HC Deb 11 June 1982 vol 25 cc583-90 1.28 pm
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I am grateful for the opportunity, by way of a second Adjournment debate, to raise a matter of enormous concern to all Members of the House of Commons. I refer to the clubbing of baby seals and the proposed ban on the importation of seal products, which has been the subject of discussion in the European Assembly in recent weeks.

There are few subjects about which I have received more letters from my constituents in the past few weeks than that of the clubbing to death of baby seals in the presence of their mothers. It is clear to me that my constituents share the feelings of horror which have been expressed throughout the land about this objectionable practice. My constituents wish me, as their Member of Parliament, to raise this matter at the earliest possible opportunity with a view to getting something done about it. It is for that reason that I am glad to have this opportunity to talk on the matter.

I am glad to see my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in his place. No one can be more aware than he that on the Order Paper are two important early-day motions dealing with the importation of seal products. Early-day motion No. 342 draws attention to the slaughter of 200,000 baby seals in northern Canada and calls for a ban on the importation into the European Community of all skins and products derived from the young harp and hooded seals. The motion has been signed by no fewer than 279 hon. Members. The latest addition is the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith), whom I had the pleasure of introducing on Tuesday. Early-day motion No. 344, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd), is in similar terms and has been signed by 232 hon. Members.

I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has tremendous difficulty in finding time for parliamentary debates, but I am sure that he will share my pleasure that we have a little time today to talk about the slaughter of seals, thus meeting the wishes expressed by so many of our colleagues in signing the early-day motions. I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade is on the Treasury Bench and ready to reply.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins), who was in the Chamber this morning and earlier this afternoon, shares my keen interest in this subject. Were it not for the fact that he has a surgery in Worthing this afternoon, for which he has had to depart, he would be in his place and anxious to participate in the debate.

I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) on the Treasury Bench. We all know that as a Government Whip he has great difficulty in contributing to our debates, but he is well known for his keen interest in animal welfare, especially the difficult problem that is the subject of this debate.

In recent weeks we have all become aware of the debates that have taken place in the European Assembly. The country knows that the European Assembly considered a petition that attracted about 3 million signatures, which was on display in the Assembly building. The Assembly considered public opinion and passed a resolution by 160 votes to 10 that called for a ban on the importation of seal products from Canada in an attempt to draw to the attention of our Canadian friends the serious concern that is felt in Europe.

I pay tribute to the international animal welfare fund, which did so much to bring the matter to the attention of the European Parliament. It was largely responsible for the resolution being passed.

The crux of the matter is that the British people and the people of many other European countries are strongly opposed to the clumsy and brutal killing of these beautiful creatures in the presence of their mothers. The fact that they are killed in a clumsy and brutal manner is substantiated by all the reports that we have read in the press and seen on television. I shall quote briefly from an article that appeared in The Times on 11 March. It reads: Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, March 10.—The annual seal hunt in the Gulf of St. Lawrence lasted only a few hours for land-based hunters before it was closed because of bad ice and wasteful killing by inexperienced hunters. The report continues: The main reason for closing the hunt was poor ice conditions The reporter added that most of the Prince Edward Islands hunters were inexperienced. 'Hunters are just ruining pelts in some cases. Conditions were so bad that we just can't control the thing. This method of slaughter, which some Canadians have attempted to justify as being humane, is, on their own admission, a clumsy method. Quite apart from the dreadful suffering that it must inflict on these poor creatures, it is also ruining the pelts, which are exported by Canada, and which bring in £3.2 million a year.

Our objection is that it is a degrading practice that we find very difficult, indeed, almost impossible, to accept. Every hon. Member would wish to acknowledge that the Canadians are hunters. However, in recognising that, we say that they cannot continue their long-established practice of hunting and at the same time ignore the revulsion felt by so many of their fellow citizens in other parts of the world. I am sorry that the Canadian Minister of Customs and Excise, Mr. Bill Rompkey, has taken it upon himself to threaten that Canada might refuse EEC fishermen access to Canadian waters if the EEC were to impose a ban on products derived from seals.

