I would first like to say that I take full responsibility for the situation that brings me to the House today. Let me make it clear that we have always placed the highest priority on preserving access and protecting our forests, but the forestry clauses in the Public Bodies Bill, published well before we launched the consultation, gave the wrong impression of the Government’s intentions. That is why I am today announcing three steps that will allow for more measured and rational debate about the future direction of forestry policy.
First, I have taken a decision to end the consultation on the future of the public forest estate, and I take full responsibility for that. I am doing so because it is clear from the early responses to the consultation that the public, and many hon. Members, are not happy with the proposals that we set out. Secondly, the Government will support the removal of the forestry clauses from the Public Bodies Bill, which is in Committee in the other place.
Thirdly, I would like to announce to the House that I am establishing an independent panel to consider forestry policy in England. It will report to me with its findings in the autumn. The panel will advise me on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England, and on the role of the Forestry Commission and the public forest estate. The panel will include representatives of key environmental and access organisations, alongside representatives of the forestry industry. I will shortly publish its membership and terms of reference.
If there is one clear message from this experience, it is that people cherish their forests and woodlands and the benefits that they bring. My first priority throughout this period of debate has been securing a sustainable future for our woodlands and forests. On many occasions in the House last autumn, Ministers gave assurances that our aim in all of this has been to do more to maintain and enhance the public benefits delivered by forestry—from recreational access to wildlife protection, and from tackling climate change to sustaining a wide range of small businesses. That is why my ambition to provide a better future for our forests is undiminished.
We have already heard positive suggestions about how we can do that for heritage forests and all other woodlands. We have spoken to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the wildlife trusts, the Ramblers Association and other groups. The Forestry Commission has itself acknowledged that change is needed, and will be fully engaged in the process, as I know that it has many ideas to contribute. We have also been listening to hon. Members on both sides of the House, many of whom have set up their own initiatives and local groups. We want to support them in that.
Finally, I am sorry, we got this one wrong—but we have listened to people's concerns. I thank colleagues for their support through what has been a very difficult issue. I now want to move forward in step with the public. I hope that the measures that I have announced today, signalling a fresh approach, demonstrate my intention to do the right thing for our forests and our woodlands.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s full and frank apology to the House and to the nation for getting this so very wrong. I am sure that the past 48 hours have not been easy for her.
Last night the Government announced that they would withdraw the forestry clauses from the Public Bodies Bill, which is now in the other place, and scrap the consultation on the sell-off of England's forests. Again, MPs heard about a major Government U-turn on the television, rather than hearing it here first. [Hon. Members: “No!”] It came through on BBC News and Sky at 10.20. Can the Secretary of State tell the House when she was informed of the decision that she is now announcing, as her statement is mysteriously absent from the Order Paper today? Only yesterday the Prime Minister told the House that the consultation on the forests, set to run until April, would continue. When was the decision made, and who made it?
Today the air is filled with the sound of chickens coming home to roost. The Secretary of State has discovered that her first priority—delivering the 30% cut that she inflicted on her Department—has a hefty political price attached. Half a million people have marched, mountain-biked and petitioned against her sale of the century. They objected to the once-in-a-lifetime offer to buy something that they already collectively own. Under the cloak of reducing the deficit, she came up with a policy that her own Department admitted would cost more than it delivered in benefits, and which would have fragmented the environmental stewardship of England's forests. I congratulate all hon. Members who defied their party Whips a couple of weeks ago to vote against the sell-off, and I remind those who did not that the public may well extract a hefty price from them at the next election.
Today is not a victory for politics as usual: it is a victory for Liz Searle of the Friends of Chopwell Wood, whom I met in Gateshead two weeks ago, for the Save Cannock Chase campaigners, and for the Friends of Dalby Forest, members of which I met in York last weekend. It is a victory for the Save Our Woods campaign, for Alan Robertson from the Hands Off Our Forest campaign in the Forest of Dean, and for thousands of others. I hope that Government Members are listening to those names and will contact those campaigners. They signed the Save Our Forests petition and the Save England's Forests petition, and supported the silent majority in speaking up and telling the Government, “This land is our land”.
