Committee (7th Day)
My Lords, before I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into a Committee upon the Bill, I should like to beg your Lordships’ indulgence by taking a few minutes to update the House on the work that has taken place since the Committee last met to improve this Bill.
During the Second Reading debate, I made it clear to this House that I intended to engage in an open dialogue with noble Lords throughout the Bill’s passage. I feel confident in saying that I have to date delivered on that promise. Since the last day in Committee, 11 January—which seems a very long time ago, and I am sure that noble Lords have shared my withdrawal symptoms—I hope the time has not been wasted. Indeed, it has been well used. The Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right honourable friend Mr Francis Maude, ministerial colleagues in this House and I have participated in a number of meetings with Peers from all sides of the House seeking constructive and proportionate solutions to concerns regarding this Bill. Such discussions are a crucial part of the work of this House, and I have no doubt that they will continue. I pay tribute to the positive spirit in which noble Lords, including those on the opposition Benches, have looked to work with the Government to achieve our shared objectives. As a result of this work, the Government have today laid a number of significant amendments to the Bill. I hope it will be helpful to the House if I briefly describe their effects as they are relevant to the debates that we shall be having over the coming weeks.
First, I am happy to inform the House that the Government continue to engage in constructive discussions with my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern on the safeguards that should apply to orders made under the Bill, particularly in relation to Amendment 175, which has been tabled by my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill. We intend to reach a solution that will offer further protection for the necessary independent exercise of public functions, including judicial functions, and we will require that orders made using the powers in this Bill are proportionate in their effects. The noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, are working closely with the Government to inform this approach, and I thank them for the rigorous and helpful analysis that they have brought to bear on this process.
I wish to address the overall structure and purpose of the Bill, with particular reference to Schedule 7. Noble Lords will be well aware that the Government’s policy is that all public bodies should be subject to regular review to ensure that their functions are still required and are delivered in the most effective and efficient manner. This is a goal to which the Government remain committed and one which I am sure will continue to receive support from all sides of the House. Schedule 7—and the corresponding power to move bodies between schedules, as described in Clause 11—was designed as a pragmatic mechanism to facilitate this goal by creating a means by which changes to public bodies could be made following future reviews without recourse to further extensive primary legislation.
The Government absolutely recognise that some public functions need to be carried out independently of Ministers. Schedule 7 was never intended to hinder or threaten that independence. However, it has become clear during the passage of this Bill to date that this House is uncomfortable with the nature of Schedule 7. As many noble Lords, including members of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the Constitution Committee, have made clear, it is a feeling that is strongly held by much of this House that Schedule 7 represents a significant delegation of power to Ministers and has the potential to hinder the independent delivery of public functions.
Noble Lords will, I hope, forgive me for maintaining a more positive interpretation of the Government’s intentions. None the less, I have listened with great care to the voice of this House and have taken its concerns to my colleagues in government. Indeed, the Minister for the Cabinet Office has met a number of noble Lords, who have taken the opportunity to put these points to him in person. Consequently, I can confirm to the House that the Government have accepted the arguments that bodies and offices should be listed in the schedules of this Bill only where Parliament has given its consent in primary legislation. On this basis, we intend that Schedule 7 and Clause 11 be removed from the Bill. I am therefore adding my name to existing amendments opposing the Question that the relevant clauses of the Bill stand part.
In this context, I should also inform the House that it will be necessary as a result of the removal of Schedule 7 to introduce a small number of amendments that move bodies currently listed in Schedule 7 to one or more of the remaining schedules. These changes shall ensure that all reforms announced as part of last year’s review of public bodies can be implemented. These amendments will be made at a later stage in the Bill’s passage, but I hope that the House will be assured by the fact that these moves, and the reforms to which they relate, will be scrutinised in primary legislation.
I will now reassure those of your Lordships’ House who have concerns about whether the provisions in the Bill on the transfer of functions could be used in a way that could undermine the independence of charities. I make it absolutely clear that the Government have not considered, nor would they ever consider, using the Bill to transfer functions to charities without their consent or make consequential changes to their constitutions without such consent. We continue to work with charities to ensure that that reassurance is made as explicit as possible. The reform of public bodies will ultimately help to empower rather than undermine the role of charities and the independence on which they rely.
Finally, I refer briefly to the clauses in the Bill that relate to forestry. As noble Lords will be aware, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs made a Statement in the other place on 17 February, setting out the Government’s intention to end the consultation on the future of the public forest estate and to remove the relevant clauses from the Bill.
My noble friend Lord Henley will set out the Government's revised approach on this issue in greater detail later today. However, I can confirm that I have added my name to amendments to remove the relevant clauses and schedule entries to the Bill, including the regional advisory committees established under Section 37(1)(b) of the Forestry Act 1967, which is listed in Schedule 1.
Progress on this Bill to date has not always been smooth. It has certainly been drawn out longer than I had hoped. However, I take comfort in the knowledge that the expert scrutiny of this House has improved and will continue to improve the Bill. Again, I thank all noble Lords who contributed to this process. In tabling the significant amendments that I described today and following our existing amendments to introduce both a statutory period on consultation and the option for Parliament to select an enhanced affirmative procedure, the Government have demonstrated their commitment to engage with and respond to your Lordships' House. I hope, following these amendments, that we will be able to make progress on the Bill with a renewed sense of shared purpose and in the constructive spirit that characterises this House at its best. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the statement that he made. Naturally, I warmly welcome the radical changes that he proposes, especially in relation to Clause 11, Schedule 7 and Clauses 17 and 18. I am also grateful for his willingness to engage in open dialogue and to make changes. That is this House working at its best and I am pleased that it is working in this way.
I also recognise that with a new Government, especially a coalition Government, who came to power having been elected on two different manifestos, it is difficult immediately to produce quality Bills. However, the paucity of this particular Bill was extraordinary, as was widely recognised by the Constitution Committee, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee and the House of Commons Public Administration Committee, all of which produced devastating critiques of the Bill. It was an unnecessarily rushed Bill and it is clear that the proposals were not properly thought through and that there was no proper consultation. It is thanks to the time that we took to scrutinise the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill that this Bill has been recast, just as we suggested it should have been in the first place.
In the mean time, those bodies that were listed under Schedule 7 and their employees have suffered, as have the communities living in and around the forests and woodlands of our country. But I am grateful to the noble Lord and I hope that the Government will have learnt lessons from this Bill and will ensure that, in future, consultations and White Papers come before legislation in the tried and tested manner.
We continue to have concerns about the process and we will be looking to the Government to make further changes in respect of the super-affirmative procedure. We will also be looking for amendments in relation to the sunsetting of certain aspects of the Bill. Today we will discuss forests, RDAs and the UK Film Council. Thanks to the U-turn on forests—our forests seem to be secure at the moment and we are grateful for that—I hope that the Government will reconsider their proposals on RDAs and the UK Film Council. We will all want to celebrate today the brilliant British success at the Oscars last night with “The King’s Speech”. We are all terribly proud of that. I look forward to our debates later on today on these issues.
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Taylor for the dedicated way in which he has applied himself to considering the criticisms of the Bill that were made during the earlier stages of debate. I congratulate him on the generous way in which he has involved Members not only of the coalition but of the Opposition in the dialogue, which has unquestionably moved towards much more coherent and democratic procedures for winding up bodies which are past their sell-by date. This has exemplified the maxim of John Stuart Mill that the best government is government by discussion. I strongly welcome the approach and hope that it will continue until the Bill is enacted.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach for informing us of the removal of Schedule 7 and Clause 11. I was seriously concerned about this matter because I was until the general election the chairman of the Delegated Powers Committee, and I think I am its only surviving former chairman. As it was drafted, the Bill gave power in Schedule 7 and Clause 11 for the Government to do all sorts of things whenever they decided to do so. It was entirely uncertain, and whenever I looked at it I saw in my mind the quotation from King Lear:
“I will do such things, what they are yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth”.
What is now proposed is broadly within the standards recognised by your Lordships’ House for delegated powers and I am very pleased that this difficulty is over. It will cut a very substantial amount of time from what we would have expected.
My Lords, the Minister was kind enough to refer to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and myself. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, is sorry that he cannot be here today, but I explained to him what I would like now to say. We are delighted that over the past seven weeks discussions have continued with members of the Civil Service, the Cabinet Office, and so on, on what to do about Amendment 175. My noble friend Lord McNally, who is even more optimistic than I am, said seven weeks ago that he hoped and believed that we would be able to come to a satisfactory arrangement on Amendment 175, and I share his hope still. It is extremely important that this is settled by the next day this Bill is in Committee, because it goes to the architecture of the Bill. Although we are debating details today, the House will need to be quite sure that the safeguards in Amendment 175, or something very close to them, are in place before the Bill leaves Committee. Otherwise, we will be in the position of someone trying to cross a river and not knowing whether a stepping stone is solid or slippery.
Schedule 1: Power to abolish: bodies and offices
44: Schedule 1, page 17, line 8, leave out “National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.”
My Lords, in this new mood of enthusiasm for constructive scrutiny, I rise to speak to the amendment standing in my name and in the names of my noble friends which would remove NESTA from Schedule 1. My purpose in tabling this amendment is to find out why the Government thought it necessary to convert NESTA from an NDPB to a charity, and to understand the processes by which they will do this and at the same time safeguard public money and the remit given to NESTA by Parliament.
NESTA was set up in 1998 with a statutory remit to support and promote talent, innovation and creativity in the fields of science, technology and the arts. It does this by leveraging private capital into the next generation of innovative, entrepreneurial businesses, running cutting edge experimental programmes to test new ways in which to solve big challenges of the future, and building an evidence base that provides policy options to promote innovation. Its work has focused on innovation for economic growth, cheaper public services, and in the creative industries. All these seem to be areas where the UK economy needs all the help that it can get.
