I understand that a campaign has recently been set up through the website 38 Degrees, asking me to apologise for what they claim to be ‘misleading information’ about the forestry estate in a Liberal Democrat national party leaflet. This campaign is a brazen piece of partisanship, designed to damage my reputation on an issue that most impartial people would think that I have a good personal record. I hope that this statement will set the record straight on the matter.
This issue dates back to the beginning of the Coalition, when Caroline Spelman, the former Conservative Environment Secretary, put forward measures to transfer some forest land to organisations such as the National Trust and possibly to sell some too. There was subsequently a consultation on these proposals and this revealed widespread opposition to the plans. When the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg saw the detail of the proposals he stated that there was no way that they could be taken forward as long as Liberal Democrats were in government.
Nick insisted that an expert panel be convened to analyse the issue and this panel proposed permanent protection for our national forests. We have absolutely supported this verdict. The Spelman proposals were just ideas for consultation. They were dropped and have not been revived. The issue was killed off by the government itself four years ago. So the claim in one of my party’s national leaflets that we have been “saving our forests from privatisation”… and “planting a million more trees” is actually completely true.
Dan Rogerson – the Lib Dem Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – has clearly stated that we hope to place Britain's forests in a protected trust and we have committed to planting more than 3.5m trees in towns, cities and villages over the next parliament if we remain in power. You can read Dan’s comments here.
The motions highlighted by 38 Degrees, which I voted on in 2011, were both tabled on an opposition day. The first, tabled by the Labour Party, was deliberately provocative and had the sole purpose of highlighting divisions between the two parties in government. The second, tabled by the Government, was a response to Labour’s motion. I will have voted against possibly a hundred of opposition day motions over the last 5 years, just as Labour MPs routinely vote against government motions. It would be utterly absurd for anyone to demand that I apologise for not voting for a Labour motion or indeed to call for a Labour MP to apologise for not voting for a government amendment to a Labour motion. This would be playground politics.
To claim, as the website Public Whip does, that I ‘voted very strongly for selling England’s state owned forests’ is misleading in the extreme. I have never voted in favour of selling forest land – I voted against a poorly worded and hyperbolic motion submitted by the Labour Party.
As Minister for Communities, I have personally overseen measures in the Infrastructure Bill to protect trees and areas of woodland. Through tree preservation orders, local planning authorities now have wide powers to make tree preservation orders to protect trees of significant value to communities. These written orders, in general, make it an offence to prune, fell, damage or destroy the trees they cover without local planning authority consent. In addition to this, Liberal Democrats in government have overseen the planting of 1 million new trees over the course of this parliament through our ‘Big Tree Plant’ campaign. This is the first government tree planting programme since the 1970s.
Finally, I would like to say that I am amazed by the Labour Party’s hypocrisy on this issue. Under the last Labour government the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 was passed, which introduced powers to transfer the forest estate to the Homes and Communities Agency. The supreme irony is that this power was removed earlier this year, in clause 27 of the Infrastructure Bill. The minister who took this clause (among many others) through the House of Commons was me!
I hope that this statement clarifies my position on the issue. I am upset and disappointed that 38 Degrees has run this highly misleading campaign against me, promoted I must assume by activists from other political parties. I do not support the privatisation of forest land and I have never voted to support it.