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Tuesday 1 March 2011
[Mr James Gray in the Chair]
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I am very grateful for the opportunity to open this debate on the future of the Forestry Commission. When I applied for the debate the Government were, of course, intent on selling off up to 100% of our public forest estate, which by any standards was an outrageous proposal, especially given Ministers’ repeated boasts of their intention to be the greenest Government ever. The U-turn made by the Secretary of State on 17 February, heralded by the Prime Minister’s disowning of the policy the day before, has to be one of the most humiliating ever. Just like the U-turns on green individual savings accounts, housing benefit, rape anonymity, dissolution of Parliament, knife offences, school sports, Bookstart, free nursery milk and debt advice, the forestry U-turn was the result of a rushed and ill-conceived set of proposals, put forward by an ideologically driven Government.
Where did the policy come from? It certainly did not come from the people who carried out the Labour Government’s review of the public forest estate. I suggest that once again we see a Secretary of State out of touch with the community of interests relating to her Department, and I only hope that the 500,000 people who rose up in protest against the forest proposals will do so again to defeat another Secretary of State and his plans to restructure the NHS.
As a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister, I had responsibility for the Forestry Commission for a short time, and was very impressed with how the custodians of our public forest estate were developing their mission. They had moved some considerable way from the overriding timber priorities of the past, to delivering multi-purpose sustainable forestry, embracing the need to combat climate change, to enhance both biodiversity and leisure pursuits, and to develop sources of renewable fuel. We, the Labour Government, wanted to build on that progress, alongside our Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the creation of two new national parks, and so in November 2008 we launched the review of the public forest estate, to which I referred earlier. That review was conducted by independent representatives from academia, the civil service, industry and nature conservation, and the research covered the economic, environmental and social costs and benefits of the public forest estate. It was accompanied by a public consultation, which received more than 4,000 responses. The review group’s final report was presented to the Forestry Commission in May 2010, and its findings offered a way forward that was very different from the wholesale sell-off proposed by the Minister.
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Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): The right hon. Lady has made a number of comments about the Labour proposals, but she has not mentioned that the Forestry Commission is both a big commercial operator in the forestry market and a regulator of everyone else—all its competition. Was that part of the Labour party’s consideration, and did it feature at all in its report?
Joan Ruddock: The report, which was of course independent, was never responded to by the Labour Government, for the obvious reason that there was an election. The report went to the Forestry Commission and there was no opportunity for us to respond, but I recommend it to the hon. Gentleman. It took a considerable amount of time—more than a year—and came up with a huge range of suggestions, and the underlying research, which was reported on, was very important. The issues that the hon. Gentleman mentions are in the report, and I will come on to say what I think was very important about the review.
“Public consultation and social research showed passionate engagement with the public forest estate…and most people saw it as relevant to their lives”,
“The public forest estate should remain large scale, widely distributed throughout England, have a flexible and varied cross-section of all types of woodland, be able to provide a significant volume of products, services, skills and experience, and remain under public control and accountability.”
That brings me to future sales. I say immediately that some sales can be justified when holdings are small or distant from the main estate, and when they are degraded or appropriate for restoration to open land. Over the 13 years of Labour Government our policies resulted in the sale of 9,000 hectares and a consequent purchase of 5,000 hectares—a net change of 4,000 hectares over 13 years. The comprehensive spending review announced the sale of 10 times that amount—40,000 hectares over a mere four years—quite separate from the new legislation that had now been abandoned. This Tory-led Government have sold 1,748 hectares to date, but we have been told that no further sales will take place—awaiting new advice. Can the Minister tell us how the Government—not necessarily his Department—expect to find the £745 million that their forestry sales were expected to realise, or what percentage of the public forest estate he still expects to sell off over the next four years, albeit with his new potential safeguards?
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of £745 million—the supposed gain from the sales—from, given that during the debate on this issue in the Chamber, the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby), said that there was nothing in it financially for the Government.
Joan Ruddock: I am simply citing the Government’s own ambitions, and there are substantial sums to be realised from sales. I cannot, off the top of my head, remember what the Government have raised from the 1,748 hectares sold off already, but it is certainly many millions. I would be delighted if the Minister answered my question in his response, and told us what was expected to be raised from the sales of the forestry lands—the 15%. Will he also indicate how the Government will make up that money if they do not go ahead with the sale of the 15%? They cannot have it both ways; either they plan to sell or they do not. If they plan to sell, I know—I have been a Minister myself—that the Minister will have a real estimate of the financial result of those sales.
I have another question for the Minister. In principle, does he rule in or rule out the sale of woodland in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, community forests and sites of special scientific interest? Will he confirm that DEFRA still requires the Forestry Commission to cut its budget by 25% this year, with a potential loss of 400 jobs? Surely job losses of such magnitude undermine any recommendations that his new panel might make for the future of the Forestry Commission.
In the drafting of the terms and conditions of the independent panel, is any account being taken of the findings of Labour’s review of the public forest estate? The Minister frowns, but it was an independent review carried out by experts over 12 months and was available to his Government the moment they took office, and it appears that he did not even bother to read it before coming up with these madcap proposals. Referring to the review would be significant.
Critically, will the panel be allowed to consider continuing public ownership? The Minister frowns again, but the consultation that has just been cancelled prohibited continuing public ownership. The new panel’s terms of reference will be significant. The public believe that they have won a great battle now that the consultation and plans have been cancelled pending the findings of the independent review, but the panel’s terms of reference are critical to determining the future.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Is the right hon. Lady aware that in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in the area that I represent, public forests are retained for public use and are not to be sold? Does she feel that the decisions of other regions in the United Kingdom to retain public forests should be part of the panel’s review and its final decision making?
Perhaps forests in the other part of the United Kingdom are safer left out of the Government’s review. I am not sure that I would trust this Government with any bit of the forest, whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales. History to date suggests that we in England have been poorly served by this Government
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and their proposals; perhaps other regions are on safer ground. However, it will be for the Minister to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question.
I have a list of questions for the Minister. I shall not speak at huge length, as I want to hear his answers and do not want him to run out of time. Will he guarantee that there will be a place on the panel for representatives of the Forestry Commission work force? How will the voices of those who campaigned to defeat his proposals be represented? Will the panel’s deliberations be held in public?
The public have shown overwhelming support for our public forests; I pay tribute to the campaign 38 Degrees. The Government would be well advised to harness that support. The public forest estate in England must be maintained as the national asset that it is, under a single management structure. Rather than being sold off, it should be extended.
I pay tribute to my constituents and those of other MPs who took the time not only to express their outrage at the Government’s proposals but to tell us what the forests mean to them. Annette Lewis from Brockley wrote to me:
“As I have always lived in cities, I know how important it is for city dwellers to access the countryside. I believe in the preservation of woodland in public ownership for future generations. I want my children and their children to be able to find the joy and relaxation I have found from a walk in the woods.”
“there are many places around south-east London and Kent which are woodland. They are fantastic because London is so overcrowded and children love to roam freely in safety with parents; this is so for all our national woodlands.”
“How can we ask other countries much poorer than our own not to chop down forests, critical in regulating our climate and storing carbon, when we are prepared to sell our own for a song”?
Glyn Davies: The right hon. Lady refers to the chopping down of forests. Is she aware that forests can be cut down only if a licence is granted, and that in almost every instance new forest must be planted in its place?
Joan Ruddock: I am more than aware of that. I am expressing the passionately held views of my constituents. If people are concerned enough to write to their MPs in unprecedented numbers, it is important that we understand their concerns. Concerns about climate change and the future of this planet are dear to the hearts of many of our constituents.
If the hon. Gentleman will calm down for a moment, I will be more than pleased to give way. I am dealing with a point already raised. The issues are important, and it is greatly to the credit of the public in this country that they can and do associate our precious forests with tackling climate change and have linked that issue to the fact that we should not only do what we must in the developed world but seek to influence those in the underdeveloped world who have custodianship of
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the most important forests in the world. That is important, and I resent the fact that Conservative Members should attempt to rubbish my constituents on an issue about which they are passionately and properly concerned.
Damian Hinds: I did not hear anybody rubbish anybody, but for the avoidance of doubt, although important issues are being discussed about the future of the Forestry Commission’s estate, will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that the subject is not in the slightest related to deforestation or the chopping down of forests?
Joan Ruddock: No, absolutely not. The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. We have one of the smallest forest estates in Europe, so the extent of ours is important to people. I argue that if we keep the forest estate in public ownership, we are more likely to be able to deal with the diseases that are arising and manage it comprehensively and effectively, and less likely to encounter some of the problems that occur when forest estates are fragmented and people fear, maybe wrongly, that trees will be felled unnecessarily. He will know that over the years, the Forestry Commission has changed its culture and become very aware of the great issues of our time, such as the threat of climate change and the loss of biodiversity. People understand that. It is important that we as parliamentarians associate ourselves with those concerns and in no way criticise people when they want to bring them to our attention.
I was about to wind up, but gave way because there was such agitation opposite. I now come to my final point. I have read out only selected comments from the long e-mails that I received from three of the 392 constituents who contacted me, and they will now ask, as I do, what exactly is the future of the Forestry Commission?
Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): One of the depressing things about this House is that, sometimes, hon. Members do not listen to what has been said. I am not sure whether the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who introduced this debate, was present in the main Chamber when the Secretary of State made her original statement when launching the original consultation document. The right hon. Lady has sought to suggest that the Government intended to “sell off” the forests, but I heard the Secretary of State clearly say two things. On commercial forest, she said that the Government had no intention of selling freehold interests, but that they would grant leaseholds for the specific reason of enhancing protections for access and other rights—for walkers, cyclists and so on—within those commercial lettings.
On heritage woodland, I heard the Secretary of State make it very clear that, if community, voluntary or other groups did not come forward to run community and heritage woodland, it would remain within public ownership. I invite the right hon. Lady to re-read what the Secretary of State said in her statement to the House, because her comments bear absolutely no relationship to the Government’s policy. Part of the problem with this whole debate is that the perception of the Government’s policy bears no relationship to what Ministers actually proposed.
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Joan Ruddock: The hon. Gentleman has to take into account the many remarks that have been made, not least by the Minister, about the so-called sell-off and disposal of up to 100% of the forest estate. The hon. Gentleman criticises the term “sell-off,” but the fact is that disposals of whatever kind mean that the estate is totally fragmented. That is the big difference and that is why it is so significant.
Tony Baldry: I do not wish to pursue this point, but the right hon. Lady was a Minister in the previous Government and understands the concept of collective government, so she well understands that comments by a Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box represent the collective view of the Government. The Secretary of State could not have been clearer when she spoke at the Dispatch Box about what the Government intended to do.
I was fortunate to grow up in Burnham Beeches, which is a substantial area of woodland between Maidenhead and Slough that is owned and very well managed by the City of London corporation. It makes the point that much of our woodland in this country is owned by a diverse group of owners. I am a Church Commissioner and the Church Commissioners own a fair amount of woodland, much of it in our agricultural estate, and we lease woodland to the Forestry Commission. Having had the opportunity as a child to enjoy the benefits of Burnham Beeches, I am conscious of the importance of woodland. Moreover, as a representative of the county of Oxfordshire, which has very little woodland cover, I am conscious of how important it is to encourage woodland cover as a whole.