NESTA has done many good things, and I am a supporter of it. In this connection, I declare my interest as chairman of the Health Innovation Committee for the Young Foundation, which benefits from the generous support of NESTA. However, it is not self-evident to me that most of NESTA’s work is in pursuit of a charitable purpose, as defined in the current Charities Act. What discussions have the Government had with the Charity Commission to confirm that the work of NESTA would be accepted as a charitable purpose, and when did they take place? I am assuming that there will be no significant change of functions, or do the Government have other plans? Will the Minister also tell the House what discussions there were with the board of NESTA about converting it into a charity before Francis Maude made his announcement on 14 October? Was the board enthusiastic about the idea, or did it have problems about being an NDPB, which interfered with the discharge of the role given to it by Parliament in 1998? What other options or alternatives to an NDPB or a charity have been considered by the Government?
Alongside those questions, there are some important issues relating to the substantial sum of public money that would be transferred into a charitable body if the Government turned NESTA into a charity. NESTA is funded by an endowment from the National Lottery, which has grown from the original £200 million and now stands at well over £300 million. Along the way, the National Lottery has given it repayable loans and revenue allocations. NESTA does its work through the allocations, loans and the investment income from its endowment, without grant in aid from the Government. How would NESTA’s funding work in future if it was a charity? Would the current endowment be transferred in total to the charity, bearing in mind that charities can change their charitable purpose? Do the Government have any plans to cut NESTA’s endowment when its status changes? We need answers to these questions before we include in a cavalier fashion a perfectly satisfactory body such as NESTA in Schedule 1 and create unnecessary uncertainty about its future. I beg to move.
My Lords, I, too, am a supporter of what NESTA has done and of its very innovative work and enormously important initiatives. I looked with some puzzlement at the Government’s proposals and join my noble friend in asking some further questions to see whether we can be clear about what the Government propose. My noble friend has already asked about the status of discussions between the Government and the Charity Commission on the future of NESTA. It is not always easy setting up a charity, as—quite properly—certain conditions have to be met. How far have the Government got with those discussions to be satisfied that charitable status is appropriate and proper and would be reasonably easy to achieve?
Furthermore, I understand that in the new scheme of things there is to be an individual called the “protector”, who will, presumably in addition to the Charity Commission, have supervisory responsibilities. What will be the powers and responsibilities of the protector and how will they sit alongside the responsibilities of the Charity Commission?
Will the Minister further confirm that there is at present no burden on the taxpayer because of the endowments held by NESTA? Therefore, there will really be no change in public expenditure or public responsibilities if and when NESTA becomes a charity. In other words, there is clearly no financial benefit in all this except possibly at the margin, where I am told that there might be some savings in not having to deal with civil servants or something of that sort. I am not quite clear how that will work, so maybe the Minister could explain that.
I have two further questions. If not all NESTA’s current endowments are appropriate for charitable purposes, I therefore assume that not all the money will be transferred to the new charity. However, if it is not transferred, where will it go? In other words, there are some functions of NESTA that are not totally charitable; clearly, these are now funded by the endowments. What will happen to the money appropriate to those non-charitable functions? Secondly, given that there are trustees to be appointed to run a charity if the proposal goes ahead, how will the trustees be appointed? By what process will they be appointed and what will be the safeguards?
My Lords, I rise to speak briefly as a great admirer of NESTA, an organisation that works in an exciting and important area of our society to create a viable commercial future for science, technology and the arts. NESTA’s core objective is to combine capital investment with non-financial support to help innovative early-stage companies to turn their ideas into commercial success. These target companies, referred to as seed companies, are vital for the cultural success and economic growth of this country. Without this assistance in the early stages of development, these companies will be held back from reaching their full potential. We should all be grateful to NESTA for its part in facilitating the creative industries’ £50 billion annual contribution to the economy.
NESTA is a unique organisation with a world-class reputation. It is the UK’s leading expert on innovation and carries out some cutting-edge work with the creative industries. Let me give your Lordships three examples. Its creative mentoring programme brings together new creative businesses with successful figures in the industry to help them to grow. It has worked with the National Theatre to bring live theatre to more people through the power of digital distribution. It is also working with our fashion industry to encourage the best UK designers to work more closely with British high-tech manufacturers.
NESTA is also recognised as one of the UK’s leading organisations producing world-class research, concentrating on exploring future areas of economic growth. It has always enjoyed a greater level of independence than any other non-departmental public body because of its unique set-up. NESTA has an endowment from the National Lottery, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and therefore operates at no cost to the Exchequer. In this case, moving NESTA from the public to the third sector will, in principle, allow it to continue its vital work as an early-stage seed funder and to act as a test bed for innovative solutions to some of our greatest challenges in the commercial creative sector.
In terms of detail, it would be helpful if the Minister could comment on the following points, which have also been raised by my noble friends Lord Warner and Lord Dubs. What consultation have the Government undertaken with the board and different interested groups about the change? What process will the Government use, as my noble friend Lord Dubs asked, to select and appoint trustees? The Minister may also like to inform the House, in light of the Public Administration Committee’s recent report on quangos, why this body is one of the few bodies to have been singled out for charitable status.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Warner, for introducing this amendment, and the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, for their contributions, which give me an opportunity to explain how the Government see the role of NESTA. It is government policy to reduce the number of NDPBs and NESTA did not meet the Cabinet Office criteria for remaining an NDPB. However, NESTA and its activities are still considered highly valuable to UK growth and innovation. The Government are clear that they want that work to continue. That view will be widely held throughout the House.
We have no intention of winding down NESTA and its activities. Instead, the proposed reconstitution of NESTA as a charity, with its £329 million endowment held in a separate charitable trust, will allow it to continue its valuable work. Far from halting its activities, establishing NESTA as a charity preserves its ability to deliver its public benefit mission at no cost to the taxpayer. I confirm the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that there is no question of saving the taxpayer money in this matter, since the body is independent of taxpayer funding. We can further distance it from government and enhance its independence by making these changes. It will therefore cease to be classified as an NDPB and as part of the public sector. We have already worked closely with NESTA to develop the detail of this reform. We will seek Charity Commission approval for the proposed new model. This model builds on that successfully used by the Millennium Awards Trust, which similarly derived much of its funding from the National Lottery. We want to build on that model.
Once NESTA becomes a private sector charity, the Government will no longer select or appoint the trustees. The separate charitable trust, which will be created to hold the endowment in the public sector, will have a protector. The intention is for the protector to be appointed by Ministers and for NESTA the charity to be the trustee of the trust. The role and powers of the protector are yet to be defined but they will be based on the Millennium Awards Trust model. This is a very positive step that is being taken by the Government. We firmly believe that this model represents an opportunity for NESTA to continue its success. However, we also believe that NESTA’s current status as an NDPB is by no means a prerequisite for it to continue to flourish. Establishing NESTA as a charity is part of the Government’s wider commitment to hand power to the big society and not simply to rely on central bureaucracy to control public life. The Government’s proposed model reflects this objective while safeguarding the public interest in the large endowment managed by NESTA.
I have been asked by many noble Lords about the nature of the discussions that we have had with the Charity Commission. There was an initial discussion with the Charity Commission last December and there has been an exchange of correspondence since then. This is designed to ensure that the objects of NESTA are charitable. BIS and NESTA itself have carried on these discussions. They are positive and we are confident about their outcome. While there have been no public consultations, officials worked closely with NESTA’s senior management team to develop the charitable option and NESTA consulted informally with its board of trustees, which is supportive of the change in status. NESTA also consulted several key stakeholders. Its staff were informed on 14 October 2010, following the Government’s announcement on public bodies reform. Since then NESTA has held regular meetings with staff to inform them of the transitional process and provide the opportunity to address any questions or concerns that they had.
In a statement released at the time of October’s announcement, NESTA’s chair, Sir John Chisholm, said that the board welcomed the decision and described it as an extremely positive move for NESTA. The statement also contained endorsements from Sir James Dyson and from Sir Stuart Etherington, chief executive of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations. Since then, NESTA has written to key stakeholders and engaged with the public via its website and social media sites, giving details of the proposed transition and welcoming any questions regarding the change in status. In the light of these considerations, I hope that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his full explanation. I am still just a shade puzzled as to what will happen if the Charity Commission does not accept that the purposes defined by Parliament meet its requirements as to a charitable purpose. Many of those purposes defined by Parliament have at their heart economic development. Before the next stage, so that we can be absolutely clear, I would like more assurance from the Minister, perhaps in writing, that there is not going to be a slip between cup and lip over this that would damage NESTA and the work that it does. On the basis of an assurance in that area, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.
Amendment 44 withdrawn.
Amendment 45 not moved.
46: Schedule 1, page 17, line 10, leave out “Railway Heritage Committee.”
My Lords, I am very pleased to continue the mood of co-operation and friendliness between the various parts of the House in relation to my Amendment 46, which is supported by two of my noble friends and by the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, on the Benches opposite.
I start by expressing my appreciation to the Minister for his willingness to engage with me from Second Reading when, having heard my speech, he realised that what was initially proposed by the Government did not make a lot of sense, was causing a great deal of anxiety and needed to be put right. The way in which he and indeed his noble friend, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, have engaged on this subject has been excellent, and I thank both of them very much.
I am not going to argue for the continuation of the Railway Heritage Committee as a non-departmental public body. It has had that role for only about five years. Previously it had been a committee first under the wing of the British Railways Board at the time of privatisation and subsequently under the Strategic Rail Authority.
When the SRA was abolished, it became an orphan. I declare a past interest as its unpaid chairman at the time. We thought that the Department for Transport would provide a secure, long-term home for it. That optimism was misplaced, as the department originally intended to use this Bill to get rid of it altogether on the grounds that railway heritage was not sufficiently special to justify statutory protection. The signs are now that Ministers do not take that view, and I shall outline in a few words today how I hope we will be able to establish a new arrangement which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, will be able to accept on behalf of the Government.
What I shall propose achieves the Government’s two objectives behind the Bill, which were a long time ago, as he said in his initial statement. The first objective is to reduce the number of non-departmental public bodies and the second is to save taxpayers money, while at the same time, with the Railway Heritage Committee, preserving something that is really important. The RHC came into being as a direct consequence of the privatisation of the railways. When the railways were state-owned, obligations were imposed on the British Railways Board and its predecessor, the British Transport Commission, to ensure that what was significant to the history of the railways was preserved. That was a statutory obligation that was imposed on them. However, given privatisation and the fragmentation of the industry, it was necessary to create a new statutory mechanism to ensure that the process was continued. Initially, provisions in the Railways Act 1993 covered heritage items and records owned by the British Railways Board, but it was quickly realised that these measures were not adequate for dealing with the new companies that had entered the industry.
