THE Government may have performed a U-turn, but is it trying to reach the same destination of tak-our Forest out of public hands, using a different back road?

This is the question being asked by Hands Off Our Forest campaigners, as well as peers in the House of Lords.

Fresh Government initiatives are raising questions about a new independent advisory panel being set up to review the future of the public forest estate, and whether the option of keeping our Forest public will be included in its remit.

On Monday in the Lords, the Government's Lord John Taylor of Holbeach began a climbdown, as pledged three weeks ago by environment secretary Caroline Spelman, by removing powers that could allow the sale of all our public forests and reduce the Forestry Commission's roles in the Public Bodies Bill.

Regarding the new panel, Lord Frank Judd, who is president of Friends of the Lake District, cautioned: "If these forests belong to us and if we have expressed such a degree of concern, we do not want to find ourselves going down a road along which, through the back- door, exactly what we have expressed ourselves as against is accomplished over a period of years.

"We need a categorical assurance from the Government that this is not a backdoor to achieving the short cut that they were introducing in this Bill."

Lord Taylor did not offer any assurances.

Baroness Jan Royall paid special tribute to HOOF.

"It was the first campaign off the blocks and led the way for other campaigns that drew wide-support and eventually the Government listened, as they should do, and changed their mind," she told the House.

Lord Taylor said he acknowledged the Forest of Dean was a special case.

But he added: "The Forestry Commission is not necessarily the only public body that can look after public forests in the best way."

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Rev Michael Perham, contributed to the debate, warning: "To talk about changes in ownership, with even the smallest possibility of withdrawal of access or unwelcome development, is to provoke a deep emotional response in people who have, in many cases, inhabited the Forest for many generations."

He was joined in his call for future protection of the Dean by the Bishop of Guildford, the Rt Rev Christopher Hill, who lives in Ruardean.

A special debate on public forests has been called for today in the Lords by former Forestry Commission chair Lord Clark of Windermere.

The panel is due to report back to the Government in the autumn. It has been revealed the panel will be small (rumoured to be 12 people) and will include representatives of environ-, access and industry groups, with an 'independent' chairman appointed by Mrs Spelman following consult-.

HOOF has as yet received no reply to a letter sent to Mrs Spelman and the Prime Minister asking if it can have representation on the panel.

In its first show of unity on the issue, at Thursday's Forest of Dean District Council meeting, all councillors agreed to a last-minute proposal from Coun Bruce Hogan (Lab, Lydbrook & Ruardean) which called for panel representation and for the council chamber in Coleford to be made available for the panel to gather evidence from local people.

Council leader Peter Amos (Con, Awre) said he will support a similar motion from Coun Andrew Gardiner (Ind, Lydbrook & Ruardean) which also calls for woods outside the Statutory Forest, including Dymock and some over the Herefordshire border, to be protected as part of the Forest of Dean. It was due to be discussed last night.

HOOF's concern, aside from the panel, is that it appears the Government is setting up the Forestry Commission to fail.

The Government is pressing ahead with 400 job losses in the Forestry Commission, expected to take effect in June. , and plans to give a reduced staff at Bank House in Coleford a greater task of looking after public woodlands across the region.

HOOF's legal expert Alan Robertson has suggested people write letters to Caroline Spelman asking her as minister: "Why are you pre-empting the panel's report by decimating the Forestry Commission?"