When I was fortunate enough to be a Minister in the Department of the Environment, I was proud to be part of a ministerial team that advanced initiatives on both the national forest and the community forest. At that time, Mr Gray, you were a distinguished special adviser to Ministers in the Department.
Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to remind me of that and to be so flattering, but for the sake of today’s debate, I cast aside all previous party political roles that I may have had. I am highly dispassionate about today’s debate.
Tony Baldry: I did not want you to think, Mr Gray, that I was trying to steal all the glory of those days under Lord Heseltine and others in the Department of the Environment, when we benefited from your advice. It is worth recalling that the Conservative party has a long tradition of seeking to enhance woodland cover in the UK. The national forest, which was an initiative by that Government, has been a great success story. Last year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee reported:
“Fifteen years on from its inception, The National Forest is a success story. It is delivering tangible environmental, economic and social benefits out of a bold vision to transform a 200 square mile swathe of the Midlands—much of which was suffering economic and environmental decline—through planting trees to create new woods and forests. Its achievement is not so much in trebling the proportion of land with tree cover to 18%, but that, in so doing, it has helped to regenerate the local economy, open up the Forest to greater public use and improve the natural environment.”
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their impact, and they concluded that, overall, the community forests programme
“has been successful in levering in high levels of private and voluntary sector support”,
“over the period 1990-2003, the total amount levered”
“totalled £42.9 million.”
“Overall, the CFP is performing well in terms of increasing woodland cover and improving the environment.
The CFP is performing particularly well in terms of providing opportunities for informal recreation and opening up rights of way.”
I am proud to have been involved in initiatives such as the national forest that encourage the development of everything from community forests to local pocket parks, and which have enhanced community woodland.
It is sensible for the Secretary of State to establish an independent panel to consider forestry policy in England. It will report its findings to the Secretary of State in the autumn, and it will advise on the direction of forestry and woodland policy in England and on the role of the Forestry Commission and the public forest estate. I hope that the independent panel will be able to look at all the questions raised in the consultation paper—it was published by DEFRA, but subsequently withdrawn—on the future of the Forestry Commission. Part of the difficulty in this whole saga is that the clauses relating to the commission in the Public Bodies Bill had, by necessity, to be published before DEFRA was able to publish its consultation on the commission’s future. When their lordships considered a number of different issues in the Bill, they managed to get themselves confused and allow a considerable degree of speculation about what might have been happening when it was clearly not what was intended. I think that that was made clear by the Secretary of State’s statement to the House.
“we wish to proceed with…very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it.”
Tony Baldry: That highlights a fundamental misunderstanding. The Forestry Commission has within its control two different types of woodland. It was brought into being at the time of the first world war to enable the country to have access to commercial forestry to provide timber for such things as pit props for the mines, and the vast majority of commercial forestry in this country—about 82%—is and has always been in private ownership. It would be very surprising if, at a time when we no longer expect the state to run airlines, own travel agencies, generate electricity or operate sewage treatment works, we thought that the state should be growing Christmas trees. Such a view is slightly bizarre.
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The Forestry Commission also has heritage woodland within its ownership. I suspect that there has sometimes been a deliberate attempt by those wishing to create mischief to cause confusion between the Government’s policy on commercial forestry and on heritage woodland. The Secretary of State could not have been clearer about the matter when she spoke to the House when launching the consultation paper: the Government consider those matters to be two very different entities. The Secretary of State could not made it plainer to the House that if appropriate bodies do not come forward to manage heritage woodland properly, that woodland will remain within the public estate.
I am conscious that other hon. Members wish to speak. The other points I want to make are that we have heard a lot about the Forestry Commission during the past few weeks, but I hope that the independent panel will give regard to how we can increase woodland cover more generally in the UK, particularly in England. On commercial forestry, I hope that the panel will consider the effect and impact of the tax regime in England in comparison with regimes elsewhere in the world—for example, considerable tree planting is taking place in the United States. The trust funds of universities such as Harvard, Yale and others are investing considerable money in commercial forestry because, as they are charities, there are incentives for them to do so under US tax law.
On heritage woodland, I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what will follow the environmental stewardship schemes that have formed part of the rural development programme for England for a considerable time. It is clear that the majority of agricultural land is almost entirely in private ownership and therefore planting for new broadleaf community woodlands will almost certainly take place on private land. What incentive or encouragement will there be for farmers, as landowners, to plant new community woodland?
When the independent panel concludes its work, I hope that there will be two coherent chapters on different policies. I hope that there is one chapter on the future of commercial forestry—how we can encourage more of it in the UK—and the Forestry Commission, and a second on how we enhance heritage woodland and encourage access and amenity in relation to community woodland, as we did with the national forest and community forests. It should be on the record that the Government have made it very clear that they wish to enhance and protect the rights of access. I suspect that the main concern of a large number of constituents who have understandably contacted us about the issue is that they should continue to have access to woodland. That is very important. The Government have made it clear throughout that they want to protect access to woodland. However, that needs to be stated and restated time and again.
Mr David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) for securing the debate. There are people who think that the issue has been resolved, but it clearly has not. This morning’s discussions have shown that.
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The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) started his speech by saying that we should listen. I have spent my life listening to what Conservative Ministers have said. I read what they say and, more importantly, I always read between the lines of what they say. I do not need faceless bureaucrats or Government Front Benchers, who perhaps want to extend their already big land ownings, to tell me about heritage. My heritage is the coal mine industry. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that when he talked about the shortage of pit props during the first world war. My grandfather was a miner during the first world war, as were some of my uncles. They were working in dangerous conditions that were made even more dangerous by the shortage of things such as pit props. People were basically failed by the private sector and the Forestry Commission was set to ensure that such a situation did not happen again.
The heritage of the forest is more than just the heritage of the nation; it is the heritage of individual areas. The area of the world that I am massively proud to represent includes a place called Chopwell. In that area is Chopwell wood, which is owned by the commission and has been classed as a heritage site. We did not need people to tell us that because we knew it was our heritage. We believed that that was our land and that we owned it as part and parcel of the work we put into it. Anyone—no matter what their background or wealth—should be entitled to enjoy that country.
People came together to defend their woods against these proposals, including the Friends of Chopwell Wood, the Chopwell Wood Horse Riding Association, the organisation representing Northumbria ramblers, of which I am proud to be the president, and the people who represent the Friends of Red Kites in the North East of England. I am a member of that organisation, which has been involved with the re-introduction of red kites in the north-east of England during the past six years within 3 miles of one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe. The fact that organisations worked together in relation to Chopwell wood and other such places meant that the re-introduction of red kites was so successful. The re-introduction of red kites has been one of the most positive of any such actions that have thankfully taken place in this country over the past two decades.
We should take stock and say, “Where exactly are we?” A lot of people think that this battle has been won and that the Government have seen sense and have agreed that the forest will stay in public hands, but that is not the position we are in today. Let us remind ourselves what the Secretary of State said. First, she said that she had ended the consultation. Secondly, she said that the Government are supporting the removal of the relevant clauses from the Public Bodies Bill. Thirdly, she said that she has set up the review. That is all she has done. She has not stopped the Forestry Commission from being looked at in respect of privatisation and she has not cut off the potential for the whole of the estate to end up in private hands. That might not happen immediately, but it could happen over time.
A great concern of many of the campaigners—I am talking about people who devote their lives to these woods—was that they may well have had to take control and ownership of certain areas of the woods. They were worried that they could not sustain that. They were also concerned that, when they had gone, their children
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might not have shown any interest in the woods or have been able to manage them. Ultimately, the woods would have gone into private hands. That is the real issue.
The truth is that people do not trust what the Government have said. That comes through time and again. I read the consultation thoroughly and listened very closely to what the Minister has said because people do not believe that the Government will stick to what they are saying. What people believe is based on the Conservative party’s history and the privatisation that people have seen under Tory Governments during the past two decades. Let us think about some of those things.
There was the deregulation of buses. If we had been in the House—some of us probably were—25 years ago, Ministers would have said, “Don’t worry; the public will have control. This will give a bus to every community in this country.” That has not been the case. Monopolies are running the buses and public service comes last. We could have had a discussion about the deregulation of the utilities. There was the “Tell Sid” campaign—tell Sid we are going to become a shareholding democracy. Now the big six utility companies are putting prices up by 9% when people have seen their pay frozen and their pensions held back.
Mr Anderson: I accept entirely what the Chair says, but I am talking about the reality of why people have not got on board with what the Minister, the Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Banbury, for whom I have a lot of respect, have said. They have said that people are not listening. People are listening, but they are saying, “We don’t believe what we are hearing because we believe that what is happening is an attempt to dethrone us from where we were.” We have been here before. We were here in 1992, when the previous Tory Government set up a review when there was a rising up when Michael Heseltine, who was mentioned earlier, decided he was going to close 31 of the most technologically advanced coal mines in this country.
Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. I am very sorry, but the hon. Gentleman really must confine himself to the future of the Forestry Commission, which is the topic under debate today—nothing else, just the future of the Forestry Commission.
Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. It is not for the Chair to agree or disagree with where a particular hon. Member is “coming from,” as the hon. Gentleman puts it. It is my job to ensure that the debate is about the future of the Forestry Commission and nothing else. The hon. Gentleman will return to the subject of the debate; otherwise he will return to his seat.
Mr Anderson: I accept, again, what the Chair says and I hope that he will accept that we have a situation where people worry about what the future holds, because they do not trust what has happened in the past.
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Another issue that people are unsure about is exactly where the Liberal Democrats are on this, because they will play a key part in deciding the debate about where this country is going. In the next period, what will they feed into the consultation? What is quite clear on the ground in Chopwell, is that the Liberal Democrats are nowhere to be seen, despite the fact that in part of that area Liberal Democrat councillors represent some of the people who live at the side of the woods. So people have the right to say, “Where are you?” We have been here before. In 1921, under a coalition Government of Tories and Liberals, there was an attempt to sell off Runnymede, of all places. That did not happen.
“I am sorry, we got this one wrong”.
“we have listened to people’s concerns.” —[Official Report, 17 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 1155.]
Well, I am very pleased about that, but if she has listened to people’s concerns, and if she has listened to the responses to the consultations, and if she has listened to the 500,000 people who signed up on the website, she will know that those concerns are saying one thing and one thing only: the Forestry Commission, and the 18% of forest lands that are in public ownership and control, must remain. If we end up, at the end of the review procedure, with anything other than that, then clearly she has not listened and has not responded to what the people of this country have said.
The truth is that the people of this country will be watching the Secretary of State, her ministerial team and the Government like a hawk for the next few months. They will be very concerned, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford said, about the make-up of the independent panel. If there are no work force representatives, or representatives from green groups, on the panel, it will fail before it starts. If the terms of reference do not allow the latitude for the Forestry Commission to continue with full control and ownership, it will have failed before it starts.
To the people outside—wake up. Do not pretend that this is all done and dusted and that we had a great victory two weeks ago. We had some success two weeks ago, and it was people power that did it, but we have been here before: reviews have been used to put things on the back burner in the hope that we will forget about it and that it will be slipped through in six months’ time. Do not fall for that one.
Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing the debate.
