Fighting government attacks

17 January 2012

This month we’re launching a new feature which attempts to sift fact from fiction and discover the truth behind government propaganda. We start our series with an interview with Mary Irvine, PCS Forestry Commission group president.

Following a dramatic U-turn on disposing the entire Forestry Commission’s estate through privatisation the government trained its sights on a 25% cuts programme in England, threatening hundreds of jobs, closing offices and vastly reducing services to the public.

What angered staff were assumptions and misinformation used by ministers to try to convince the public that their cuts are justified.

“What annoys me in particular is the view that the Forestry Commission should only be involved in growing trees and that everything else represents a conflict of interest,” said Mary. “The government seems to be of the opinion that the other areas of our work such as recreation, education and managing wildlife should be done elsewhere and not by a government department. The reality is that these activities combine to produce the Forestry Commission (FC) that we have today.”

Campaigning against privatisation

Convincing the public of the importance of the FC has been key to the campaign against privatisation – social media was used effectively, through websites like Save Our Forests and 38 Degrees. But the tough business is now at hand: reminding the public that the threat has not gone away and the cuts are cutting off the very lifeblood of the commission.

“We need to keep up our campaigning as many of our supporters think that the threat has gone following the U-turn,” said Mary. “It is very likely that privatisation on some scale will be a threat again in the very near future. Accurate information is the strongest weapon in our armoury. We have to break through the government spin; the rhetoric that public sector workers are somehow a drain on the taxpayer.”

Countering claims that cuts are needed, Mary points to the fact the FC regularly reviews its working practices to “remain fit for purpose”. Public consultation on the role of the Public Forest Estate in 2009 concluded that many people place a particular value on the size of the estate and what they see as the trusted brand of the Forestry Commission.

“The cuts are ideologically driven in an attempt to raise money. Indeed, the proposal to sell off 15% of the Public Forest Estate in England to generate cash is driven by the need to fill the Treasury coffers following the bail-out of the banks. PCS has an alternative that outlines details of the uncollected tax amounting to £126 billion. If the government was to channel more resources into collecting this money instead of cutting public sector jobs then the deficit would be wiped out very quickly.”

Government rushes through cuts

Following the government’s climb down over privatisation an independent forestry panel was set up to review the future of publicly run forests. Jumping the gun the government announced the cuts, including up to 400 job losses. Staff have taken advantage of a voluntary exit/early retirement scheme but the work of those who have left has just been redistributed among remaining staff resulting in health concerns. Mary is angry that the cuts were announced before the panel has even made its report.

“Years of experience and knowledge would be lost forever and the organisation would suffer badly,” she said. “The greatest frustration for our members is that the Forestry Commission has been tasked with rushing through the most savage cuts we have ever seen while the panel is still taking evidence. To proceed with these cuts ahead of the review seems completely unreasonable.”

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