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Government Of Wales Bill

Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 9 June 1998

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8.40 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 88.

[ Amendment No. 211A not moved.]

Clause 88 agreed to.

Clauses 89 to 93 agreed to.

Clause 94 [ Staff etc.]:

Page 47, line 9, leave out from beginning to ("by") in line 10 and insert ("Any function of the Auditor General for Wales may be exercised").

The noble Lord said: This is a purely technical amendment to bring the wording of this clause into line with the text of paragraph 5(5) of the schedule which we discussed earlier and which this Committee agreed last week. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 94, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 95 to 97 agreed to.

Clause 98 [ Auditor General for Wales: miscellaneous]:

[ Amendment No. 212A not moved.]

Clause 98 agreed to.

Clauses 99 to 104 agreed to.

Clause 105 [ Publication of accounts and audit reports etc.]:

Page 54, line 13, leave out subsection (3).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 105, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 106 agreed to.

Schedule 5 [ Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Schools in Wales]:

Page 86, line 40, after ("of') insert ("the Office of").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is similarly a drafting amendment. It simply ensures consistency with the definition of the office of chief inspector. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 5, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 107 [ Forestry Commissioners]:

On Question, Whether Clause 107 shall stand part of the Bill?

This clause deals with the proposed arrangements for the Forestry Commission. I, for one, would certainly be grateful to the Government for an explanation of what is proposed. As I understand it, there is to be a tripartite division of the Forestry Commission. There are to be separate parts of the Forestry Commission, one responsible to the Scottish Parliament, the other responsible to the Welsh Assembly, and a section of the Forestry Commission which is responsible, I take it, to the United Kingdom Parliament.

I should be grateful for a fuller explanation of what is proposed, for the obvious reason that a unified Forestry Commission has been generally very acceptable in this country in recent years. We have seen the benefits that have emerged from having a unified forestry authority.

I should be grateful for an explanation in detail of what is proposed and how the responsibilities are to be divided, how the assembly, in particular, will take on responsibility for the commission in Wales and how such responsibility is to be reconciled with the responsibility for forestry in the rest of the United Kingdom.

8.45 p.m.

I warmly welcome the opportunity briefly to debate forestry. I also welcome the Government's decision to devolve forestry to the national assembly.

Forestry policy is an integral part of land use, countryside, agriculture, tourism, recreation, sustainable development policy and many other things. The forestry industry has retained employment throughout rural Wales since 1919 when the Forestry Commission, as one of the oldest of our nationalised industries, was established.

The development of forestry was originally in order to maintain a supply of timber; now its further development in relation to both private forestry and public forestry in terms of the pulp and paper mill industry in Wales; the growth of saw mills in mid-Wales and also the importance of timber and brushwood as a secondary energy source, all point to the importance of planning forestry in a sustainable way.

I am certain that the Minister can assure us that that is the intention, that we will carry with us the best of forestry practice throughout the UK and Europe but also integrate that effectively with land use within Wales. I am also certain that under the assembly we may look to the development of further forestry, particularly from sustainable woodland, broad-leaved and mixed woodlands and the replacement of forestry in an environmentally sensitive way, which is now taking place in many parts of Wales.

Before the Minister intervenes, as a former forest Minister, perhaps I may say a few words about forestry.

I must say to the noble Lord that we can both speak from the Front Bench. We do not do it often but other parties in this Chamber do it frequently. I seldom do it.

This subject is important. The reason it is simply a clause stand part debate is that we would like to explore with the Government how they envisage the Forestry Commission operating after devolution.

The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, in a debate in your Lordships' House on 29th October 1997, a debate instigated by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, from the Liberal Democrat Benches in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, said at col. 1125:
"The functions of the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales in relation to forestry will be transferred to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly respectively. The commission will however continue to be the government department with responsibility for forestry throughout Britain. The commission will report separately to the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly but will still he a national responsibility. I hope that provides some comfort and confidence to my noble friend".
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, unfortunately is not here. I have to say that it did not provide me with much comfort and confidence. I am still puzzled. Schedule 6 is a long and complex schedule to achieve what I might sum up as the dismemberment of the Forestry Commission and then its coming together again. That seems to me to be surprising.

Forestry is an important industry in this country. We are not heavily forested, as we heard this afternoon at Question Time: something like 10 per cent. in the United Kingdom. I am not sure of the Welsh figure but I think that it is probably better than 10 per cent. Scotland is certainly better than 10 per cent. But in comparison to Germany at 30 per cent. and France at 26 per cent. we are pretty poorly off for forestry. But, despite that, it is an important and growing industry in the United Kingdom. The output from our forests is about £800 million a year, and growing. Against that figure, which sounds large, we have about £6 billion of imports.

