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Public Bodies (Abolition of the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee) Order 2015

Volume 759: debated on Wednesday 4 February 2015

Motion to Consider

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Public Bodies (Abolition of the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee) Order 2015.

Relevant documents: 16th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, 19th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the Public Bodies (Abolition of the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee) Order delivers one of the measures promised in the outcome of the Government’s public bodies review, as announced in October 2010. We are proposing to use the powers in the Public Bodies Act 2011 to abolish the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee—the HGTAC. Section 1 of the Public Bodies Act permits a Minister to abolish by order a body or office specified in Schedule 1. The HGTAC is specified in Schedule 1. It was originally formed under the Forestry Act 1951 and was preserved in the subsequent Forestry Act 1967. No provision was made in either of these Acts for its abolition; accordingly, legislation is now required to do so.

The HGTAC has not had physical form for almost 10 years and exists now only on the statute book. It last met in 2005 and the terms of office of the last members expired in 2006. Those were not renewed by mutual agreement between the forestry commissioners and the final committee members themselves, having considered how the commission should operate, given that forestry is now a devolved policy matter.

The purpose of the HGTAC was to advise the forestry commissioners with regard to their general duty to promote,

“the establishment and maintenance … of adequate reserves of growing trees”,

across Great Britain. It was also to advise on the exercise of their powers to control the felling of trees and to make regulations. Following the devolution of forestry policy and the subsequent cessation of the HGTAC’s activities, advice is now provided to the Forestry Commission through several types of expert advisory groups and other specialist committees with specific knowledge.

As required by due process, we conducted a public consultation on the proposal to abolish the HGTAC in the spring of last year. The consultation was specifically brought to the attention of key forestry-related interests, but was also open to all stakeholders and the wider public via my department’s public website. We received only five responses. A timber-based business and consultancy felt that there could be a role for the HGTAC as the,

“public face of British timber”,

while the RSPB questioned whether the abolition would adversely affect oversight of forestry at national, GB and UK levels to ensure sustainability.

It is not appropriate for the HGTAC to be the public face of British timber. Its role was to advise the forestry commissioners in relation to the exercise of certain duties and functions, not to act as a representative body. Indeed, British timber has many public faces in the form of the various well known representative bodies within the sector, with which the commission has very good relations.

Furthermore, I believe it is not appropriate to suggest that abolishing the HGTAC would adversely affect oversight of forestry at national, GB and UK levels, for several reasons. The HGTAC has not existed nor performed any kind of advisory role for almost 10 years; it never had a UK remit; and in 2013 its remit in relation to Wales ceased to exist. The devolved arrangements now in place provide for very good advisory engagement within each Administration, and through its cross-border functions in particular, the Forestry Commission continues to support a wider overview.

Beyond those concerns, the remaining three respondents to the consultation supported the abolition. These included the Confederation of Forest Industries and the UK Forest Products Association.

There will be no jobs lost as a result of the abolition of the HGTAC, and no loss of rights, privileges or protections. Its role was purely advisory to the forestry commissioners and this is now done by other means. Its abolition does not compromise the ability of the commissioners to access the most informed advice because they are supported in that regard now by the Scottish Forestry Forum, which is supported by five regional forestry forums; the regional advisory committees in England, now called forestry and woodlands advisory committees; the Expert Group on Timber and Trade Statistics, developed from the HGTAC’s previous Supply and Demand (of Timber) Sub-Committee; and the Expert Committee on Forest Science. Indeed, one of those bodies, the Expert Group on Timber and Trade Statistics, is an essential quality assurance element of the Forestry Commission’s own forestry statistics publications.

In April 2013, the functions of the forestry commissioners in Wales were transferred to Welsh Ministers and Natural Resources Wales. At that time the HGTAC ceased to have a remit extending to Wales. However, it remained a cross-border body in relation to England and Scotland and, accordingly, a consent Motion to its abolishment was agreed by the Scottish Parliament on 20 January. A similar Motion has not been required in Wales because of the changes I have mentioned, and the HGTAC provisions did not extend to Northern Ireland.

As noble Lords will be aware, we have placed great emphasis on creating a more efficient policy delivery landscape through our public body reforms. There is broad agreement, as demonstrated by the support of representative bodies, that the HGTAC is no longer required. Abolishing this defunct body will also help the Forestry Commission operate more efficiently within the current devolved arrangements.

I hope from this explanation that the Committee will understand why we have decided to bring forward this order to abolish the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee. I commend the order to the Committee.

My Lords, can my noble friend say what recent measures of government forestry policy have usefully derived from national advisory committees or, indeed, any of the other bodies to which he has just referred and which the Government may be in the habit of consulting from time to time?

How consistent has that advice been; for example, over the desirable economic target to plant more in order to import less?

The Forestry Act 1967 stressed the need for,

“adequate reserves of growing trees”.

