HC Deb 25 March 1936 vol 310 cc1237-41

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act, 1921. The Act which I seek to amend made illegal the importation into this country of the plumage of certain rare and beautiful birds. It was passed 15 years ago, and it is now thought necessary that we should complete the process by making illegal the sale of prohibited plumage in this country. The simple Bill which I desire to bring in provides that the sale shall be illegal, and also provides penalties for such illegal sales. It is rather remarkable that after 15 years there should still be offered for sale in this country plumage which has been illegally, as we believe, imported into this country, and it is necessary that the Amendment which I desire to bring in should be put into operation. When the 1921 Act was passed, or shortly afterwards, it was stated by those who were able to speak for the trade that there was in this country at that time plumage which was then prohibited which would last for approximately nine months, or at the outside one year in supplying the trade. We do know that since the 1921 Act was passed there have been cases of illegal smuggling into this country of thousands of skins of birds with prohibited plumage in defiance of the Act. I am a loyal and, generally speaking, I hope a law-abiding citizen, and I want to see that any prohibition laid down by Parliament is properly observed. In many parts of the British Empire there is a prohibition against the export of this plumage, and it seems to me that those who value Empire unity will support the Bill in order to make illegal the importation into this country of plumage which should not be exported from different parts of the Empire. The United States of America have already taken the step which I am asking the House to approve and have prohibited the sale in America of this plumage. That is the legal aspect of the case.

But there are considerations much more weighty than that; the humane considerations. The plumage which is prohibited in this country is obtained by the slaughter of birds at the very time when they are in the full enjoyment of the joy of life, during the mating and reproductive period of their lives when they dress themselves most gaudily. During that period they are hunted and killed for the purposes of decoration. It does not seem to matter to those who make a profit out of this trade that they may he ending the life not only of the individual bird but of a family of birds, or of the species to which the birds belong. I think it is a terrible thing that we should so treat some of the most delicate and beautiful specimens of the handiwork of the Creator. It may be said, why is there an inducement to import into this country plumage which is prohibited We must lay the charge on those who wish to decorate themselves with this plumage. We men can discourage our women friends, our mothers, our wives, our sisters and our daughters, from having any taste this way. The recent tendency to gaudy displays of feathers in the dresses of some of those who take part in films may possibly lead some unthinking women to try and copy the style. If an appeal to their better nature does not impress our women folk, perhaps when this Bill becomes an Act of Parliament it will be possible for people knowing that such an Act exists, when they see our women folk with an osprey or some other feather of a prohibited plumage decorating them, to ask " Where did you get that hat? " We do not want to put them to that indignity. I think the case is so simple that every hon. Member will want to back the Bill.

There is nothing significant in the fact that I stand at this Box and ask leave to bring in the Bill. It is entirely a nonparty, or rather an all-party, Measure, and if I am given the opportunity, as I hope I shall be, to read out the names of those who are backing the Bill, it will be found that it is backed in all parts of the House. I appeal to the House to give me leave to bring in the Bill in order to protect these beautiful birds from extinction because we look upon these birds in the same way as Robert Burns looked upon the field mouse when his plough cut through its nest. They are Our poor earth-born companions, and fellow-mortals. It is in that spirit that I ask leave to bring in the Bill.


Is the hon. Member aware that most women shoppers are informed by the shopkeeper that the plumage is not prohibited? Is it not the case that women need protection from misinformation?


I rise to oppose the Motion. Unfortunately I had not studied my Order Paper with such care as usual, and I was not aware that this proposal was going to be moved, otherwise I should have prepared myself with documentary evidence on the matter. But the Bill itself is a charge that our Customs officials are failing in the performance of their duties. When I was at the Board of Trade this matter was investigated. It is not true to say that there is great smuggling into this country of this prohibited plumage, because it is not getting in.


I can bring the hon. Member proof that thousands of skins with prohibited plumage have been brought into this country since the 1921 Act was passed.


If the hon. Member has such proof, he has failed in his duty in not drawing the attention of the authorities to the proof, so that the requisite prosecutions might have taken place.


The requisite prosecutions have taken place, and the skins have been confiscated.


If the prosecutions have taken place and the skins have been confiscated, the evil with which the hon. Member proposes to deal does not exist. Obviously, if it is an offence to bring them into the country, as it is, and if there is no proof of successful smuggling—


How does one prove successful smuggling?


I listened with great patience to the hon. Gentleman, and I am entitled to state that which I learned when I was at the Board of Trade. I learned that certain societies collect a good deal of money from innocent people by telling them tales of horror which relate to the past and not to the present. That is an unfair exploitation of innocent people. The proposal that this Bill shall be introduced represents a charge that this illegal plumage is being sold in this country when it is known that it is new plumage obtained since the Act of 1921 was passed. I do not think there is the slightest justification for that allegation, nor do I think it fair to the British public that it should be told that these horrors which used to be, still exist. I protest as much as anybody against the horrors that were associated with the plucking of the plumage of birds when they were actually sitting on their eggs. It was a horrible practice supported by the fashions of this country. But because it existed in the past, that is no justification for charging innocent British people to-day with the commission of an offence which they have not committed. This Bill is prompted by societies which exist for the collection of subscriptions from people whose sympathy is excited by stories of past horrors which do not exist to-day. Time and time again this matter was raised in another place by a certain Noble Lord who is now dead, and every time it was raised there was brought up the story of the same old solitary ostrich which was about 50 years old, and which was used as the horrifying example. This kind of legislation is so much humbug.

Viscountess ASTOR

May I ask—


The Noble Lady may ask as many things as she likes, but I do not think there is much chance of their being dealt with under the Ten-Minute Rule. I do ask the House to hesitate, not before giving leave to introduce the Bill, but before passing it into law. I hope that if this Bill should be given a Second Reading, it will be referred to a Select Committee, so that those who make the charges to which I have referred will have an opportunity of producing evidence in justification.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Mathers, Viscountess Astor, Mr. Barr, Colonel Clifton Brown, Mr. Allan Chapman, Mr. Stephen Davies, Mr. Grenfell, Mr. Kingsley Griffith, Mr. Groves, Mr. Graham Kerr, Mr. Lewis, and Miss Rathbone.