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Column 487housing costs and, therefore, a low rate of expenditure to offset against net income. They may also have several children for whom maintenance is payable. Those have been typically the cases that have gone below 70 per cent. No indication was given that everyone would be above 70 per cent. In fact, what we said turned out to be accurate. Usually, most people have 70 per cent. plus of their net income left. I note, however, the concern of the House, as does the Select Committee and my right hon. Friend.
The flexibility of the formula has been raised again. It is a central issue. The formula was introduced to try to provide a degree of consistency and stability for those making decisions in maintenance matters. We cannot have it both ways. Either we provide that degree of stability by way of a formula so that everyone knows what he or she is likely to be paying or receiving, or we reintroduce elements of discretion at different levels and thereby introduce a degree of uncertainty.
My understanding was that two or three years ago the House accepted that the discretionary system had failed those who were depending on it or paying for it. We wanted to ensure, therefore, that something rather better was in place. We opted for consistency. That is why we have the formula. Obviously, changes and adjustments could be made within the formula, and the hon. Member for Warley, West made his own selection. I put to him the same argument as I put to the Select Committee last year, which was that everyone has different priorities, so a check list can be produced in which the priority of payment to the child gradually slips lower and lower. The difficulty then is that one ends up with exactly the same system as before, in which the amount of maintenance payable to the child is less because people want other essentials to be taken into account.
The formula was constructed to try to leave about 70 per cent. of net income available for those various obligations. If we take account of more and more expenses before maintenance is calculated and then simply reduce the maintenance that goes to the parent with care of the child, the benefit to the taxpayer who must support the whole system will also be reduced. I am not sure whether that is what is wanted.
That matter triggers my memory about an issue that I did not cover when I wound up the last debate. The hon. Member for Garscadden said that I had been offensive by mentioning pet food. He does not toss such an accusation in my direction lightly, and I was so thrown by it that I forgot to return to it on winding up. I took the pet food example from a real case in which a woman had written to us--it was reported in the newspapers--to say that, when her husband presented to the court his list of essential expenses to be taken into account before maintenance of the child was calculated, it included £8 a week for pet food. I grant that that does not apply to every case, but it was not offensive. What is offensive is a system in which pet food could be considered more important, to the father or the court, than child maintenance.
I was not using the example to suggest that such an expense is taken into account in every case, and it was not de minimis, simply to be dismissed. It was an example to show that, once we begin to take all sorts of essential expenses into account, according to the individual concerned, such a problem may be encountered.
Mr. Dewar : My memory is not as good as it should be. I think that I said that the Minister's comment was described as offensive in a subsequent letter commenting on his article. I may have expressed sympathy with that view, but I was essentially quoting a letter that appeared in a local newspaper.
It is, however, unwise to use an extreme example which none of us would defend as a reason to rule out any new flexibility in the system. I object to the Minister using a hard case to support his position.
Mr. Burt : I fully take the hon. Gentleman's point, and I do not use the pet food example in that sense. I was simply reminded of it as we went through lists of expenses and thought that I would sort it out while we were here.
The point that I was making did not relate to pet food, but if more and more expenses are introduced into the formula, it is an example of the risk that we run. I recognise the concerns that have been raised in the House about travel-to-work expenses and other such matters.
I shook my head at the hon. Member for Warley, West when he was discussing spousal maintenance. Spousal maintenance is not in the formula. It is a carer's allowance, which recognises that a child cannot exist on its own but needs someone to look after it. That person may be the mother, who spends her time looking after the child and cannot go out to work or goes out to work and needs to pay for child care. Many people consider the carer's allowance to be spousal maintenance. Absent parents who feel aggrieved about it describe it thus, but it is not so described in the formula or anywhere else, so I wish that the hon. Gentleman would get off that tack.
Mr. Spellar : Could not the Minister save himself a considerable amount of trouble merely by raising the amount for individuals ? After all, if a child of five needs someone to look after it, the child needs that care irrespective of who gives it. Why does not he take out that item, which causes continual major resentment ?
