HC Deb 28 February 1964 vol 690 cc829-42

Order for Second Reading read.

1.38 p.m.

Mr. John E. Maginnis (Armagh)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

It may seem rather unusual for a Member representing a Northern Ireland constituency to bring in a non-controversial Measure into this House, but I assure hon. Members on both sides that this small Bill will be uncontroversial, that it is essential and that it will remove an anomaly which now exists in the Protection of Birds Act. I am not a lawyer, but my constituents credit me with a certain amount of common sense and the Bill is a common sense Measure.

In order to explain to hon. Members the position in Northern Ireland in the matter of the protection of birds, I should like to give an example of what can happen under the present legislation. We have in Northern Ireland two pieces of legislation, one dealing with birds and the other with animals. The first is the Protection of Birds Act, 1931, and the other is the Protection of Animals Act, 1911.

This is the kind of thing that can happen in the present anomalous situation. I am a farmer. If I wanted to destroy certain wild birds which were attacking my crops I could apply to the Secretary of State here and obtain a licence to poison those birds with bait. If I did that, the authorities in Northern Ireland would prosecute me under the 1931 Act. I would be taken to court and I should use as my defence the argument that the 1931 Act was superseded by Section 10 of the Protection of Birds Act, 1954 passed by this House. That defence might be or might not be accepted and then there would be litigation.

The lawyers would have to decide whether or not an Act passed by this House was superior to an Act passed by the House of Commons in Northern Ireland. This will give hon. Members some idea of the Irish nature of the situation which exists in the matter of protecting birds at present.

The intention when the 1954 Act was passed was to provide additional power to the 1931 Act passed in Northern Ireland. The 1931 Act did not cover the importation of wild birds or their eggs or nests into Northern Ireland, and when the 1954 Act was passed by this House it was thought that the omission should be made good. I agree that it was a necessary step, but unfortunately section 16(3) of the 1954 Act provided that the whole of Section 10 of the Act should apply to Northern Ireland. This meant, in effect, that a duplication occurred in respect of the taking of birds for scientific or educational purposes. But there was an additional provision, which was barred in Northern Ireland by the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, relating to the taking of wild birds by the use of poison or stupefying bait. This oversight on the part of the legislators at Westminster leaves the law in a very anomalous state. I am using my time as a private Member to try to correct this situation and bring the law into repute.

If Section 10 of the 1954 Act is deleted, leaving only that part of it which makes the Minister of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland the licensing authority in respect of any person in Northern Ireland who wishes to import birds, this will correct the law. There have been many instances where this House, perhaps through pressure of work, or as a result of Members becoming tired in Committee stages or during long debates, has allowed small points like this to become overlooked. I have no doubt that if the House accepts this small Bill, the law in Northern Ireland and in this country will be brought up to date.

I have pleasure in presenting this small Bill, and I hope the House will give it an unopposed Second Reading.

1.42 p.m.

Sir Knox Cunningham (Antrim, South)

It is with great pleasure that I support the Second Reading of this Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. Maginnis). I think he has clearly stated the reasons behind the Bill, and he has also explained the legal position. I should like to say something about birds and their protection.

This Bill will place in the hands of the Minister of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland powers for the protection of wild birds. It is right that this House at Westminster should, after discussing great affairs, turn to matters of wild life, and I think it is peculiarly appropriate that on a day such as this we should think the protection of birds and animals.

Very little was known about birds until quite recently. One thinks of Mr. Peter Scott, his pictures and his interest in the protection of birds, and his films which are shown on television. In passing, how one wishes that we could have coloured television so that we could see them in all their glory. Interest in wild birds is quite a modern tendency. In the past birds were regarded as things to be shot and killed whenever the opportunity arose. The ordinary song birds were admired, but very little was known about their habits and, when rough weather came, little was known about the possibility of their protection.

Unfortunately, the collector stepped in, and when a rare bird such as a hoopoe arrived it was shot and stuffed in a not very natural position, and after a few years it disintegrated with the moth. There has now been a welcome change. In schools the pupils take an interest in nature, an interest quite apart from the collection of eggs. That has been a step forward.

