Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary Caroline Spelman has just made a difficult statement to the Commons, making a full U-turn on the Government's proposals to sell off some state-owned forests. She announced
- The forestry clauses will be removed from the public bodies bill;
- The consultation on the forest sell-off – due to have been going on until later in April – has been called off after two weeks, owing to the sheer volume of opposition from the public and MPs;
- An independent panel will be set up to consider future forestry policy for England.
Mrs Spelman said that she takes "full responsibility" for the situation and in particular takes the message from this experience that people cherish the forests and woodlands and the benefits they bring. She concluded:
"I am sorry. We got his one wrong. We have listend to people's concerns."
Later on I will try and include some of the reaction from Tory backbenchers.
In the meantime, do read my post from last Friday: Lessons for the Government to learn from the forests fiasco.
Nick Watt from the Guardian has already blogged to commend Caroline Spelman's execution of the U-turn and to criticise Labour's spokesman, Mary Creagh, for a laboured and ineffective performance.
He rightly observes that Creagh managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by speakng for far too long and claiming that Labour was the party of the countryside, which prompted Tory MPs all the more to go into bat for Spelman and aid her in attacking Labour's hypocrisy on the issue of forests.
Here's a selection of the contributions from the Conservative backbenches in response to her statement:
Nick Boles (Grantham and Stamford): The Secretary of State has had the honesty and guts to come here to say that she presented ideas to the British public, but the British public did not much like them, so she said sorry and came up with a new approach. Is it not instructive that that is in such amazing contrast to the behaviour of that lot on the Opposition Benches who, no matter how many acres of woodland they sold and no matter how much gold they sold and at what price, nevertheless ran our economy into the ditch, from which we are trying to dig it out?
Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands): When the Labour party was in office, were any consultations held in which the views of the public were actually listened to?
Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole): I welcome the statement, and its tone certainly contrasted with the somewhat ungracious response from the Opposition Front Bench; we got no apology for the 25,000 acres they flogged off.
Robert Halfon (Harlow): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we definitely will not be pursuing the policies of the previous Government, such as selling 25,000 hectares of forest without any access granted?
Mark Spencer (Sherwood): May I put on record my thanks to the Secretary of State for listening to me and my constituents over the past month, and may I encourage her not to listen to the Opposition, who sold off woodland greater in area than the city of Nottingham during their term in office?
David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale): I congratulate the Secretary of State on this decision and thank her on behalf of the 1,000 constituents who e-mailed me requesting a review. May I also make her aware of the fact that the Opposition, when in government, sold off forest land three times the size of Blackpool before this policy was even put before Members?
Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire): I congratulate the Secretary of State on her statement and the manner in which she delivered it. More than 300 constituents have written to me on the subject and will be reassured to have a Government who are prepared to listen to them and act on their concerns. I urge her to resist any temptation to take any lessons from the Opposition, whose consultations in general, and on woodlands in particular, were either lamentable or non-existent.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire): Does the Secretary of State agree that it makes a hugely refreshing change to have a Government who consult and genuinely listen to the mood of the people, rather than just dogmatically driving through policy in the face of public opposition, as the previous Labour Government did? I compliment the Secretary of State on her courage and honesty and offer her the comfort of remembering that there is never a bad time to do the right thing.