Mr. Burt : If the hon. Gentleman thinks that, if we took out the title of carer's allowance and moved £25, £40 or whatever into the child's personal allowance, his constituents would suddenly say, "That is all right ; we are not paying spousal maintenance any more", I think that he has another think coming, because it is a deeper point than that.
I will finish by doing the best that I can with some of the questions about the figures. I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Garscadden said, at 4 o'clock in the morning, about detailed figures. He will excuse me if I say that I shall have to write to him about some of them, because he mentioned some serious matters and I am anxious to be helpful, as was Ros Hepplewhite when she wrote to the Committee, and the hon. Gentleman rightly went through many of the figures given.
The £312 million represents the amount of maintenance in cases with which the CSA has been involved. It is not solely a figure of maintenance arranged or received by the agency's collection service, but includes an estimate of maintenance paid direct to parents with care by absent parents, as well as sums that continue to be paid from pre-CSA arrangements.
For many reasons, we believe that comparison between the child support unit and the Child Support Agency performance is not valid. The child support unit--the old "liable relative" staff--dealt only with clients receiving
Column 489income support, and was able to direct attention to cases where it was most likely that maintenance could be arranged. The Child Support Agency is a very different organisation, offering a service to parents on income support, including those between whom no maintenance has ever been paid, to those receiving in-work benefits, such as family credit, and to parents who receive no benefit. Once taken on, all applications to the agency must be given equal attention, irrespective of whether maintenance will eventually be assessed. I do not believe that the old liable relative system was running down ; the figures of maintenance received over the years were steadily climbing, so I do not think that that argument is proved. The hon. Member for Garscadden did not weigh too much on that.
I shall now discuss the construction of figures--the breakdown of the figures, which show £312 million maintenance collected, and benefit savings arising of about £418 million. We could go through them piece by piece, but I do not especially wish to do that for the House.
We have tried to draw a distinction between the maintenance administered by the Child Support Agency arising from pre-CSA arrangements, and maintenance and other savings arising from CSA assessments and other action. The information available to the House splits the amounts between benefit savings and maintenance collected. In some cases, it is one and the same.
For instance, if we consider maintenance administered by the CSA arising from pre-CSA arrangements, the amounts paid direct by the absent parent to the parent with care receiving income support totalled £175 million, and that was all benefit savings because that directly saved income support. Similarly, the amounts paid by absent parents through the pre- agency collection service to parents with care receiving income support was £24 million, and that was also all direct benefit savings. That is how the figure of £199 million is obtained, and that is all direct benefit savings.
The family credit figures have proved to be better, and our original estimate that about £50 million would go directly to parents with care increased as a result of the success of the family credit operation. There, the maintenance collected was £98 million, but the benefit saving was only £27.9 million, the other money going directly to the parent with care in addition to benefits, so there was a net increase in income to the parent with care. That gave a total of benefit savings of £226.9 million, compared with maintenance collected of £297 million. That all stems from the maintenance administered by the CSA arising from pre-CSA arrangements. Let us consider the maintenance and other savings arising from the CSA assessments and other actions. Some £50 million of maintenance was directly collected, but it yielded total benefit savings of £190.7 million. The figures are available to the hon. Member for Garscadden. They were set out in the letter, together with notes. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of detailed questions on the subject. I should be grateful if I could reply to them in detail by letter--I think that that would be the best way to deal with them. It may provide opportunity for debate in the next Session so that the issues can be amplified and placed on the record if the hon. Gentleman wishes.
Column 490raise one general policy point ? With some justification, the Minister makes great play of the family credit figures. They are useful to him because they benefit children. They do so because there is a disregard. I recognise that there is a distinction between people on benefit and people who work and receive top-up benefit. It seems that there is a lesson to be learned about the large number of children living in families on income support who are not benefiting at all. Does the Minister share that view ?