Last Friday the Secretary of State announced that her sale of 15% of England's forest permitted under the law as it stands would be put on hold until the consultation ended. The consultation ended last night—we assume by prime ministerial decree. Will the sale of those 40,000 hectares, or 100,000 acres—10 times more than the Labour Government sold during their entire 13 years, and we then reinvested the money—now go ahead, or will that sale await the outcome of the panel’s deliberations? How many consultation responses has she received, and will the panel consider those responses?
I am delighted that the Secretary of State has finally spoken to the environmental charities and listened to them on the matter. How will the freshly dreamed-up independent panel on the forests be selected? Why are representatives of the forestry industry—the lone voice in favour of her proposals—included in the panel, and why will it meet in secret? Should it not tour the country listening to what people want from their forests and showing a little humility on the subject? Can she reassure the public that foresters themselves, the custodians of forests, will be represented on the panel? How will the campaigners and the members of the public who have spoken up on the issue be represented? What is the status of DEFRA’s forestry regulation—or should I say deregulation—taskforce, which was quietly announced by her colleague in January? Surely we should not have two separate advisory panels, running in tandem, on the future of the forests? Can she tell the House how the Forestry Commission can possibly deliver better access and more biodiversity when it is set to lose a quarter of its staff in the next three months?
This U-turn highlights a wider problem about how this Government work. We have the Prime Minister, a self-styled non-executive chairman, now setting up a unit to monitor Ministers, but he is barking up the wrong tree. It is not individual Departments he should be putting into special measures, but the whole Government, who are out of touch with what people care about, whether that is the opportunity to walk in the forests or to ensure that babies get milk and books, or that our children have the chance to go to university.
I congratulate the Environment Secretary on one thing: she is probably the only Cabinet Minister in living memory to unite the Socialist Workers party and the National Trust in opposition to her plans. Will she learn the lessons of this debacle? She cannot ride roughshod over the people on a policy for which she has no mandate. By offering her 30% cut across DEFRA she has set herself on a collision course with anybody who loves the countryside—and if she will not stand up for the countryside, we on the Labour Benches most certainly will.
As I am sure you, Mr Speaker, and the House are aware, I volunteered to make an oral statement, and an oral statement does not appear on the Order Paper.
I made the decision with the Prime Minister. We have spoken about the matter, as the hon. Lady would expect, on a number of occasions. We spoke face to face about the options open to us, and we made the decision together.
The hon. Lady talks about the savings that I have had to make in my Department without a trace of acknowledgement that the reason Government Departments are having to make savings is the mess that her Government left this country in. I do not accept her argument that the proposals outlined in the consultation would have impacted adversely on the stewardship of our woodlands and forests. Since we are on the subject of stewardship, I remind her that, notwithstanding the savings that we have had to make in our Department, we have protected the expenditure on stewardship, precisely because we know that it is so important.
The many friends of forests that the hon. Lady listed will in many cases have written to hon. Members on both sides of the House to express their concern about their understanding of the forestry clauses in the Public Bodies Bill. In their minds, those clauses gave rise to a concern that their particular dearly loved forest might in some way be under threat. It is clear from my statement that, with the withdrawal of the forestry clauses, there can be no question about the protection of their forests in future.
The hon. Lady asked me about the planned sales. They have been suspended, and we await the outcome from the panel. She asked how many responses we had received. The Forestry Commission has received approximately 7,000 direct responses and 2,500 e-mails, and it has sent out 400 hard copies of the consultation document.
With regard to the composition of the panel, it will represent the broad range of views of all those who share with all of us a love and cherishing of the forests, and want to see them protected. It will be broad. Let me help the hon. Lady with her understanding of the deregulation taskforce, which fulfils a completely different function from that of the panel. We have invited Mr Richard Macdonald to advise Ministers on the simplification of regulation, particularly the regulation of agriculture. The consultation is complete: we have received the responses and we await Mr Macdonald’s report. As I said, this is a completely different function from that of the panel that I have announced today.