There are many rare birds. Only a week ago in Kent I saw a nuthatch arrive to peck at a coconut. Perhaps it is not so rare in this country, but in Northern Ireland it is definitely a rare bird. It is only seen in the southern part of England. On the other hand, there are many birds—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir R. Grimston)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. and learned Member in this very interesting disquisition, but this Bill has a very narrow point transferring certain powers from an Act to the Minister in Northern Ireland. It would help me a little if the hon. and learned Member could show how his present remarks are directed to that.

Sir Knox Cunningham

I am most grateful, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I apologise if I have strayed. May I turn to the subject of the birds in Northern Ireland. I should like to mention in particular the brent geese at Strangford Lough. They will be protected under this Measure by the Minister allowing certain close seasons. As I understand the position—no doubt I shall be corrected if I am wrong—the Minister will have the power to amend the close season. As we know, in this country the close season for grouse is 12th August. It is interesting to note that in Northern Ireland the close season has now been moved to 1st September. That, I think, is a help in the protection of grouse which are not very common in Northern Ireland.

I hope I shall not be out of order if I say that brent geese have been decreasing considerably in number and, therefore, are in need of a certain amount of protection. Another bird which needs protection is the goldfinch. These used to be caught by liming and kept in cages. Power is given to the Minister of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland to protect them.

I should like to give an instance of the way in which protection has helped to increase these birds. I was going through my constituency and visited a school in Islandmagee. I noticed pictures of various birds in the schoolroom. One was a picture of a goldfinch. I said to the children, "You do not see those here." They said, "Yes, we do. They are quite common". Remembering my boyhood days, I said, "No, they do not exist in Northern Ireland. They are found in England, or in Southern Ireland possibly, but not in the north." I pressed the point but the children were adamant. Then I realised that they were entirely right and that I was wrong. I talked to the master and discovered that in the last few years there had been a phenomenal increase in the number of goldfinches in that area. That welcome state of affairs has come about by protection which can be exercised by the Minister of Home Affairs.

I should like to refer to one other rare bird, the crossbill. That appears in Ulster on certain occasions and is a most attractive bird. It certainly deserves protection. One remembers the tradition, the belief that one was taught long ago, that the crossbill with its flecked breast of almost blood-like colour and its beak crossed, was the bird which went to the Cross in an attempt to pull out the nails. Of course, that is only an old belief, but it is an attractive bird which is very rare and is not often seen in Ulster, For that and for the more common birds such as the robin and, of particular interest in Northern Ireland, the wren—I need not digress on that because it is a bird held in great esteem and affection in the North—the Bill will be of considerable help. I am delighted that the Bill has been brought in by my hon. Friend and I am very pleased to have been able to add my name in its support and to say a few words in commending it to the House.

1.50 p.m.

Mr. W. R. van Straubenzee (Wokingham)

I shall not detain the House for very long and I wish to do nothing to delay what I now believe to be a commendable Measure, but I am in my place this morning because I was anxious about some of the wording in the Long Title of the Bill which at first led me to think that its effects would be damaging. I shall explore this aspect of the matter a little with my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. Maginnis), whose enterprise in presenting the Bill to the House I commend most warmly.

Unfortunately, I cannot address the House with the ornithological exactitude of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Sir Knox Cunningham). Indeed, I speak with some trepidation. I well remember once, having been asked to preach a children's sermon and wishing to attract the attention of the young people, opening with the word, "Are you as interested in bird watching as I am?", whereupon all the choir boys dissolved into peals of laughter. I succeeded in holding the congregation more than I had expected.

In what I have to say, I intend no suggestion of criticism of the Minister of Home Affairs of Northern Ireland in his personal or official capacity. It so happens that the distinguished Minister in Northern Ireland has been a personal friend of mine for a considerable number of years and I have the deepest respect for him personally. It will be obvious to the House that I wish to say nothing which reflects in any way whatever upon him personally or officially. However, I think that English Members would be glad to be assured, before we part with the Bill, that the machinery in Northern Ireland is adequate to give the protection to birds there which, as I understand it, this small Bill is designed to do.

One or two of my constituents have written to me to say that they were very bothered because it seemed that the protections of Section 10 of the Protection of Birds Act, 1954 were, as a result of the Bill, no longer to extend to Northern Ireland. Of course, I realise that they and, until I had studied the matter, I myself had not appreciated the safeguards which my hon. Friend has so clearly put before us. The merit of this short debate will be that those in England who have a natural anxiety for the protection of birds in Ulster will have their fears put at rest.