Some 40 per cent. of the forestry section is run by the Forestry Commission. The other 60 per cent. is run by the private sector. The Forestry Commission, which is now in two, has an involvement in the private sector in that the Forest Authority, as all sides of this place agreed this afternoon in an exchange with the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has a major role to play in the private sector. After all, it gives the planting agreements and the felling agreements, and it is a pretty big and important player.

Not only does that make for a large number of jobs in the countryside throughout the UK, and especially in Wales; it makes for a great many what I call downstream jobs. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, mentioned that point. Over the past 10 years about £1 billion has been invested in the UK pulp and paper industry. In Wales, there is the Shotton papermill and other wood users. They are not just local sawmills but industries that manufacture hardboard and the like. They are serious and important manufacturing industries which do not just employ people but keep down the £6 billion import bill.

Forestry has been treated on a UK basis. Until now, the Secretary of State for Scotland has been the lead Minister. For a while I was the Minister in the Scottish Office responsible for forestry throughout the UK. That is a little while ago, but my interest in forestry has in no way waned.

I am not sure whether the Ministers will be able to help me. I hope that they can. It may be easier to deal with this point when we come to the Scotland Bill, because the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, is currently the lead Minister for the UK on forestry. I am sure that the two Ministers have been well briefed and will accept my proposition that forestry is important for Wales. That does not relate merely to the growing of timber but to the Shottons and the downstream jobs.

Places such as Shotton depend for their timber supplies not just on Wales but on other parts of the UK. I do not know what happens currently, but in the past forests in the south of Scotland have been supplying Shotton. I make that point to try to bring home to the Committee the fact that the UK forest industry is a unified one.

My fear is that the splitting up of the UK forest industry will lead to the Scottish parliament looking at Scottish forestry and being much more concerned with the supply to the Scottish downstream industry, whereas the UK Government and the Forest Authority are interested in the supply of timber to all manufacturing plants in the UK. Currently, the Forestry Commission, albeit responsible to the lead department in Scotland, looks at the matter from a UK point of view. It works out how timber will go to Shotton. In another year—it is like that—it may be how Welsh timber goes over the border and into England and may be even comes to the pulp mill at Irvine in Scotland. There is a cycle in timber which means that there is a great deal of felling going on in one part of the country and that timber has to be dispersed about the market place.

It is that united forest industry that I fear may be broken up. I can see the Government deciding what money to give the Forestry Commission in Wales. It might say, "We are not interested in supplying timber to Irvine or to England". Conversely, and perhaps more worryingly for Wales, an English Minister or a Scottish Minister may decide that they are not interested in supplying timber to Shotton. They may say that it is not their problem; it is the problem of the Welsh assembly. That is a difficult and dangerous position in which to land the Forestry Commission.

In a minute I shall ask how we will divide up the expenditure, which is not currently divided. I want to carry on with planting. Governments can skew planting. The Government could decide that they were obsessed with the green lobby. I did not like what are called—I believe erroneously—exotic species, which are sitka spruce and the like, which I agree are not native but which grow extraordinarily well in our climate and are in demand in the market place.

We need planting to feed the mills. If we do not have planting to feed the mills, in 20 or 30 years' time we may not have the timber that they need to carry on. As I have tried to explain, that planting has to be done on a UK basis, so that one can look at the whole picture, and the total demand, whether it be Shotton, Irvine, the hardboard manufacturers, Caberboard in central Scotland or whatever it may be. The Forestry Commission has been able to look at the total demand and supply picture, and work out with the UK Government what type of grant machinery should be in place to deliver that timber.

Noble Lords who have heard me speak about forestry before are aware that I should like to see more planting done in the UK. That inevitably means the necessary grant, because the tax advantages no longer exist. If the UK Government, who will be the Government of England so far as concerns forestry, decide that they want to be green and plant lots and lots of hardwood and skew the planting programme for hardwoods, that could, not next year or the following year but in 20 years' time, have an enormous consequence for Shotton because it may not be able to obtain enough wood. I am worried about that. My worry was in no way diminished when on 18th February the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, told me:
"it would be perfectly possible for the grant system in Scotland to be different from that in Wales, and from that in England".— [Official Report, 18/2/98; col. 256.]
I am concerned that that could result in us not looking at forestry in the UK in a unified way. We might end up not with a problem, as I said, in the next decade, because all the timber that will go to the pulp mills in the next two or three decades is already growing. But in the decades after in the 2020s and the 2030s the problem could occur.

I am worried that one of the players—let us say England—may decide, "We are not interested in softwood any more". That could have serious consequences for Wales and Scotland. If the Scottish parliament decided that it was interested only in supplying timber to the timber industry in Scotland, that could have consequences for Shotton and other places in Wales. The point I am making is that one cannot turn on and off the supply. The planting is done for supply 30 years hence. One can obtain a great deal of timber out of one part of the country for a little while, as the woods come to maturity and they are all being clear felled. For another 20 or 30 years there may be very little timber from that part of the country.