I found it quite hard to take the hon. Lady’s comments about the support that the previous Labour Government had given to the countryside—and the reaction of Members to those comments was enough to reinforce that point. Finally, as regards humility—perhaps, ultimately, that is the difference between her and me. I am prepared to come here and show genuine humility. If we heard some acknowledgement from the hon. Lady that her Government sold off forests with inadequate protection, we might begin to take what she had to say more seriously.
The Secretary of State is, of course, right in the reassurances that she gave about the Public Bodies Bill, and I certainly welcome the statement she made last week about the 40,000 hectares, as previously announced in the comprehensive spending review. Will she reassure us that the well-constructed questions posed in the consultation will not simply be lost, or submerged by what has been announced today?
Yes, I can give that assurance. Those were perfectly reasonable questions to ask, and I would expect members of the independent panel to look at all the questions raised in the consultation document—and, indeed, at some additional wider questions that members of the public asked to be considered.
If there is any personal sympathy for the Secretary of State today, it is because she has been publicly humiliated by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. Can she bring herself to congratulate the many people up and down the country, certainly including my constituents, who fought and campaigned so hard against the selling off of one of our most precious national assets?
As I have said, I have no difficulty in life in being frank when I have got something wrong; I have come to the House and said as much. As regards the many people up and down the country whose love for their forests is quite apparent from the responses I received, I would like to reassure them that it was never the Government’s intention to sell off the forests to the highest bidder—[Interruption.] That was never in our minds.
The statutory protection of right of access for walkers and riders, the statutory protection of the environment and the national habitat and the long-term securing of our natural woodlands were all contained in my right hon. Friend’s proposals, but none of them was put forward either by Her Majesty’s Opposition or—dare one say it?—by the push-button campaigners. Those protections need to be hung on to. My right hon. Friend was not wrong; she was right. Will she make certain that this Government protect our forests for the future, as the Opposition, when they were in government, never did?
Of course, I am happy to give that undertaking. It is important to remember that a number of statutory protections—governing access, rights of way, wildlife protection, planning, the care of our woodlands and felling—are already in place. In addition to all that, we Ministers have made it clear on a number of occasions that we want to increase protection for access and other public benefits, because it is apparent from the sales made by the previous Administration that parts of that are not adequate.
I welcome the decision to pulp this policy. The Secretary of State’s attitude towards the House today seems to be that nanny has been misunderstood, and that if people had understood Government policy better they might have embraced it. Let me tell her, on the basis of experience in my constituency, that that is not the case. How will the right hon. Lady ensure that the millions of people who wrote to their MPs and marched against the policy will have their voices heard on the independent panel?
I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s response, because I think we can now be very positive about this, and think about how we manage the forests, how the Forestry Commission can help the smaller forests and how we can get greater public access and biodiversity in them.
I thank my hon. Friend for that observation. It is encouraging that the Forestry Commission agrees that reform is needed, and that we together should have the ambition to do better for our forests and woodlands and to enhance and protect their biodiversity.
Did the Prime Minister offer to come and give the Secretary of State his support in executing this humiliating U-turn? As my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said, the real problem is that we have a Prime Minister who almost prides himself in not knowing what is going on in Government Departments, and likes to float above everything as a non-executive chairman. It is he who needs to get a grip, not just the Secretary of State.
Well, that might have been the right hon. Gentleman’s experience of the previous Prime Minister, but I have spoken to the Prime Minister on a number of occasions over the last few weeks, as it was quite apparent that we were having difficulty with the consultation. I have been very grateful for his support.
I thank the Secretary of State for her pragmatic approach. I seek her assurance that there will be an attempt to achieve not only political consensus but a consensus across the country, in the hope that we can go forward with a better scheme—in sharp contrast, it has to be said, with the sales by stealth made by the Labour Government, whose financial policy appears to be that money grows on trees.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his observation, and his wonderful turn of phrase. He is, of course, absolutely right that this is a difficult issue, as previous Administrations have found. I am encouraged to think that the amount of interest generated in constituencies will encourage Members on both sides of the House to participate in this fresh approach to finding the best future for our woodlands and forests.
