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House of Commons
Session 2005 - 06
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Standing Committee Debates

Fifth Standing Committee




 
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Fifth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman:

Mr. Joe Benton

†Anderson, Mr. David (Blaydon) (Lab)
†Baker, Norman (Lewes) (LD)
†Brady, Mr. Graham (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con)
†Campbell, Sir Menzies (North-East Fife) (LD)
†Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty’s Treasury)
†Coffey, Ann (Stockport) (Lab)
†Cohen, Harry (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
†Davies, Philip (Shipley) (Con)
†Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Gerrard, Mr. Neil (Walthamstow) (Lab)
†Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
†Pearson, Ian (Minister for Trade)
Reed, Mr. Andy (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op)
†Selous, Andrew (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con)
†Simon, Mr. Siôn (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab)
†Williams, Mrs. Betty (Conwy) (Lab)
Frank Cranmer, John Gearson, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee


 
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Thursday 24 November 2005

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

Draft European Forest Institute (Legal Capacities) Order 2005

8.55 am

The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft European Forest Institute (Legal Capacities) Order 2005.

Good morning, Mr. Benton; I am delighted to see you here. A copy of the order was laid before the House on 26 October. It will enable the Government to ratify the convention establishing the European Forest Institute as an intergovernmental organisation, which was signed on behalf of the United Kingdom in 2003. The Joensuu-based EFI was established in 1993 as a Finnish non-governmental organisation. It became an intergovernmental organisation in 2003 to provide a forest research and information source to meet the needs of a rapidly changing Europe. Its aim is to conduct, promote and co-operate in research on forests, forestry and forest products at pan-European level and to make the results of the research known to all interested parties, notably in the areas of policy formulation and implementation, to promote the conservation and management of forests for the sustainable production of goods and services.

Article 12 of the convention establishing the EFI requires members to give the EFI legal capacity—in particular, the capacity to contract, to acquire and dispose of immovable and movable property, and to institute legal proceedings. The order will enable the UK to give effect to that provision. However, it will not provide for any privileges and immunities to be conferred on the EFI. The EFI and its staff will enjoy privileges and immunities in Finland, where it is based, but not in the UK.

Ratifying the agreement will allow the UK to become a full member of the EFI council of representatives and to play an active role in a worthwhile organisation. I hope that this non-controversial order has the full support of all members of the Committee.

8.57 am

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Good morning, Mr. Benton. I am pleased to find the Minister in such an optimistic mood and I am grateful for his opening remarks, which have helped us to be able to see the wood for the trees on this important order. The European Forest Institute appears to be an admirable organisation and is clearly a good example of pan-European co-operation outside the structures of the European Union. We have a number of questions, however, as the Minister
 
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would expect—I know that he would be disappointed if I did not make him work a little, even at this early hour.

Will the Minister share with the Committee the names of the countries that are signatories to the convention and say which signatories have ratified it and which have yet to do so? Does he expect ratification by all the signatory countries? Does the extension of international legal personality to the institute depend on further countries ratifying the convention, or is that possible with the number that have already done so? How does international and domestic legal personality differ from the status that the institute would have if it were an EU body and, indeed, from its current status as a Finnish non-governmental organisation?

The policy background section of the explanatory memorandum to the order asserts that the new status will bring benefits to the European Forest Institute by broadening its perspective,

    “primarily by attracting a wider range of nationals to work at the EFI.”

Will the Minister explain, given the institute’s current legal status as a body operating and employing staff in a European Union country, what the present impediments are to employing staff from other EU countries? Or does the difficulty arise solely with nationals of non-EU states? If so, are we talking about specific countries? Will the Minister go into a little detail on that? Can he also point us in the direction of any precedent for the granting of international legal personality to a membership organisation that, as far as I can tell, is principally funded by membership subscription?

The explanatory memorandum describes the benefits of the new status, which will enable the employment of a broader range of staff, and mentions new powers that will allow the institute to acquire and dispose of property and to institute legal proceedings. Will the Minister enlighten the Committee on what currently prevents the institute from undertaking property transactions, or instituting legal proceedings in Finland?

9.1 am

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): Good morning, Mr. Benton. The Minister said that this was an uncontroversial matter, and that may well be so. However, given the importance of forestry to European countries and the environmental implications of what happens to forests, one or two questions need to be asked.

First, given the importance of dealing with these matters on a cross-departmental basis, will the Minister assure me that there has been close co-operation with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? The Liberal Democrats are completely joined-up on these matters and I hope that the same applies to the Minister and his DEFRA colleagues. That is important because of tree loss, which is a huge issue. Official Government figures show that about 22 million trees in Britain alone have died in recent times and another 900 million are
 
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suffering from moderate to severe defoliation. That is repeated elsewhere in Europe, so the organisation has a big job to do.