The background to this situation is that the Forestry Commission has been running a deficit—a microcosm of the overall national position—for some years, with the gap being plugged by asset sales. There is a revenue funding gap, which is being plugged by capital sales. That is not a sustainable situation, because in time the
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asset base runs down. Sadly, those assets that have been sold off have, in many cases, gone with inadequate protections. The Government’s recent proposals clearly focused and magnified the great interest in our forests—in my own constituency, the much-loved Bushy Leaze, Chawton Park woods, Alice Holt forest and Queen Elizabeth country park. The correspondence that many of us received—we could all trade a considerable number of e-mails and letters—amplified how much, although we knew this already, people value the recreational benefits of those facilities, and want to protect biodiversity.
It is a little unhelpful to introduce things into the debate that are not directly relevant, such as climate change and the development of the countryside. As was pointed out, in this country, we cannot just fell large numbers of trees, raze them to the ground and build things. That is just not allowed, whoever owns the land, as I think the right hon. Lady knows. There are, however, a number of reasonable, legitimate and important questions, and people have some deep, understandable concerns about aspects of the proposals. One key point, with the distinction between heritage forests and other forests, is that the protections for the heritage forest are clear. However, people want additional comfort about forests that are not classified as heritage forests and, indeed, how they can appeal for a forest to be classed as a heritage forest. That is the case with some of the forests in my patch of East Hampshire.
I welcome the Government’s new independent panel. I hope that it will be an opportunity for us to improve forest cover, relative to the starting point. It is worth restating that the Forestry Commission is not the only owner of forest. I was at a forest planting last week as part of the Woodland Trust jubilee project, which is an excellent project. The next opportunity is not just to protect, but enhance access and amenity. This debate has helped to put into sharp focus some of the issues not just for walkers, but for cyclists and horse riders. I urge the Minister to say a little more on those matters, and what he hopes will come out of the independent panel, which I very much welcome.
Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): Thank you, Mr Gray, for allowing me to speak in this debate. I will keep it short. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing the debate. I well remember her contribution as a Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in previous Parliaments.
I would like to declare an interest. I am a member of a partnership that is in receipt of a farm woodland grant from the Forestry Commission to promote both the management of woodlands under our responsibility and the public good through, for example, access and biodiversity. I will return to that—not that I am an example of a good forester, although I am an enthusiastic one—because it is not just the public estate that is important for access and biodiversity, but private woodland and private forestry too.
I have another small interest to declare. Some members of my family, although not immediate members, are involved in the sawmill industry, which is a commercial aspect of forestry that has not been mentioned today. Many jobs in my constituency are dependent on sawmills
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and on a consistent throughput of material, both in quality and quantity, to go into those sawmills. Sadly, only 10% of all timber used in this country for construction or for furniture manufacture originates in this country, but that is still an important part of the rural community.
Sadly, the House has not shown much interest in forestry until the past couple of months. In fact, in almost 10 years as an MP, we have had no debates in Government time on forestry. We have had one debate in Opposition time on forestry, and that was the recent debate. We have had two Adjournment debates on the New Forest. We have had two Westminster Hall debates, one sponsored by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) and, in 2005, one that I sponsored. Unfortunately, DEFRA did not manage to put up a Minister to reply to the debate, such was its interest in forestry, and the reply was made by a member of Her Majesty’s Treasury team—the former Whip, Nick Ainger, who is no longer a Member of the House. We had a good debate in this Chamber for 30 minutes.
That is the sum total of interest that the House has shown in forestry in the past 10 years, so I am pleased that we are now able to debate this issue more calmly than we did a fortnight ago—I am sure that the Minister is not very pleased that it has caused the interest that it has—because the future of forestry in this country is important. Some 20% of the forest cover in England is in the public estate, and 80% is privately held. Of that 80%, 40% is either undermanaged or not managed at all, and that is a real challenge for the Forestry Commission in the future. How can we better manage that woodland, not only in commercial terms but also in terms of access and biodiversity?
Jim Shannon: Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the sporting potential of forests, and therefore their economic benefits as well? Does he agree that perhaps that has been overlooked when it comes to any potential sales or otherwise of forests?
Roger Williams: The sporting potential of forests should be taken into account. One of the points that I would make if I had more time is about the great demand on our forests for different kinds of access. In my area, there are not only walkers, cyclists and horse riders, but people who go scrambling and rally driving as well. Rally driving and horse riding do not go together very well, so we have to manage the diverse demands on our forests.
Yes, the Forestry Commission was set up in response to the lack of timber for pit props, but its reputation has not always been as holy as it is now. Indeed, the contraceptive conifers that march up and down our woodlands were all planted by the Forestry Commission. The planting of the Flow country in Scotland, where we had the last of our native conifer woodland, was not to its glory, but, yes, it has improved; it has altered its terms of reference and its priorities.
When the panel meets—I hope that it will be called the wood panel, because everyone would then be able to recognise it—I hope it will take into consideration not only the public estate, which is managed by the Forestry Commission, but private woodland as well, which can make a huge contribution in this country. As someone said, we probably have less woodland cover than almost any other European country, so it is important that we
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take private woodland into account. The Forestry Commission is already making planting grants to the private estate, so that would be within the panel’s terms—at least, I hope that it is—because, in making those grants, we can ask for public good to be demonstrated. We can ask for access and improvements in biodiversity.
We should remember that conifer woods are not completely aseptic, or without any life at all. In fact, the red squirrel and the dormouse have been shown to use such habitats, so they are important. The Forestry Commission also has a big part to play in ensuring that there is a supply of timber to go through our sawmills, so I would ask the Minister whether there is any way in which all of that can be taken into consideration. In the enthusiasm to protect our public estate, we have forgotten about the contribution that private woodland makes as well.
Glyn Davies (Montgomeryshire) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I have been inspired to speak by the previous contributions, particularly that of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock). I congratulate her on providing this useful opportunity to have a considered discussion about an issue that is hugely important to me personally. I am enjoying the debate.
I agreed with much of what the right hon. Lady said about objectives. I love forests. As a farmer, I planted forests on my land, purely for my own pleasure—they are of limited commercial benefit. Like the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams), I, too, should declare an interest, albeit a small one, in that I planted woodlands with the support of Forestry Commission grants, and my main farm is surrounded by Forestry Commission land.
Clearly, the objective has been to increase biodiversity. That is a stated objective of the Government as well as the Opposition. It is also hugely important that we increase and improve access. I must say that when I first saw reports on the coalition Government’s intention to change the ownership of woodland, I had personal concerns because of my huge interest.
When I was a young man, I spent much of my time on Forestry Commission land at Cwmystwyth in central Wales looking at red kites. I make this point because it is relevant to another contribution that we heard. There were probably no more than about a dozen red kites left in the whole of Britain. The only way we were able to reintroduce the red kite into central parts of England—people can now see them everywhere along the M40 as they drive into London—and the north-east is because many people in mid-Wales put in a lot of voluntary effort to retain the red kite when its very existence was threatened.
The one part of the right hon. Lady’s speech that caused me concern was the way in which she misinterpreted what the coalition Government intended to do. Like other Members, I have received letters and e-mails—I think there were 250, although the proposals did not even apply in Wales. Even before I heard the Secretary of State’s statement in the House, I thought that people had misunderstood what the Government were proposing. After the statement, I wrote to those 250 people and sent them a copy of what the Secretary of State actually
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said in the House. Much of the statement was drowned out—it was a noisy, highly emotional debate, and I do not think that people actually heard what was said. I have not had 250 e-mails back, but I have probably had 15, and people are saying, “We didn’t know that. We didn’t understand what the Government were actually planning to do.” They were much more supportive of the plans. However, I do not want to hark back too much to that, because we are now moving forward.
Joan Ruddock: Is it the hon. Gentleman’s understanding that the Government were proposing—and, therefore, could propose again in future—the disposal of anything up to the whole national forest estate? He has criticised use of the words “sell off”, but “disposal” would mean that the Forestry Commission and its comprehensive approach to the national forests would no longer exist. The situation would be very different.
Glyn Davies: No, that was not my understanding. Clearly, I had an interest, and I had concerns because of reports in the newspapers, but I must admit that I do not always believe everything I read in the newspapers. Sometimes interesting issues are raised, but that was not my understanding, which was why I said that I waited to hear exactly what the Government were proposing before making a judgment. I thought that the speech in the House during the last major debate was sensibly based.
However, I want to move on from that to an issue of concern that has not been addressed: the position of the Forestry Commission as both regulator and a major operator in the field. That is a real issue which, at some stage, the Government will have to address. It cannot be right that the body that is the main commercial operator in the field also regulates all its competitors. That matter will have to be dealt with. The one other aspect to which we must refer—this something which my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) raised—is dealing with commercial property. I cannot see the sense in Government dealing with commercial forestry. Changing the ownership or management of forestry through lease is crucial. We have to get back to a position of maintaining or increasing access, increasing biodiversity wherever possible, and contributing to fighting climate change if that is part of the wider debate, as it should be. That can be better done through lease than sale, which is why I hugely welcomed the original debate.
I want to refer to Wales. I live in Wales, and a lot of people say that the Government there are taking a completely different line on the issue. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made that point. What is proposed in Wales is that the estate should be retained, but there will be improved and more dynamic management, and there will occasionally be sales. That policy really is not very different from what we might propose. One does not know where we go from here, but a report is coming, and things will not be the same as before. To say that we will simply retain forestry in aspic in the other nations is not accurate. In all areas, where a large part of land is owned, there has to be a degree of flexibility and of management responding to conditions as they come along, and that will be what we will do. That is all I wish to say.
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Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester South) (Lab): I join other hon. Members in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) on securing the debate. It is clear from the contributions that Members have made that, despite the Government’s somewhat change of approach, this is still a current issue for us. As she reminds us, the context of her request for the debate was the threat to England’s woodlands and forests seeming immediate and imminent. Although there has been some change since then, that threat has not gone away, as she and my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) reminded us.
It is evident from the contributions to this debate and to the debate in the main Chamber on 2 February that our forests and woodlands are precious to us and to our constituents. The steward of those forests and woodlands—the body that has oversight of them on our behalf, which cares for, looks after and nurtures them—is the Forestry Commission. Its role in undertaking those tasks on our behalf is vital. It is vital for the land that it directly manages, for the oversight, regulation and advice that it provides to others, and, most particularly, for the example that it sets to others on how to manage the woodland under its control.
As the debate on England’s forests on 2 February highlighted, the Forestry Commission manages 258,000 hectares of land in England. As pointed out during the debate, that represents only 18% of all woodland in England. That 18% represents only 44% of the total woodland accessible for the public to enjoy and appreciate. Our debate today is not simply about the woodland in England, but about the Forestry Commission in general and its stewardship.
Roger Williams: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the public estate being only 44% of publicly accessible land and about how much public access is provided by the woodlands and forests in private ownership.
Sir Peter Soulsby: That is indeed the case. As I acknowledged, we very much welcome the fact that the Forestry Commission, in the exemplary way it manages its land—promoting biodiversity, providing education, interpretation and access—offers an example to others, which some follow.
Woodland managed in England is only about one third of the total woodland and forest managed by the Forestry Commission across Great Britain. It is estimated that that is more than 1.4 billion trees—although I do not think that anyone has actually counted them all.