I think that it would be helpful if my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh or, perhaps, another of my hon. Friends from Ulster could explain to us a little, without going into great detail, the measures in effect in Northern Ireland for bird protection. Incidentally it might well be set on record that, if English Members were present today in the same proportionate numbers as Ulster Members are, we should have a very full Chamber indeed. As always, the Ulster Members are extremely assiduous in representing the interests of that great part of the United Kingdom.

We should like to be assured that there is the necessary machinery for supervision, enforcement and control in the operation of the appropriate Northern Ireland legislation as it will now be after the Bill is passed. Very few things have changed in any part of the Kingdom so dramatically as our attitude to these matters over the years. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Antrim, South has given several specific examples which I could not improve upon in any way. Only a few years ago, in Ulster as elsewhere, we raided nature without any reservation at all. In Ulster as elsewhere, we now realise that we have a reservoir of nature which we destroy at our peril. If it were in order to do so, one could draw upon analogies in many other countries where very tragic things are happening in the world of nature and some interesting animals face extinction.

I have often been enchanted on my visits to Ulster by the bird life, and I appreciate that there are people there who are as anxious as people in England, Scotland and Wales to protect, while keeping a sensible balance with the needs of agriculture, the birds which come to Ulster and nest year by year or are indigenous to the country.

I hope that we can be assured—I am certain that it must be so—that, when we have passed this modest Bill, those who will have responsibility for the administration of these matters in Northern Ireland now, the doubt having been removed from the law, will carry on the tradition which we have built up in the United Kingdom as a whole. With that assurance, I, for one, will be very content. This short debate, in setting at rest the anxieties of bird lovers throughout the United Kingdom, will have done much good and will speed on its way the uninhibited control vested in Ulster with the good wishes of the rest of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Maginnis

The law in Northern Ireland for the protection of birds is as good as, if not better than, it is in England. Actually, the legislation was brought in in 1931. At first sight, it may have appeared to my hon. Friend that, by removing Section 10 of the Protection or Birds Act, 1954, we were removing any protection from the birds of Northern Ireland. I assure my hon. Friend that our 1931 Act affords the same protection as the 1954 Act. The only thing we lacked was the licence procedure for the taking of birds or eggs or nests in Northern Ireland.

1.58 p.m.

Lord Robert Grosvenor (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

I am very happy to support this small Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. Maginnis), which will rub out the rather ridiculous situation that one can be wrong and right under two different pieces of legislation, a state of affairs which can make life very difficult if one gets into trouble at any time.

There is one small point which I hope that my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State will deal with. In Section 10 of the principal Act there is reference to stupefying bait. This is one method of collecting, catching or destroying birds. I wonder whether my hon. Friend has considered the use of the stupefying gun. Hon. Members will recall that, when the Kariba Dam was being built, a great many wild creatures were saved from extinction by drowning by being stupefied by a shot fired from a gun which rendered them unconscious and made it possible for them to be taken safely away. Perhaps my hon. Friend will bear in mind that this might be a subject for future legislation in this connection.

Other than that, I think that there is little to be said about the transferance of power. I know very well, as do my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland, that a great deal of attention is being paid to the preservation of wild life in all its forms. We have what I can only call a reservoir of wild life, of which we are very conscious. My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), who raised a slight doubt about the matter, can be assured that any action taken by the Minister of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland, who will be responsible for putting the Bill into practice, will not be detrimental to the wild life of our country.

2.1 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Armargh (Mr. Maginnis) on introducing this Bill. His point about the 1931 Act passed in Northern Ireland and Section 10 of the 1954 English Act was paramount. I do not wish to be controversial, but I should have thought that the answer to it was in the Government of Ireland Act. It seems to me that the Bill removes any misunderstanding about recourse having to be made to the courts. It is therefore worthy of consideration.

I do not share the misgivings of my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee), although I must admit that I have not experience of the position in Northern Ireland. However, I am sure that the Minister of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland will ensure that a proper and exact balance is struck between the reasonable demands of agriculture, which should not be despoiled by unnecessary wild life, and the necessity to preserve those natural specimens of bird life which are so cherished and important. Therefore, I am happy about passing the administration of the Bill —I will not say passing the buck—to the Government of Northern Ireland, who I am sure are very competent to administer it. My hon. Friend the Member for Armagh has introduced the Bill at a very topical time, because we have just had one of the very few prosecutions concerning osprey eggs.