On behalf of the many hundreds of constituents in Brighton, Pavilion who wrote to me in opposition to the forest sell-off, I warmly welcome this U-turn. May I press the Secretary of State on the question of the independent panel? How, precisely, will it include the voices of those inspirational grass-roots movements that led the campaign against the forest sell-off? Will she guarantee that its meetings will be held in public?
I hope that the hon. Lady will have heard in my statement what I said about the helpful contributions of the large grass-roots campaigning organisations to debate on this subject. I am quite sure that they will be part of the wide group that we will draw in on our independent panel.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the course she has set is much more likely to ensure that some of the opportunities inherent in her proposals for the New Forest will be brought forward and implemented than would have been the case under the previous means of consulting the House? May I also say to you, Mr Speaker, that I am surprised and shocked by the singular lack of grace shown by some hon. Members?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s apology to the House for this debacle, and the spirit in which it was given. Will she explain the situation in respect of the receipts that were anticipated from the sale of up to 15% of the land? Will she also reassure the House that in considering how to proceed with the English forest estate, she will pay particular attention to the green infrastructure of land around cities and the climate change connectivity necessary to extend forests into such areas so that the effects of climate change are mitigated?
There are quite a few dimensions to that question. As the permanent secretary said when she and I were interviewed by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the autumn, she would have regarded any revenue from the planned sale of 15% of the land as a bonus, because she could not be sure about that. Now that those sales have been suspended, the situation depends on the outcome from the panel, but our Department’s spending plans are not affected by the change.
It is clear that extra woodland cover in proximity to urban areas has a greatly beneficial effect, and the Government have an ambition to plant 1 million trees, which I hope will also enhance biodiversity.
The Secretary of State has had the honesty and guts to come here to say that she presented ideas to the British public, but the British public did not much like them, so she said sorry and came up with a new approach. Is it not instructive that that is in such amazing contrast to the behaviour of that lot on the Opposition Benches who, no matter how many acres of woodland they sold and no matter how much gold they sold and at what price, nevertheless ran our economy into the ditch, from which we are trying to dig it out?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As part of restoring trust in politics, it is important that the electorate see that the Government will listen. It is also very important in our new politics to be transparent, and I agree that had the previous Government consulted and been transparent about the terms and conditions of the sale of the public forest estate, it might have greatly helped the understanding of this issue.
Is not this humiliating climbdown—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] Oh yes, you all voted for it; every one of you. Is not this humiliating climbdown a tribute to the anger of huge numbers of people, including large numbers of my own constituents, who said they would not have this? Is it not deplorable that the right hon. Lady has been made to stand in the corner with a dunce’s cap on her head by a Cabinet that two weeks ago drummed the whole lot of them on the Government Benches—Liberal Democrats and Tories—to vote for the opposite of what she is saying now?
A huge number of my constituents have written to me in the strongest possible terms on this important issue. Will the Secretary of State set out clearly and fully how they can make their views known in public directly to the panel?
I think the hon. Lady will know from the e-mails she has received that the fears of many of our constituents were raised by their understanding of the forestry clauses in the Public Bodies Bill, and one of the things she can do is write to her constituents to explain that those clauses have now been removed. The Department always responds to all correspondence directed to it, and the hon. Lady has more than one vehicle to suggest by which the public can engage with us on the way forward in forestry and woodland policy in this country.