The response to that was contained in a Private Member’s Bill, introduced in the other place by a Conservative MP, Mr Mark Robinson, which achieved total cross-party support in both Houses. I read the Hansard reports of those debates, and the arguments for statutory powers of designation and for the principle that our nation’s railway history is sufficiently special to justify its legal protection were, and still are, compelling. Thereby, the Railway Heritage Act 1996 was passed, with the RHC operating initially under the auspices of the BRB.
The way in which the system works is that the RHC identifies artefacts and archives that are sufficiently important to justify preservation and then, after careful consideration, issues a designation order. Often the artefacts will still be in use on the working railway, and the designation is simply to ensure that the artefacts are looked after and not destroyed. When they no longer have any operational use, the owner seeks permission from the RHC to dispose of them. This is granted on the basis that they go to a good home—perhaps the National Railway Museum, another accredited museum, a heritage railway or, in a few cases, a private collection, with due accord given to the requirements of the Scottish museums movement and the railways in Scotland.
As the railway industry has been fragmented, designation has provided a structured way of identifying important artefacts and records, and it avoids the political pressure that would otherwise come from enthusiasts who are passionate to preserve a much wider range of items, regardless of costs. With designation there is a good process and good governance. Without it the result would be confusion and frequent requests for government intervention.
It was originally thought that these arrangements could be made on the basis of voluntary agreements, but during the passage of the 1996 Act they were rightly rejected by Ministers as unworkable. I agree with them. It is interesting that as recently as 12 January, the Education, Lifelong Learning and Culture Committee of the Scottish Parliament, while considering the Public Records (Scotland) Bill, heard evidence on behalf of the Scottish Council on Archives. The keeper of the records said that,
“a voluntary scheme would be rather like new year’s resolutions: we all start off with genuine enthusiasm and then gradually, as other things emerge, the enthusiasm wanes … We need a statutory framework as a fall-back position. It is particularly important because we are not just talking about traditional paper records; myriad electronic records systems—if I can call them systems—are emerging”.
The same applies to railway artefacts. The RHC has worked happily with the industry, whose members see it as a helpful partner that not only relieves them of much of the burden of worrying about preservation matters but complements their serious commitment to railway heritage. It is possible without statutory powers to foresee circumstances whereby one difficult company could effectively spoil the arrangements for everyone else.
Such is the degree of support within the railway industry for the continuation of the RHC—or for its statutory powers—that when an extensive consultation exercise was carried by the Department for Transport in 2008-09 to gauge the degree of support for extending the scope of the RHC to take account of the changes since 1996, there was virtually unanimous support for that proposition. Indeed, Transport for London specifically asked that London’s underground railways should come within the committee’s scope. Backing for the continuation of the RHC has come in the form of numerous letters to the Minister for Railways and, I suspect, to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach.
If the committee were to be abolished, there would be no statutory protection of records and artefacts from now on, and future historians would find a void where at present there is a complete and accessible record. There would have to be a process of de-designation covering more than 1,000 artefacts and countless records and drawings that have already been designated. This would have a totally disruptive effect on the modern railway industry and add significantly to the costs of the National Railway Museum, which would find itself bidding at auction for items that at present it receives free of charge from a co-operative and supportive railway company.
There is a way through these difficulties, which I have discussed with the Minister and his officials in the Bill team. My proposition is that the RHC ceases to be a non-departmental public body in the Department for Transport and that its functions and statutory powers are administered by the National Railway Museum on behalf of the National Museum of Science and Industry. I should advise the Committee that I was appointed a trustee of the NMSI by the Prime Minister in January. The chairman of the NMSI board of trustees issued a totally supportive statement on 13 January saying that they were willing to take on this responsibility, and the noble Lord, Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, the previous chairman of the museum, sent me a message this morning to the effect that, although he cannot be here this afternoon, he fully supports the proposals, which I have discussed with him and the NMSI.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister that the Government accept the solution that we have been working on together and that they will start drawing up the necessary statutory instrument to implement a railway heritage scheme. When we first discussed this, the Minister told me that he thought this was in line with the Government’s big society approach. That was his phrase, not mine. It would indeed reduce the number of NDPBs by one. It would save public money because the National Railway Museum would provide administration support, saving the employment costs of the one member of staff who is currently involved in running the RHC. It would also provide an opportunity for volunteers to continue to do what they already do very effectively. It is a sensible way forward and I commend it to the Committee. I beg to move.
My Lords, my name is attached to the amendment and I fully support what my noble friend has said about the concerns and needs of the railway heritage sector. I congratulate him on the work that he has put in over many years to look after and preserve the heritage of the railway, which I think is unique. I suppose I would say that because I am very interested in it, but it is part of our national heritage.
Many noble Lords will know that the whole of the Great Western Railway was built to broad gauge by a fellow called Brunel, whom we all revere as having built wonderful smooth tracks, great bridges and excellent locomotives. However, many noble Lords might not know that not a single broad-gauge locomotive has been preserved because at the time the industry was much more interested in conversion, making money and moving forward. However, if this organisation had been around then, I am convinced that one or two locomotives and other pieces of equipment would have been preserved.
I worked on building the Channel Tunnel for 15 years. We managed to preserve one of the boring machines on the UK side and stuck it beside the motorway at Folkestone. The French half of the organisation put another one on a roundabout on the motorway at Calais. The UK one has been chopped up for scrap but the French one is still there, so we do not have a very good record in preserving these things. When something has lost its usefulness, people say, “Let’s make some money and scrap it”, or they are too busy doing something else. Therefore, this heritage committee forms a very important link in ensuring that a selection of the most important pieces of the railways is preserved.
My noble friend also mentioned the history of the heritage committee, starting off in its British Rail days. It went through the Strategic Rail Authority stage and then, as he said, became a bit of an orphan. The Government are going through another reorganisation of the railways at the moment. I do not know what it is going to produce but a similar thing has happened every five or 10 years for the past 20 years. My noble friend’s proposal that the Railway Heritage Committee responsibility should be transferred to the National Railway Museum, which I hope will have a much longer life, until the next railway restructuring is an excellent idea, so I wish him well in his onward negotiations with the Minister. I hope that the Minister in his response will give us some comfort that this might actually happen.
My Lords, I have a slightly broader question for the Minister. What discussions have taken place between the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the Office for National Statistics on what actions current NDPBs need to take in order to shed that status? I declare an interest as chairman of the Design Council, an organisation that is enthusiastically seeking to shed NDPB status and become a charity. A degree of frustration is already arising that this is not as easy as it appears on the face of it. If this frustration is being experienced by a number of similar organisations, it would be helpful if this could be clarified as soon as possible.
My Lords, I will be relatively brief, having seen a copy of the statement on the Government’s intentions for the Railway Heritage Committee. As my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester has explained, the committee exercises statutory powers in designating railway artefacts and records so that they do not get damaged, destroyed or lost to ensure that what is important to our nation’s railway history is preserved. The committee also has the function of agreeing which institution shall hold the records and artefacts so designated when they are no longer required by the railway business that owns them. It also deals with the terms under which they are to be offered to such institutions. To quote its mission statement:
“The Railway Heritage Committee is established by statute to secure the preservation of evidence which is significant to the railway’s history”.
As the Government’s own briefing note recognises, most of the people involved with the committee act on a voluntary, unpaid basis and the cost of the Railway Heritage Committee is currently around £100,000 per year. Good value for money, one would have thought, and perhaps that is how the Government might have seen it from day one if their decisions last year on the future of public bodies had been taken with a little more thought and a little less speed. My noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester has worked tirelessly to try to ensure that the important statutory work of the committee continues, albeit not through a continuation of the Railway Heritage Committee as the Government have already announced their hasty decision in principle to abolish it. It would be interesting to know whether the Minister knew as much about the invaluable and cost-effective work of the committee at the time the decision was taken to abolish it as he does now. I suspect not. Decisions are usually better when they are based on facts following discussion rather than assumptions without discussion.
However, we recognise that the Government, subject to confirmation from the Minister, have apparently shifted their position in the light of the powerful case made by my noble friend. My noble friend’s proposal is that the Railway Heritage Committee’s power of designation should transfer to the board of trustees of the Science Museum, which also encompasses the National Railway Museum and thus has a very direct interest in railway history and the statutory work that is currently undertaken by the Railway Heritage Committee. I understand that the Minister is likely to be giving a positive response to my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester’s proposal, which, from the Government’s point of view, provides a face-saving formula. The Railway Heritage Committee would still cease to exist, as the Government have already announced, but the important and invaluable statutory functions of the committee would be retained. This would enable the Government to avoid what would have been fully justified criticism that, for the sake of £100,000 a year, they were prepared to see a vital part of our nation’s history lost, damaged or destroyed and the enthusiasm and dedication of so many volunteers discarded and rejected.
The Government’s briefing document says that their decision in principle in October to abolish the Railway Heritage Committee did not include plans for a successor organisation. That statement is less than frank. At that stage, the Government had no intention of there being a successor organisation. It will be thanks only to the efforts of my noble friend Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and others who recognise the importance of preserving our railway heritage, if, as we hope he will, the Minister indicates when he responds that the Government are now involved in serious discussions to ensure that the statutory functions of the Railway Heritage Committee will continue, albeit through a different channel, and will not be abolished by this rushed, ill-thought out and high-handed Bill on which the Government are back-tracking with ever increasing rapidity.
My Lords, perhaps I should start with the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Bichard. I hope that he will allow me to write to him, because the question extends somewhat beyond the brief I have on this particular body; but it points to the complexity of the reform of public bodies and why this has not been a particularly easy process.
The proposal today affects two government departments as well as the Cabinet Office, so it is frequently quite complex. However, there is a desire across government to achieve reform of the public body sector which I think is widely shared in this House. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that I am always ready to learn from the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and I have been greatly informed about the work of the Railway Heritage Committee as a result of the dialogue that I have had with him. I join in the tributes paid across the House to the work that the noble Lord did during his period as chairman of the Railway Heritage Committee. I thank him for the energetic and positive way in which he has reacted to the Government’s changes and for what he has done to bring about what I hope will be a satisfactory outcome.