Mr. Burt : I do, but the hon. Gentleman will also know that I have a strongly held view that there is a danger in introducing a disregard into the income support system. First, it would create a slightly higher hurdle for those on income support wanting to return to work--they would need to earn £5, £10, £15 or whatever more. We are anxious to reduce those disincentives to return to work ; the system is designed to do so. That is why the incentive is deliberately in the in-work system.
Secondly, there is the issue of cost, which is difficult to calculate. We all know that introducing such a system would incur considerable expense. Thirdly, it would be inequitable. Some people would receive extra amounts in their income support benefit through the payment of money to which they were entitled. Other people receiving benefit simply would not have access to that extra money in the benefit system. People would soon be lobbying me and knocking at my door to say how unfair that system was and to ask why income support should not be increased to ensure that everybody benefited in the same way. There would be problems, which is why we have not introduced that system.
We have had a long discussion and I have probably taken up more time than I should have done. The subject is important, and I think about it carefully, as do the Government. I appreciate colleagues' concern about the subject and I do not wish to send them away for the recess under the illusion that we do not take it seriously. We know that other parts of the House, including the Select Committee, take it seriously.
The principles are right and are strongly supported around the House. We all wish to see a workable system. We have proved in the past that, where change is needed, we have been prepared to make it. Not every change that is suggested can be introduced--it would not be right to introduce them all. It is important to ensure that the principles survive. Some of them are hard to live up to--particularly when we say to the population at large that, through their taxes, they have provided too much by way of supporting separation agreements, and we now want to give them some relief. We have all signed up to that principle, but it is hard to implement in practice when constituents who come to our surgeries are having to pay more money. We have to stand by the principles and say that they are right.
We want a sustainable and good system of child maintenance for the future. The Government are determined to ensure that improvements in administration help to deliver that, but they are not blind to the other problems. We shall continue to keep the matter carefully under review and I have the strongest suspicion that we are likely to discuss the subject again when the House returns after the recess.
Column 491The allotted time having expired, the debate was concluded in accordance with MADAM SPEAKER's statement--[Official Report, 14 July 1994 ; Vol. 246, c. 1197.]
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the subject of the Forestry Commission before the House rises for the summer recess. It gives me no comfort to drag hard- working Ministers of the Crown, such as the Minister with responsibility for forestry, to the Chamber. I am certain that he would have been up half the night anyway waiting for a telephone call from No. 10 Downing street, which I am sure will come sooner rather than later. It would be well- deserved if it did. As I get older in this place, I become more and more convinced of the need for radical reform of the way that we work so that debates such as this can be taken at more reasonable and social hours.
I am grateful for the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mrs. Maddock) and the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) who, ever assiduous, is in his place. I know that he takes a great interest in the subject. I had an interesting visit to a forest not far from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch during the European elections. The Forestry Commission workers showed me how they had managed to erect bat boxes in the trees in the forest just north of Bournemouth. I thought that bats lived in cages, but the Forestry Commission looks after bats as well as everything else--very good work it does too.
I am not offering the Minister an apology for bringing him to the Dispatch Box on this subject on this day. I applied for this slot in the Consolidated Fund debate last week, before there was any certainty that the Government would make a statement on this subject before the summer recess. I know that the Minister will say that it was expected. I accept that the statement was very full and I was pleased that it was made.
I was also reasonably well pleased with the result of the Government's review committee. Its conclusion was a victory for common sense, which was welcome. It is a pity that it had to take 15 or 16 months to reach that conclusion because it caused a great deal of uncertainty among the staff and the interest groups which were closely following what was happening and which have a direct interest in forestry.
More than anything else, what strikes me about the 15 or 16 months of consideration by the review committee was the astounding degree of public support enjoyed by the Forestry Commission, as currently constituted. I do not refer only to interest groups such as the Ramblers Association, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the well-respected and well- organised pressure groups which we would expect to be in the vanguard of an argument involving the future of the Forestry Commission and the forestry industry. The general public also took a keen and legitimate interest. That was one of the signal lessons that we should all learn from the 15 months' work of the review committee.