The Canadians are our friends and relatives and we share with them a common heritage and a love and respect for all animals. It is difficult for us in Britain to accept, as do our Canadian cousins, the killing of these animals for their pelts in this brutal way. They are more used to hunting than we are. We in Britain are today remote from the hunting and killing of animals for food and skins. It is something that has faded into the background of our consciousness.

What is to be done? Is a ban on the importation of seal products, as is desired by so many of our colleagues in this House and the European Assembly, the best way to deal with this matter? Will the labelling order, enabling those opposed to seal killing to avoid the unwitting purchase of sealskin products, be enough to satisfy public opinion? I welcome the change in the labelling regulations introduced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State earlier this year. However, I suspect that the changes in this labelling regulation, although they are welcome and demonstrate the concern of the British Government about this product, are not enough to satisfy public opinion, or Members of the House or of the European Assembly.

It is not just sealskin products that are the cause of this massive protest. It is the method of the killing of the animals that is at the root of the problem. Therefore, we need to try to persuade our Canadian friends that there must be some change in this practice. I appeal to my right hon. Friend to say whether he feels that the British Government can, through their many contacts with the Canadian Government, make it clear to them that it is the practice of killing these animals in this way that is at the root of the problem. It is that which, if changed, would help to deal with the problem.

In addition, I should like to suggest that our Canadian friends might like, through the high commission in London and embassies abroad, to improve their contact with parliamentarians and initiate discussions with them that would enable them better to understand the strength of feeling and perhaps take action that would remedy the problem. It is important that the Canadians should not feel that we in Britain are attacking them. We have the most tremendous respect and affection for all Canadians. They are our friends and allies, and we do not want them to misunderstand us. We want them to understand that we and people in other parts of Europe find it difficult to accept the practices that are familiar to them and by which they continue killing these animals for their pelts. I hope that the Canadians will address themselves to the problem and recognise that a step forward in the direction that I suggest would be helpful, and enable proper debate and a solution to be found.

Any hon. Member thinks twice about bringing a busy Minister to the House late on a Friday afternoon to deal with any issue. I know how busy my hon. and learned Friend is and I thought twice before asking him to come to the House, but I took the view, which I think he shares, that the subject is so important and generates so many letters that we cannot delay further before hearing a statement of the Government's feelings.

I am glad that we have been able to ventilate a problem which has drawn to the attention of the Leader of the House and the Government by the many right hon. and hon. Members who have signed early-day motions Nos. 342 and 344.

1.40 pm
Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) and congratulate him on his ingenuity in seizing a window in parliamentary time to raise this important issue. We are neighbours, not only because of the closeness of our constituencies, but in our agreement on the issue. I am delighted to see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) who guards the northern reaches of my constituency and agrees with us. I do not wish to be political, but I am disappointed that the Opposition Benches are vacant. Not one Opposition Member is here to express a view on an important and serious subject.

I am not against culls. With mankind's involvement or interference in the environmental balance of the world, various animal population surges will produce imbalances. I regret that they must be checked. I wish only that the enthusiastic efforts which go into controlling such surges were matched at least by equal efforts to prevent the declines. The list of endangered species grows daily.

I approve of the EEC's concern and understand the reasons for the total ban on pelt imports, but the EEC resolution, although passed almost unanimously. will do little if anything to stop the annual cull. The EEC countries may not buy the pelts and the products, but the cull will continue. Perhaps it will not continue to such an extent, but it will still happen. We must ensure that culling is done in a more humane fashion. The bashing of seal pups on the head is not only barbaric but, putting it charitably, an inexact science. Surely, with all man's skill and ingenuity, we can devise a more humane and certain method.

In the United Kingdom we have a selective conscience. I have been deluged with letters from many constituents about the import of seal products, but I have received only one complaint about the ritual slaughter of animals which takes place daily in Britain. That process is legally approved by the House. I find it even more barbaric because the health reasons that prompted such centuries old practices no longer apply.

However, I shall work on the well-known military practice of fighting only one battle at a time. I hope that pressures from tie House and the Government will expedite legislation in Canada so that more humane culling methods are used. Such methods are available and must be introduced.