I hope that the noble Lord will understand when I say that the committee’s appearance in Schedule 1 does not reflect on the distinguished service that he and his members have given to the committee over the years. The committee’s current powers are to apply a statutory designation to rail-related items of heritage interest.
The noble Lord’s amendments would move the committee from Schedule 1 to Schedule 5. They would therefore allow the committee’s powers to pass to another body while it retains its status as a public body. I understand the noble Lord’s desire for the committee’s powers to be retained, for example under the National Museum of Science and Industry, which operates the National Railway Museum—and I am delighted to hear of his involvement in that—but he should be aware that that would best be achieved by the RHC remaining in Schedule 1 and the powers being transferred at the time that the RHC is wound up.
The need to reduce the cost of government is an important consideration, but it is not the only one. The review of public bodies that took place last year began by asking whether a function needed to be carried out at all and, if so, whether it was appropriate for it to be carried out by a public body. Our analysis recognised that the railway industry already had a long and proud record of preserving its heritage, and I pay tribute to the industry itself and to the flourishing voluntary railway heritage sector for that undoubted success. Our proposal to abolish the RHC did not imply that we have no interest in railway heritage or that the good work that has already taken place would not be supported by other means. On the contrary, the Government are very sympathetic to rail heritage, and the spending review settlement for the DCMS will ensure our continuous support for the National Railway Museum. I know that the NRM and its parent body the National Museum of Science and Industry will want to engage actively to support the work of the railway industry and the voluntary railway heritage sector.
In the context of the review of public bodies, the question for the Government is therefore not only whether we can justify the cost of the committee but whether we can justify retaining a statutory power of designation in a field where there is already an impressive voluntary record of preserving the industry’s heritage. The noble Lord has presented his arguments in a positive way and they have led to further discussions within government. We see merit in the proposed transfer of the RHC power of designation to the board of the trustees of the Science Museum, the legal entity which stands behind the National Museum of Science and Industry. Positive discussions on the detail are continuing. Noble Lords will know that I am personally committed to supporting further discussions and continuing to engage with the noble Lord on his proposals. In those circumstances, and in view of the fact that his amendment would not in any case be the best means to achieve his desired goal, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment to allow the use of time between now and Report to take these positive, detailed discussions forward, and we will update the House at Report.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to this short debate. I am a little overwhelmed by the compliments paid in one or two quarters to me on this, but this has been a collective effort by a lot of people who care about railway heritage and railway heritage preservation. Above all, I want to pay my own tribute to the Minister for the generous and gracious way in which he has listened and been willing to accept the arguments that have been put to him. The most important thing that he has said—and this is the change in government policy—is that the Government now accept that there needs to be statutory protection for railway heritage. They did not accept that, and the Department of Transport did not accept that, in the initial press release last autumn when the committee was included in Schedule 1 to the Public Bodies Bill. I accept completely his point that my amendment will not be necessary if the Government are able to come forward at Report with alternative arrangements. On that basis, and on the understanding that he has expressed today and the agreement that we have already reached and will continue to discuss, I am very happy indeed, if the Committee agrees, to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 46 withdrawn.
47: Schedule 1, page 17, line 11, leave out “Regional advisory committees established under section 37(1)(b) of the Forestry Act 1967.”
I believe that with Amendment 47 we are also discussing a series of other amendments which relate to forestry issues. I shall carry on in the spirit of bonhomie which has engulfed the Benches in the House today but I must also say that I could not have foreseen such a situation arising a couple of weeks ago. The Government have made it very easy for us to be very positive because they have listened to what we have been trying to say—or at least I would like to think that they have been listening. The Minister has certainly been listening. I am not sure whether it was my arguments that persuaded him to move his position or whether it might have been the half-million people who signed the 38 Degrees referendum, or the 82 per cent of their own supporters who opposed their initiative, or the 86 per cent of the general public who opposed the Government’s proposals. If was not my arguments or any of those other possibilities perhaps it was the mass meetings.
What has been really encouraging over the past few months is the fact that the British people have spoken in a way that I cannot remember them speaking before. Across the country we have found protest groups—people—getting organised to fight the Government on this issue. Sometimes it has been just small groups of people with one local forest. In other cases—such as the Forest of Dean, the Lake District or Chopwell in the north-east—there have been very big demonstrations involving thousands of people, often in quite remote forests.
I think that the Government got the message, but I must say that they have caused a lot of trouble, offence and concern. Many workers in the Forestry Commission, whom I regard as some of the finest workers in this country, have been offended by some of the comments made by Mr Cameron. I am sure that he did not mean what he said, but he has caused great offence to them. The struggle in which we have been involved of late was justified in one of our local newspapers. The Cumberland News had a piece this weekend in which it held vox pops asking people what they thought about the Government's proposal for forestry. A woman said, “I am so relieved. My husband works in the forest. We have been worried sick. We have hardly slept. What a relief it is now”. It is that sort of hardship, that sort of worry, which could have been avoided if the Government had consulted instead of just rushing ahead with the proposals.
However, they have sat back and reassessed the position; and on 17 February, the Secretary of State honestly and openly announced three major retractions. I see that one name added to my amendment today is that of the Minister, and I am very grateful that he has added his weight to mine. I hope that, between us, we will carry the day. In the other place, the Secretary of State said that her announcement,
“will allow for more measured and rational debate”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/2/11; col. 1155.]
That implies that the government proposals had not been measured and had not been rational. They had not. As I said, the Government have now said that they were wrong, and I accept their words.
My specific amendment is about the regional advisory committees—not in themselves a great part of the scheme of things, but a useful part. I could never understand why the Government were so opposed to regional advisory committees. We looked at that when I was chair of the Forestry Commission. We examined everything, because I was determined to sweat the assets of the Forestry Commission. They belong to the public, so we must get value for money from those lands and those trees. We looked at everything, including the regional advisory committees, but at the end of the day, when we added it all up, we found that their net worth to the commission was far greater than the cost.
There are nine committees. The idea is that they allow the commissioners to have an entrée into thinking on a regional basis. We had devolved a lot of our policies from the national, England level down to the regions. In some cases, we had given money to the regions and said, “You may want to spend it differently in the north-east as opposed to the south-west”. In performing those functions, we really needed the regional advisory committees. I suggest that strategy of trying to engage with local people was the right thing to do and one reason why there was so much opposition to the government proposals of a few weeks ago. We got that right.
The regional advisory committees are voluntary; the chairs get a small honorarium but the rest are volunteers—a very broad cross-section of the population. We have some chairs who are academics, some who are environmentalists, and one who is the rector of Hexham Abbey in the north-east of England. We also have business people. In itself it has been a real fund of knowledge and information for the Forestry Commission. In the north-west, for example, there are five people involved in rural and forestry businesses. There is one each in academia, the third sector, health, the environment and the RDAs. We have a broad section, which has been invaluable in carrying out our particular jobs. They have met three or four times a year while the chairs meet twice a year. Therefore, we have some commonality right across the country.
I am very pleased indeed that the Minister has added his name to mine and that he will support this move to knock out the regional advisory committee from the Bill today. While I am on that subject perhaps I may add that we had a discussion earlier about the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee on which the House did not push for a decision. Will the Minister now be prepared to take that back and look at it again on Report? Although I agree with him that it has not operated for a number of years, I feel that, when we get the report from the Secretary of State’s committee of experts, we might find that that committee could be used for another reason. For example, the Government have appointed a regulatory authority dealing with forestry. It may well be that this committee could be useful to the recommendations of that committee. I hope that the Ministry will perhaps look at it and see whether it is possible to bring it forward at a later stage.
I end by asking the Minister a couple of questions. The first arises from his announcement on Schedule 7 today. It was a very welcome announcement in which he said that Schedule 7 would disappear, but also that a number of bodies might be transferred to other schedules to the Bill. Can he give us an assurance that when the Secretary of State announces that all references to the Forestry Commission will be removed from the Public Bodies Bill, the Forestry Commission will not be one of the bodies transferred from Schedule 7 to an earlier schedule of the Bill? Perhaps he can give me that reassurance. I am sure that it is fairly straightforward.
Can I tease a little more information from the Minister about the Secretary of State’s announcement and how it relates to the series of amendments that we are discussing? Most of the discussion is about the 85 per cent of the Forestry Commission land which the Secretary of State cannot order the commissioners to sell, as it would be illegal for them to sell such a large section of the state forest. However, the Government announced that they were going to sell 15 per cent over the next four years. That was withdrawn from the market pending the consultation. What is the Government’s thinking on this 15 per cent? Will it go ahead? We believe that it should not go ahead. However, if it does, we believe that any money raised by selling off forests should be ploughed back into the forestry estate, as happened under the previous Labour Government.
I also ask a question that is puzzling a lot of people. What legal advice has the Minister had on the issue of the 15 per cent? When the 15 per cent has been sold and the 85 per cent becomes the 100 per cent, is the Secretary of State entitled to order the Forestry Commission to sell off an extra 15 per cent, and so on? That question raises a lot of uncertainties and it would be very helpful if it could be answered. The answer could give people a lot of comfort and might help the Government to buy back the support and good will of the British people which they will need in their approach to the disposal of Forestry Commission land. I beg to move.
My Lords, I should point out that if this amendment is agreed to I will not be able to call Amendment 47A.
My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Judd, speaks, I think that it will be useful if I intervene to prevent a debate that otherwise might go on for some considerable time. I think that we can forestall that debate. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere—my noble friend, if I can put it that way, in that we come from the same part of the world, support the same football team and are looking forward to seeing each other at Wembley on 3 April this year—that I always listen to him, as do my colleagues in government. Indeed, we always listen to other people, so it is not just the honeyed words of the noble Lord. We have listened to the words of everyone throughout the country, even—dare I say it?—to our local newspaper, the Cumberland News, and the vox pop in it, to which he referred.