The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) spoke about how the Forestry Commission dramatically has changed its approach to management over the years and about how it has become an exemplary organisation. It is a major land manager that sets very high standards. It has one of the largest collections of sites of special scientific interest, with an excellent record of 99% being in favourable or recovering condition. It provides for a substantial number of visitors, and is estimated to have had more than 40 million visits last year. He put his finger on it when he mentioned previous debates—
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Sir Peter Soulsby: Or the lack of debates on forestry in the House over recent years. That is interesting because I think that it points not to a lack of interest in forestry, but to a belief, up until now, that the forests were in safe hands and it was not a matter about which Members needed to concern themselves. That was why it was so distressing and surprising when we heard the Government’s proposals to sell 40,000 hectares immediately. The hon. Member for Daventry cannot get away from it and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) cannot suggest that we misinterpreted the Government’s intentions. As shown by the quotes earlier, the Government were clear about their intentions for the public forest estate. I quote the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:
“We wish to proceed with very substantial disposal of public forest estate, which could go to the extent of all of it.”
Sir Peter Soulsby: They could mean nothing other than that. There could be a wholesale sell-off. The outcry was totally predictable to everybody other than the Minister and his colleagues. They tried to dismiss that as scaremongering, and in the run-up to the 2 February debate, they said that they were doing it for the money. Perhaps the Minister will explain some of the figures behind the proposals and say what he now believes the net proceeds would have been. They tried to justify the sale in that way, and when that fell apart, they tried to justify it in terms of the big society. But that fell apart and, as we heard again from Government Members, they invented the spurious explanation that it was about trying to resolve a conflict of interest within the organisation of the Forestry Commission. It was somehow inappropriate for the Forestry Commission to be both the operator and the regulator, and it was incapable of doing something that it has done successfully for many decades.
Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I did not really support the plans the Government introduced, but I thought that it was right to have a consultation period, for which I voted. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should think more about what the independent review might say and about how we might funnel our views and the views of our constituents towards it?
Sir Peter Soulsby:
I will come to questions to the Minister about how independent the review will be and what its terms of reference will be in one moment. Before doing that, I will return to the concerns about the continuing threats to the Forestry Commission’s work expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford when she introduced the debate and later by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon. They pointed out that although it appears that there has been some pause in the Government’s headlong rush to dismantle the public forest estate, they are pressing ahead with requiring the Forestry Commission to make substantial cuts in its staff. Some 400 jobs—about a quarter of the total—are at risk immediately. That will inevitably reduce its capacity to undertake the excellent stewardship achieved over recent years. Its ability to manage the deer and wildlife will be reduced,
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learning and educational programmes will be cut, and there will inevitably be extended charges for services or the shutting of facilities. Elements of what the Forestry Commission manages directly and excellently at the moment will have to be passed over to others.
I have a number of questions for the Minister. My right hon. and hon. Friends have already mentioned some of them, but I will list the points again and allow the Minister plenty of time to respond. When will the Government bring forward details of who will sit on the new panel, and how will they guarantee the independence of that panel? Will the panel include public and local campaign groups that have been involved in the campaign to save the forests, and will it include members of the work force? Will the panel meet in public? Will all existing planned sales be halted pending the panel’s report?
Will the panel be able to recommend maintaining the land in public hands? The Minister muttered “Rubbish” from a sedentary position when this point was raised earlier, so perhaps he will take the opportunity to tell us if it is untrue. How can the Government deliver better woodland access and biodiversity when the Forestry Commission is cutting staff by a quarter over the next three months? Finally, will any future receipts from sales of land stay within the Forestry Commission so that they can be used for the enhancement of our public forest estate? That is what the previous Government did and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford reminded us, it is something of which we are proud.
The public were appalled by what the Government proposed, and they understood clearly the full extent of what it might mean. Those who campaigned so effectively were aware of the threat to our precious woodlands and forests, but they must be reminded that the threat has not gone away, and we have had the opportunity to do that today. Conservative Members have been dismissive of those fears in the past, and we have heard such fears dismissed again today. Hon. Members from all sides must have heard the clear message during the run-up to the debate on 2 February, and it is still something that we need to hear. Our woods and forests are just that—they are our woods and our forests. They must be kept that way and properly managed by the Forestry Commission, an organisation that has an excellent record in the stewardship of those precious assets on our behalf.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice):
I have attended many debates in Westminster Hall, which is normally a place for relatively non-controversial issues to be raised and discussed in a calm manner by hon. Members from all parties. I am afraid I cannot say that of today. The opening speech by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) repeated many of the myths and nonsenses that we have heard during previous discussions and questions about forestry. It was not the serious contribution to the future of the Forestry
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Commission that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) referred to and urged upon us.
I will address some of the key issues and respond where I can to the questions raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) rightly pointed out that part of the public concern arose from the Public Bodies Bill. One can look back and say that the cart was put before the horse, but because we believed that changes to the Forestry Commission were necessary and we were conscious of the constraints of the legislation, we decided to put the provision into what appeared to be a suitable vehicle to permit us to make those changes. I am the first to recognise that, together with the remarks I made to which the hon. Member for Leicester South (Sir Peter Soulsby) referred—I am not withdrawing those remarks, but they were back in October—that allowed people to become concerned. As it happened, that concern was unnecessary, but it allowed a number of myths to gain credence.
In the communication to which the hon. Gentleman referred, I used the word “disposal” carefully. I did not use the word “sale” because, as will be observed, the consultation document often implied disposal but not sale. Part of the absurd nonsense from the right hon. Lady included the figure of £745 million, which I suspect she took from the Forestry Commission’s annual report. That is actually the book value of all the public forestry estate, prior to any discounts for the preservation of access and other public interests. It includes the book value of the New Forest and the Forest of Dean, and we made it clear that for both of those the disposal was to be free—gratis—had it gone through. The right hon. Lady’s figures were absurd; the concept of disposal included a free handover to a charitable trust.
Mr Paice: As the right hon. Lady knows, the consultation document contained a lot of variability, particularly about what might be called the middle strata of woodlands and forests—not heritage but not the main commercial areas—where there was a range of options. The income from that is not easy to estimate, but we published an impact assessment as required, and the figures are in the public domain. I repeat: the primary objective of the proposition was not simply to raise cash. I will return in a moment to the issue of ongoing sales.
The right hon. Lady referred to the 0.5 million people who expressed concern about this matter. I cannot help but observe that she took a lot less notice of the 0.5 million people who opposed a ban on fox hunting and whom she treated with disdain.
Quite. As we have said, and as the Secretary of State said in the House, we recognised that public concern was raised dramatically, and that it was a pointless exercise to continue with the consultation in
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that environment. Therefore, we have withdrawn it and I do not propose to waste more time discussing what was or was not in the consultation document. That would not be constructive.
The issue was raised of the ongoing sales, or the 15% of the Forestry Commission estate that is in the spending review for the next four years. It is estimated that we would have raised £100 million from the sale of up to 15% of the forestry estate in England. The hon. Member for Leicester South asked what is happening to that, and as the Secretary of State made clear, we have suspended that process. No parcels of land or forests will be offered for sale until the panel—to which I will refer later—has reported and made recommendations regarding the protection of public interests. At the moment, there is no direct financial consequence. The £100 million, although placed in our spending review, was not allocated to any heads of expenditure. Therefore, other than a short-term cash-flow issue, there are no direct consequences of deferring those sales. I hope that explanation has clarified the issue.
Mr Paice: My apologies. It makes me doubt the right hon. Lady’s commitment to the whole picture. On her website, she has been on about how much land the previous Conservative Government and the Forestry Commission sold. Of course, she omits to point out that most of that was in Scotland, because under that previous Government the Forestry Commission was one body, so in comparison with what happened under the Labour Government, who were selling only in England after devolution, the figures look dramatically different. She also omitted to mention, although one of my hon. Friends did mention it, that under the previous Government tree planting fell to an all-time low. The rate halved under the Government of whom she was so proud to be a member.
Much has been said about the fact that the public forest estate comprises just 18% of all woods and forests in England. We should not in any way ignore that statistic. It is clear that many people were confused about how much of the forestry in this country was owned or rented by the Forestry Commission. It is just 18%. Although the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford and other hon. Members have been, by implication, quite damning of the 69% that is held in private hands—the rest is in other forms of public or community ownership—we do not see with that 69% all the disasters that we were told would befall public land if it went into the private sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) rightly pointed out, people cannot fell trees in this country without a felling licence, and almost certainly they will have to replant. Indeed, since I have been the Minister responsible, I have had to intervene on a few occasions to enforce the replanting requirements to ensure that that happens. Therefore, suggestions of massive deforestation are completely absurd and take us away from the serious debate that others want to address.
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in due course who will serve on the panel and what its terms of reference will be. I can emphasise, though, that the status quo—the hon. Member for Leicester South asked about this—is of course an option. If the panel recommends that, clearly it is entitled to do so. To rule it out would be nonsensical. If the panel recommends change, the issue of public consultation comes back into play, so there will be plenty of time. The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) said that if the panel concludes in favour of anything other than the status quo, we will not have listened to the public. I say to him that we will consult the public about any changes if the panel recommends them. I do not want to prejudge what the outcome of the panel will be.
The hon. Member for Leicester South asked how we would guarantee independence. The chairman will be appointed and will be completely independent; indeed, all the members will be. We are not filling the panel with civil servants or anything like that. It will be completely independent. It will be for the members to decide how they operate, but I cannot see why they should not have public meetings if that seems appropriate.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the 25% cut, and other hon. Members have raised that. All Opposition Members should be well aware that they managed to leave this country in desperate straits and we have had to take very tough decisions on public expenditure. All DEFRA’s arm’s length bodies have had to take a 25% cut, just as core DEFRA has had to. That is tough, and I feel for all the people who may find themselves losing jobs or not being able to get a job because the job has disappeared as a result. However, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, the deficit must come first—we must deal with it. I will not apologise—indeed, it should be for those on the Opposition Benches to apologise—for the fact that we have had to make those reductions. The details of how they will be made in this area are a matter for the Forestry Commission. It has made its proposals, which are out for consultation. It would be wrong of me to discuss them in public while that consultation is going on.
A number of other points were raised. I shall try to encapsulate some of them but, most importantly, I want to make the point that, contrary to the impression that the Opposition have tried to give, the Government feel very strongly about forestry. Perhaps I should have said, like other hon. Members, that I have the grand total of 1 hectare of woodland on my own little property. Like others, I planted it myself 20 years ago under a woodland grant scheme, although that has long since expired, and I am proud to spend a lot of time in it managing it. I passionately believe in the importance of forestry. What I do not believe is that the status quo is automatically always the best way forward. It is right that we should reconsider how the Forestry Commission operates, and the panel will advise us on whether there should be changes.
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It is worth pointing out that the Forestry Commission’s commercial arm makes a margin of just £1 million on its commercial activities. That is substantially offset by the understandable costs of recreation, amenity, biodiversity and the other services that the commission provides, as a number of hon. Members rightly identified. That means that there is a massive overall cost to the taxpayer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, in the past the commission has made that up by selling off assets on an annual basis, and it has been selling those assets without the protection for public access, rights of way and all the other things that Opposition Members now preach to us about. Those things were not protected, so Opposition Members are not in a good position to criticise us.