As the House will know, the committee's remit was to examine the effectiveness of current incentives for forestry investment and the options for ownership and management. It was invited by the Government to make proposals for change and to examine ways to improve effectiveness. It was of great interest to me that the Government's eventual conclusion was, as we learned a day or so ago, that Forest Enterprise should stay in the public sector. It
Column 493would be of even greater interest to know exactly what reasoning led the review committee and the Government to reject the option to privatise.
It will come as no surprise to the Minister to be told that there is still continuing suspicion about the Government's long-term motives. The reasoning of the review committee is an important element in the consideration of what will happen in future and how convinced the Government are of the decision that they have announced. It remains a matter of serious concern that the review committee's report is to remain available only to Ministers. Any work that costs the taxpayer as much as £833,000--which I understand to be the total cost of the inquiry-- should be made much more widely available, even if not published because it may be a weighty document containing a great deal of technical information that would make sense only to Ministers. It should certainly be made available in the House of Commons Library, in the Scottish Office and in forestry offices in other parts of the United Kingdom.
If it proves to be impossible to deal with questions raised by hon. Members at this hour of the morning, I hope that the Minister will be kind enough to undertake, where necessary, to write to hon. Members with considered answers.
I should also like to know why the consultation document has been delayed another 14 days. If the review has taken 15 or 16 months, and if the Government's announcement was made public in the past 24 hours, it is incumbent on the Government to explain why it takes another 14 days to publish a document on which the consultation will be based. Printing techniques these days can turn round such documents, even in large volume, within a few short hours, never mind two weeks or more. It heightens my suspicion that the Government are still uncertain about their long-term motives in their future disposals and dispositions for the Forestry Commission.
That in turn leads to the suspicion that the Government were obliged to reject full-blown privatisation by the sustained and massive public opposition that they encountered. The Secretary of State for Scotland's statement, useful and welcome as it was, lacked conviction and had no intellectual coherence. The Government's strategy for the future is still unclear. If that is not true, it is certainly true that many questions remain to be answered. The Minister may say that that is what the consultation period is about. If so, this debate is a useful start to that process.
I welcome the decision to retain Forest Enterprise in the public sector. It would be churlish to quibble about that. But the Government still have much work to do during the consultation process to persuade the public that that is not just a temporary staging post on the way to full privatisation which might be reviewed after the next election.
I know that the Minister has been harassed almost to death on water privatisation in Scottish towns. By the end of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill Standing Committee, he was beginning to persuade me that he meant what he said. The trouble is that, while some of us consider him to be an honest man, we are not prepared to accept that position from other Ministers. However, I detect a scepticism still that this is only a temporary stay of execution. The Government still have a job to do in the consultation process if they are to win their argument.
To be sustainable, and to provide the industry with the kind of stability that it requires, we need 20-year solutions.
Column 494The crop, as the Minister well knows, takes a long time to mature and planting grants and commercial decisions to plant have to be taken on a long-term basis. Any suggestion that this is a solution that will get the Government by the next few short years would not be good enough and would not meet the needs of the industry. I was interested to hear the Secretary of State refer in his statement to the need for Forest Enterprise to be put on a more businesslike footing. I could not make a lot of sense of the sentences that followed that statement, which contained much rhetoric and management jargon about priorities, performance measures and cost and benefit programmes. It would be helpful if the Minister could give clear examples of what will be done differently when the new agency is set up from what happens now. That was not clear to me, despite my careful reading and re-reading of the Secretary of State's statement.
There are many kinds of next step agencies. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has identified about 96, so there is a range of steps towards an agency basis. The Government should and could help the discussion by making clear just what kind of agency they are moving towards.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton) : I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he accept that the obfuscation in the Government's report may be hiding their real intention regarding a next steps agency in that the established criteria are commercial ? We and the public fear that there is an accelerated disposal programme for forestry and land. We could obtain tonight, on behalf of the public, an assurance that that is not the case.