1.44 pm
The Minister for Trade (Mr. Peter Rees)

May I without reservation congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) on introducing this important subject. He is far too modest in apologising for bringing me here today because I am grateful to have the opportunity to say how far Government thinking has developed on such a sensitive issue.

I need not emphasise that there can be no hon. Member who is not aware of the depth of feeling on this subject not only from personal observation and contact but from the flood of letters that I am sure all hon. Members have received. I shall single out those hon. Gentlemen whom I know have been worried about the matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge has been ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page). We are aware of the continuing anxiety shown by my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthng (Mr. Higgins) and my hon, Friends the Members for Eye (Mr. Gummer) and for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones). The strength of the House's interest has been demonstrated by the early-day motions to which my hon. Friends have drawn attention.

I should not like the world to imagine that the House is not fully alert to the feelings of people up and down the country on this topic or that the Government are insensitive to those feelings. I was delighted when I heard that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge had seized this opportunity to raise the matter. It gives me a chance to state the Government's position.

There has been continuing interest shown by successive Governments in the question of seal culls and in the conservation of wildlife species in general. There was the Conservation of Seals Act 1970 under which the Home Office licenses the cull of common grey seals. Both the Home Office and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are interested in the matter in Scotland. There was the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act 1976 under which the Department of the Environment operates control on the import of skins and other derivatives of wildlife species.

I hope that the House will not think that I am shirking my responsibilities, but the responsibilities of the Department of Trade are marginal to the whole question. We are delighted to play our part in advancing causes which the House has at heart and which have been so ably articulated by my two hon. Friends.

The Department of Trade has played its part because in June 1980 my predecessor introduced an order under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 under which all sealskin goods offered for sale have to be marked with the place from which the seal was taken. That was a considerable step forward. It enabled people to exercise their judgment on whether they wished to buy sealskin products. The order was welcomed by the many organisations that have been involved in the campaign on this subject. I do not want to pretend that they thought that it was an end to the subject. They wished to move on to a complete ban. It was in conformity with our traditions that people should be given the fullest opportunity to know exactly what it was they were buying and to exercise their judgment on whether to buy such products in the knowledge that the seals may have been killed in the unattractive way that my hon. Friends have described. Public opinion was focused by the media on the question as it affected baby harp and hooded seals culled in Canada. The essential problem is on the other side of the Atlantic. We are merely anxious to do what we can to make our feelings known.

The Government have taken every opportunity to make the sentiments generally expressed well known to the Canadian Government. There will be sensitivities across the other side of the Atlantic on the question. My hon. Friends have drawn attention to the Canadian feelings on fisheries protection and how they may respond if the European Community acted in a certain way.

The Government have made the strength of feeling known to the Canadian Government through the high commission in London. My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Trade, who a few days ago returned from Canada, also took the opportunity to make the strength of public feeling known. By a fortunate coincidence I shall have the privilege of meeting the Canadian director general of fisheries this afternoon. I shall take the opportunity to emphasise the sentiments eloquently voiced in the Chamber for transmission to his colleagues in Canada.

The issue was properly taken up in the European Parliament in March. A resolution was passed requesting the Commission, following the example of the United States, the Netherlands and Italy and taking into account the actions of retail traders in France, to introduce, by means of regulation, a ban on Community imports of all skins and products derived from young hooded and harp seals and on these and other products corning from seals whose stocks are depleted, threatened or endangered".

The third part of the resolution commended the action that the Government had taken. It suggested that all seal products imported into the Community are clearly marked as made of or derived from seal skin, indicating the type of seal and where the seal was killed.

That is the basis of the order laid in 1980 under the Trade Descriptions Act by my predecessor. To a degree, he can be said to have anticipated what was in the mind of the European Parliament.