We hope that the panel will consider all aspects of the public forest estate. As I said, the Secretary of State will publish details of the proposed membership and the terms of reference of the panel shortly. We look forward to the conclusions that it comes to. I can assure the House that the present Government’s genuine commitment to forestry in this country—public, private and community—is real and as strong as it has ever been.
The truth of what I have just said is underlined by the fact that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said, the National Forest was brought in by a Conservative Government, who did a tremendous amount of work in developing forestry in the former coal mining areas of the midlands. That is a great place for everyone to visit. The real point to make, though, is that virtually none of it is on state-owned land. Planting has been incentivised on private and community-owned land, not public land bought by the Forestry Commission. Therefore, we can have a vibrant, strong forest in this country, with access and with all the necessary protection for biodiversity. Whether the state needs to be involved not only in owning it but in managing and running it is now a matter for the panel, the details of which we will announce shortly.
Sir Peter Soulsby: I understand the Minister’s reluctance to give the names of those who might serve on the panel, but surely he will accept that it is important that those who have spoken out so strongly on behalf of woodlands and forests have their voice heard on that panel. Will he at this stage agree to ensure that on that panel are members of the public and local campaign groups who have been speaking so vehemently on behalf of our forests?
Mr Paice: I am sorry, but I will not be drawn on the membership of the panel because once I give way on one aspect of who might be on the panel, I will be drawn into discussing everything. The Secretary of State will make the announcement shortly. I hope that we can then go forward with the seriousness of approach that my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned so wisely in his contribution.
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Search and Rescue Service
Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this extremely important matter, which has exercised the House for some time. I have raised it on several occasions, and it is time that we looked in detail at what the future holds for the search and rescue service, on which we all depend.
The search and rescue service covers 1.25 million nautical miles of sea and 10,000 nautical miles of coastline, as well as the entire land area of the United Kingdom. It is a joint service, which is operated by the RAF, the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and Her Majesty’s coastguard. It uses more than 40 helicopters from 12 bases around the UK.
HM coastguard uses Westland AW139s and Sikorsky S-92s, which are under contract to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. The RAF and the Royal Navy use Sea Kings. The Sea King has four crew members—the pilot, the co-pilot, the winchman and the radar operator, who is also the winch operator. There are two versions of the Sea King: the Mk 3, which entered service in 1977, and the Mk 3A, which is slightly newer. The age of the aircraft has been causing significant technical problems, and they require constant maintenance to keep flying—a point to which I will return.
The RAF bases are RAF Boulmer, which is the headquarters of A flight and 202 Squadron; RAF Lossiemouth, on the Moray firth; RAF Valley in Anglesey, where Prince William is based; Leconfield, near Hull; Chivenor, in Devon; and Wattisham, in Suffolk. The Royal Navy bases are Culdrose in Cornwall and Prestwick in the west of Scotland. HM coastguard operates from Lee on Solent, Portland, Stornoway and Sumburgh in the Shetland islands.
The RAF has just celebrated 70 years of involvement in the search and rescue service. It has 16 Sea King Mk 3 and 3A helicopters in service, which are divided between 22 Squadron and 202 Squadron. Each squadron maintains a 15-minute readiness state during daylight hours and a 45-minute readiness state during the hours of darkness. 22 Squadron operates out of Chivenor, Wattisham and Valley, while 202 Squadron operates out of Boulmer, Lossiemouth and Leconfield. The training unit operates out of RAF Valley with three Griffin HT1 helicopters.
In Boulmer, which is in my constituency, the RAF search and rescue service is a source of enormous local pride and satisfaction. It is hugely respected and very involved in the local community, and the RAF helicopter is often to be seen not only engaged in operations or training, but supporting local community events. That, of course, is good public relations for the RAF and adds to its excellent reputation in my area. Indeed, such activities are such a prominent feature of the RAF’s work that they tend to distract attention from the fact that the vast majority of the work done at RAF Boulmer is in the very different field of monitoring and guarding our skies and training people. None the less, it is the familiar yellow helicopters going about their rescue and training work that enjoy the greatest and most immediate public awareness.
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of function between the MCA and Ministry of Defence helicopter forces, and similar time frames for the potential introduction of new aircraft fleets, led Ministers in the MOD and the Department for Transport in May 2006 to announce a cross-Government approach to the acquisition of a harmonised UK SAR helicopter service. A joint project team from the two Departments was tasked with running the project, which was essentially a Labour privatisation project. I say that not as a criticism, but simply to set out the context, because if this Government contemplate privatising anything, the Opposition tend to say that they would never consider such a thing. However, the previous Government did devise a privatisation project, and that was because they thought that such a project was essential to ensure that new helicopters could be provided relatively quickly to replace the Sea Kings. The total project contracts were worth £6 billion.
During discussions on the project, a number of concerns arose and were subject to quite a lot of public discussion. What aircraft would be used to replace the Sea King? How long would it take to get them into service? Which personnel would be required to operate the new service? Would they be drawn from the military, civilian life or a mixture of the two? If there were to be a mixture of military and civilian personnel, how would that work in practice, given that the civilians would be covered by the European working time directive, while the military personnel would not? That has already caused issues at the coastguard-operated bases in the Hebrides and the Shetlands. Consideration would also need to be given to the equalisation of pay and other conditions.
What training would air crew receive? At the moment, there is a fairly heavy dependence on experienced personnel with RAF training moving into other areas of search and rescue and other helicopter services. Of course, it is true that RAF training is heavily drawn on in aviation more widely. Furthermore, what arrangements would be provided for SAR cover in the Falkland islands under the SAR helicopter scheme? SAR in the south Atlantic is currently provided by the RAF, using the same crews who man our stations in the UK. That is done on a six to seven-week rolling rotation, with two crews of four personnel based in the Falklands at any one time. A normal feature of a career spent in a search and rescue aircrew will therefore be time spent in the Falklands.
Where do the prospects of a new helicopter with faster flying speeds and a longer range leave the existing basing pattern? What changes would be feasible under SAR? Linked to that, would 24-hour cover be provided by each base? An early answer to that question made it clear that there were proposals to reduce the cover at a number of bases to 12 hours, after which time the area for which the base was responsible would be covered by the base in the adjoining area. That raised great concern. In the Lake district, for example, rescue operations are often mounted by the RAF Boulmer helicopter, and there was particular concern that the area could not easily be served from other bases. Those bases would, like Boulmer, have extensive responsibilities for the North sea and the east coast, and their helicopters could easily be on a rescue operation and be unable to respond. Bases would be covering two huge areas—their own area and the neighbouring area—so there was a lot of concern about the idea of 12-hour operation. Following
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a number of meetings with Ministers and others, it was decided that RAF Boulmer would continue to provide 24-hour cover, at least until new helicopters with greater range and the ability to reach other areas at greater speed were introduced.
In the course of the project, bidders were identified, although some did not stay the course until the end. On 9 February 2010, the Soteria consortium was identified as the preferred bidder. The consortium was made up of CHC Helicopter, which is the largest global supplier of civilian helicopter services and the current provider of the MCA’s interim SAR service; the Royal Bank of Scotland, as a PFI equity investor; Thales UK, the well known defence contractor, which has been involved in a number of PFI and partnership projects; and Sikorsky, which has long experience in the design and manufacture of military and commercial helicopters.
The consortium proposed a fleet of 24 Sikorsky S-92 aircraft, with a top speed of 190 mph and a cruising speed of 167 mph. The S-92 would have been fitted with an internal fuel tank, increasing the aircraft’s flying radius to 310 statute miles. The aircraft would also have been fitted with the latest high-speed twin hoist, providing for the possibility of single-hoist failure. It would also have had a 300-foot hoist cable and a lift capacity of up to 600 lb at 350 feet per minute. It is hard to envisage being raised on a winch at 350 feet per minute, but such things are necessary in certain situations—for example, on the moving deck of a ship in rough seas. The aircraft cabin would be fitted out to allow paramedic medical care to be administered to a casualty. The ramp at the rear of the aircraft would provide access for loading and unloading stretchers, incubators and medical equipment and access for rescue teams and their equipment. The other major bidding consortium went under the name of AirKnight, but two further consortia pulled out at a relatively early stage in the process.
At some stage—I must confess I now forget when it was—responsibility for the future operation was transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the Department for Transport, which is why the Minister with whom I deal with all sorts of other transport issues is replying to the debate. All that I have described of course preceded the dramatic events of the suspension of the SAR-H scheme and its subsequent abandonment. The first stage of that was just part of the process of the incoming Government reviewing the spending commitments left to them by the previous Government. In June the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced that the Government had identified several projects, some of which were dropped, while others were to be reviewed. SAR was one of the reviewed projects.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): I understand that on average over the past five years there have been between 80 and 120 mountain rescues in the United Kingdom. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that such rescues could adequately be carried out using non-military personnel and equipment, in a way similar to what happens in France and the United States; or should they remain in the hands of the military?
Sir Alan Beith:
Some of the rescues are done in that way even now. Not all SAR services are provided by military crew, but a high degree of training is required, and there must be consistent co-operation with local
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organisations such as mountain rescue teams. That depends on consistent good working relations. The military operators such as RAF Boulmer and 202 Squadron have done that particularly well. In general I think that most people feel more confidence about military crew, because they know the high standards of training that are involved. However, it is quite an expensive way to provide the service, and other options probably should be considered. Some of the training and experience that the military has, and some of its operational practices, would need to be transferred if there were any wider civilianisation of the service. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise that as a matter of concern.
The review announced by the Chief Secretary was about cost-effectiveness, against the background of a huge deficiency in defence capital programme funding. It was not about the issues that finally brought down the contract. Indeed, Ministers were on the point of announcing the final decision on the contract. Various other things had been going on, however. There were rumours that as part of the comprehensive spending review the Government had proposed that the project should be rewritten, so that an entirely civilian work force would operate the service, rather than a mixture of civilian and military personnel. Of course, if the Government had done that, it would have created a big saving, because it would have taken about 66 higher-paid military personnel out of the project, and probably created up to an additional £100 million over the lifetime of the project in personnel costs for the contractor. It also sidestepped the problem of some personnel being subject to European working time directive rules, while others were not. That issue was rumbling in the background.
On 16 December a dramatic announcement was made—I think that it was the very day on which we were to have heard the final decision about the contractor. The Secretary of State for Defence announced that information had come to light about the preferred bid in the search and rescue competition, which required clarification. The preferred bidder had informed the Government of irregularities in the conduct of the bid team, which had only recently come to light. The irregularities included access by one of the consortium members, CHC Helicopter, to commercially sensitive information about the joint Ministry of Defence and Department for Transport project team’s evaluations of industry bids, and evidence that a former member of that project team had assisted the consortium in its bid preparation, contrary to explicit assurances given to the project team at the time.
I believe that a considerable time previously a letter went to the Ministry of Defence warning it of potential irregularities of that nature. One of the matters that I hope is being investigated is why that warning was not heeded. Of course many other matters are being investigated as well, not just by the Ministry of Defence but by the police. A former member of the MOD team, subsequently employed in the industry, is, I believe, the subject of investigation. I do not know to what extent others are as well.
“the Government have sufficient information to enable them to conclude that the irregularities that have been identified were such that it would not be appropriate to proceed with either the preferred bid or with the current procurement process.”