I am trying to emphasise what I believe is the need to look at forestry as a UK asset. Forestry should be based on a UK strategy. If the Forestry Commission is answering to the national assembly for Wales, the Scottish parliament and the UK Parliament for England, it could be looking at three different strategies which may not all be pointing in the same direction.

My second concern relates to how one negotiates with three different local governments the money that the Forestry Commission needs. If the Forestry Commission has to split its accounts, it will have to spend time and trouble to do so. Its bureaucracy will cost more if it has to split its accounts. It is easy to decide that the forest officers in Wales are a call on the Welsh portion of the commission. I assume that the headquarters will remain in Edinburgh. How will those people who make the decisions in the forest authority in Edinburgh divide up their time? Will they have to keep a log sheet: "From 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. I dealt with forestry in Wales. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. I dealt with forestry in Scotland"?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Is he not arguing against devolution of any control of forestry to the Welsh assembly or to the Scottish parliament? He simply makes a Second Reading speech.

I am sorry that the noble Lord is so disinterested in the forestry industry that he does not consider these detailed points deserve an answer. This speech is a good deal more detailed than a Second Reading speech. I suspect that I would be chided if I had such detail in a Second Reading speech and that the noble Lord would say that such speeches are broad brush. I seek to go into detail.

The noble Lord's conclusion may be right. I am extremely concerned about the Forestry Commission being split up. I do not deny that. I am prepared now to sign up to devolution. However, I have a few continuing worries; the Forestry Commission is one. I am quite relaxed now about health, education or local authorities going to the devolved parliaments. But we must explore the problems on one or two issues. The very fact that the Forestry Commission has almost four pages and a whole schedule to itself in the Bill underlines the difficulty of splitting up the Forestry Commission.

There is no point in the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, saying that somehow one does not need to ask these questions; I believe that one does. We shall have the difficulty of the Forestry Commission dividing itself up and having to argue about its budget with three different masters. The law of the Medes and Persians tells me that each master will try to screw the commission down, paying it the least amount. It will say, "No you should not have all these items in. That will go to the English chap, or the Scottish chap". The Scottish and English will try to do the same with the Welsh chap. It will be very difficult.

I have a number of detailed amendments that could have been put down. However, I wish to explore how the Government will implement a devolved Forestry Commission. I do not say that I shall not come back to the subject. However, previously we have had assurances of the best in the best of all possible worlds. That may be so. But I know a little about government. Whether it is the UK Government for England, the Scottish government for Scotland or the Welsh assembly for Wales, they will not part with their bawbees too readily. They will try to part with as little money as possible. That could be bad for the administrative budget of the commission.

The more important issue is the grant system. I understand that it will have to be paid by the Welsh assembly so far as concerns Wales. I do not worry so much for the Welsh growing industry; I suspect that a Welsh assembly will understand the importance of planting conifers. I am more concerned about an English Government, where the pressures—as I know from being a forestry Minister at one time—are on the hardwoods. The supply of sitka spruce may not be as readily available over the Border in 20 or 30 years as it is now. Places such as Shotton may be in severe trouble.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister will say. It might have been better had the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, had this debate the first time round, as the current Minister responsible for forestry in the UK. However, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, has been well briefed. He has been told the difference between hardwoods and softwoods, sitka and other species. I hope that he will give me some assurance that my fears about the division of the Forestry Commission are ill founded and that I can rest comfortably in my bed while the trees grow.

9 p.m.

I hope that the Committee will forgive my addressing the Government of Wales Bill rather than a government of Scotland Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, says that it might have been appropriate for the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, to make the response. That would be so on the Scotland Bill.

I had better tell the noble Lord now that the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, is the Minister responsible for forestry in Wales as we speak; and England and Scotland.

What I am pointing out, I hope reasonably politely, is that this is the Government of Wales Bill. The noble Lords, Lord Roberts of Conwy and Lord Elis-Thomas, rightly, I suggest, focused on what the amendment is about. There are two amendments. It is probably helpful, if the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, thinks it useful, to deal with Clause 107 and Schedule 6 at the same time. They are different aspects of the same point.

It is important on these occasions not to be alarmist, not to worry people who live and work in Shotton. It is an area which historically has been deprived of heavy industry, with the run down of other alternatives. It is important not to raise alarmist fears. If there is a market for a product which is wanted for Shotton, it will be supplied either by Scotland, Wales or England. I do not believe—I am surprised that an advocate of the free market system suggests—that growers in England controlled by the Forestry Commission would be reluctant to try to sell their product to Shotton. That is not the world I recognise.

