Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendments Nos. 130 and 131:

Page 89, line 20, leave out ("of the Assembly").
Page 89, line 30, leave out ("of the Assembly").

On Question, amendments agreed to.

9 Jul 1998 : Column 1403

Clause 105 [Forestry Commissioners]:

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 132:

Page 55, line 6, leave out ("of the Assembly").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Williams of Mostyn moved Amendment No. 133:

Page 55, line 16, leave out ("provision consequential on this section)") and insert ("further provision about the Forestry Commissioners and the exercise of their functions in relation to Wales)").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Roberts of Conwy moved Amendment No. 134:

Leave out Clause 105.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, there is a great deal of concern about the proposal to split responsibility for the Forestry Commission between the three countries. That concern arises despite the reassuring assertions that overall strategic control of forestry will remain on a Great Britain basis.

I understand that the current responsibility of the Secretary of State for Wales and the Secretary of State for Scotland will be devolved to the Welsh assembly and the Scottish parliament. The Scottish parliament will have primary legislative powers in this field--perhaps I should say "wood" on this occasion because it clearly is tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new!

We have the word of the Secretary of State for Wales when he addressed a Committee of the whole House. On 2nd March (at col. 710 of the Official Report) he said:

    "On matters that operate GB-wide, it will be necessary for the Ministry of Agriculture, the representative of the Welsh Assembly, and the appropriate Minister in the Scottish Parliament to agree".
Agreement may not always be as easy as it sounds in this context, especially when national interests conflict and when the unified commission to which we have been accustomed is financed from three separate sources, as is proposed, each with the power to vary its financial contribution.

Those of us who have had some experience of such divided funding know how wrong it can sometimes go. However, the key question is this: who is to have the final say in the event of a disagreement between the three participants in the decision-making process--the assembly, the Scottish parliament or the Ministry of Agriculture? Who will be the lead Minister responsible for forestry after devolution? I cannot find the answer to that question.

Clause 105 concentrates on the funding issue. It is clear from subsection (3) that the whip hand rests with the assembly which,

    "shall have regard in particular to what it considers the Commissioners need to spend in order effectively to discharge their functions in relation to Wales".
An element of second guessing seems to be involved here. I find that somewhat disconcerting. Forestry is important to the Welsh economy and to the environment. The forest area in Wales covers about

9 Jul 1998 : Column 1404

12 per cent. of the total land area, and about half of that is controlled by the Forestry Commission. Current Welsh timber production represents 15 per cent. of the British total. Self-evidently forestry is important.

The employment aspect of forestry is of particular concern bearing in mind the current plight of the farming industry in rural areas. About 4,700 people are employed in forestry and allied industries in Wales. Of those, 1,270 are employed by the Forestry Commission and 1,700 in the wood processing plants which have invested heavily in Wales. We have already heard mention of companies such as Shotton Paper, Kronospan at Chirk and BSW in mid-Wales. It is important that the industry is properly handled and not sidelined in any way.

It is reassuring to know that the forest enterprise will continue to operate on a Great Britain basis. We are also told that the Forestry Commission will prepare three separate corporate plans for England, Scotland and Wales covering all the commission's objectives, including conservation. That is welcome. We hope that the plans will be complementary too. When we discussed the forestry issue in Committee on 9th June, my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish spoke of some of the disadvantageous situations that could arise in the event of a conflict of interest between the three countries. That is why we are concerned with the provision in Schedule 7 which would allow the Secretary of State by order to change the Forestry Act 1967 which is a fundamental piece of legislation in this area. However, one can also see how such a change might be necessary if, for example, the Scottish parliament were to decide unilaterally to establish its own Forestry Commission independent of the body covering England and Wales.

The Minister is well aware of our doubts as to whether the division of responsibility proposed is good for forestry in Britain as a whole, good for the commission or good for Wales. We are doubtful whether the scheme will work satisfactorily in practice and sure in our minds that the scheme proposed is inferior to the current unified approach, which makes business and commercial sense. It is that sacrifice of business to political expediency that some of us find worrying.