I welcome the statement, and its tone certainly contrasted with the somewhat ungracious response from the Opposition Front Bench; we got no apology for the 25,000 acres they flogged off. The concern in my constituency generally relates to private forests and the public protections we need to ensure we continue to have a benefit. Will the independent panel and the review continue to look at the protections for private forests as well as the public estate?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The public forest estate accounts for 18% of woodland cover in this country, so the vast majority of forest and woodland is in private ownership, and part of the point of moving to a fresh approach with an independent panel and widening the range of questions under consideration is to look at forestry policy and woodland policy in general.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s climbdown on behalf of the constituents who have expressed anger and disbelief to me about what is happening, but given both that the Government have said this is meant to be the greenest Government ever and that they have got rid of the Sustainable Development Commission, is it not about time that what has happened to this policy does not happen in all the other areas of biodiversity? Is it not time that the Government set out how they are going to embed sustainable development in all future policy in both urban and rural areas?
The hon. Lady is Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee and I respect that, but I encourage her to look at the Government’s first nine months in the round. In that period, my Department has had the success of concluding a multilateral agreement on biodiversity, as well as making sure we have a ban in place on commercial whaling, and protecting and enhancing biodiversity through maintaining the environmental stewardship scheme, to name but three measures to put in the balance. Later this spring, a natural environment White Paper will be published as well, of course.
I gave a ministerial answer once saying, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake.” That was not duplicated once during the 13 years of the Labour Government. Will the Secretary of State consult Felix Dennis and the Tree Council about voluntary planting, and will she also allow me to say that many of the messages on this got caught in spam filters, so many of the 500,000 people who sent e-mails may not have received a reply?
I thank the Secretary of State for changing her mind; it is a relief she has done so. May I also ask her to seize the opportunity, because what she tried to do has brought to light a passion for our woodlands and forests that many of us did not realise was so great? As chairman of the John Clare Trust, I appeal to her to use it. Forests are wonderful, and natural forests are even better, but we have got to get children and families to visit forests. The likelihood of a child visiting any green space has halved in a generation, so will she also consider how we can expand forests and get people to use them?
That is a constructive suggestion, which I am sure the panel will take forward. Many non-governmental organisations and green groups have spoken to us about the opportunity such a panel presents to deal with some of the issues that beset our forests and woodlands, and to address their own aspirations to do better by them.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we definitely will not be pursuing the policies of the previous Government, such as selling 25,000 hectares of forest without any access granted? Will she also confirm that the thrust of Government policy will be to transfer forests to communities so that they can own them via co-operatives or other community bodies?
Ministers have on numerous occasions given reassurances to the House that we would not proceed with those planned sales without better protection being in place. I am sure the independent panel will look at the genuine interest from community and local groups in being more involved in the management and ownership of their local forests. There are many examples of communities that have successfully provided a safe future for the woodlands and forests near where they live.
Will the right hon. Lady please explain to my constituents why she has wasted so much of her time scurrying between TV and radio stations, desperately trying to defend selling off our forests before having to make an embarrassing U-turn today, when she could have been taking action to tackle urgent issues such as dangerous dogs?
I have not been anywhere near a TV or radio station all day because I understand the primacy of Parliament. It is important to come here first and make a statement. Naturally, as a Minister, in addition to dealing with the issue of forests, I have a large number of matters with which the Department is dealing. We always ensure that they are not compromised or affected by anything that we may be dealing with at one point in time.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement today, and I regret the lack of clarity on access for the public and on the protection for biodiversity and landscape. I do not understand why we are cancelling a consultation when the new panel will need to hear and make its decision by autumn. It might be more logical to continue with the consultation for the remaining ten and a half weeks so that the public can continue to add their views to the current process.
It is clear from the early responses that members of the public are responding in many cases to what they have read in the press or what they have heard, rather than necessarily understanding the policy. Many of the responses were received before the publication of the policy on 27 January. Looking at those early responses, it is difficult for Ministers to proceed with the consultation as it is. None the less, all those responses and the questions contained in the consultation will be part of the work that the independent panel will review.
I can explain to the hon. Gentleman that the Forestry Commission’s plans to make savings in line with the savings that my Department and other Government Departments must make have no connection at all to the consultation or the setting up of an independent panel. Savings are necessary because we have to fill a hole in the nation’s finances that was left behind by the Government of whose party he is a member.