I am grateful for what the noble Lord said and for the kind words about what my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said when she made her Statement on 17 February setting out a series of announcements concerning our forestry policy in England. I stress that these amendments relate purely to England; I think that there are others relating to Wales, which we will leave to one side for the moment. As she put it—I repeat her words—they,
“will allow for more measured and rational debate about the future direction of forestry policy”.—[Official Report, Commons, 17/2/11; col. 1155.]
She said that because—dare I say it?—despite what the noble Lord said, we were not getting a measured and rational debate on forestry as a result of misunderstandings behind what had happened. My right honourable friend announced that the consultation on the future of the public forest estate would be ended, and she has done that. This was done because it was quite clear from those early responses to the consultation that the public and many MPs and Members of this House were not happy with what we had set out.
As stated in the announcement, an independent panel to consider forestry policy will be established and, in due course, we will let the House and another place know further details about it. It will report to the Secretary of State this autumn with advice on the future direction of forestry and woodland policy in England, the role of the Forestry Commission and the role of the public forest estate. The panel will include representatives of key environmental and access organisations alongside representatives of the forestry industry. Its membership and terms of reference will be published shortly. I ought to make it clear that, although it will include a wide range of representatives, we hope that all those appointed will be appointed for their knowledge and expertise. We also hope to keep this body small so that it can be properly focused. I think that all noble Lords know the danger of allowing bodies of this sort to grow like Topsy. I confirm that the panel will have an independent chairman.
My right honourable friend also announced that the Government will support the removal of all those clauses from the Public Bodies Bill. I was very grateful to the noble Lord for not reading out all the amendments that are being taken as part of this group, but we can take it as read that they will go through in due course. As a result, there will be a number of other amendments that I think noble Lords will not wish to move because they relate to clauses that will no longer be there. We can take it that forestry is, as I put it on another occasion, purely in relation to this Bill, a dead parrot, other than forestry in Wales, and will not be debated. That means that we will remove the Forestry Commission’s regional advisory committees, which are the subject of the lead amendment.
The noble Lord also asked what we are intending to do about the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee. He will remember that we had a debate about it earlier in Committee and that I referred to it as a dead parrot because it had not sat since 2005. It was while the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, was chairman of the Forestry Commission that it ceased to have any members. I ought to be careful about this, but I should remind the noble Lord that it was his statutory duty to have such a committee and to have members of such a committee, but he decided that there would no longer be members of the committee and that the committee would no longer meet. When he comes to answer, he may assist the House by advising us why he decided that it was no longer necessary to abide by his statutory duty to have members of that committee or even to have the committee. The simple fact is that that committee has not met since 2005. As I said on that earlier occasion, it is a dead parrot, along with all the others. It is up to the noble Lord to make the case for it. If the noble Lord wants to put a case for preserving that committee at Report, I will always look at the advice that he puts before us and I will listen to his arguments as to why we should resurrect or resuscitate that dead parrot. The noble Lord, however, made it quite clear by his actions in 2005 that he did not want it, so I do not quite see why now, in 2011, he would want to revive it—unless, just possibly, he has some mischievous reason of his own, which I would never suspect that he possibly could. Anyway, we will look at that in due course, if the noble Lord wants to bring it back at Report.
We will, as I said, remove all those clauses relating to Schedule 1 and to Clauses 17 and 18 and there will be a series of small consequential amendments. My noble friend Lord Taylor has put his name down to do that—regional forestry committees and all the others will come out. I make it clear that everything that the noble Lord wishes for the moment has been dealt with. I should also make it clear that the withdrawal of the forestry-related provisions for England from the Bill does not affect the Welsh Assembly Government’s policy proposals in relation to restructuring their arrangements for the delivery of their environmental policy, including policy on forestry in Wales. That is for another day and will be for those who will respond on these matters.
The noble Lord asked why we can sell 15 per cent. The previous Administration used these powers to sell land and I have referred beforehand to the fact that under the noble Lord’s watch, when he was chairman of the Forestry Commission under the previous Government, some 25,000 acres were sold without any protection whatsoever. We make it clear that, should we be selling any, we will make sure that there is appropriate protection offered in terms of access, the environment and biodiversity. Of course—as I think we have made clear—we will not be selling anything in advance of the panel reporting back to us. That is why we suspended those sales, having completed the sales that we had inherited from the previous Labour Government.
I have a brief question for the Minister. When I was a Minister working with my noble friend, we were selling some forestry land, but we were also acquiring land. Does he intend to continue to acquire land on behalf of the Government and the state?
Decisions will be made as appropriate. The point is that the previous Government—I will mention the figures again—sold something of the order of 25,000 acres without any protection. I accept that they bought some back, but they did not buy back as much as 25,000 acres. One has to recognise the fact that not all the land that the Forestry Commission owns is appropriate to belong in the public estate. That is why the previous Government, among whom the noble Lord was such a wonderful ornament, sold off land, or instructed the noble Lord, Lord Clark, who is about to intervene, to sell it off, as he did.
I agree with the Minister that there come occasions when it is appropriate to sell a small part of the estate. However, the difference between us and the present Government is that, under us, all the moneys received from the sale of any forest land either was used to buy new forest land—sometimes at a greater cost, because it was in the urban areas—or went back into forestry. As I understand it, with this 15 per cent sell-off, the Government are using money from forestry for the Treasury or for Defra’s general budget.
No decisions have been made about any of that whatever, but I remind the noble Lord that, although it might have been said that land was sold off purely to buy back other land, some of the proceeds were used to top up the running costs of the Forestry Commission. I am not sure that that is the right way to go about these things.
I want to get back to the 15 per cent, which was the last point made by the noble Lord. The Forestry Act requires that there should be a substantial forestry estate. The noble Lord will be familiar with the 1967 Act and all the previous Acts. That estate should be placed at the disposal of the Forestry Commission to manage. I will not go into all the legal advice that we have received from lawyers, as is the convention that the noble Lord will be fully aware of, but we do not consider that the sale of 15 per cent would undermine that statutory regime. That is where we are on that matter. I hope that I have explained where we are. I am grateful—
I apologise for intervening, but I wanted to make certain that I understood exactly what the Minister was saying. I take it that, along with the major dead parrot, all the smaller parrots die as well, including all the amendments that come under the broad heading of Clauses 17 and 18. However, on the proposed expert panel on forestry, which I understand will report back in the autumn, will there be an opportunity to raise the issue of the make-up of that panel? For example, will it include a person with knowledge of the heritage forests? If there is no opportunity to raise this, I will have to pursue the issue through Parliamentary Questions. I speak as someone who was about to make an eloquent short speech on the subject of the New Forest—the largest and most historic heritage forest. I will pass that opportunity up given whatever answer the Minister gives me on the earlier point.
I will not speculate on the make-up of that panel other than what I have said already. I said that the panel should be relatively small. Most of us would agree that to create an overlarge panel would be unwieldy. Having said that, while I was abroad I received an e-mail from the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, suggesting one particular group, while many other noble Lords have sent other suggestions. We want to create a small group but it should be understood by everyone that that group would have the power to consult and to set up sub-groups to ensure that as many as possible are included. I will not give a precise figure about how small that group should be, but it should, as I said, be relatively small and focused. We want to make sure that it reaches out to all the other people and we will make it quite clear to members of that group once we have appointed it, and appointed an independent chairman, that they should be consulting with many of those who have already written to the department or made their views known.
I am not sure whether the noble Baroness will have another opportunity in our proceedings on the Bill to discuss these matters because all the forestry amendments that can be are in this group. One or two amendments cannot be in this group because they would insert clauses after Clauses 17 and 18 and, if those clauses are not there, the amendments obviously cannot be moved. I am sure that the noble Baroness will find ways of tabling amendments should she wish to do so. She will also find ways of speaking to me or to other colleagues to put forward her views about who might or might not be on the panel.
I notice that the noble Baroness has tabled Amendment 174ZB much later on, which cannot be moved because it would come after these amendments and those clauses will not exist. The amendment is also in the names of her noble friends Lord Greaves and Lord Strathclyde, but my noble friend Lord Strathclyde’s name is there in error. That amendment mentions the New Forest, Sherwood Forest, the Forest of Dean and Kielder Forest. I was intrigued to see Sherwood Forest mentioned. I had visions of sylvan glades and Errol Flynn skipping around in green tights, with the noble Baroness possibly as Maid Marion. But we will see about that in due course.
The noble Baroness will find her own way of making suggestions about who should or should not be on the committee. All I am saying is that we would like to keep it small and focused. Although they might represent certain groups, we want those on the committee to be there for their individual expertise and experience rather than for representing the particular groups involved.
My Lords, I appreciate that the Minister has been very generous with his time with me. However, in order to expedite matters later, I raise one point that he did not answer, which is quite critical. Is the 15 per cent cumulative, so to speak? When the 15 per cent has been got rid of, can this stand for 15 per cent on the next 100 per cent?
That would depend on legal advice on one’s interpretation of the Forestry Act 1967. The noble Lord will be more familiar with that Act, and all previous legislation, than even I am. He will know that it imposes a duty that there should be a substantial forestry estate at the disposal of the Forestry Commission. It is a matter for interpretation as to what size that should be.
I am sure that the whole House would agree that it is a great privilege to participate in a debate on an amendment initiated by my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere. There are few people who have contributed more to the cause of the forests than has my noble friend. One thing that was particularly important about his time in the chair was that he saw to it that the commission addressed the issue of involving local communities in a sense of ownership and participation in the enjoyment of the forests. Under his stewardship, a great deal was done to open up the forests and to encourage people to use them and to have fun in them, but in a way that did not rape their very special character and heritage, in the sense that they are places of great spiritual significance and beauty. The whole House, irrespective of party difference, will want to pay tribute to my noble friend.
I endorse what my noble friend said about the spirit in which the noble Lord who is leading on this Bill has approached those issues that are put before him by people with special interests. I suppose that I shall have to say several times during our deliberations on this Bill that I should declare an interest. I am vice-president of the Campaign for National Parks and, particularly in the context of the forests, I have the great privilege of being the president of the Friends of the Lake District. One thing that my noble friend mentioned which I would like to underline is the strength, depth and spontaneity of feeling expressed when people felt that the forests were under threat. It was an extraordinary social cross-section of people, which was also impressive. The phrase one heard over and again was, “What are they doing to our forests?”. There was a deep feeling that these forests were the heritage of the British people and that they belonged to the British people. We all ought to try to make connections in government between things that are happening in different spheres and I put it to the Government that, at a time when the Prime Minister chooses to talk about British character, it is very important not to attack those things that people feel are central, in a tangible way, to being part of Britain. Their forests are certainly part of that.