Perhaps I may focus on the point. In the context of the Government of Wales Bill, should Clause 107 and Schedule 6 be deleted? Perhaps I may focus on Wales. I entirely agree with what the noble Lords, Lords Roberts and Lord Elis-Thomas, said. Forestry is important to Wales. Over 4,700 people are employed; 1,270 are employed by the Forestry Commission. So it is important. The forest area in Wales is not limited to the land owned by the commission. In March 1997 the forest area of Wales was 247,000 hectares. Of those, 120,000 hectares were owned by the commission at that date. As the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, said, forestry allows farmers to diversify in difficult times. They can plant woodlands instead of agricultural production. A well-planted forest is attractive to tourists and provides excellent habitat for wildlife. To answer the noble Lord, Lord Roberts of Conwy, we are not proposing a separate forestry commission for Wales. I hope that is the categoric assurance of the kind the noble Lord wanted. There is no question of dismemberment. If one troubles to cast one's eye over Schedule 6, paragraph 1(1) states:
"The Secretary of State may by order make provision for securing—
(a) the separate exercise in relation to Wales of functions of the Forestry Commissioners".
There is no question of dismemberment. We do not propose to create a separate commission for Wales.

In the context of devolution—which, to echo the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, is one that I thought the Committee had accepted—it is right that the assembly should have responsibility for settling the commission's policies and funding activities in Wales. Following devolution—here, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish—there are bound to be matters that affect Great Britain generally. One would be looking for agreement between the Ministry of Agriculture, a representative of the Welsh assembly and the appropriate Minister in the Scottish executive.

In view of some comments, I must say plainly that there is no prospect that under Clause 107 of and Schedule 6 to the Government of Wales Bill, employment of the present workforce in Wales will be prejudiced in the slightest way. It is very important that one does not say things that alarm people in an area that is central to their lives—namely, their employment, home, social and local life. We think this is the proper way to deal with things. I stress that I am dealing with the Government of Wales Bill, not with what may or may not be said of the Scotland Bill.

In Wales, there will be no separate forestry commission. Not all planting is the same. Not all local conditions are the same. One wants decent flexibility in Wales, which will be subject to discussions between the Welsh assembly and the Forestry Commission officials who have to deal with Wales. That seems a step of practical utility, not the end of the world as we know it. It is an aspect of devolution that has been thought through. Bearing in mind my assurance to the Committee, I hope that the noble Lords, Lord Roberts of Conwy and Lord Elis-Thomas, will be content and that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, will withdraw his resistance to Clause 107 and Schedule 6.

I recognise and welcome the tone in which the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, put his arguments—as an inquiry about what will happen in Wales. I do not myself believe that a market in Wales will not be fulfilled by Scottish, English or Welsh producers. Similarly, if there is a market in Scotland, I do not think that producers in Wales will be chary of travelling over the border simply because there are new constitutional arrangements. That is not realistic. If the noble Lord has specific concerns, I will be perfectly happy to convey them to my noble friend Lord Sewel, who will deal with them in the appropriate context. Whether or not there are worries in filling up time sheets in Edinburgh does not strike me as enormously helpful in considering Clause 107 and Schedule 6.

Clause 107 agreed to.

On Question, Whether Schedule 6 shall be agreed to?

It is not difficult to understand how concerns about the operations of the Forestry Commissioners spread outside the devolution proposals for both Scotland and Wales. Schedule 6 makes clear, at paragraph 1(3), that the functions of the forestry commissioners

"(b) may be exercised differently in relation to Wales on the one hand and England or Scotland on the other."
That is only an indication but the fact that statement has to be made in the context of a schedule headed "Forestry Commissioners" shows that there is to be a change that must be carefully managed.

We have been accustomed to a unified Forestry Commission that pursues policy in England, Scotland and Wales that is complementary in the sense that such industry as uses forestry products in the UK draws them from different parts of the kingdom and abroad. The whole industry is run on a national basis and governmental control of forestry has been exercised for some considerable time through the Scottish Office. Therefore, it was natural for my noble friend, who had responsibility for forestry in the United Kingdom when a Minister at the Scottish Office, to express his concerns about the future and the way in which the forestry commissioners will operate in England, Scotland and Wales. His concerns extend way beyond this Parliament to many aspects of the forestry industry in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Having received assurances from the Minister that the arrangements will not allow for such separation as is required in England, Scotland and Wales for the purposes of the assembly in Wales and the parliament in Scotland, I am content that we should withdraw our objection to the Question that Schedule 6 is agreed to.

Schedule 6 agreed to.

9.15 p.m.

Before Clause 108, insert the following new clause—

(" Privilege of Assembly