May I put on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for listening to me and my constituents over the past month, and may I encourage her not to listen to the Opposition, who sold off woodland greater in area than the city of Nottingham during their term in office? I wonder whether this is an opportunity to increase the biodiversity of woodlands such as Sherwood in Nottinghamshire, by increasing the number of broadleaf trees and oaks rather than the coniferous woodland that exists at present.
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I thank him for his positive approach. There certainly is an opportunity to improve and enhance biodiversity. Non-governmental organisations such as the Woodland Trust have expressed a desire to increase the rate of restoring plantations on ancient woodland sites, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is keen to look at the restoration of heathlands. That is precisely the opportunity that this fresh approach affords.
The advantage of modern technology is that documents such as consultation documents are now largely viewable online, so in the figures that I gave about the number of responses that we had received and the number of hard copies dispatched, the hon. Gentleman will be able to see that the public expenditure is minimal.
I thank and commend the Secretary of State for her bravery and honesty on this subject. What has emerged from the woodwork is not just thousands of constituent e-mails, but a significant number of eminent academics and professors with knowledge of the subject. How can they feed in their views to the expert panel?
I can assure my hon. Friend that honesty is always the best policy. That is what I always try to teach my children. The interest in the subject has produced very good suggestions from scientists and academics about ways in which we can improve biodiversity and the protection that currently exists for woodlands and forests. They, too, will have the opportunity to feed in to the panel through the Department or directly to the representatives on the panel.
Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity to dissociate herself from the disgraceful comments from the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale), who is no longer in his place, that the many thousands of people who were roused to anger by the proposals were push-button campaigners?
I am unaware of those remarks and not in a position to comment. The hon. Gentleman has heard from me that I entirely respect the passion that people in our country have for their woodlands and forests—a passion that I share and applaud. I want to make sure that it is responded to by creating the best possible future for our forests and woodlands.
I am a member of a partnership that is in receipt of farm woodland grants to promote public goods such as access and biodiversity—but in Wales, not in England, which is the subject of the statement? I am very pleased that the Secretary of State has broadened the consultation to cover private forestry and woodland, which, when well managed, can deliver both commercially and in terms of public goods. How does she intend to recruit people to represent this part of the industry, or is she looking for volunteers?
I am always interested in volunteers. We are looking particularly for those who have a good understanding of the issues involved in the management of forests and woodland. I have named before the House a number of green groups that have a long heritage of protection of our environment, but it is important that we have representatives of the private forest estates, so if the hon. Gentleman has suggestions he should let me have them.
I am sorry that the Chancellor has gone, because I wanted to thank him as well as the Secretary of State for the great boost they have given to Blaydon Labour party over the past few weeks during this fiasco. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) for mentioning the great work that is being done by the people fighting to save Chopwell woods. My message to them is, “Don’t stop fighting.” What has happened today is not the end of the story. I want to ask the Secretary of State one specific question. Will there be a representative of the work force on the independent panel? They know what is going on.
My right hon. Friend is aware that I have three forests in my constituency—Rendlesham, Dunwich and Tunstall—and I held a public meeting last Friday. People there will welcome the announcement that she has made today, particularly those who are concerned about access. I am encouraging those people to join bodies such as the Suffolk Wildlife Trust and Friends of Sandlings Forest, but a particular point came up about access. Horse riders, carriage drivers and cyclists are slightly concerned that some of the organisations that my right hon. Friend mentions are closing access now, supposedly to protect biodiversity, wildlife and so on. Will she bring that to the attention of the panel when it meets?
I would be delighted to bring those concerns to the panel. I know that my hon. Friend has met large numbers of people in her constituency and approached the whole issue with great diligence. I think she would therefore acknowledge that there are some important questions to resolve, and tensions between different access groups. This is precisely one of the aspects that I will ask the independent panel to look at.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on at least resolving a centuries-old philosophical problem—namely, if a tree falls in the forest and one takes one’s eye off it, it does make a noise. It makes a noise sufficiently loud to be heard right across the country and to expose the lack of grip that the Prime Minister has on his Government’s policies.