I was glad to put my name to the amendment dealing with the regional advisory committees. I referred to my role in the Friends of the Lake District and in the Campaign for National Parks, which brings together groups concerned about national parks all over the country. I think that it is important that, in the commission’s administration of the forests, real efforts are made to get a local perspective, so that there is a real forum in which local issues and priorities can come forward and be taken into account in the way that things are handled. If nominated and appointed in the right way, advisory committees on a regional basis are a significant way in which to give meaning to this sense of ownership by the people as a whole, because it is possible for the local arguments to be heard and taken into account. That is why it is so important that the advisory committees should continue.
In his remarks, my noble friend made considerable reference to the issue of the 15 per cent. I hope that the Minister, whom I regard as a good Cumbrian friend, will forgive my saying that he did not convincingly answer the point. He kicked it into touch, because he said that it “all depended”. With all the blunt directness that I have come to love in the people of Cumbria, all I can say is, “Come off it”. If these forests belong to us and if we have expressed such a degree of concern, we do not want to find ourselves going down a road along which, through the back door, exactly what we have expressed ourselves as against is accomplished over a period of years. From that standpoint, we need a categorical assurance from the Government that this is not a back door to achieving the short cut that they were introducing in this Bill. On the 15 per cent issue, I hope that my noble friend Lord Clark will forgive my saying that there was a good deal of anxiety among those who were protesting about what had happened already. In a sense this is not a partisan point but one that stretches across the whole issue of the administration of the forests.
I thank my noble friend for moving the amendment. I say to the noble Lord opposite that it is time to take the message of the British people and build strongly on that—and not immediately, on day one, to start back-pedalling. The Minister referred to the importance of his advisory panel. Yes, I understand the business executive, streamlined modern management talk, which says that we must have a small, concentrated group of specialist people who will conduct this. Of course, you cannot dismiss that, because it is a very responsible job to administer the amount of forest that is there to be administered. But in the spirit of what the British people have just done and said, it will be crucial that the advisory panel is representative and is one with which the people can identify, so that it is seen transparently to bring together the different interests and communities among those who support the forests and were so aghast at what was proposed. There is a balance to be struck between business efficiency, on which the arguments of course must be taken seriously, and the job of carrying the public with whatever is proposed by seeing that it comes from a representative body with which they can identify. I am glad to be able to support the amendment.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord Henley, for what they have said this afternoon, because it means that there will be no need for me to move Amendment 47A relating to the Forest of Dean. As noble Lords are aware, there was particular anxiety and anger in the Forest of Dean, which falls within my diocese of Gloucester, at the proposals to legislate in regard to forestry without regard for the special status of the Forest of Dean recognised in earlier legislation. The Government have wisely withdrawn all the clauses relating to forestry. When they return with some new and different proposals relating to the future of the forests, of which we have had some hints already, I hope they will at that point recognise that when people speak of the Forest of Dean, they are not talking about a collection of trees, but about a series of communities with a common sense of identity. People call themselves foresters simply because the Forest of Dean is where they live, and their sense of identity comes more from the forest than from the particular towns, villages or hamlets that are part of it. To talk about changes in ownership with even the smallest possibility of withdrawal of access or unwelcome development is to provoke a deep emotional response in people who have, in many cases, inhabited the forest for many generations—that quite apart from the more general issues of the ownership and stewardship of the forests on which the Government have wisely changed their mind. So I am grateful to the Government for withdrawing the clauses that they have, rendering my amendment obsolete. I can assure your Lordships that the people of the Forest of Dean are both relieved and elated by the sense that they have seen off a particularly ill-thought-through policy.
My Lords, I will intervene briefly in the debate because I realise that the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, have been incredibly helpful. It is the first time I have spoken on the Bill. I just want to raise an issue that was not really covered by the Minister’s statement—otherwise I would not be standing up. That relates to the forests being used for motor sport.
Last year, the motor sport industry contributed almost £1 million to the Forestry Commission for 41 events, 31 of which were stage rallies. There is nowhere else they can take place. Each one of those is estimated independently to bring to the local community about £2 million when it takes place. Ministry of Defence land used to be used. That is not really possible in any event because of use in the past so the forests are the only areas where these rallies can take place. There was a centrally managed agreement between the Forestry Commission and the Motorsports Association, which is the governing body for UK motor sport. I have a couple of questions, because the Minister said that a measured and rational debate was not taking place, so it is going to take place with the review.
First, will the independent chair be appointed as a result of an advertisement or a few phone calls? It is quite important that we know that. Secondly, will the Land Access and Recreation Association have a place on the body? I am making a special plea because that is the one way that the motor sport industry will be represented. It employs 38,000 people, 25,000 of whom are professional engineers, and is worth something like £4 billion to the economy. Most of the teams that we see with foreign flags are actually in this country, where the cars are designed and produced. We are talking about big business here, where the forests play an absolutely crucial part, particularly for the rally side of the industry. It is very important that they can put their piece at the table and are not reduced to external flag-waving or lobbying. If LARA is represented on the body, then I am assured that the issues relating to motor sport can be raised, because the issues have not gone away. If I can be satisfied with that, there will not be any need to raise this in future. I realise that forestry is coming out of the Bill. Nevertheless, as this body and review panel are going to be meeting, if we can get these things settled now, it will make life a lot easier for the ministry and for Defra, which, I presume, is going to have to fill a hole in its funding in due course.
My Lords, along with other noble Lords, I thank the Government, particularly my noble colleague Lord Henley, for intervening early in this debate, which was extremely helpful in setting us on the road for debate in certain areas. I want to thank the Government generally for their common sense in dropping the forestry clauses from the Bill, or at least proposing to support the dropping of them when we get to them. The Government have listened to what has been going on; I suspect as well that they have been retreating in a certain amount of disarray in the face of the public opposition which they did not expect. I am not, however, going to stand up and talk about U-turns and that kind of thing. It is always strange that when Governments put forward things that some of us might not like, they are accused of being obstinate and stubborn if they refuse to listen to what people say. However, if they agree to change and withdraw things, they are accused of making U-turns. They can be accused of anything by people who want to accuse them but I am delighted by the Government’s decision to take out these clauses.
I speak in favour of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere. I would have signed it if there had been any space when I first discovered it. I have tabled several amendments in this group, which are now all dead parrots or perhaps dead budgies—or, since we are talking about trees, dead woodpeckers. I do not know; I get lost among these metaphors. The Minister talked about Sherwood and suggested that my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby might be Maid Marian. I was not sure whether he was putting himself forward as the Sheriff of Nottingham. If he is, the right reverend Prelate could be Friar Tuck. All I can say is: please can I be Robin Hood?
When I proposed that Clauses 17, 18 and 19 should not stand part of the Bill, I originally did so for traditional House of Lords Committee reasons. These clauses needed a great deal of probing and discussion, which the stand part debates would have allowed to take place. I was also concerned about what appeared, on the face of it, to be fairly draconian Henry VIII powers being granted. In retrospect I was right to be concerned, but as time went on I became more convinced that this was not the appropriate legislation to deal with the future of the Forestry Commission and its land, woodlands and forests. Therefore, I became more serious in believing that this House ought to take these clauses out. I now believe firmly that if the Government had not seen sense on this, this House would at least have taken them out before it sent the Bill to the Commons. Nevertheless, we are now in the position that we are in.
I praise not just the Government for their action but those who have campaigned on this matter. It is easy to attack or criticise the campaigners by saying that some of their messages were a bit simplistic and not all of the 535,000 people who signed the 38 Degrees petition had a detailed knowledge of all the issues. That is absolutely true but how many people have a detailed knowledge of all the issues when they cast a vote in a general election? Once these campaigns started to mushroom, I was determined to make sure that the people running them had as much knowledge and understanding as possible of what the Government were putting forward, what the Forestry Commission does and the facts and figures about the estates, as well as parliamentary procedures. They could then at least have some slight understanding of how the Bill would go through this House. Not many people have such an understanding—including some Members of this House, probably—but I thought that was at least a useful thing to do. If I have been able to play a small part in that, I am very pleased to have done so.
The huge petition that the noble Lord, Lord Clark, mentioned was quite astonishing. Similar petitions—about, perhaps, more important things than the forests in many people’s eyes—rarely get into six figures but this one, if the Bill had got to the Commons with the forestry clauses still included, would clearly have been signed by a million people. This is an astonishing phenomenon. In addition to that, several national campaign groups were set up and campaigned mainly via the internet. They included Save England’s Forests, which got its first real boost of publicity from the celebrity letter to the Sunday Times. I see the noble Lord, Lord Hattersley, in his place. He was thought to be a celebrity who might like to sign the letter. Nobody bothered to ask me but that does not worry me at all because I am not a celebrity.
There was also Save Our Woods. The young people who run that have done a very good job in setting out a vast amount of factual information and creating a forum where people could exchange information. I believe that all this has contributed to the amount of knowledge and understanding in the campaign groups being much greater than it was at the beginning. In addition, providing huge local support to the campaigns were local organisations, some of which were enumerated by the noble Lord, Lord Clark. Some of them covered big forests such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest, others covered larger areas such as the Lake District, and many more, springing up almost by the day, were concerned with their own local forests. Add to that all the access groups, which were absolutely united against the proposals. Towards the end of the campaign, a lot of the established groups, such as the Woodland Trust and the RSPB, were coming on board. It was an astonishing campaign. The involvement of the internet, Twitter, Facebook and all these realms that I do not know much about has been a complete eye-opener to me.