Since my hon. Friends and the European Parliament have drawn attention to what other countries have done, I shall refer briefly to those countries in case it should be thought that we have been slower or less sensitive. In France, there is no official import ban but there has been voluntary action by the furriers, who have said that they will not use the skins of baby harp and hooded seals. In Italy, there is a ban on the import of sealskins but it is restricted to pelts of a very small size. With all respect to our Italian friends, I am not sure whether it is an effective ban. It certainly would not satisfy my hon. Friends In Holland and the United States there are bans but they are not specifically aimed at baby harp or hooded seals. They cover almost all seals. In the United States the marine mammals protection legislation of 1972 covers all marine mammals. It is not a specific ban. There may be a ban in Sweden but in the time available I have not been able to discover its basis and scope. I realise that more may need to be done in this connection, but I think that we can say, without undue modesty, that we have not lagged behind our neighbours.

Mr. Shersby

I am sure that the Government are not lagging behind, but can my hon. and learned Friend give me an assurance that the Government are keeping the matter very much in mind and will examine what other ways are open to them, either to discourage the Canadian Government from permitting the practice of clubbing seals, or to consider whether there are other ways in which we could discourage the practice, without causing any breach in relations with our Canadian friends?

Mr. Rees

We shall, of course, watch developments in this connection closely, as well as developments in other countries. I am very sorry that I have been unable to discover exactly what is in force in Sweden, but as my hon. Friends will appreciate, I had barely an hour's notice in which to master the details of this subject, although I am familiar with the outline, having signed many letters to my colleagues and even to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—the House knows of your concern in the matter—and I was not, therefore, able to cover some of the more recondite aspects. Certainly, the Government will keep themselves informed.

That brings me back to the aftermath of the important debate and resolution in March of this year in the European Parliament. I have drawn attention to only two aspects of that resolution, but there were many others. The resolution was forwarded to the Council of Ministers for information, and to the European Commission for any action that it thought appropriate. I was pressed by my hon. Friends about whether we had been in touch with the Canadian Government. I understand that the Commission has been in touch with the Canadian Government, and it has explored with that Government the possibility of devising proper methods of policing the seal cull—I hope that this will encourage my two hon. Friends—to see whether more humane methods of killing could be devised, if and when a cull proves to be necessary. For the moment, I am not arguing about whether the harp or hooded seals deserve to be culled. That is the next important point.

As the House will be aware, there is a Washington convention on trade in endangered species of wild flora and fauna. It was first signed in March 1973, and this country is a signatory to it. It is a most important convention. Various species are to be found in the annex, but unfortunately not yet the harp or hooded seal. The Commission feels that the proper way to proceed, if it was thought appropriate, would be to add various categories of seal, particularly the harp and hooded seal, to the annexes to the convention, and then recommend some form of European Community regulation. That is very much in the Commission's mind, and Her Majesty's Government would welcome that approach.

Following that, the Commission asked the Nature Conservancy Council in this country—it is a great tribute to that organisation to be singled out for this job—to update its previous report on seals, with particular emphasis on the harp and hooded seals. I understand that the report has just been handed to the Commission, and I believe that a copy has just been given to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who is responsible for implementing the Washington convention. I am not trying to shirk any responsibility on the part of the Department of Trade, but constitutionally it is a matter for my right hon. Friend. I know that he and the Commission will study closely the updated report of the Nature Conservancy Council. It is, therefore, singularly appropriate that this House have an opportunity to debate this subject—although I accept that all hon. Members have not been quite so assiduous as my two hon. Friends in taking advantage of that opportunity—and to express a view before a final decision is taken about what action could be taken by the Commission, the Council of Ministers or Her Majesty's Government, in the light of that updated evidence.

I hope that the House will recognise that neither the European Commission nor the Government have been dragging their feet on this issue. We recognise the considerable feeling that exists not only in the House but outside. But it is right to proceed in a proper manner. A unilateral ban by this country would not be totally effective, as I am sure hon. Members recognise. If every country of the Community focuses on the issue, there is a greater chance of achieving a solution that can have some practical impact an this delicate and sensitive question.

I congratulate my hon. Friends. I hope that I have been able to assure them that action is being taken and that this is a singularly appropriate moment for us to register our views. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who has particular responsibility for conservation matters, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is responsible for licensing under the Conservation of Seals Act, and myself, will take careful note of what has been said and written to us. I can assure the House that it is not my intention that this important and sensitive problem should be brushed under the table.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Two o' clock.