I take it that the shadow Secretary of State has a commitment to recycling, given the way she shamelessly plagiarised the joke by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), the president of the Liberal Democrats. I praise the Secretary of State for her honesty and courage, which the public want to see more of in our politicians. I am proud to be part of a Government who listen to people, unlike the previous Government. I ask that, as we go forward, we do not lose some of the positive proposals, particularly those on real, long-term protection for our important heritage forests.
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. In the normal sequence of events, the independent panel would give advice to Ministers, and if Ministers judged it to be correct we would then proceed with a consultation White Paper, which might give rise to legislation if changes in the law were required to provide the extra protection.
I genuinely welcome the Government’s response. One of the plagues of politics is that it can sometimes be very difficult to back down and admit that something was wrong. I urge the Secretary of State, having reprieved vulnerable trees, to urge some of her colleagues to reprieve vulnerable people who will be subject to benefit cuts.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on this decision and thank her on behalf of the 1,000 constituents who e-mailed me requesting a review. May I also make her aware of the fact that the Opposition, when in government, sold off forest land three times the size of Blackpool before this policy was even put before Members?
My hon. Friend makes a clear point, which we would have liked to have seen acknowledged by the Opposition, but let us try to be more generous-spirited and learn from their previous mistakes. If it was wrong to sell off the public forest estate with inadequate protection, we as a new Government can do better.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on her statement and the manner in which she delivered it. More than 300 constituents have written to me on the subject and will be reassured to have a Government who are prepared to listen to them and act on their concerns. I urge her to resist any temptation to take any lessons from the Opposition, whose consultations in general, and on woodlands in particular, were either lamentable or non-existent.
I thank my hon. Friend for that observation. It is right that I should acknowledge fully before the House that we have all received much correspondence as constituency MPs, whether electronic or in hard copy. This is an important opportunity for us as parliamentarians to demonstrate that we do debate in Parliament, that we are able to communicate with our constituents and that we listen and are prepared to respond to them. I hope that hon. Members will be able to use today’s statement to communicate with the many people from whom they have received correspondence.
Like all Government Members, I congratulate the Secretary of State on this extremely important statement. May I put on the record the number of people in South Derbyshire who support the national forest and who were very concerned, but whose fears I am now able to allay? The national forest is such a good product that I hope we will be to make it larger once the independent panel has been set up.
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We should have the ambition to try to increase woodland cover, and the national forest is a good example of an amenity that reaches out to a wide cross-section of society, providing the opportunity for enhanced biodiversity and public access. It is the Government’s aspiration to plant more trees, and the national forest is a good example of how that can be done well.
I welcome the statement and applaud the fundamental decency, integrity, transparency and humility that the Secretary of State has shown. Given the hundreds of e-mails that we have all received, I suggest that there is an opportunity to harness the great interest in a sustainable woodland for the benefit of the country. Perhaps she would set out ways in which those many people can contribute to that future that they seek.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. This has been a difficult issue, as I have said, but it has also provided an opportunity to encourage all those people who corresponded with us to be more involved in the protection and enhancement of our woodlands by volunteering. Engaging with our constituents in the opportunities to plant more trees and protect our woodlands is a good outcome for all of us who love our woods and forests.
Under the policy of the previous Labour Government, Cannock chase could have been sold off without any protection for access whatsoever. That would have been completely reversed by the granting of heritage status under the Secretary of State’s previous proposals. The people of Cannock chase will rightly feel that today’s decision leaves their forest as exposed as it was under Labour, so what reassurances can she give that the granting of heritage status will remain an option for the independent panel and that there are no plans, and never were, to sell off Cannock chase?
I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that, as Ministers have said many times, we wish to protect access and other public benefits for all woodlands and forests. I will certainly encourage the independent panel to look at the issue of heritage forests. He has done an admirable job of speaking up for Cannock chase and made a strong case for it being considered a heritage forest, and I am sure that his constituents will thank him all the more for that.
