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Out of the woods

The coalition’s proposed fire sale of English woodland will leave parliament powerless to decide on

It is hard to imagine how the coalition government could have dug itself so deep into the mire over the proposed forest sell-off. On 6 February, the Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, defended the consultation process that her department launched last month. It was "week two of a 12-week" process, she told us - and urged us all to join in. She pointed out that the "Save England's Forests" letter, published in the Sunday Telegraph on 23 January and signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Judi Dench, among others, antedated the consultation process. By implication, she suggested, the concerns of the signatories were now superseded, if not out of date.

I was among those who signed the letter, invited to do so by my daughter Rachel Johnson, editor of the Lady and president of the Save England's Forests movement. Let me declare some more interests. I have been a Conservative MEP and vice-chairman of the European Parliament's environment committee. I fought Teignbridge in Devon in the 2005 election as a Conservative candidate and I am a patron of the Conservative Environment Network.

I have a great deal of time for Caroline Spelman, but what really upset me was her failure to address the central point made in our letter, namely: "Three clauses in the Public Bodies Bill 2010-2011, currently being debated in parliament, will authorise the government to sell the whole of our public forest estate to commercial interests on the open market. Without asking our permission, the government has already allowed the sale of 15 per cent of our public woodlands. Similar plans have been rejected by the Scottish and Welsh parliaments."

The threat to England's woods and forests lies not only in ill-advised measures the government may take under existing legislation, but in what may happen in the future under the powers that will be handed to the Environment Secretary, and her successors for ever after, if the bill is passed in its present form. Anyone who doubts this should consider the following exchange, which took place at a recent session of the House of Commons environment committee. Spelman and her civil servants were questioned about the powers they were seeking by including forestry matters in the bill:

Chair of the committee: "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."

Among the things I most loathed, as an MEP, were proposals from the European Commission with clauses for delegating power. Called "adaptation measures", they allowed the commission to amend European law without recourse to the European Parliament. Here, we call them "Henry VIII clauses". Terminology aside, the net result of this bill would mean that parliamentary approval for the sale of the forest estate will no longer be necessary.

National assets

Judging by the quality of the speeches when the matter was debated on 2 February, the floor of the Commons is precisely the place for questions of such pith and moment as the future of the nation's forests to be discussed. And decided. Seeing it from this perspective, it is hard to take the forestry consultation seriously. It looks all the more questionable since the one option that, according to the polls, 80 per cent of the public appears to want - not selling off the forest estate - seems to have been deliberately excluded from the consultation's terms of reference.

What is the solution? I have three proposals. The government should cancel the proposed sale of the first tranche of the forest estate, totalling 40,000 hectares, many times the amount of land disposed of under the last government; withdraw the forestry clauses from the Public Bodies Bill, thus reserving to parliament the right to take decisions about the disposal of vital national assets; and either terminate the consultation exercise, or permit full consideration of non-disposal options.

Moreover, if the forest sell-off is likely to cost money rather than save it, as now appears to be the case from the Department for En­vironment, Food and Rural Affairs's own calculations, then not selling the forests should be economically advantageous. Managing the forests today costs the equivalent of only 30p per head per year. Much has been made of the so-called "conflict of interest" in having an institution, such as the Forestry Commission, that is both a trader and a regulator. In the past, however, this issue was handled satisfactorily through Forest Enterprise agencies, operating at arm's length within the ambit of the Forestry Commission. A similar solution could be adopted today if the objections are still felt to be real rather than theoretical.

Adopting the measures above might allow Caroline Spelman respite from the mounting clamour that must be making her life a misery. The future prospects of the coalition will also, I suspect, be considerably improved.

Stanley Johnson was MEP for Wight and Hampshire East from 1979-84

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 14 February 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.