About the votes on forest privatisation that Stephen Williams supported:
On 2 February 2011, there was a fierce debate in the House of Commons over the government’s plans to sell-off England’s forests. The House of Commons was packed. 561 MPs took part in the votes, reflecting the high level of public interest in the issue.
Many MPs voted to oppose the forest sell-off. They included MPs from many different parties. The motion was proposed by a Labour MP, but seven Lib Dem and three Conservative MPs also voted for it, as did the only Green MP and members of the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. However, a majority of Lib Dem and Conservative MPs voted to support the government policy and the motion was defeated.
For all of us who were campaigning to protect England’s forests from this worrying sell-off plan, this vote mattered a lot and the defeat was a setback. We had put a lot of effort into persuading MPs to vote the right way – emails, phone calls, visits, even clubbing together to pay for newspaper adverts on the day of the vote.
Thankfully, the campaign to save the forests from this government policy did not give up. 38 Degrees members, amazing local campaign groups like HOOF in the Forest of Dean and Save Lake District forests in the Lake District, and a growing number of national environment and conservation charities kept up the pressure. A few weeks later we were successful – the government minister in charge of the sell-off stood up, admitted she had got it wrong, and announced a change of government policy.
What has all of this got to do with Stephen Williams?
Well, this week one of his constituents noticed that a leaflet which he was distributing in Bristol claimed credit for “saving our forests from privatisation”. Yet back in 2011, he was voicing support for the policy. Letters sent by Stephen Williams to his constituents in January 2011 argued: “Please rest assured that the transfer of heritage forests such as the New Forest and the Forest of Dean will have no affect on public access; walkers will still be able to enjoy them as they do at the moment…Nearly 70 per cent of England’s forests are already in private ownership and deliver a wide range of benefits”.
But on 2 February, he was one of 306 Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs who voted with the government. He helped defeat the motion opposing the sell-off, and then voted in favour of a government motion praising the plans for how the forests would be managed “once they are sold off”!
Stephen Williams’ constituent questioned exactly how that counted as “saving our forests from privatisation”! So she launched a petition asking Stephen Williams to apologise for making this claim, which over 1,500 Bristolians have so far signed.
Stephen Williams has responded with fury to this petition. He claims that he “did NOT vote in favour of selling forestry.” He claims that challenging the accuracy of his leaflets makes 38 Degrees members “sock puppets for the Labour party”. And he claims credit for introducing pro-forest measures in 2015 as a government minister.
Let’s take these claims in turn:
Stephen Williams’ claim: “I did NOT vote in favour of selling forestry”.
38 Degrees response: Stephen Williams did vote in favour of selling forestry, twice, on 2 February 2011. He now argues that somehow this vote wasn’t important, but that’s a matter of opinion. The explanation above shows that many 38 Degrees members at the time did consider these votes to be crucial. That he voted, and how he voted, is a matter of fact.
Theyworkforyou.com is an independent MP monitoring service which collates information on every MP’s voting record. According to theyworkforyou.com, Stephen Williams “Voted very strongly for selling England’s state owned forests”.
Why do they say this? Because on all the occasions where Stephen Williams had an opportunity to vote, he voted in support of selling off the forests.
Stephen Williams seems now to be arguing that those votes in some way weren’t proper votes, or were irrelevant votes, because the debate was called by the Labour Party. But at the time, he must have thought the vote was a proper vote – otherwise why did he turn up at all?
The party whips certainly thought it was a proper vote – they put down a “three line whip”, which signifies that it was a vote of high importance.
If this was not a proper vote, how come 561 MPs took part? And why did seven of Stephen’s Lib Dem colleagues decided to stick their necks out and vote against the government?
Stephen Williams’ claim: “38 Degrees now beyond doubt exposed as sock puppets for Labour Party”
38 Degrees response: 38 Degrees is independent of all political parties. The only evidence Stephen Williams is offering for this claim is that we are criticising him.
Stephen Williams claims that 38 Degrees is criticising him because we want to help the Labour Party. Actually, 38 Degrees members are criticising Stephen because he claimed credit for “saving our forests from privatisation”, when actually he voted in favour of this policy.
38 Degrees is independent of all political parties. When 38 Degrees members voted on what we wanted to do together during the general election, exposing candidates’ lies was voted a priority. The office team are encouraging members to upload any dodgy-looking leaflet to electionleaflets.org and to start campaigns challenging dishonest materials at you.38degrees.org.uk.
38 Degrees members don’t think Stephen Williams is the only politician to have told a lie. Or that his untruth is the most serious there’s ever been (take Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, for example). But the fact remains he’s been caught, and he’d be better off owning up rather than throwing unfounded insults at anyone who dares to call him out.
Stephen Williams’ claim: “As Minister for Communities, I have personally overseen measures in the Infrastructure Bill to protect trees and areas of woodland”
38 Degrees response: this may be true, but it’s an attempt at distraction. The claim for which Stephen Williams is being criticised is taking credit for “saving our forests from privatisation” – the measures he talks about here were not about privatisation.
In 2014 Stephen Williams got a promotion and became a government minister. It is worth noting that none of the Liberal Democrat or Conservative MPs who did vote against selling off the forests in 2011 have received such a promotion – rebelling against government policy, as Stephen chose not to, generally has consequences for your political career!
As a minister, Stephen Williams, had some responsibility for the Infrastructure Act. This law probably got most attention for measures on fracking which were widely criticised by environmental organisations.
Stephen highlights that this law also contains some measures that are good for trees. “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.”
That may be true, but what’s it got to do with whether or not he helped with “saving our forests from privatisation” four years earlier? The measures he highlights have little to do with privatisation and were introduced four years after the controversial privatisation plan was blocked by a campaign which he did not support at the time.
In fact, as it made its way through Parliament, the Infrastructure Bill did contain some clauses about forest privatisation. These clauses could have made it easier for future governments to sell forest land off, and forest campaigners were concerned that they could have enabled a revival of the 2011 forests sell-off plan.
Thankfully, we came together to challenge these parts of the Infrastructure Bill and forced the government to remove them before the bill reached the House of Commons. This was thanks to the effort of a number of different organisations, many of whom had been involved in the 2010-11 campaign. This campaign received the support of members of House of Lords of a variety of parties, including some Lib Dems. Stephen Williams did not voice his support for this campaign.