Seeing the Wood for the Trees – before they’re flogged off

A recent article on the proposed sale of Forestry Commission land on LibCon seems to have revealed a far more far-reaching attack on Parliamentary democracy by the government. The amount to be sold in England over the next few years is about 100,000 acres, which is 15% of current holdings. However, they want to sell far more – potentially over 500,000 acres (leaving only about 10-20% not privatised). The reason that they cannot do that right now is down to existing law that restricts the sale or externalisation of the bulk of the public forestry estate.

To get around this, a series of extra powers on forestry have been added to a bill has that has been raised in the House of Lords by Baron Taylor of Holbeach, called the Public Bodies Bill (PBB). This Bill itself goes far beyond just forestry, and it gives Ministers at Westminster (or at the devolved assemblies/parliaments) powers to order abolition, merger or constitutional changes to huge swathe of organisations. Rather than using legislation (requiring examination by committee and several debates), the government would be able to simply issue an order to be voted on by each House.

Stanley Johnson on ConservativeHome was a source for Lib Con, and he has raised concerns following this exchange when Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for the Environment, and a DEFRA civil servant appeared at the Commons committee that deals with Environment, Food and Rural Affairs recently:

The Chair of the Committee stated: “That’s a once and for all legislative permit, that you will never again as a Department have to come back for future sales of forestry or such?”
Defra civil servant: “That is the intention.”
Secretary of State, Mrs Spelman: “The Public Bodies Bill is an enabling Bill on the reform of a wide range of arm’s-length bodies.”
Chair: “So you will never, ever again have to come and ask permission?”
Secretary of State, Mrs Spelman: “We should not have to, no.”
Chair: “So this is our one and only chance?”
Defra civil servant: “Yes.”

The Telegraph has an article concerning the PBB, in which it points out that the types of order to be used are based on those initiated by Henry VIII, used to give Crown (and so government) proclamations the force of law, without having to go through all that bother of passing a law through Parliament.

So, if passed, the PBB would be an ‘enabling Act’ that covers more than just forest sales. Looking at the Bill, and particularly the schedules at the end, the scope is massive. It would also only take an order to expand the scope to include many other bodies, rather than legislation. The removal of a level of Parliamentary scrutiny means that more power will be centralised with Ministers and less with the MPs. The chances are that any such orders will be simply nodded through as long as a government has a majority.

Now, some people will simply say that it is fair enough, that these public bodies are just a bunch of quangos and who needs them anyway? Let us look at some of those included in the schedules:

The Charity Commission
The Office of Fair Trading
Channel 4
The National Parks authorities
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
The Chief Coroner, Deputies and Medical Advisors
Director of Public Prosecutions
Civil Aviation Authority
Environment Agency
HM Chief Inspector of Prisons
HM Land Registry
Independent Police Complaints Commission

That’s just a dozen of the many entries on the schedules where powers to abolish and/or merge and/or drastically alter by order will be given to Ministers if the Bill passes. It is perhaps appropriate that this anti-democratic proposal has been raised for the government in the unelected House of Lords. Selling off most of the publicly owned forestry land through the PBB is bad enough, but the Bill itself was already designed to chop through our Parliamentary constitution.

4 Responses to “Seeing the Wood for the Trees – before they’re flogged off”

  1. Steve Fisher Says:

    The last labour government sold off 25,000 acres without asking anyone and with no access allowed to the public.

    The LibCons are consulting on the proposals and will be selling off to recognised local bodies or organisations such as the National Trust. They are also making sure agreements are in place to grant access to the public to this land.

    Sound somewhat more like a democratic plan to me. I’m not entirely sure what you dislike about this plan? Maybe you can explain further?

  2. Danivon Says:

    Did you read the post?

    25,000 acres over 13 years is not the same as 100,000 in the next few years, with a possible 500,000 over a decade.

    The ‘consultation’ is for the first sales, but the real issue I was driving at was that the Bill (which enables the sale of the vast bulk) also give Ministers huge amounts of power over all kinds of public body. There’s no guarantee that consultations would be needed for any of that, just an order placed in Parliament.

    The vast bulk of the sales will not be to ‘local bodies or organisations such as the National Trust’. They don’t have the resources to buy the land and then maintain it, not much, anyway. A few pockets will likely go this way, but the vast majority (at least 95%) of it will go to commercial forestry.

    And even the recent wavering by the ‘LibCon’ government seems to have been a result of the large public opposition to the sales, rather than coming from any principled stance of the government.

    Finally, consultation is not the same as a democratic vote. The results can be ignored or overridden.

    So, you ignore the main point (the provisions of the PBB), you get it wrong on the outcome of the sales, and you think that selling about 2,000 acres a year on average is worse than many times that amount.

    Is that a nice job you have at Millbank, Steve?

  3. Steve Fisher Says:

    Following consultations with public, the government will announce tomorrow that it is withdrawing the sale of forestry. It has been a wonderful common sense approach to consult and listen to the valid and sensible thoughts, a modern, refreshing and enlightening process.

    I’m sure you will agree it is encouraging to listen to what the community is telling us even though there are still some tough measure needed.

  4. Danivon Says:

    I think you’ve fallen for the spin, Steve.

    What’s happening is that the consultation (on how to sell the land, not whether to) has been cut short because of the massive popular response. However, the sale of the land is still on the table. What will happen is a new review first, and then it could well come back.

    The forestry parts of the Public Bodies Bill will be removed. However – and this was the main thrust of my post, not the forestry land sales – the remainder of the PBB gives Ministers massive new powers to use Henry VIII orders.

    It’s encouraging that the government are able to step back from one of their most dumb policy ideas. It’s not encouraging that they are pressing ahead with a swathe of other ones, primarily to cut back too far too fast and lead us into a double-dip recession.

    But hey, keep right on believing…

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