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“The Department for Transport and the Ministry of Defence will now consider the potential procurement options to meet future requirements for search and rescue helicopters in the United Kingdom, including options to maintain continuity of search and rescue helicopter cover until new longer-term arrangements can be put in place.
We will make a further announcement once a way forward has been agreed.”—[Official Report, 10 February 2011; Vol. 523, c. 17WS.]
That brings me to the focus of today’s debate, which is what progress has been made in reaching those decisions and when we are likely to get a proper announcement about it. Other factors could be at work. There is the potential for legal action involving contractors. An unsuccessful contractor might want to pursue the successful one over bid costs incurred. There might be legal action between the Government and a contractor. The Minister may be inhibited in what he can say about that, but it could be going on at the same time.
What will happen next? The Sea Kings were due to be withdrawn by 2016 or 2017. They are ageing and they continue to need substantial levels of maintenance to keep them operating. Those of us who keep in close touch with the search and rescue service know that there are many occasions when the Sea Kings are not available to fly. I have seen that for myself. I was flying in a Sea King that returned to base because the radio system failed. The other aircraft was on land having returned from necessary maintenance work, and was not yet tested and available to take over. At that point therefore neither was available. There have been moments when no helicopter has been available at Leconfield, Lossiemouth or Boulmer at the same time. That clearly is a situation we cannot allow to continue.
Mr David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing an extremely important debate. I urge him to keep an open mind about whether a life extension to Sea King could be a short and medium-term option. Is he aware that in the United States, Germany and India the Sea King fleets, which are all older than ours, are having their lives extended, and that on the whole Sea King availability recently has been quite good?
Sir Alan Beith: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend who, from his constituency, knows well the work of Westland in that area. I have an open mind about whether a major refit of at least some of the Sea Kings could be carried out. It is one of the options to be considered. However, we cannot simply go on as we are with relatively short-term maintenance of the Sea Kings.
The personnel who work in search and rescue with the RAF and the Royal Navy are also in limbo. That is also true of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency personnel, although they already have a contract; but it expires within the year, I think, so they too are in a state of uncertainty. The Government need to get a grip on the situation and some people need to know pretty soon, for their careers, what will happen. Are they likely to have a future in search and rescue, whether on the military side or as contractors’ employees? What will happen?
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to whom I am sure the Minister will want to listen, as he is now the Government Deputy Chief Whip, said in February 2010:
“It is essential that this contract…is better negotiated and has fewer loopholes than the interim contract we had for the last few years”—
the MCA contract. He said that the contract must protect against situations like the one that arose in 2008. The back-up helicopter based at Sumburgh was off-station for a whole week, but the Department for Transport and the MCA were powerless to do anything about it. He also wanted to see the new service rooted properly in the communities that it serves rather than being dependent on a stream of temporary pilots and support officers constantly being shipped in and out.
What are the options? What are the Government considering? First are the short-term immediate continuity arrangements. The RAF will carry on, as it always does. It has the resilience and determination to cope in situations, whether created by Governments or world events, that would challenge many other organisations, and I have every confidence in its ability to do so. However, we need answers on how long it will be before a new scheme replaces the present arrangements. Personnel have careers to plan, and MCA helicopters are contracted only until next year. As I said earlier, the Sea Kings are now extremely difficult to keep airworthy. How long will this situation continue? What level of refit of the Sea King is possible? Would a major upgrade of the Sea King be a short-term option, or would it be too expensive? Should it therefore be considered as a longer-term measure?
What is being considered in the longer term? There are obviously several options. One is to retender a version of the contract. The Government clearly ruled out retendering the contract in its present form when they made their announcement, so they have obviously given it some consideration. There are several reasons why retendering is not the answer. There were too many flaws in the original contract, some of which I referred to earlier; once it became impossible to continue it, the questions that had arisen while it was being considered then needed to be considered again. At that stage in the contract process, it may have been too late to resolve those questions, but when the matter was reopened they needed to be reconsidered.
Another reason why it would have been difficult to retender was that experience has shown that the procurement process is not up to the job. To go back to the same process and risk another failure was not something that the Government could properly have done. We have seen many other weaknesses in the defence procurement process, which has led many to lack confidence in it.
In some respects the previous contract was not cost-effective, which is why it was under review. The reason why the Government did not stop it as a result of the Chief Secretary’s review, but were about to announce that it would go ahead, was that the contract had gone too far to be stopped and the gap would be undesirably long if the process had to be started again. However, events have now forced us into that very gap. The Government concluded during the cost review that it would be unwise to have such a gap, but they now have one. That puts a particular responsibility on Ministers to tell us how they intend to deal with a situation that
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they felt obliged to avoid until dropping the contract became inevitable because of the irregularities that were found. Simply retendering does not seem to be a proper option.
Another alternative would be to lease helicopters for use by existing RAF, Royal Navy and MCA-based crews. There are various options, but even in the short term it may be necessary to have short leasing contracts. What else is the MCA to do when its existing contract expires? What can the RAF do if it is found that a major refit of the Sea Kings will be too expensive to be considered as a short-term measure? Will aircraft have to be leased? The option of leasing of helicopters is clearly on the table, but will there be a new form of contract, involving both leasing aircraft and crew, with some of the features of the previous contract but rather better developed?
There is significant private sector interest in providing helicopters to the oil industry, the police and other services where they are essential. The market is not devoid of other operators, but as we heard earlier, the service requires a particularly high level of skill and training and it has to serve a wide range of functions. Rescues take place at sea, in dangerous coastal areas, in mountains, in fog—conditions that would defy many traditional commercial operators. It would be a pretty demanding contract, and the public are entitled to know that it will be carried out by people with the skills and equipment to do so.
Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. The Government have inherited a difficult situation, and I agree with what he says about the importance of introducing some certainty.
Many people in my constituency work at RNAS Culdrose, which plays an important role in our community. We are proud of its role in search and rescue, as it works closely with Falmouth coastguard. The Sea King helicopters provide what I would call a more inshore rescue service, but does my right hon. Friend agree that we must not lose sight of the important role of the Nimrod, and the necessity to have some replacement for the much more distant sea rescues, which are also part of the search and rescue service?
Sir Alan Beith: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. She obviously has similar experiences to mine in working with the RAF locally and being very aware that its work is respected by the community.
My hon. Friend spoke also about the Nimrod. That is a big problem for the Ministry of Defence, and it illustrates similarities to the subject of our debate, not least because it has been dragging on for a long time and we still do not have a proper solution. However, it is probably beyond the scope of today’s debate—and, I believe, beyond the responsibilities of the Minister answering it—but my hon. Friend was right to flag it up.
Much has been said in public recently about the relationship between the RAF and the coastguard. I simply make this comment. If its relationship with the coastguard were dependent on where the major control centres were situated, we would have got into difficulties years ago, when our major control centre moved from Tynemouth to Humberside. What makes the relationship work well is not only that the control centres operate efficiently, as they should, but that the RAF develops
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good close personal relationships with the coastguards—mostly volunteers in coastal communities up and down our coastline—as it does also with the lifeboat service. The building of those relationships, and therefore the desirability of having crew in place for reasonable periods, is essential to the success of the service.
I emphasise a few more points that I believe the Minister needs to consider. What about 24-hour cover? It raised great concern when the idea that two or even three search and rescue areas—a single area is huge—could be treated as one for 12 hours of the 24 became part of the proposal, and even more concern when it was suggested that it could be done with existing aircraft before the new contract came into being.
That concern remains. People want to know that there is 24-hour cover on no larger a scale than the existing areas, because if a neighbouring area is already on operational duty and carrying out a rescue, there will be no search and rescue helicopter within a reasonably manageable distance for 24 hours of the day. We need an answer on that. We also need clarification on what is going to happen to the Falklands support operation if the RAF is no longer to be involved in SAR there. We need to know about the potential impact of legal action, and whether it is likely to cause delay to the key decisions that are now being taken. I hope not.
Overall, it is an awful business. We will know fully when the investigations are completed, but it approaches what we could call a scandal. Courageous and skilled aircrew have been let down by the inadequacy of the Ministry of Defence procurement process and the way in which it was carried out. The challenge for the Department for Transport is to carry out the task rather better than the MOD, which has conspicuously failed. The time scale now is short and demanding. Can the Department do it? How will it do it, and what assurances can the Minister give to those employed in, or dependent on, search and rescue that they will have satisfactory continuity arrangements over a reasonably short time and that a new system will be put in place in which the public can have confidence?
Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): I am extremely grateful for being called to speak, and I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this important debate. He will be delighted to hear that I will speak relatively briefly.
In Cumbria, we rely heavily on search and rescue teams, particularly those at RAF Boulmer, which is our local base. They provide essential back-up to our mountain rescue teams in Ambleside, Langdale and Kendal and, as my right hon. Friend mentioned, to our search and rescue teams at Flookburgh on Morecambe bay. The mountain rescue teams across Cumbria rely on RAF Boulmer, and they regard it as essential to their work, which is voluntary in nature but professional in standard.
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On behalf of the mountain rescue teams and the search and rescue teams in Cumbria, and south Cumbria in particular, I want to say how much we value the professionalism of the staff at RAF Boulmer and indeed of all of those involved in search and rescue. We value their responsiveness, their 24-hour cover and the fact that they work so well with our mountain rescue teams.
When the new contract, which has recently been cancelled, was first suggested, many of us across the country objected. There were objections in Cumbria largely because it would have made Boulmer a half-time base. We would only have obtained 12-hour cover, which is extremely dangerous. My right hon. Friend rightly referred to that towards the end of his speech. It is dangerous not to have 24-hour cover. My mountain rescue volunteer friends say that a typical time for a person to go missing, or to be reported missing, on the fells, in the Lake District or on the Yorkshire dales is when it gets dark. That is the time at which a person is deemed missing—the time that they have not returned home—and the emergency is activated. It is very dangerous for that critical time to be the point at which the source of the rescue craft moves further away. Reducing cover would also mean a reduction in responsiveness; there will be longer times from the call-out to the scrambling of the craft and its arrival in the Lake district. We are also deeply concerned about the reduction in capacity that the contract would bring. My right hon. Friend rightly talked about the possibility of a craft being occupied in one region when it is supposed to be serving another.
About 14 months ago, we had some dreadful flooding in Cumbria, particularly in the west of the county. There is no doubt that had the contract been in place then, there would have been insufficient air cover to rescue people from dangerous situations. Therefore, the contract that has been cancelled could have been dangerous in a number of areas. None the less, the cancellation is a matter of deep concern for those whose careers depend on an outcome to this process, for all those who work with the search and rescue teams, and for all of us because of what it means for the probity and efficacy of the process. Moreover, we were all terribly concerned about the irregularities that were uncovered.
Having said that, those of us who had deep concerns about the contract cannot help but think that we now have an opportunity to re-examine the situation. The Government have the chance to think again, but, as my right hon. Friend said, they should not do so for too long. A whole range of options exist. The Government might want to consider whether it is entirely wise to go down the private finance initiative route again. They might also consider the wisdom of refitting the Sea Kings, which was suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws). That could be done with great operational effectiveness and would be relatively cost-effective, giving certainty and a medium-term future for all those involved.
Whatever the Government decide, they must do it relatively quickly to give us confidence and a sense of long-term stability, and ensure that it is in the interests of maximising safety across the country, particularly across Cumbria, the Lake district and the Yorkshire
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dales. The Lakes are England’s most mountainous region. It seemed barmy, therefore, to exercise a contract that would move the airborne rescue further away.