I hope that the House will give a Second Reading to this very interesting and, I think, non-controversial Bill. It is an ideal Bill for discussion on a Friday. I am very happy that my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland have made a very considerable contribution to the profitable use of private Members' time on a Friday.

2.3 p.m.

Captain L. P. S. Orr (Down, South)

I do not want to delay the House, because I understand that after this Bill we are due to discuss a very important Measure dealing with the problem of road safety, which is of great and major concern to the whole country. I wish simply to add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. Maginnis) for bringing this important Bill before us. It is a very small but vital Bill.

I should dearly love to debate the various ornithological questions which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Sir Knox Cunningham) raised, but since you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, were becoming restless about what he was discussing, it would be unfair to try your patience.

It is clear that the Bill has arisen because of an oversight. I should think that what happened was that at the time of the passing of the 1954 Act it was overlooked that this duplication would take place. I imagine that those who drafted the 1954 Act were unaware of the provisions in the Northern Ireland Act, 1931. Therefore, this Bill is necessary to clear up doubts about the legal position.

I should like my hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State to say something about the machinery which exists among Parliamentary draftsmen, in the Home Office, elsewhere in the Government, or anywhere else for ensuring that every piece of legislation passed by this House is examined to see whether it conflicts with legislation already in existence in the Parliament of Northern Ireland. Legislation like this is necessary from time to time and usually has to be promoted by private Members, although occasionally we have Bills promoted by the Government extending or altering Sections of the Government of Ireland Act, 1920.

Recently there have been too many of these oversights. There should be someone in the Home Office or elsewhere who has the job of scrutinising each piece of legislation to ensure that legislation is not duplicated. What is the procedure and who is responsible for it? It is very pleasant to see the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) in the House today. I know that he takes a great interest in Northern Ireland matters. As a former Home Secretary, he was once responsible for these great affairs. Maybe that is why he is wearing a green waistcoat today. Perhaps he will tell us whether in his time provision was made to ensure that there was not a conflict in legislation between one Parliament and another.

This is a narrow Bill, and my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh has done the House a great service in bringing it forward. I hope that hon. Members will give it a Second Reading.

2.9 p.m.

Miss Alice Bacon (Leeds, South-East)

I have been sitting here for the last three-quarters of an hour while my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher) had some refreshment. I have been fascinated to hear about Northern Ireland and the subject of birds and bird-watching. I was particularly fascinated by the very interesting speech of the hon. and learned Member for Antrim, South (Sir Knox Cunningham). I was very sorry, Mr. Deputy-Sperker, when you called him to order, because all hon. Members were very interested in what he was saying.

The hon. and gallant Member for Down, South (Captain Orr) asked whether my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) was wearing a green waitcoat for a particular purpose.

Mr. Ede (South Shields)

In fact, I am wearing it to keep warm.

Miss Bacon

In case anyone was wondering about the green costume which I am wearing, may I explain that it is entirely accidental—[Laughter.]—accidental in colour, I should say.

I am sure that this is a necessary and desirable Bill. I was interested in what the hon. and gallant Member for Down, South said about the necessity to have someone in the Home Office to ensure that legislation is not duplicated. He will probably be told that this is done, but this seems to be one occasion when something has slipped through the net. I am sure that we and all the people of Northern Ireland are very pleased that the Bill has been introduced, and I hope that it will be passed.

2.10 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Miss Mervyn Pike)

We have heard about the plumage of hon. Members as well as about the plumage of wild life, and I am now sorry that I am wearing a red blouse. I apologise to the House.

Like all hon. Members who have spoken, I welcome the Bill and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. Maginnis) for introducing it, because it will be very useful. It will help to clarify the law both in Northern Ireland and Great Britain and so it is doubly welcome to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in his capacity as Secretary of State responsible for the administration of the Protection of Birds Act, 1954, in England and Wales, and also with especial concern for the affairs of Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture also welcome the Bill. The removal of doubt on a point of law, although it may appear to be small, can have useful and practical effects, and in any case it is only right as a matter of principle that anomalies and doubts should be removed.