To continue to achieve that aim, what planting and maintenance targets are now envisaged for the Forestry Commission and the private sector respectively?

My Lords, the Government are increasing woodland creation and management at a rapid rate. We hope to have a million more trees by the end of this Parliament, which is absolutely to be welcomed. However, we have long-standing domestic and international obligations to ensure that forestry is carried out in a sustainable manner. As the Minister highlighted in his opening remarks, the RSPB in its response to the commission highlighted concerns. The explanatory document makes it clear that the role of Ministers is to ensure that these commitments are delivered, stating that while,

“it is principally for the Forestry Commissioners to determine how they should be delivering their balancing duty between the management of forests and promotion, supply, sale, utilization and conversion of timber … it is ultimately for the relevant Governments’ Ministers in England and Scotland to intervene should the Commissioners be failing in their statutory remit”.

Therefore, while I am not opposed in any way to the abolition of the Home Grown Timber Advisory Committee, I felt that it was proper to take this opportunity to ask the Minister what plans the Government have to monitor the effects of the increase in trees and the management we are delivering to ensure that benefits are delivered for growth in the economy, people and the environment.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his introduction to the order today. We agree with him that this advisory committee has gone the distance and that it serves no useful function, not having met since 2005, with its role having been devolved to national committees. I note that its former functions are now discharged through separate arrangements in each Administration and it has no property, rights or liabilities, so a transfer scheme under Section 23 of the Public Bodies Act 2011 is not required.

The Minister makes the order under the provisions of the Public Bodies Act 2011, and it meets the tests under that Act that it improves the exercise of public functions, does not remove any necessary protections and does not prevent any person from continuing to exercise any right or freedom.

Your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee is content with the order and considers that the Minister’s department has handled the consultation process appropriately. I have asked the Minister on previous occasions when considering organisations under the Public Bodies Act to update the Committee on progress generally. If the Minister has any further news, that would be instructive for the Committee.

The measure today is non-contentious, the Minister’s department is to be congratulated on its presentation to the Committee, and I approve the order. Meanwhile, I would be grateful to hear from his department whether the forestry estate is now safe in public hands, and to hear what delayed his department from bringing forward legislation as promised.

My Lords, I am grateful for noble Lords’ contributions. My noble friend Lord Dundee asked what recent measures of government forestry policy have usefully derived from the national advisory committees. In my opening presentation I mentioned various bodies which now act in place of the former HGTAC in advising the Forestry Commission on the discharge of its functions. However, the totality of that advice adds to the Forestry Commission’s overall ability to advise the Government on development of forestry policy. Additionally, the Expert Group on Timber and Trade Statistics has influenced policy on supply and demand of timber in that it quality-assures the Forestry Commission’s production of forestry statistics, which policy analysts interpret and use as the basis to inform the development of forestry policy.

My noble friend also asked, essentially, about how we will ensure adequate reserves of growing trees. We have not set planting targets for England, but in refreshing forestry policy we have set out an aspiration to increase woodland cover in England from 10% to 12% by 2060. That would require on average creating 5,000 hectares of new woodland per year. We readily acknowledge that that is a challenging aspiration, and we have been clear all along that it will require the Government’s support measures plus private-sector investment to make it happen. The Rural Development Programme currently supports about 2,000-plus hectares of new woodland per year, but non-RDP-funded expansion is currently quite low, at about 800 hectares.

To maintain our woodlands, we have also set an aspiration to bring 66% of them into management by 2018 and expect the proportion to rise beyond that, towards 80%, in due course. Since 2011, we have already progressed from 52% to 57% of woodlands under management.

My noble friend Lady Parminter asked how we would monitor our performance. I have already partly explained that the Forestry Commission will be responsible. It is exciting that the sector has seen British sawn timber grow its market share of UK consumption from 8% to 38% over 30 years. Softwood deliveries have grown steadily from just over 8 million tonnes in 2009 to closer to 11 million tonnes now. UK businesses have invested in some of the most advanced sawmills and panel board mills in the world. We are supporting growth in the wood-based economy in several ways. We have worked closely with the sector’s Grown in Britain initiative and welcome regional growth initiatives such as the northern Roots to Prosperity strategy.

The noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, asked what progress we were making under the public bodies programme. We have made quite good progress in that area. So far, we have abolished 52 NDPBs, including the Commission for Rural Communities, and transferred the functions of British Waterways in England and Wales to the Canal & River Trust. There are now only one or two bodies still to be abolished, which are mainly defunct or non-operational.

The noble Lord asked, rather provocatively, whether the forestry estate was now safe in public hands. Yes, it is—I do not know how many times I have to say that. I think that the noble Lord is quite aware that we were unable to secure a legislative slot in this Session of Parliament, but we remain committed to setting up an independent body to manage the public forest estate.

I hope that I have answered noble Lords’ questions. I will of course check Hansard and write if I need to. I thank noble Lords for their contributions.

Motion agreed.