There are certain Great Britain matters which are not being devolved. Broadcasting is a very good example. I shall not expand on that, but it seems to me that forestry is one of those businesses that we have found through experience is best run on Great Britain lines. Therefore, there is an argument which we should expect to hear from the Government as to why forestry is being devolved and whether that is in the best interests of the industry and in the best interests of Wales in particular. I beg to move.

Lord Crickhowell: My Lords, I have not spoken on these forestry clauses nor, indeed, I confess, have I studied them very carefully. I was absent when they were debated in Committee. However, there are one or two points which I should like to raise and some questions that I should like to ask.

9 Jul 1998 : Column 1405

I must declare an interest. I was a forestry Minister for eight years and one of the perks that I inherited, I am glad to say, was a bunch of keys which opened all the forestry gates anywhere in the United Kingdom. It is extremely important for me, living in a heavily forested valley, as it enables me to reach parts of the countryside which it would otherwise be extremely difficult to enter.

I look back to the period when forestry Ministers acted together under the leadership of the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Ministers from Wales, England and Scotland met together and decided forestry policy. That worked effectively and the Forestry Commission worked effectively.

My noble friend Lord Roberts of Conwy has raised some important questions about how the Forestry Commission is to run its affairs when three different bodies--a legislative assembly, an assembly with limited powers and a Ministry--will all have different responsibilities for one organisation. As someone who was chairman of a large organisation covering England and Wales--the National Rivers Authority--I can only say I am thankful that I do not have to run that particular body and co-ordinate its affairs effectively.

Indeed, my noble friend has raised the point about those organisations which have not been divided up in quite that way. The Environment Agency is a case in point. The organisation has been kept on a centralised basis with national legislation but certain aspects of its responsibilities are to become those of the assembly.

I do not argue at all that the assembly should not have a significant role in this regard because quite clearly, as my noble friend said, forestry is extremely important economically in Wales and for environmental reasons. Therefore, I am concerned about the practicalities.

I make one other point and it is in relation to Schedule 7. We have been told in the course of debates that certain provisions must appear on the face of the Bill in order to make things clear to those who must operate them. If anyone believes that Schedule 7 makes anything clear to anybody, I must disabuse them of that fact. If one tries to interpret the meaning of Schedule 7, even the most agile among us and those most experienced in dealing with parliamentary drafting may have some difficulty.

As I understand it--and this is the point on which I seek clarification--it arises from Clause 105 which appears to deal only with questions of funding. Therefore, the ability to change things under sub-paragraph (2) of Schedule 7, which deals with the power of the Secretary of State to amend legislation, can arise only out of Clause 105 which deals with funding issues.

It may go further. If it does, I want to know. Are we in a situation where the assembly can influence what the Forestry Commission does by saying, "We are not prepared to spend as much as you want to spend", or, "We interpret the functions laid on us by statute in that way and after discussion with you, we think that they should be administered in this way"; or has it the ability to ask the Secretary of State by order fundamentally to change those functions under this sub-paragraph in the schedule?

9 Jul 1998 : Column 1406

I just want to know how far we are simply dealing with judgmental decisions about the application of existing functions and their financing and how far we are facing the possibility that the assembly, although it does not have legislative powers, will be able to ask the Secretary of State to make fundamental changes to the functions of the Forestry Commission and perhaps alter entirely the way it operates.

I apologise for raising those detailed questions at this stage, but sometimes one is forced by amendments which are moved to look again at clauses. As I say, I had some responsibility for forestry in Wales over a long period and, at present, I do not understand how the provisions will work, or what is the scope of the assembly or the Secretary of State to change the statutory basis or the functions which are to be operated.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Stanley of Alderley: My Lords, in the past I have been fortunate to receive some extremely good advice from the local Forestry Commission officer. Indeed, I still use his advice and did so this week. Will that relationship still continue? But, more important, will my Forestry Commission officer be put in the position of having to serve two masters so that when I ask him a question, he may be forced into saying, "I am only the Forestry Commission officer. I can deal with that, but you will have to go to someone else who deals with the assembly side of forestry matters"? That is all I wish to ask, but I hope the Minister will be able to say that one person will be able to deal with all the matters.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page