Basically, the problem was this. First, the Government, although they would put it in slightly less brutal terms, botched the entire publicity throughout the last six months of last year of what they were doing. Different Ministers, although not the noble Lord, Lord Henley, were saying different things. It was not at all clear what they were saying. That gave the campaigns a lot of fertile ground. This was also about trees. As a local councillor for many years, I learnt long ago that you mess about with trees at your peril, unless you explain to people exactly what you are doing and why you are doing it and you get them on side. It really came home to me on one occasion, when Pendle council—I declare that I am a member of Pendle council—was proposing to remove some trees outside the municipal hall, which is a council-run theatre in Colne. These trees were diseased and needed removing, yet there was huge public opposition to it. We now have some nice birches there, which are much better. Nevertheless, at the council committee meeting at which this was being decided, a lady addressed the committee in tears. She said, “Do you know, me and my husband, we had our first kiss under that tree, and you’re going to chop it down”. That is how people think about trees. If you are going to do things to trees, you have to be very careful; you have to prepare your ground and you have to take people into your confidence from the very beginning.
I support many of the comments made about the independent panel and some of the questions. How will it be chosen? It is all going to happen fairly quickly if it is to report in the autumn, as is intended, so how will it be chosen? What are the criteria and the mechanisms for deciding who should be on it, and what are its terms of reference? The Government have to come clean about these questions from the very beginning. Furthermore, will there be any ongoing information and publicity about the panel’s work until it produces its report? If not, there will be a vacuum for several months during which all sorts of rumours will develop and gain credence. The organisations that have now been set up are not going to go away. They will continue to ask questions; and if there are no answers, all sorts of information will get out there that may or may not be true. It is in the Government’s interest to be as open as possible about the work of this panel and how it will work.
There is a further question about the 15 per cent. The Government have said that they have suspended selling any more of the 15 per cent until they have better protections on access and biodiversity. That is very welcome. How will these protections be announced, when will they be announced, and will the panel be involved in that work as well as deciding the long-term future of the majority of the estate?
A major consultation was run by the Forestry Commission in 2009—not very long ago—which seems to have been dropped and forgotten. A lot of organisations fed into that consultation. Will the proposals and submissions that resulted from that consultation be fed into the panel as information on which it can consider their views, along with everything else? Will there be a means by which the public can input into the work of the panel, or is all consultation now dead? I was disappointed when the Government dropped the consultation—although I was delighted when they said that they would remove these clauses—because a lot of organisations were doing a lot of work preparatory to putting in their views. It sounds—to a cynic outside, anyhow—as though the Government have said, “We have looked at the first results of the consultation. We do not like them and therefore we are stopping the consultation”. However, a lot of work contributed to that consultation, and it would be helpful if organisations in the field, campaigning groups and everyone else were at least able to contribute to the work of panel by putting in their views.
We all have views about future policy. The noble Lord, Lord Clark, has secured a debate, which is still going ahead on Thursday, in which we will all be able to put forward those views more positively. However, all those people out there have suddenly not just become interested in forests—many have always been interested—but are committed to the cause of the forests, as they see it. The genie is out of the bottle and will not go back in. The campaigns and the campaign groups are alive and will not go away. They want to be involved. If there is a vacuum for the next six months, they will continue to be involved, and it will not be to the Government’s advantage unless they can find constructive ways to involve these groups, as well as everyone else who is interested in the forests, and allow them to feed their information into this independent panel and understand how the panel’s thinking is progressing.
This has been an extraordinary event. It is the first of this nature that I have witnessed or been involved in. It is actually exactly the same process that brought people on to Tahrir Square in Egypt. That related to an altogether different issue, and this one is perhaps less momentous. However, it involved the same kind of communication, process and campaigning by use of the internet and the involvement of many local groups. This may be the pattern for the future or it may be a one-off, but whatever it is it is quite extraordinary. I congratulate the Government on withdrawing their proposals, but we now want constructive involvement and inclusion of people in the process that is going ahead.
My Lords, I do not wish to detain your Lordships with other matters, but I should like to ask the Minister about my noble friend Lord Clark’s question on the cumulative 15 per cent, which was followed up by my noble friend Lord Judd. My understanding of the Minister’s reply was that it was a question of the interpretation of the Forestry Act. I have always assumed that the Government, who are responsible for the administration of the Act, have some idea of what it actually means. Will the Minister be kind enough to write to my noble friend Lord Clark explaining what the Government think the Forestry Act actually means in that respect?
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Taylor and Lord Henley, for their interventions this afternoon, and for the Secretary of State’s intervention in another place some time ago. I speak as one who would have supported the amendment in the name of my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester, had the question been put.
Your Lordships’ House will be anxious to move on fairly quickly now, so I make one simple point as someone who has taken a close interest in the Forest of Dean in particular and in the general debate about forestry. I refer to the process of preparing Bills. We have heard about the huge public response to the proposals as they have been understood, or even misunderstood. Had the section on forestry been researched with close attention to the debates in your Lordships’ House in 1981 and in another place, almost all the issues that have been in the public domain and which have been debated so fiercely and strongly—although, I agree, not always accurately—would have put an amber light in the preparation of the Bill. Therefore, to save further embarrassment in government and policy, I gently propose that looking at what Parliament did on the previous occasion on an issue such as this would help in the construction of Bills.
My Lords, I shall be extremely brief, but first perhaps I might follow the right reverend Prelate’s comments by saying that I have been puzzled from the very beginning of this Bill. I find it extraordinary that the New Forest has been protected by primary legislation dating from 1877 through to 1970, yet essentially a process of statutory orders can overtake and indeed overrun those original primary Acts. Therefore, my first question is how such Acts can be so easily set aside and whether one should reconsider the way in which consultation on legislation takes place.
My second and only other question concerns the impact of the Localism Bill. Those of us who care about the forests have now established that this legislation was very unwise. However, I am not clear whether that Bill will insist that decisions on forests are taken at the most local level. The regions where the feeling is greatest are the ones that are most closely related to the forests on which they depend. That is probably where the decisions should be taken, rather than statutory proposals being made centrally.
Let us bear in mind the lessons of this Bill—the deep lessons of how the British public hold forests as very dear and very important—and let us make sure that, when the Localism Bill emerges, there will be no attempt to go back to central control over the future of the forests.
My Lords, to save time, I shall spare your Lordships my musings on my ramblings around the Forest of Dean which I enjoyed over two days last week. However, like the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, I want to ask a question about the Localism Bill. When I was the Forestry Minister, I was pleased to agree with my right honourable friend Yvette Cooper—when she was at the Department for Communities and Local Government—planning policy statement 9, which protected biodiversity in forests. In the context of the changes to the planning system that are also in the Localism Bill, how will those protections to biodiversity, which I know the Minister holds dear, be retained?
My Lords, perhaps I might ask one question on Scotland. Before anyone jumps up and says that this legislation does not affect the forests in Scotland, I acknowledge that it does not. However, as the headquarters of the UK Forestry Commission are in Scotland, the legislation could, as I understand it, have a significant effect on Scotland. The original proposals involved a substantial loss of jobs at Silvan House in Corstorphine. Now that there has been a U-turn and the Forestry Commission is to continue with its responsibilities for forests in England, will all the jobs held by people who are administering and dealing with the English forests be retained at Corstorphine in Edinburgh? As I understand it, no announcement has been made about a U-turn on the jobs. It was announced that 150 jobs would be lost at Corstorphine in Edinburgh, but that would seem a strange thing to do in the light of the announcement of a policy U-turn. It seems that the jobs in Edinburgh will still be necessary to carry out the tasks that have been done very well for many years.
I, too, am very grateful to the Minister for the information that he provided at the beginning of this debate and for the gracious apology from the Secretary of State in the other place a couple of weeks ago. I, of course, welcome the statement and the fact that all references to “forestry” and the Forestry Commission are being deleted from the Bill. Can the Minister confirm that the Forestry Commission will not appear in any other schedule if Schedule 7 is disappearing? Can he also provide clarification on Wales? I am not entirely certain what the position is now on Wales because the Forestry Commission is mentioned in Clauses 13 to 16.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and others, I pay tribute to the wonderful campaigns up and down the country. I, of course, pay special tribute to the people of the Forest of Dean in the Hands off our Forest campaign. It was the first campaign off the blocks and led the way for campaigns that drew widespread support, and eventually the Government listened, as they should do, and changed their mind. The sort of consultation the Government embarked on after they had produced the Bill, which said that they were going to enable forests to be sold, is not the right way of going about things. We should always have a consultation and a White Paper first.
I realise that the independent panel will listen to people’s views but, as many noble Lords have said, we need to be assured that the independent panel is going to work in a transparent and public way, and we need to know who is going to be on that panel and what their remit is. If the Minister does not have answers to those questions today, I trust that he will have answers when we debate this issue again on Thursday. While I realise that the independent panel has been tasked by the Secretary of State and Defra, we on these Benches and in the Forest of Dean strongly believe that the small percentage of forests that remain in public hands—I think it is only about 15 per cent of the country’s forests and woodlands—should remain in public ownership and continue to be managed by the Forestry Commission, which does an excellent job.
I am therefore delighted that Clauses 17, 18 and 19 are being deleted and that all the other amendments will fall. The reason why I and so many others from the Forest of Dean felt passionately about these things is because, as the right reverend Prelate said, the forest is not just the woods but a community, and we felt that our community as a whole was under threat. We enjoy customary privileges rather than established rights and, like the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, we felt that those customary privileges were under threat.
I also added my name to amendments relating to public access, consultation, management and so much more. These issues are all of the utmost importance and I hope that they will be dealt with by the independent panel. Rights of access under the CROW Act are simply not enough when it comes to forests. We are all deeply grateful to the Forestry Commission for enabling cyclists, those who ride horses and those who practise motor sports to enjoy our forests. They simply could not do that under the CROW Act.
Likewise, I hope that the panel will consider Forestry Stewardship Council certification. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool tabled an amendment on this together with my noble friend Lady Quin. In 1999, the whole of the public forest estate received FSC certification, which recognises that these forests are responsibly managed according to environmental, social and economic criteria. We believe that that must continue. We want to ensure that this rigorous management standard is maintained for the future.
We should pay tribute to the way in which the Forestry Commission manages and protects our forests, ensuring maximum biodiversity and a strong ecosystem, as well as producing timber and making a huge contribution to meeting our targets under Section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008. That is another issue that is mentioned in an amendment by my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon.
