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Forestry Authority: Monitoring Performance

Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 9 June 1998

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2.49 p.m.

Whether they are satisfied with the Forestry Authority's performance in monitoring privately owned British forestry, particularly in relation to planting, harvesting and policy on sustainability.

My Lords, we are satisfied with the Forestry Commission's performance in monitoring privately owned forests in Britain. The commission inspects forests to ensure that they meet a wide range of silvicultural and environmental standards and comply with our commitments on sustainability. The UK forestry standard explains how further monitoring will be carried out through a combination of scientific study and national surveys.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that extremely reassuring reply. However, is he aware of the aims of the Forestry Stewardship Council—an unaccountable foundation based in Mexico—which seeks to impose a new regulatory scheme on British forestry which is going through an extremely difficult time at the moment? Does he not think it right that the Government should try to persuade the Forestry Stewardship Council to accept the Forestry Authority as the necessary regulatory body in this country?

My Lords, I am indeed aware of the activities of the Forestry Stewardship Council. We are, of course, committed to the idea of sustainable forestry. I believe that the UK forestry standard is the appropriate test. We must recognise that some large retailers—commonly known as the 95 Plus Group—are concerned to establish independent certification. I believe that could best be done by all parties agreeing to use the UK forestry standard as a base with independent audit and thus obtaining certification in that way. I believe that is the appropriate way forward. I hope that the Forestry Stewardship Council will be able to accept that.

My Lords, I express an interest as the chairman of the all-party forestry group in both Houses. Is the Minister aware that we are all concerned about the destruction of tropical forests but have serious doubts about the ability of some campaigners to monitor that process? As regards the United Kingdom, does the Minister really believe that it is necessary to impose on the industry a new body, the Forestry Stewardship Council, when the Forestry Commission has an international reputation for good research and management in forestry and has grant giving powers to the private sector? Has it not sufficient expertise and sufficient power without imposing a new organisation on the industry?

My Lords, I have no intention of imposing the Forestry Stewardship Council on the industry but, as I have said, I recognise that some major retailers and purchasers of timber at this moment look to the Forestry Stewardship Council as a certifying body. I believe that the way forward is not down that route but through the UK forestry standard.

My Lords, at the risk of Question Time becoming a little wooden, does the Minister realise that I agree with him absolutely? Can the noble Lord use his influence to persuade some of these companies of the reality of the situation? While standing in a Sitka spruce forest in Argyll, one sometimes feels that one is in a rainforest, but that is not the case. It is a perfectly sustainable form of forestry and has certainly been planted and felled during the lifetime of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, and perhaps during my lifetime, I regret to say. Our forestry is sustainable. The Forestry Authority's standards are excellent. It supervises planting, thinning and felling. There is no need for an extraterritorial body to monitor what we already do well in this country.

My Lords, I am happy to accept everything that the noble Lord has said. The noble Lord and I are in agreement today and I am sure that will be the case in the weeks that lie ahead.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the World Wildlife Fund International has placed British forestry 12th out of 15 countries as regards quality of forestry? Does he agree that that is unfair? Is the Minister's department doing anything to try to cancel that stigma which has been placed on British forestry? Is he satisfied with the general advice which is given to those concerned with forestry in this country on sustainability and biodiversity? My understanding is that at the moment it is site specific and there is a need for more general advice on this issue. Is that available?

My Lords, a considerable amount of general and specific advice is available on sustainability and biodiversity. As regards the so-called European "score-card" published by WWF, that is a total and complete nonsense. The main criterion it uses is the extent to which a nation has been able to retain its ancient forests. Britain experienced the industrial revolution and the agricultural revolution some time ago which inevitably destroyed a large proportion of our ancient forests. However, WWF's "score-card" makes it impossible to improve one's score as once an ancient forest is lost, by definition it cannot be recovered.

My Lords, does the Minister admit that in the Government's promotion of their excellent native pinewood schemes in Scotland, the Forestry Authority can occasionally be a little bureaucratic in insisting on natural vegetation censuses when there is really no point in them? Will the Minister look into the problem and remove this unnecessary and expensive bureaucratic procedure, and thus encourage more of these excellent schemes for the regeneration of the natural pinewoods of Scotland?

My Lords, I am well aware of the noble Lord's interest in this area. He has made a major contribution to land use in Scotland, in particular as regards natural forests. I shall look into the specific point he makes, but I am sure he realises that one needs regulatory schemes when one is distributing public funds.