Mr. Kirkwood : Absolutely. That is a concise summary of the next paragraph of my speech, which I can now skip. That is the crux of the matter and I hope that the Minister will say something about it. What kind of agency is the Secretary of State's statement offering ? Will it still be directly responsible to the Secretary of State as the responsible departmental Minister ? There have been rumours that the Government would create three or four agencies for the United Kingdom's different constituent nations. The Secretary of State seemed to make it clear that the headquarters will not move from Edinburgh, which is welcome news. Will there be a direct link between Scottish Office Ministers and the Secretary of State once the agency is established ?
The Secretary of State also made it clear that a new chief executive will be appointed. It is important to know the terms and conditions of his employment. There have been press reports that "demanding but deliverable performance targets will be set for this new chief executive."
One great advantage of resisting the Government proposal that could have embraced privatisation is the sustained and unwavering support for the campaign by the existing body's director general, commissioners and senior management staff.
Soon, new commissioners will be appointed or appointed afresh, and the current director general is due for retirement. Significant management personnel changes are almost inevitable. The Minister and the Government will have to give assurances that there is no hidden ministerial strategy to appoint to crucial positions particular persons with a hidden agenda, with the objective of ultimately moving towards privatisation or--as the hon. Member for
Column 495Dumbarton said--commercialisation in a way that would compromise other roles in the multi-role forest context and framework that we seek.
Will the new chief executive's terms and remit be made public before he is appointed ? What thought has been given to what exposure the new agency will have to market testing exercises, which are being visited on many other next steps agencies ? It is important to have answers to those questions so that the consultation process may proceed in an orderly and properly informed fashion.
As to the Borders district and south of Scotland region, which the Minister knows well, I am convinced--because I know the work that they do--that the people running that district and region under Mr. Gordon Cowie and his team need no lectures on improving efficiency. The 43, 000 acres of Forestry Commission land that they oversee are managed extremely well. They run a tight ship, and it is hard to see how the new trading standards, arrangements or bodies that the Government propose will help those individuals to do their jobs any better in future than they have done them over the past 10 or 15 years. There has been a significant change in the way in which the commission has operated in the Borders forest district. It has been some 15 years since proper, full-time staff were appointed in any numbers. Local experience recently has seen much more insecure seasonal work introduced on a contracted, self-employed basis, with a steady erosion in the number of full-time jobs.
But for all of that, the Borders forest district makes an annual surplus in the region of £500,000 to £600,000. It is coherent in what it does. It has a good rapport with the local community, and management and staff work extremely well together. I cannot for the life of me see any obvious way in which increased efficiencies could be made. It would be a foolish person who said that no improvements could be made. I think that it does a good job and in a dedicated fashion.
The Minister will also know that the industry produces direct and indirect employment for thousands of his constituents as well as mine across the Borders region as a whole. It is a very significant industry in local employment terms. Indeed, I think that it would be safe to say that, short of the north of Scotland forestry region, the Borders and south of Scotland regions must have the most significant input of any forestry industry in any other part of the country in terms of its local economy and the contributions that it makes to the income and expenditure in the south of Scotland.
What procedure will be required to implement the new agency ? Again, the Secretary of State's statement left important questions unanswered. Will the consultation document, which we are expecting in a couple of weeks, contain details of the precise steps that are necessary to create the new structure ? If primary legislation is not necessary--I understand that that is so--will we have a chance, through statutory instruments or Orders in Council, to scrutinise or sanction what is eventually proposed ? That is an important question. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds pointed out that, from previous procedures in creating the agencies, it envisages the whole agency being generated by the publication of a framework document. Will full details of any such document be made available during the
Column 496consultation so that we can see what procedures are to be used to set it up ? Will Parliament get a chance at any stage to look at the remit, objectives and, crucially, the performance targets that the agency will be invited to address ?
In all of that procedure, what is there to provide any degree of accountability other than that through occasional requests to visit and give evidence to Select Committees and the like ? What transparency will there be, for example, in the hierarchy between Ministers, the chief executive and Parliament ?