The residents of Macclesfield enjoy the wonderful benefits of access to Macclesfield forest, which is owned by United Utilities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) has said, access for horse riding groups, climbers and walkers will be important and needs to be considered in future. Will the Secretary of State confirm that access will be at the heart of the terms of reference that will be crafted for the new independent panel?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. It is important that the panel looks at all forms of access, including access for walkers, riders and cyclists, because sometimes their needs are not completely compatible. As has been explained to me, if a horse ruts a path, it is not easy for a cyclist to go along that same path. A good way forward for the panel is to look at those different forms of access. We want to expand access to our forests and woodlands because it is in everyone’s interests that we do so.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the third largest forest in England, Thetford forest, is largely in my constituency, and I received an awful lot of correspondence on the subject. I will be sending all correspondents a copy of this exchange, because I think that the dignified way in which she has carried herself has been exemplary and they will be reassured by everything she has said. The overwhelming point they made to me was that the most important things for the future of the forests are access rights, the protection of biodiversity and not using the matter as a political football, as some have sought to do.
My hon. Friend’s constituents are absolutely right: forests and woodlands are precious to this country and we should be seeking to protect them and enhance their biodiversity. The aspiration of the Woodland Trust to accelerate the rate of restoration and plantation on ancient woodland sites is a good example of how we can provide an even better future for our forests.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and thank her for listening to the robust challenges from myself and other Government Members. It takes a lot to put your hand up, say you got it wrong and say sorry in a place like this, but I believe that, in doing so, the Secretary of State and the Government will have earned a great deal of respect from the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I do remember his robust advice to me, and I hope he feels reassured to know that I have heeded it. We can all learn throughout life from all the decisions that we take, and I am certainly part of the wide body of mankind that will do so.
And even better than Cannock chase.
In reality, the Opposition’s criticism is wrong, because many of us got into this business and ran for Parliament because we thought that the way the countryside was being treated was manifestly wrong. Over the years, they rode roughshod over us, and that was totally wrong.
It is more than my life is worth to get drawn into a competition over who has the best forest, as we all have candidates, but my hon. Friend is right, and he can be reassured that the Government, drawn from two parties with a large number of rural constituencies, have taken rural issues and the needs of the countryside very close to their heart indeed.
I, too, commend the Secretary of State for the very gracious way in which she made her statement, which in itself executes a welcome policy re-think, showing that this Government, at least, listen to the views of constituents. In that regard, will she help me to reassure the 1,250 people who wrote to me in Bristol West about the issue—the biggest postbag I have ever had on any issue in my six years’ membership of the House—that the primary focus of the independent panel will be to enhance public access to woodlands, whether they are under Forestry Commission management or not?
I am not going to get drawn into who had the largest postbag, either, but I absolutely can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. Our absolute priority, as I said, is to protect and to enhance access to, and other public benefits of, our forests and woodlands, so I hope that he can reassure some of the 1,250 people with whom he corresponded that that is the case.
I, too, thank my right hon. Friend for listening to public concern, but when she sets up her independent panel, will she ensure that it supports small-scale independent nature reserves such as my local Hodge lane nature reserve in Tamworth, where every week volunteers come together to do important work, including coppicing, planting and clearing? The work that they do for their environment needs to be supported, too.
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. I hope that he heard—through some of the groups that have talked to our Department about the issue, including the Wildlife Trust—that we do appreciate the huge amount of volunteering and work by the public, who care passionately about nature and their nature reserves, woodlands and forests. That will, indeed, be integral, and fostering that spirit of volunteering, in the spirit of the big society, is something that the panel will very definitely look at.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it makes a hugely refreshing change to have a Government who consult and genuinely listen to the mood of the people, rather than just dogmatically driving through policy in the face of public opposition, as the previous Labour Government did? I compliment the Secretary of State on her courage and honesty and offer her the comfort of remembering that there is never a bad time to do the right thing.