I urge the Minister to make a decision relatively quickly, maintain 24-hour cover from Boulmer and ensure that whatever decision is taken from this point on provides maximum support for mountain rescue teams and search and rescue teams on the ground and in the water and in the interests of all those people who may find themselves in peril on the fells.
Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Gray. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) on securing this important and timely debate. Given that this whole policy began under the previous Administration, the right hon. Gentleman cautioned me about the scope of my remarks. I fully acknowledge that, so my remarks will be relatively brief.
Let me begin by adding my tribute, and a tribute from the Opposition, to the air sea rescue service and all those involved in search and rescue across the country. The Minister and I are former fire fighters, so we were part of that industry in a very big way, and we recognise the conspicuous role that these brave men and women play in all aspects of search and rescue across the country.
It would have been better if the Minister had opened this debate, because we could all have commented on what he said. The right hon. Gentleman could have stood up and just said, “What’s happening, Minister?” What we want to find out is where we go from here. There is a lot of interest and concern about that across the country, not least from the Palace. A few months ago, we heard in Prime Minister’s questions that there had been royal lobbying on the matter. I suspect that the Minister’s speech has been proofread not only by the lawyers but by officials at No.10 who will want to make sure that he is careful in his responses to us today.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed outlined the history of this matter very effectively and explained why it is so important. The questions originally were about the split command structure and the fact that although this process is led by the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Defence has an important role to play. That is why there is duality and why the Minister, who is a Transport Minister, is in the driving seat. However, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force all make contributions. There are other issues: the life expectancy of helicopters; European regulations and terms of employment, and the PFI replacement programme for helicopters. All those factors have made it very complicated to try to unlock and disentangle the sector. With information emerging about irregularities in the tendering of the contract, the Government had no option but to stop the tendering process and review it. As the right hon. Gentleman logically said, we need answers as quickly as possible about where we go now.
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that fleet will last and whether it will last until the new arrangements are put in place. The issue of 24-hour cover was raised by the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale, who both spoke before me. There have also been questions in recent months about the use of armed forces pilots as part of the pilot provision for the search and rescue service, given that we must ensure that we have enough pilots for front-line services in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) also asked about the life expectancy of the Sea Kings and the upgrades that might happen.
My hon. Friend has made a point about pilots. It is absolutely essential that there is clarity about that issue, because what we are seeing now is that RAF pilots, who have completed three quarters of their training and nearly finished it, are being withdrawn from service. The search and rescue service really needs the continuity that RAF bases, such as RAF Valley in my own constituency, provide. Those bases have an intake of pilots, who go elsewhere before coming back. The search and rescue service needs to know that the pilots at those bases will graduate. Does my hon. Friend agree that clarity about that issue must be provided now?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I agree with my hon. Friend that the issue of military pilots being used as part of the air-sea rescue service has been raised in recent months and that the loss of such pilots might impact on the ability of the MOD to perform front-line duties.
It is to the great credit of the control and management arrangements of the air-sea rescue service that although there are so many organisations involved—the RAF, the Royal Navy and the MCA—the service has worked so well. Obviously what we all want to see is whatever arrangements are put in place in future working equally well. However, given that the Government have been stopped in their tracks because of the irregularities in the tendering arrangements, questions are being asked by right hon. and hon. Members about where we go from here. Those questions are about how the Government intend to proceed in providing the service, including the new tendering arrangements, the use of the existing fleet, the potential upgrades and how long it might take the Minister and his colleagues to resolve these issues. Those are very big questions, but I know that the Minister has all the answers, as he usually has, and we are all waiting with bated breath to hear what they are.
First, I want to say that a leak has taken place. It must have taken place last night, because the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has read out my summary of events, with great clarity and great accuracy. I praise him for his knowledge of the issues that he has raised in Westminster Hall today.
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Having secured this debate, the right hon. Gentleman might have thought that there would be a few more Members here for it. The amount of correspondence that I have had on this issue is not reflected in the number of Back Benchers who are in Westminster Hall today. I hope that those who are not here will read the report in Hansard later, so that we can get some better knowledge out there around the country about what is happening.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), was quite right to say that I am somewhat tied by “legal eagles”. There are some things that I can talk about today and clearly there are some things that I cannot talk about. I will be as open and honest as possible, as I always am. As Members can imagine, there are officials from the Ministry of Defence who are keeping a very close eye on me as I stand here, as well as my own officials.
We are discussing a really serious issue today. I am not particularly happy about the position that I am in. As the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse and other right hon. and hon. Members have said, we inherited the position that we are in and literally on the eve of our announcement information was brought forward that meant that the whole procurement process and the awarding of the contracts had to be halted. Indeed, they were not only halted but we had enough information at that time, as the police were brought in, to know that that procurement process and the awarding of the contracts would cease.
So, wherever I can be, I will be as open as I can, but I hope that Members will understand that I am speaking under legal constraints and I do not want to jeopardise any possible legal action or police inquiry by what I say during this debate.
Quite correctly, right hon. and hon. Members have paid tribute, and I join them in paying tribute, to the men and women who have served in the air-sea rescue service in the many roles that they have played in the many years—nearly 70 in total—that they have carried out this service on behalf of the British public.
What is interesting is that the public have a perception about who is flying those funny-coloured helicopters that have the word “Coastguard” written on their side. When I first became a Minister, I assumed that the crews involved were all military crews and I think that a lot of people make that assumption. They assume that when they are on the beach, or on the moorlands and lakelands of this country, or when they are waiting to be rescued from a cliff, that those pilots, navigators and loading guys in the back are military personnel. However, let us be perfectly honest. We know that many of them are not military personnel and that for some 27 years four of the bases—four of the air-sea rescue facilities—have been run under contract by the private sector. Have there been huge numbers of complaints about the ability, skill, dedication, commitment or professionalism of those private sector crews? To be truthful, no, there have not been—not at all. So, although I understand the concerns of areas where there are military bases, we must not undermine the work of the civilian crews who have done fantastic work for many years.
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There are obvious and understandable concerns about the future. However, the awarding of these contracts has been delayed for some time. I myself would probably have flown in some of these Sea King helicopters when I was in the armed forces and I joined as a boy soldier in 1974. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was in Sea Kings rather too often. I was also in Wessex helicopters. The Wessex is long gone, but Sea Kings are still fulfilling a fantastic role, here in the UK and on operations abroad. I have been lucky enough to be in Sea Kings on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan on my visits to those countries. We must pay tribute to the work that is being done by our armed forces, particularly because as we speak today they are doing a lot of work in the middle east as well as in Afghanistan.
To be polite, the Sea King is a very old lady. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, there are two versions. However, the older version—the 1977 version—is not a modern aircraft. It has nowhere near the sort of lift, capacity or range that modern helicopters offer. I am aware that other countries have looked seriously at their Sea Kings and upgraded them. Very often, they have done so for cost reasons as well as for other reasons, because if the life of a Sea King can be extended the difficult decisions that we have been trying to make can be avoided.
So, as we look at what we have inherited, we must look at what will happen in the short term—that is, now—because of what has happened with these contracts. We must consider how we can continue to have the cover available and my Department is doing that jointly with the MOD and the MCA. However, we must also look forward to consider what will come in to replace the existing service.
Perhaps I can say now that there will be no demise in cover at all in the short term or in the long term. We will look very carefully at the existing contracts—both the civilian contracts and the MOD contracts—and there will be provision of service while we look for a long-term solution. So I hope that I can alleviate any concerns that exist among the constituents of right hon. or hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, or among the armed forces or in the MCA. We will ensure that we get this right. In the short term, we will ensure that there is cover and that the Sea Kings are available and operational.
I am really pleased that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was as honest as I was going to have to be about the Sea Kings’ current availability. They are very often off the run. I have been surprised by a couple of incidents that I have been involved in in my short time as Minister, when I have had to say, “Guarantee to me who is available.” Sometimes the Sea Kings are not there, but that is not because of a lack of will or because people are not professional in maintaining them, it is just because they are very old ladies. They need a lot of TLC, and sometimes we just cannot physically get them up there. Their range is restricted, compared with the civilian Bristows, especially the new ones we would like to bring in, and so there are big issues about who covers. Very often, as I am sure Members are aware, the civilian crews cover in areas where the military cannot, simply because they have the range. We will very consciously ensure our commitment
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to mountain rescue and sea rescue, and also cliff rescue, which has not been covered today. The skill involved in cliff rescue, with the down draughts, is unbelievable. In the short term, we will commit to those areas, and we are working very closely with the MOD.
In the long term—not too long a term, I hope, but we must get it right—we have a plain sheet of paper, and I hope that hon. Members appreciate that. We can say, “What do we need for air-sea rescue, to go forward in the 21st century?” The MOD will continue to be involved in the negotiations, deciding for itself to what extent; it is not for me as a Department for Transport Minister, even with my military background, to make decisions on behalf of the MOD. It is absolutely crucial that, because of the concerns that have been raised both today and in the press in the past few weeks, we come forward with proposals—although I am sure not everyone will be happy with them—for a service that is there to do the job and to provide the skills that we all want. There has, I think, been some misinformation in the press, which is understandable because not everyone realises how service air-sea rescue is already provided.
Jim Fitzpatrick: When the first review was under way and the consultation was taking place, it was difficult to deal with the different cultures in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Transport. When the DFT and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency decided that we would consult on the local provision for the civilian stations, the culture was pretty much one of open politics but, with no disrespect or criticism, the MOD culture was much less open in its engagement with local MPs. If the Minister is looking to consult again, right hon. and hon. Members would obviously look for every assurance that the consultation or the exercise would be as open as possible, and as accessible as possible for Members, so that they could contribute to it.
Mike Penning: The shadow Minister is very knowledgeable in this area because he was around in the Department at the time, so I pay tribute to his knowledge of the problems that occurred during the consultation. It will always be difficult, because some of the stations are operational and so an operational capacity need has to be addressed as well as the secondary use, which is the air-sea rescue.
The procurement will now be Department for Transport led, with MOD involvement. I say this in the presence of listening ears from the MOD: we certainly will be as open and honest as we can, and will provide as much access as possible both to colleagues throughout the House, and to local communities, because it is important that they feel part of what is going on. We are all about trying to do the right thing and developing a service that we can all be continually proud of—we are very proud of the current service, but we know that there are issues. I assure Members that we will do as much as possible as we lead on this in the new procurement programme, which is why I say that we have a plain piece of paper. We can learn from mistakes and from a
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lot of the issues that the shadow Minister has mentioned, but we will not necessarily take on everything. We have a blank piece of paper, and can ask, “What’s best for us?”
Sir Alan Beith: It would be helpful to know what machinery has been set up to make the decision, or to prepare the ground for Ministers ultimately making it. That cannot be a state secret. Is there a joint project board between the two Departments, or a working party? What stage is it at, and what mechanisms are in place for making this important proposal?