I press the Minister on the meaning of his desire that Forest Enterprise should have a more commercial attitude. What implications will that have for research ? I know that there are worries that some of the research functions--I know that some of them are carried out by the authority, not the enterprise--will go to the Institute for Terrestrial Ecology. There is also concern that the more commercial attitude will have an impact on the valuable interpretation and educational work that is currently done by Forest Enterprise. One thing that I discovered while increasing my education about bat boxes was the very valuable role that is played by Forest Enterprise in holding the ring between conflicting and competing users of forest land. Some of the fragile heath land that the Forestry Commission looks after in areas around Christchurch and Bournemouth was beginning to come under pressure from orienteering. That was in conflict with the conservation interests about some of the species that were under pressure. The Forestry Commission was the only institution capable of resolving in good faith some of the conflicting and competing uses of the areas of fragile heath land in its charge. It is feared that, if Forest Enterprise adopts a more commercial attitude in the future, all the valuable roles that it now plays will be sacrificed.
If the new agency is given genuine flexibility to retain all the surpluses that it would gain from disposal, and the finance that it needs to be able to acquire substantial tracts of land as well as disposing of forestry land and estates, that will be very welcome : it will make the agency much more efficient, and promote multi-purpose forestry. But if increased commercial pressure amounts to nothing more than losing public benefits, stripping out amenity developments, imposing higher charges on the public for services, reducing the percentage of broadleaf planting or more and faster disposals, the new agency will rapidly lose the critical mass that is necessary for it to retain its crucial role as a forestry leader. The hon. Member for Dumbarton made an important point about commercial objectives. It would be regrettable if they began to override environmental objectives ; that would affect staff morale, and the new agency would simply bring about the death of Forest Enterprise by means of a salami technique--death by a thousand cuts. I am sorry that nothing more definite has yet been said about the disposals policy that is to be handed to the agency for implementation
Mr. Kirkwood : That is interesting. We have heard all sorts of rumours, but I think we can all agree that some 180,000 hectares have been sold since the early 1980s. There is a rumour that 100,000 hectares will be required to be disposed of by the year 2000 ; indeed, either the
Column 497Ramblers Association or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds mentioned 37,000 hectares annually. If the Minister is really saying that nothing has changed, I think that we should have a discussion. The consultation period should be used as an opportunity to press the Government to clarify their plans.
All the small parcels of land that can be disposed of easily have already been sold. Any reactivated disposals policy would mean wholesale blocks of established forest being put on the market. As the hon. Member for Dumbarton will probably know better than me, the Kilpatrick Hills area just north of Glasgow has been talked of as a major disposal. Indeed, the whole of Upper Nithsdale, much closer to home in the Minister's patch--he shakes his head--has been mentioned in terms of marketing in the recent past. If the Treasury targets are too strict in future and the new agency is given no flexibility, other forest areas will have to be sold to meet arbitrary financial targets and for no other reason.
I remind the Minister that the sub-committee of his own review team that looked into the question of access for the public concluded : "As the disposals programme proceeds it will be necessary for the Forestry Commission to identify for disposal a greater number of woods with higher levels of existing access".
That key question will have to be considered during the consultation.
The £4 million extra in grants to be made available to the private sector is, of course, welcome and necessary, but I was interested to note Tilhill's response to the Secretary of State's statement : "The Statement wishes an end to the decline in conifer planting. We do not think conifer planting will increase from the present level as a result of this Review. This means that the UK forest output will not be sustained as timber volumes fall after the next twenty years."
That is an important reaction, albeit initial, from a serious player in the forestry game. The Government should view it with some interest.
I want to make two short points about grants. The new agency must be set clear targets and be given a clear steer in terms of what it does with the consultation processes that have to be undertaken with local communities before large blocks of monoculture sitka spruce are planted. There is a fear that some of the new grants will provide planting of commercial conifers on sensitive upland ground. The environmental panels have been working well and the environmental impact statements are addressing many of the concerns that were evident four or five years ago. However, there are remaining fears that in some parts of the Borders at least the forest plantation is obliterating archaeologically important sites and destroying the quality of the border hillside. If the agency is not made aware of that and does not take proper account of it, it will cause concern in areas such as southern Roxburghshire.
