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Volume 530: debated on Thursday 30 June 2011

1. What recent discussions she has had with the chair of the independent panel on forestry on the future of the public forest estate. (62873)

First, I am sure that the House would like to join me in wishing the Bishop of Liverpool, who chairs the independent panel, a speedy recovery from his recent operation. As the panel is independent, it is important that its members, including the chair, enjoy complete freedom to produce their report, the scope of which extends beyond the public forest estate to include the future of all England’s forests.

First, may I associate myself with the right hon. Lady’s comments about James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool? She will be aware that at least some members of the independent panel think that more of our woodlands should be in public ownership, not less, so will she give the House a commitment not to sell off any more publicly owned forests and woodland, and instead to seek to work with partners to find ways of adding to it?

As I have said, the panel is independent, and I have had no separate conversations with its members to hear the views that the hon. Lady has expressed. The important thing is to wait for the panel to report to us with its recommendations. In the interim, Ministers have made it absolutely clear that there will be no further sale of the public forest estate.

Does the Secretary of State recall that in the 1990s John Major, as Prime Minister, launched an initiative in the national forest to develop a parliamentary area, where MPs could sponsor a tree? The aim of that voluntary activity was to encourage biodiversity and help the forest. Could the independent panel consider such initiatives, because I am sure that throughout the country there are groups of individuals who would like to do their bit?

My hon. Friend is right, and I remember that extremely good initiative. We want to encourage not only parliamentarians but all individuals, and schools and places of work, to plant more trees. We aim to plant 1 million new trees within this parliamentary Session. I will certainly look at the parliamentary scheme as an opportunity to remind colleagues how important it is that we do our bit.

I supported John Major’s initiative, which was very good, and sponsored two trees in memory of my parents. If we care about our forests and woods, we must ensure that the next generation visits, enjoys and learns about them. The number of out-of-school visits is collapsing and we must do something about it. Will the Secretary of State join the initiative of the John Clare Trust, which I chair, in launching the “Every child’s right to the countryside” campaign, and give it a bit of support?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the opportunity for our children to learn in nature is incredibly important, as we highlight in the natural environment White Paper, in which we have given an undertaking to remove the barriers to outdoor learning. The Department for Education wholly supports that.