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Forestry: Independent Panel Report

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further developments there have been since the publication of their response to the report of the Independent Panel on Forestry.

My Lords, we have made good progress in implementing the commitment set out in our Forestry and Woodlands Policy Statement, which was issued in January this year. An updated report was published on 3 July that highlighted progress in all areas, including establishing a new body to run the public forest estate, maintaining a core of forestry expertise in government and supporting the forestry sector to improve its economic performance. We are also giving greater priority to plant health.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. How will the Government ensure that the board of the proposed public forest estate management organisation will be inclusive, taking into account the views of users and community groups such as my own HOOF, which are instrumental in safeguarding our public forests and understand every aspect of our forests, including the commercial aspects? The Minister may say that they will be among the guardians, but I firmly believe that they must also have a voice and a vote on the board. I understand that the consultation on the new structure will end in October, so can we expect legislation to be announced in the next Queen’s Speech?

My Lords, there were quite a lot of questions in there. I can assure the noble Baroness that stakeholders will be comprehensively involved in the process. She refers to HOOF; to dispel some misunderstanding, it is worth saying that, far from reviving the spectre of privatisation, or placing Ministers in total control of our forests, as has been suggested, our proposals involve the legal transferral of ownership of the entire estate from Ministers to a new operationally independent public body. I say to the noble Baroness that there is some misunderstanding; if it would be helpful to her, I would be very pleased to have a meeting with her—and a representative of HOOF, if that would suit her—to see if we can get rid of the misunderstanding.

Will my noble friend expand on the issue of plant health, given the very worrying plant diseases that are affecting ash, oak, chestnut and other trees?

My Lords, yes, this is a very important matter. We have a plant and tree health task force, which has reached the conclusion of its report. It has recommended that the Government develop a UK plant health risk register and provide strategic and tactical leadership for managing those risks. It has also recommended a number of other courses of action, including developing and implementing procedures for preparedness and contingency planning to predict, monitor and control the spread of pests and diseases. We have accepted both of these recommendations and are making progress on them. It has also recommended a number of other courses of action, which we are actively considering. I had a meeting last week with stakeholders from across the interested parties to discuss those recommendations.

My Lords, I declare my interest as on the register. Do the Government have a policy for increasing manufacturing capacity for all kinds of wood products, not forgetting poplar in particular?

My Lords, the noble Lord has reminded me that I should have declared an interest as a woodland owner. He essentially asks what we are doing to make the woodland industry more creative. There is a new concept called Grown in Britain, which is creating a new and stronger market pull for the array of products derived from our woodlands and forests. We are developing private sector funding that supports the planting and management of woodlands and forests through funding from corporates, as part of their corporate social responsibility, and we are connecting together and harnessing the positive energy and feelings towards our woodlands and forests that many in our society share to create a strong wood culture.

My Lords, in the Government’s response, the Secretary of State wrote on the subject of forest acquisition:

“We will focus particularly on woods close to our towns and cities where the greatest number of people can enjoy them”.

Can the Minister advise us whether there has been any success in this? If not, will he consult with the Forestry Commission England to help it bring forward some of its plans to achieve that laudable objective?

I agree with the noble Lord that that is a laudable objective. It is early days, but we are making progress on those things. If I may, I will take the noble Lord’s suggestion back to the department.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that the Government will keep faith with the recommendation to establish guardians of the public forest estate and, if so, tell us what their role will be in relation to the new management organisation that is being established?

My Lords, before I answer that perhaps I should reiterate my thanks to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool and his independent panel for the work that they did for us on this.

We envisage that there will be a group of guardians who will draw on the interests and expertise of public forest users and will be able to advise and support the delivery of the new body’s remit. The guardians will be focused on the outcomes that the management body delivers, such as environmental biodiversity and social benefits, and any questions of significant land acquisitions and disposals.

My Lords, I am grateful. Will the Minister, with me, step back a little, think about the situation two years ago and consider how different it is now? Two years ago we were talking about the Government wanting to flog off most of the forestry estate. How different it is now. The Minister has congratulated the right reverend Prelate and his independent panel. Will he also congratulate the ministerial team in Defra on the way that they responded to the views of people throughout the country, in particular to the fantastic campaigns that existed? Is it not a win-win situation all round, with my honourable friend David Heath, as the Agriculture Minister, absolutely at the forefront of it?