There are significant doubts about the legality of imports into European Union countries. The latest figures from non-governmental organisations suggest that illegal imports of timber into Britain are higher than in any other European country—almost 50 per cent. higher than in Germany. It is important to understand the institute’s role, with its new legal base, in monitoring imports to the European Union and ensuring best practice. I have no reason to doubt the body’s good intentions—the signatories to it appear to be bona fide organisations—but there is concern, especially among those in the environmental movement, that attempts are being made to create alternative forest certification schemes that are not equivalent to those that the Government and the European Union have hitherto supported. It may be attractive to those who wish to pull the wool over the eyes of the Government to get support from a body such as the European Forest Institute.

We need to know the competence of the organisation, what role it will have in looking at forest resources in the UK, the EU and more widely, and what method of accountability exists to understand the work that it does—whether its reports will be available to the House, for example. We also need to ensure that it does not inadvertently give succour to those who would undermine the serious attempts of all Governments in the European Union to ensure good forest practice.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton) (Lab): Would not the hon. Gentleman help his own cause if, in turn, he asked the Lib Dem council in Liverpool to keep to its policy of maintaining green spaces? Whereas in fact—

The Chairman: Order. While I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, I must call him to order.

Norman Baker: I always listen to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) with great interest. He is exceedingly well resourced and accurate when he talks about Iraq and very confident on anything to do with Costa Rica and Nicaragua. However, he is perhaps less knowledgeable about—

The Chairman: Order.

9.4 am

Harry Cohen: I shall be brief, as I support the order. I will just ask the Minister to assure me that the organisation is an environmental one, that its interests are forests and that business will not have a vested interest in it, as that would be contrary to the environmental aspects. I hope that the emphasis in the relationship will be on the environment, not on business.

Ian Pearson: I shall try to reply to the points raised in the debate. Let me explain what the order does. It confers legal capacity on the European Forest Institute, thereby enabling us to give effect to article 12
 
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of the convention and to deposit the instrument and ratification of the convention with the Government of Finland. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) raised a number of questions. He asked how many countries had signed up to the convention. Twenty European states have signed the convention on the European Forest Institute: Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the United Kingdom. Eight of them have now ratified it: Norway, Denmark, Croatia, Finland, Sweden, Germany, Spain and Romania.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) asked several questions. I want to assure him that there is close co-operation between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DEFRA. DEFRA is extremely supportive of the work of the European Forestry Institute. He also asked about the institute’s specific role. The EFI’s mission is to conduct, promote and co-operate in the research of forests, forestry and forest products at pan-European level and to make the results of the research known to all interested parties, notably in the areas of formulation and implementation in order to promote the conservation and management of forests for producing goods and services in a sustainable way.

The EFI is largely a project-driven and academic institution which advises us on policy. That should reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (Harry Cohen), who raised the point about business. More than half of its budget is directly project driven. It acquires most of its funding through associate membership, largely from universities and research institutes. The cost to the UK Government is the princely sum of €1,250 per annum, which is our membership fee. For that we think we get good value.

Norman Baker: Will the institute, formally or otherwise, have a role in advising on appropriate forest certification processes?

Ian Pearson: I have not had sight of information on that specific point. In general terms, this is a research institute that operates at pan-European level. It provides a great deal of information and research papers. Those are at the disposal of all EU member states. To that extent it provides information and advice that can be drawn upon by DEFRA. I am sure that if DEFRA wanted to conduct research and to use the EFI’s facilities, it could work with it on a project basis. I do not think that there is anything specific that relates to the EFI’s work in the areas he mentioned.

The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West asked who worked for the EFI. People from a wide variety of member states across the EU work for it. Recruitment to all posts is based on merit, regardless of nationality, to guarantee the organisation’s objectivity and to ensure that countries have confidence in the services that the European Forest Institute provides.


 
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That explains the EFI’s work. Before I conclude, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister. Although I am interested in the range of staff at the institute, the Minister has not explained the impediment or difficulty in its existing employment status, particularly as Finland is an EU country and, as such, is bound by EU employment laws. The explanation that we have been given is that the principal benefit of granting legal capacity to the institute will be to broaden its range of employees.

Ian Pearson: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is correct to say that the sole purpose of the order is to allow wider employment practices. The EFI already employs individuals from a variety of member states. However, it is right to say that the order grants the institute legal personality. That enables it to contract, acquire and dispose of property in the UK. If we did not confer legal personality on the institute, it could not enjoy the benefits that the order provides in the UK. I do not expect the measures to be used on many
 
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occasions. The EFI is a relatively small research body. It has a total budget of about €3 million, so, in that sense, it is not a significant organisation.

Mr. Brady: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. I suspected that we might find some controversy in the order. I direct the Minister to the final sentence of paragraph 7.1 of the explanatory memorandum, which states:

    “This change in status will bring benefits both to the EFI and the wider forestry community in Europe by broadening the EFI’s perspective, primarily by attracting a wider range of nationals to work at the EFI.”

Why?

Ian Pearson: I am advised that, once the EFI becomes an international organisation, it will have increased status. Therefore it will attract more staff. That is the fairly basic point that the explanatory memorandum makes. The EFI will have increased standing as an organisation. More likely than not, more people will want to work for it.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft European Forest Institute (Legal Capacities) Order 2005.

Committee rose at fourteen minutes past Nine o’clock.

 
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Prepared 25 November 2005