world, is largely due to the reduction in tropical rain forests? Apart from leaving the matter to an international body, does he agree that it is high time that the Government set up a commission to study the problem and collate the various arguments put forward by responsible scientists? It is time that they were collated and a view taken.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, dependence upon fossil fuels is not unconnected with this matter. Those people who often take a particular stand on the use of nuclear power also take a similar stand on the results of the use of fossil fuels. It is a difficult problem. It is not one that is easily settled. We believe that by using realistic energy pricing, which reflects true costs, by improving energy efficiency and by looking at other byproducts, such as chlorofluoro-carbons, which can cause similar effects on the ozone layer—the coming into force of the Montreal protocol next January will have some effect on that—we shall begin to take steps towards solving this difficult and complex problem.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the Minister has properly stressed the importance of the International Tropical Timber Organisation. What is the British interest and representation on that organisation? What policies does his department advise our representatives to follow?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I should be more than happy to write to the Leader of the Opposition to give the exact details of what my department advises on the problem. It is a complex matter and one which I do not believe is suitable to be answered in this form.

Viscount St. Davids

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, although the tropical rain forests are enormously important for a whole number of reasons which have been suggested today, the best place to produce tropical hardwoods is in the tropics, and that in a free world that is what should be done?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, it is difficult to see tropical hardwoods being produced anywhere but in the tropics, so I agree with the noble Lord.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does the noble Lord's answer to me mean that he does not have the information in the file in front of him, or is he saying that the information is too long and complex, in which event he proposes to send me a long document which I can read during the long Recess?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am saying that I wish to do full justice to the Leader of the Opposition and that therefore I shall write to him fully.