The new grant regime does not provide enough scope or incentive for integrated farm forestry schemes. I know that the farm woodland scheme has been quite successful and has made some progress in promoting broadleaf amenity woods, but there is very little commercially viable timber production. I urge the Government, during the consultation period, to consider carefully providing a lead and a proper system of grants that would make it worthwhile for upland farmers--relatively small-scale farmers, not just big estate owners--to plant commercially viable holdings.
Although it is welcome that the short rotational coppice has been given some assistance and recognition under the
Column 498grant scheme--there was a sentence or two about it in the Secretary of State's statement--I am a little worried about the reduction in planting grants for short rotational coppice on non-set- aside land. It is fair to say that the production of power from biomass, including short rotational coppice, is still an infant industry. It is nearing commercialisation, but it is in need of pump-priming finance to see it through its formative years. The Secretary of State's statement did not persuade me that the Government are doing enough to address the extent of the problems.
I make no apology for leaving the question of access to the end because it is probably the key question motivating most of the public who will take an interest in the consultation process. I detect considerable disappointment at the lack of real progress on access. The Secretary of State said that the Government wanted to "strengthen the arrangements which are available to protect existing access".--[ Official Report , 19 July 1994 ; Vol. 247, c. 178.]
That is a meaningless statement because the current arrangements are non- existent. The Government's own research by the sub-committee on access concluded :
"Even with improvements the existing arrangements cannot be made effective in protecting continued public access."
That is right and it is important that the Government know that. Only two days ago I received a letter from Mrs. Ann Fraser. She is a serious person and is the Scottish access officer of the British Horse Society. She lives in Jedburgh and she has helped me enormously with continuing correspondence about the problems of equestrian access to forests. I declare a non- pecuniary interest in this. It was a painful interest at the Hawick common riding because I came off at full tilt in one of the first fields at the Moss Paul ride out. When I get the time, I enjoy access to Forestry Commission forests on horseback.
Mrs. Fraser is at pains to point out in the letter dated 18 July that there is a current argument about Spottiswoode at Westruther in Berwickshire where about 50 horses currently use the area. The forest is owned by the Forestry Commission and on two occasions the wood has been offered to Borders regional council under the continued public access guidelines, giving it the opportunity to get the management procedures in place for continued public access after a sale. Both the offers have been declined by Borders regional council. The Minister may say that that is because of the legal expenses and that that has now been addressed by the Government.
However, the problem is worse than that because, as the Minister knows, public access guidelines do not cover horse riding. Such activities, which take place exclusively and expressly with individual permissions, do not fall within the scope of normal public access agreements. That is a matter of some concern in an area such as the Borders, which has a great interest in equestrian activity. There are about 100 horses in the Spottiswoode forest. Indeed, at Westertoun, Mr. and Mrs. Isles run an excellent trekking and equestrian business for locals and visitors, and that is exactly the type of business that might be prejudiced if we do not sort out the issue of access.
During the consultation process, we have to ask the Government what will happen if local authorities do not or cannot make access agreements when sales are contemplated. The system has not worked until now, so why should it work in the future ? What will happen if a local authority does not enter into an agreement concerning
Column 499woodland that it has been proposed should be sold ? Will continued access be at the whim of the new owner, or will the woodland be withdrawn from sale ?
Where will the £1 million needed to buy the leasehold interest come from ? Will it have to come from increased disposals or from the Treasury ? Will the money to be spent on the central Scottish woodland, to which the Secretary of State for Scotland referred, come from increased disposals or from the Treasury ? These are important questions, and the Minister would do the consultation process a considerable favour if he answered them, if not tonight, by correspondence.