I had a specific amendment relating to land in the Forest of Dymock. It did not enjoy special protection under the 1981 Act but, like so many forests and woodlands in our country, it is a very special forest. It is a major block of ancient woodland from which the seeds of sessile oaks are taken and exported throughout the world. There are glorious wild daffodils, dormice and so much more. Forests and woodlands such as these simply must remain as public national assets.
I have to ask, as is right on these occasions, why Clauses 17, 18 and 19 were put into the Bill in the first place. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, generously said that he thinks that perhaps it was a PR problem. That is one of the reasons why the campaign got off the ground up and down the country. I think that there was a real fear because when people read the clauses in black and white, they were alarmed about the future of these forests. Why were the clauses in the Bill? Sometimes we are told that it is because of the potential for increasing revenue, although the statistics show that the cost of the sale and the necessary grants would be more than the amount that we get in revenue. At other times, it is about the big society. In campaigns throughout the country the big society has spoken and people want their publicly owned forests to remain as national assets managed by the Forestry Commission. We all recognise that forests are part of our heritage. People recognise forests in terms of access, leisure, education, recreation and public well-being. They benefit our economy through timber sales and forest products. They support government commitments to biodiversity and carbon sequestration, and they provide a healthy natural environment. We want to ensure that our forests are safe now and for the future. For that reason, I warmly welcome the changes and amendments that the Government are bringing forward to the Public Bodies Bill.
My Lords, it might be helpful if I answer some of the points raised before the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, speaks to his amendment, for which the Government have said that they have sympathy and which I understand the House is likely to accept.
There are a number of points, but the first and probably the most important is to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, that the Forestry Commission will not appear in any other schedule. It is not in Schedule 7—that schedule is coming out; it is not in Schedule 1, which we are coming to the end of; and it is not in Schedules 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6. It is dead. It is out of the Bill. We have not dealt with the amendments relating to Wales but no doubt these can be discussed, preferably by someone other than me, when we reach that stage of the Bill. I make it clear to the noble Baroness that forestry policy in Wales is a devolved matter. She will know that Wales has just gone through a referendum on extending its powers, so these matters are even more important. The House will consider in due course the clauses relating specifically to Welsh bodies. There are references to forestry in those clauses but the policy aim is linked to the Welsh Assembly Government’s proposals on restructuring the activities of the Environment Agency Wales, the Countryside Council for Wales and the Forestry Commission Wales to enable them to take a more integrated and sustainable view of environmental management based on an ecosystems approach. We can discuss that in greater detail when we get to it in the Bill.
The next point that I want to deal with is the advisory panel. I am not sure that I can say much more to noble Lords who have spoken about this. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, as always, wanted a much larger panel that included everyone possible. I happen to feel—and most people would agree—that a small manageable panel would be better, particularly as it will be given the remit to consult whomever it wishes and to set up sub-groups to ensure that all others are included. As I said, we have already received a large number of applications to join that panel and I think that everyone would agree that to take on everyone would be a mistake. We need a proper panel that is appropriately balanced and one that consults people properly. I also stress that the panel will be independent and will have an independent chairman, so I think that it is wrong when my noble friend Lord Greaves stresses that it must be for the Government to make sure that it consults people properly and that we get out information about what the panel is doing. It should be for the panel, which is independent, to get out what it is doing and to let people know how it is moving and in what direction it is moving. I am sure that the panel will do that with great expertise.
After quite a number of years in both Houses, I am weary of Ministers putting words into your mouth that were not in your mouth at the time at which you spoke. I did not argue for a vast representative body. I said that the Minister had a real task to balance business efficiency against transparency and credibility. I am sure that he will understand that there has been deep misunderstanding and deep anxiety among the public about what has been afoot. If this panel is to carry conviction, it must somehow have people on it whom the wider public can identify with and feel are representative of their anxieties.
I could not agree more with the noble Lord, other than that I believe that a smaller—I am not going to suggest a figure, as I think that it would be wrong to get into figures at this stage—manageable panel under an independent chairman is the best way forward. I apologise if the noble Lord felt that I had put words into his mouth. I appreciate that I have probably done that in the past and I will probably do it again in the future. However, I got the impression that he was pushing for bringing everyone in. The danger when a great many people want to be on something is that, if you do not make it clear right from the start that you want a small and appropriately focused committee, you end up giving in to every possible demand and you end up with something that is unwieldy and unfocused and cannot do the job. This panel will have the right to set up sub-groups or sub-committees—whatever you call them—so that it can consult. We want to make sure that it talks to all those who have put in their views.
That is why it is also very important that we have an appropriately independent chair. I am grateful for questions that I have received on this from the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and others about how that will be done. All I can say at this stage is that the independent chairman will be appointed by the Secretary of State after consultation. As we want this to report by the autumn, we want to move on relatively speedily. I am sure that whomever we appoint, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who is smiling at this stage, will accept that we have appointed the right person, because he always does in the end when we find the right person. I am sure that he is not putting himself forward for this job. He will accept that we will find the right person in due course. It will be an independent panel under an independent chair.
That brings me on to the other comments that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, made. As a former Member for a Birmingham seat, he raised the question of motorsport and its use of the forests. He was right to do that because it is important that we remember that there are diverse users of all the forests. Forests are not just there for growing timber, even though that is very important. Forests are also there for people who want to walk, to ride or to drive and for those involved in motorsports. They are also very important for biodiversity. In my own part of the world, up in Kielder, the forest is important for the few surviving red squirrels that we have in this country. There are a whole host of different uses that conflict with one another, which means that any decision about access has to take into account biodiversity interests. I imagine that not all of those who are keen on walking in the forests are that keen on some of the motorsports going on. We have to balance those issues. I am sure that the noble Lord will accept that. It is one of the things that we will make sure is done in due course.
Both right reverend Prelates referred to the Forest of Dean and the fact that it is a special case. I accept that the Forest of Dean is a special case. It was made a special case in law as a result of the 1981 Act, if not before. Actually the Forest of Dean and the New Forest have been special cases—I cannot say for how long, so I had probably better use this legal term—“since time immemorial”. It goes back that far. The odd thing about the Forest of Dean and the New Forest is that, as I understand it, they were originally part of the Crown Estate and then for some reason—why they but not others I do not know—became part of the Forestry Commission. The simple fact is that they are now part of the Forestry Commission and not part of the Crown Estate. That is where we are. Another public forest, Epping Forest, has gone into the ownership and management of the City of London. The Forestry Commission is not necessarily the only public body that can look after public forests in the best way. Epping Forest is not the only exception to that, but I accept that it is a special case.
That brings me to the planning issues raised by my noble friend Lady Williams and the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth. Yes, we are aware that there will be changes as a result of the Localism Bill. We can give assurances, as my right honourable friend Greg Clark has done, that protection for ancient woodland in the existing planning guidance will be carried over into the national policy framework. All that will be done, but we also feel that, as a result of the Localism Bill, it is important, as my noble friend Lady Williams put it, that local communities should have a right to have some input into what is going on in the forests or small woodlands in their area.
I want to touch on one or two other points. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, talked about jobs. I must make it quite clear to the noble Lord and his party that the Forestry Commission, like a lot of other public bodies, including public bodies within Defra, will have to take its cuts and reductions as a result of the mess that we inherited. It is no different from any other body. The change of tack that we have indicated on forests does not necessarily mean any change of policy in what the Forestry Commission does in terms of its staff. That is a matter for the Forestry Commission to manage.
I put it to the Minister that two factors are affecting the staff at Corstorphine. One is the general economic climate in which, as he says, they must take the hits along with other public bodies. The second is the Government’s policy on forestry. As I understand it, the U-turn involved the Forestry Commission continuing to manage forests in England, for which staff at Corstorphine have responsibility, so surely it is wrong to continue with the same level of redundancies as was envisaged when the policy was different. Will the Minister not have another look to see whether some of the jobs in Edinburgh need to be continued to deal with the new policy that has been announced, into which he has gone into detail?
My Lords, I never like to accuse the noble Lord of not having done something, because he is assiduous in his parliamentary work, but it is obvious from what he says that he has made no effort to read the entire forestry consultation that we put forward and have now withdrawn. If he had read that, he would have known that there is no immediate plan to sell off everything willy-nilly, as he seems to be suggesting, and as a result lay off half the Forestry Commission. We were looking at very long-term plans possibly to change the ownership of this forest or that but, in many cases, it would have involved transferring money to whoever took over some of those bodies. We were not at that stage considering reducing the number of staff, but we are asking the Forestry Commission, like all other bodies attached to Defra and other government bodies, to take its fair share of the reductions that the Government are having to make as a result of what we inherited.
I have had discussions with the representatives of the trade unions from Silvan House, who have briefed me in detail on that. My understanding is that at least some of the proposed redundancies relate to the previous policy, which has now been abandoned. Unless my logic is completely crazy, it would seem that if you change your policy and continue with the present arrangements to look after some of the English forests from the Forestry Commission headquarters, a review must be needed of whether the large number of redundancies originally envisaged is still now necessary. Is that not the case?
My Lords, that is not the case. I am not sure that the advice which the noble Lord has received was necessarily—dare I put it this way—as accurate as it might have been. Anyway, the simple fact is that the Forestry Commission, along with others, will have to take its cut because of what we inherited.
I hope that I have dealt with all the points that have been put to me in the course of the debate. I appreciate the strength of feeling that had been held, and I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Clark, will now press his amendment. As I said, we will support it. I hope that the rest of the House will support it and that we can move on to other matters in the Bill.
I rise very briefly just to say that it is a very unusual experience to find that one of my co-signatories to an amendment is a government Minister and that I look forward to it happening more and more in the future. I say that in the spirit in which the amendment has been moved.
Both right reverend Prelates and all the other contributors to this debate have made the point that the general public’s feeling towards the forest has been quite uncanny. The general public really do not discriminate between 85 and 15 per cent and the Government will have to think very carefully about how the 15 per cent is handled. However, that is a matter for another day. We are talking now specifically about Amendment 47—so we are talking about the big society, localism and the regional and advisory committees.
Amendment 47 agreed.