Mike Penning: As my right hon. Friend will realise, we are at a very early stage, not least because there are legal issues—he mentioned them in his speech—which are very difficult and technical. The police are fully involved and there is a full inquiry going on, so I am very restricted in how far I can go down that line. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that others may decide to take action in the civil courts, and it is entirely down to them to decide that. We have to ensure that the existing contract is not affected in any shape or form by the private finance initiative contract. It is completely separate, but it has been lumped in with the existing one, certainly in the media. That contract is close to its end time, and we have to negotiate best value for the taxpayer as well as ensuring that we have the service provision. At this stage, I am not in a position to say, “This is the mechanism that we’re going to go forward with,” but we will announce it as soon as possible. This will be led by the Department for Transport, and that decision has been made.
Mike Penning: The PFI contract went way beyond the existing spending review period, and so we do not know how quickly we can get this going. It is crucial that we get it right, so that we do not get anywhere near this position ever again. The PFI was signed off for this spending review period, but it went way beyond it, as I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware. The key is that the interim measures, which must be in place, are what it says on the tin—“interim”—and that we then have a proper contract. We have not just gone to another re-bid, we have said, “Whoa, let’s look at this another way.” That will take longer than if we just said, “Okay, there’s a few mistakes here. Someone’s been naughty, and we’ll do it this way.” That would be the quick option, but it is right to say, “Let’s put this completely on hold and look fundamentally at the contract.”
Sir Alan Beith: I would like to press the Minister a little further. It would be helpful to know whether there is one process, or two separate processes, with a team of people from the two Departments assessing the viability of the existing arrangements and what has to be done to keep them going for the time being, and a separate team considering the future options.
There are two separate processes, which is why, when I began my speech, I stated that there is what we need to do now and what we need to do in the future. I have just been passed a note with some information
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that I did not know, which is that the Secretary of State for Defence has already been in contact with AgustaWestland—last month—to see if we could engage with the company to consider how to extend the life of the Sea Kings beyond 2016. That is because of the interim short-term situation, and how we go forward. It was mentioned earlier that perhaps the most cost-effective way of doing that would be a major refit, taking us a long way forward, or we could do a shorter-term refit. Two separate projects have to take place, although I am not saying that the same people will or will not be on the working groups. The key is to get on with this now, so that we have the provision in place and can then go forward.
As to when the announcement was made and the reason why it was not made to the House first, it was, obviously a significant market announcement, which is why it had to be made to the stock exchange at 7 am. I am always passionate in the belief that things should be announced to the House, and I have done so myself on many occasions, but an announcement involving such a large private finance initiative had market significance, which is why it needed to be made, and was made, at 7 am.
I know the Falklands rather well. Sadly, several of my friends are there in war graves. Luckily or unluckily, when the Falklands war began, I was with the Grenadiers on spearhead, who were not deployed, but my friends in the Welsh and Scots Guards were. As my right hon. Friend knows, one of my closest friends is Simon Weston, who was disfigured and scarred while he was there and has done much work for charity since he came back. The Falklands is not affected by the PFI. The MOD will continue to provide air-sea rescue in the Falklands and will decide its future. It was never part of existing search and rescue helicopter procurement. There are still a lot of MOD and service personnel in the Falklands. I have flown in a Sea King down there in recent years, although not during my time in the armed forces.
We have mentioned the effects of service personnel and knowing what they are doing. Service personnel work on tours of duty. The original time scales involved in the PFI meant that they would have been beyond their tour of duty—the Prince would have been away from Wales, serving in whatever other duties Her Majesty had in mind for him—long before the changes took place. The MOD will, obviously, continue with its own tour of duty process. That is a matter for the MOD, not for me as a Transport Minister. As we enter the interim period with cover, I am sure that tours of duty will be addressed in many ways.
The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who has left the Chamber, mentioned the interim contract for the coastguard. The existing MCA contract is not interim; civilians have been doing that work for many years. We need to find out what the interim contract is now, but the existing contracts are not interim. We can also learn a lot from the concerns about the MCA contract as we go forward. There are concerns involving the working time directive; I assure hon. Members that it is one of the pains of my life as a Minister. In the past couple of days, I signed off on a document exempting the military from certain things such as driving time, tachographs and so on. At the same time, the MOD manages brilliantly to provide cover within existing restraints. All of that will be part of the documents as we go forward with the concerns.
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I do not want to pontificate for another half-hour, as there is not much more that I can say. We are conscious that there are concerns, and we as a Government are concerned. In a perfect world, this would never have happened. But we do not live in a perfect world and, sadly, an anomaly has occurred with the procurement programme that has created real concerns and legal ramifications. A huge amount of taxpayers’ money has been expended on the procurement programme, and we will be looking to recoup it, as it is not the fault of taxpayers or the Department for Transport. To be fair, the MOD, which was criticised earlier, could not have predicted that the persons involved would do what they did. I know that there are concerns about the MOD’s procurement programme—that is for the MOD to address—but the criticism that the MOD is to blame for what happen might not be right. Individuals are responsible, rather than the MOD.
Albert Owen: The Minister was right to pay tribute to those who maintain Sea Kings. Maintenance crews must be considered as well. They are concerned that under the PFI contract, many of them will not be retrained for any new helicopters procured. Will the Minister assure me, on his blank piece of paper, that that will be considered and that, in the interim, those highly skilled people working on air bases, including RAF Valley in my constituency, will have the opportunity to retrain for any new craft?
Mike Penning: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman those assurances, as I am not an MOD Minister, but the MOD will have heard those concerns, and I will ask someone there to write to him about them. It is clearly not in my portfolio to deal with armed forces staff. I, too, pay tribute to maintenance crews, which I have always found to be unsung heroes when I have visited the military around the world. When I visited Helmand last year, I saw that they worked astonishing hours to keep Chinooks, in particular, in the air. We should all realise that it is not just the helicopter pilots—the gung-ho guys—who do all the work; often, it is the ground crew that get them up in the skies to start with.
Sharing knowledge and working together with other emergency services, particularly in the voluntary sector, is crucial—whatever will happen in the future—as is happening now on the four civilianised bases. I must admit that many of the crew members whom I have met are ex-military; I do not think that I have met a single search and rescue helicopter pilot who is not. We have a wonderful training programme for them, but it is crucial that training and working-together exercises continue in the short and long term.
I am conscious of what hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), said about distance. It will always be an issue. We go out to sea some distances now to incidents, as in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), but interestingly, civilian aircraft—the ones that we have now, let alone the ones that we were considering procuring—can go much further and cover greater distances.
Of course, they can do only one job at a time. The shadow Minister and I are both ex-firemen. I did operations with air-sea rescue on the Thames estuary when I was in the fire service. When we were tied up there, we were
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tied up. When something is tied up, I am concerned to know whether we will have cover from the other bases, especially if the Sea Kings are vulnerable, as we know they are at times.
I do not want to drag out this debate for the sake of it. I am disappointed, as I am sure is my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, that more Members are not here for this 1.5 hour debate. As soon as we know more, we will say more, and we will be as open as we can throughout the procedure. However, at the end of the day, we are where we are. We will sort this mess out and ensure that the public are safe and that air-sea rescue is protected, as we all expect it to be, and cover is provided.
Sir Alan Beith: I thank the hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. There are, obviously, other hon. Members whom it would have been useful to have present to represent other areas. I am particularly grateful for the support shown by my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for the work of RAF Boulmer in his constituency, of which air-sea rescue is a significant part. We have also heard interventions from my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws) and the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), in whose constituency is located basic training for all RAF search and rescue pilots, a fact of which people might not have been widely aware until a royal prince became one of the aircrew there. Their interventions have been helpful.
In concluding, I will focus on what the Minister could and could not do today. Clearly, Ministers cannot comment on what has happened in any detail while investigations are taking place, and legal action—not just legal action arising directly from the investigations but civil legal action—is a possibility. He said that he had a blank piece of paper, but I remind him that it cannot stay blank for long, particularly in respect of the continuity arrangements, and that he does not have a blank chequebook with which to make extremely expensive temporary arrangements that might prejudice what is done in the long term. That is why I am so concerned to establish that there is a clear process at work. I am not sure whether we are entirely clear about that yet. The long-term alternatives have to be looked at in some detail, and I assume that a joint working party is doing that at the moment.
On the continuity arrangements, the centre of gravity has shifted back to the Ministry of Defence, which must affect the way this is being done. The Minister has a more direct responsibility for what is happening in relation to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency—it has a contract that will expire shortly—but the dependence on the continuing RAF and naval provision shifts the centre of gravity of the immediate decision-making process back towards the MOD.
It has never been clear whether the Department for Transport has become a purchasing Department with the relationship of a purchaser with the MOD that says, “This is what we want, even in the short term. How can you provide it for us?” or whether this is a traditional joint departmental process with a degree of fuzziness about who is really in charge. We cannot afford that in
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situations such as this, so I will continue to press Ministers in both the DFT and MOD to be clearer about how decisions will be taken in both the short and long term, and how the relationship between the two Departments can be operated in a way that ensures that decisions are made quickly on the things that have to be decided quickly. It is bad enough trying to get decisions out of the MOD alone, but when two Departments are involved, unless there is some sort of purchaser-provider split between the two, there is too much uncertainty about how decisions are taken. I am not even sure how confident the Minister is that we have a real grip on the issue and an effective process in operation.
The situation inherited by the Government is difficult, but difficult situations call for resolute action and I want to be sure that there is a process that can do that. Will the Minister, when he reflects upon this debate, write to me, in a letter that can be published, an explanation of the process? It would be helpful.
Mike Penning: I think that I have already said that. I am sure that there will be other debates on this subject—although I cannot predict what Mr Speaker will or will not select for debate—but we will do that in writing as things develop. I am conscious of two things. First, we have to make sure that we get it right. Secondly, at the end of the day, this was not the fault of the taxpayer so it is crucial that, wherever possible, the taxpayer will not pay for it. As we progress, I will be open and we will write, correspond and give as much information as possible. The MOD has a procurement skill that the DFT does not in this area, so we need to work closely together and we will continue to do so. It will be led by the Department for Transport.
Sir Alan Beith: That is a helpful intervention and I am grateful to the Minister for a number of points. Indeed, he said a number of things during that short intervention that had not been fully clear previously in the debate.
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Jim Fitzpatrick: Will the right hon. Gentleman allow me to ask the Minister indirectly to deposit the correspondence to him in the Library, or to issue a written ministerial statement, so that all hon. and right hon. Members can share the updated information?
Sir Alan Beith: I am sure that the Minister will do that. It was implicit in my request, and it is desirable and necessary. In conclusion, I say to the Minister that he should not—quite clearly, he is not now going to—wait until the two Departments come up with their final plan before he keeps us informed. We need to know soon about the processes and the decisions being made about continuity arrangements—in a way that is as helpful as possible to those who have to operate the system—as well as about the processes in relation to devising an effective longer-term solution.
To revert to a point I made earlier, I believe that when the Government decided to announce that they were going ahead with the contract, they must have concluded that a period of delay, even with a contract that was not entirely to their satisfaction, was too much of a price to pay. That price now has to be paid, because it is clear that the contract cannot go ahead due to some of the things that went on during the procurement process. We are, therefore, paying a price in terms of certainty and decisions that ought not to be further delayed. I want to make sure that we have a process capable of dealing with that.
Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Before I call the debate to a close, may I take this opportunity to say that it is not normal in a debate such as this for people to respond after a Minister has spoken to conclude it? As there was time, I made due allowance for that, but I do not want a precedent to be set. I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will remember that.