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Government of Wales Bill

8.40 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 88.

[Amendment No. 211A not moved.]

Clause 88 agreed to.

Clauses 89 to 93 agreed to.

Clause 94 [Staff etc.]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 212:

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

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

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 94, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 95 to 97 agreed to.

Clause 98 [Auditor General for Wales: miscellaneous]:

[Amendment No. 212A not moved.]

Clause 98 agreed to.

Clauses 99 to 104 agreed to.

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

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 212B:

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

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 105, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 106 agreed to.

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

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 213:

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

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

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 5, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 107 [Forestry Commissioners]:

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

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

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

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

8.45 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas: I warmly welcome the opportunity briefly to debate forestry. I also welcome the Government's decision to devolve forestry to the national assembly.

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

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

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

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Before the Minister intervenes, as a former forest Minister, perhaps I may say a few words about forestry.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Two Front Benchers?

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

Lord Elis-Thomas: Some of us have only one Front Bench and, indeed, one Back Bench.

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

The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, in a debate in your Lordships' House on 29th October 1997, a debate instigated by the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, from the Liberal Democrat Benches in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, said at col. 1125:

    "The functions of the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales in relation to forestry will be transferred to the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly respectively. The commission will however continue to be the government department with responsibility for forestry throughout Britain. The commission will report separately to the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly but will still be a national responsibility. I hope that provides some comfort and confidence to my noble friend".

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, unfortunately is not here. I have to say that it did not provide me with much comfort and confidence. I am still puzzled. Schedule 6 is a long and complex schedule to achieve what I might sum up as the dismemberment of the Forestry Commission and then its coming together again. That seems to me to be surprising.

Forestry is an important industry in this country. We are not heavily forested, as we heard this afternoon at Question Time: something like 10 per cent. in the United Kingdom. I am not sure of the Welsh figure but

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I think that it is probably better than 10 per cent. Scotland is certainly better than 10 per cent. But in comparison to Germany at 30 per cent. and France at 26 per cent. we are pretty poorly off for forestry. But, despite that, it is an important and growing industry in the United Kingdom. The output from our forests is about £800 million a year, and growing. Against that figure, which sounds large, we have about £6 billion of imports.

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

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

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

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

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

My fear is that the splitting up of the UK forest industry will lead to the Scottish parliament looking at Scottish forestry and being much more concerned with the supply to the Scottish downstream industry, whereas the UK Government and the Forest Authority are interested in the supply of timber to all manufacturing plants in the UK. Currently, the Forestry Commission, albeit responsible to the lead department in Scotland, looks at the matter from a UK point of view. It works

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out how timber will go to Shotton. In another year--it is like that--it may be how Welsh timber goes over the border and into England and may be even comes to the pulp mill at Irvine in Scotland. There is a cycle in timber which means that there is a great deal of felling going on in one part of the country and that timber has to be dispersed about the market place.

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

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

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

Noble Lords who have heard me speak about forestry before are aware that I should like to see more planting done in the UK. That inevitably means the necessary grant, because the tax advantages no longer exist. If the UK Government, who will be the Government of England so far as concerns forestry, decide that they want to be green and plant lots and lots of hardwood and skew the planting programme for hardwoods, that could, not next year or the following year but in 20 years' time, have an enormous consequence for Shotton because it may not be able to obtain enough wood. I am worried about that. My worry was in no way diminished when on 18th February the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, told me:

    "it would be perfectly possible for the grant system in Scotland to be different from that in Wales, and from that in England".--[Official Report, 18/2/98; col. 256.]

I am concerned that that could result in us not looking at forestry in the UK in a unified way. We might end up not with a problem, as I said, in the next decade, because all the timber that will go to the pulp mills in the next two or three decades is already growing. But in the decades after in the 2020s and the 2030s the problem could occur.

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

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

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

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