The hon. Lady the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon) was right to say that there is machinery, and I hope very good machinery, for seeing that there is no conflict in these laws, but, as in all things, something slips through occasionally and mistakes are made. We are therefore grateful to the hon. Member for Armagh for bringing in the Bill.

Captain Orr

Is the machinery in the Home Office?

Miss Pike

Yes, we have a special department in the Home Office watch- ing the interests of Northern Ireland and making certain that this sort of thing does not happen. Naturally, being human, mistakes of this kind are made, although in many ways this is a very small loophole.

It may help if I give a brief outline of the present position of the law. Section 16(3) of the Protection of Birds Act, 1954, clearly provides that the greater part of the Act's provisions do not extend to Northern Ireland. Those which do not so extend are Sections 1 to 6, 8, 11 and subsections (2), (4) and (5) of Section 13. The result is that the only Sections which apply to Northern Ireland, are Sections 7, 9, 10 and 12 and subsections (1) and (3) of Section 13. Sections 14 and 15 deal with general interpretation and repeal respectively and are not relevant in this connection.

Section 7 in effect provides that, save as may be authorised by a licence granted under Section 10, the importation of a number of birds is prohibited. It also gives power to the Secretary of State to extend by order the period of prohibition or the list of birds whose import without licence is forbidden. It is these important provisions which have always applied to Northern Ireland which are still to apply to Northern Ireland if the Bill is passed.

In so far as it affects Northern Ireland, Section 9 gives power to vary the list of birds in the Third Schedule of the Act. These are birds which may be shot outside the close season as laid down in subsections (2) and (6) of Section 2. Although there is power by Order to add any wild bird to the prohibition on importation in the close season from 1st February to 31st August, the importation of dead birds listed in the Third Schedule is prohibited. Hon. Members will see that there are some 25 birds so listed in the Third Schedule.

Section 10 deals with the procedure for issuing licences. In Northern Ireland we are concerned only with licences to import live or dead birds or their eggs where these would otherwise be prohibited under Section 7. Section 10(5) reads as follows: For the purposes of the application of this section to Northern Ireland with respect to importation—

  1. (a) for the reference in paragraph (a) of subsection (2) thereof to the Secretary of 841 State there shall be substituted a reference to the Minister of Home Affairs for Northern Ireland;
  2. (b) the expression 'appropriate advisory committee' means the Wild Birds Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland established under section eleven of the Wild Birds Protection Act (Northern Ireland), 1931."
Section 12 lays down penalties for offences under the Act.

I should like to explain briefly how the present law is defective. There was never any doubt about what part of the Protection of Birds Act the Government in tended to apply to Northern Ireland. Section 10 contains a reference to Section 8 of the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, under which it is an offence to place poison in or upon any land or building unless the person placing it can show that he took all reasonable precautions to prevent injury to, among other things, wild birds. It would have been possible for the Minister of Agriculture here in exercise of his powers under Section 10(2,d) of the Protection of Birds Act to issue licences under Section 10(1, d) to kill birds in Northern Ireland by using poisoned bait. This was never the intention of the Protection of Birds Act and no such licence has in fact been issued.

The point cropped up in practice when a Belfast warehouse owner applied to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for a licence to place poisoned bait to destroy pigeons which were eating grain in his stores. The licence was not granted.

The amendment of the law will have a two-fold effect. First, it will remove the anomaly which has been known to exist since it was brought to light by the case of the Belfast warehouse. We have a position, quite unintended, in which the Minister of Agriculture here appears to have power to issue licences in Northern Ireland to allow a person there to use poison bait against wild birds in a manner which would otherwise be an offence against Section 8 of the Protection of Animals Act, 1911. If the Bill becomes law, that will no longer be the case. Secondly, the way will be clear for the Northern Ireland Government, if it so wishes, to introduce its own legislation for controlling the use of poison for the destruction of harmful wild birds. In this connection I have taken note of what was said about subsequent legislation concerning wild birds.

I suggest that hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome the Bill whose sole object is the clarification of the law by removing an anomaly. I hope that this brief debate, which we have all enjoyed, will enable us to straighten the law in this respect.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).