The Government should now produce a national forestry strategy, including wildlife, access and environmental targets, which would map out the positive future which the forestry and woodland industry deserve and which the public demand.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on securing this debate, but I must say that I was not flushed with excitement when I was told that it was to take place at 4 am. However, the debate is pertinent for a number of reasons, not least because the Government have this week issued a statement on forestry. I shall concentrate on a few matters : first, the history of the interdepartmental group ; secondly, the disposal programme ; and, thirdly, access agreements, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
A number of points arose from the statement made the other day by the Secretary of State for Scotland. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is deplorable that the consultation document was not issued at the same time as the statement. I was informed on Tuesday morning that the statement was not in its final form but was being hastily rearranged--that is perhaps proof of the lack of clarity in the Government's approach to the whole issue.
Will the Minister tell us how long the consultation period will be ? Will he answer the query from the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire about the interdepartmental review group document ? Why, after £860,000, I think, was spent on it, is the document not to be published ? How transparent are the aims and objectives of the next steps agency ?
I said that I would deal with history, so let us go back to the previous general election. On 3 April 1992--six days before the election--the Prime Minister sent a letter to the forestry unions' action group. He wrote that there was
"no intention to privatise the Forestry Commission."
On 11 May 1992, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), told the House :
"We have given a firm commitment not to privatise the Forestry Commission." --[ Official Report , 11 May 1992 ; Vol. 207, c. 470.] However, on 5 July of the same year the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), wrote a confidential letter--I have it here--to the Secretary of State for Scotland in which he revealed that privatisation was being actively considered. He wrote :
Column 500"I am inclined to favour option two in the Forestry Commission paper, despite the difficulties to which you"
that is, the Secretary of State for Scotland
"referred in your February letter. Although there would be hurdles to overcome, the key benefits are that it would raise money and get the forest estate out of the public sector . . . I would also like to suggest that if we decided to look into the option further we should go on to consider the possibility of abolishing the Forestry Commission in due course, and absorbing the forestry authority's policy functions into the Agriculture Departments".
It transpires that, at that stage, apart from the ideological reasons, there was a purely financial reason for the sale, and there was also a bit of empire building for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which is not universally known as a guardian of the wider public interest.
As a postscript to the Prime Minister's letter to the forestry unions, on 27 August the Prime Minister's office sent another letter, correcting the April letter and explaining that
"the commitment given by the Prime Minister on this matter was drafted incorrectly during the frenzied activity of the general election campaign."
That shows that whatever the Conservatives say in their manifesto they can change a few months later. My goodness, how many times have we seen the Government do that over the past few years ?
All that led to the setting up of the interdepartmental review group of officials on March 30, to
"review options for the ownership and management of Forestry Commission woodlands and to make proposals for changes".
When I mentioned the desire to dispose of the Forestry Commission and take it out of public hands, I think that I heard a Conservative Member murmur, "Hear, hear." But in Scotland as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom there was a massive outcry against the Government's proposals. I see the campaign that has forced the Government to back down from their naked objective of securing privatisation as a victory for public campaigning across all parties and all interest groups. That is most important.
I shall quote just one individual on that subject--Mr. Patrick Gordon-Duff- Pennington, a friend of the Minister and other Members of Parliament, who is chairman of the Red Deer Commission. He had the interests of the land in mind when he said :
"This may be public suicide. I may be sacked to-morrow" that is, from his chairmanship of the Red Deer Commission "But the Government is talking rubbish about privatising the commission. What is going on is ridiculous, a struggle for power, political dogma . . . We have to say loud and clear that we don't like this dogma, that we won't have it pushed down our throat and that our political administrators need a psychiatrist . . . Selling off assets is a funny way to run a country".
Those words were true then, and they are still true now. Selling assets is indeed a funny way to run a country--and we are still faced with the same problem.
I hope that I shall not do the Minister any political injury when I congratulate him on his stewardship of the Forestry Commission over the past year. I know that he realises the benefits of retaining the Forestry Commission in public hands and I know that a rearguard action has had to be undertaken by the Scottish Office on the issue. After the statement by the Secretary of State for Scotland on Tuesday, there was considerable relief that the Government have had second thoughts about the wholesale privatisation for a number of reasons. However, the Scottish public and the United Kingdom public still have