HC Deb 26 July 1990 vol 177 cc697-702

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Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the case of the firm of H. Harris Ltd. of St. Ives. It is a sad story. The firm has been in existence since 1800 and has always been under the same ownership. Let me make it clear that the owners are not related to me.

The firm moved from the east end of London to St. Ives during the war after its premises had been bombed. Since that time, until just over a year ago, it carried on a highly successful and respected business. It might seem rather odd that at one stage the only two firms of ivory cutters in the United Kingdom were in St. Ives. The second firm was a breakaway company from H. Harris. It existed for some years but subsequently closed and its business interests were taken over by the parent company. H. Harris was on the point of expanding until just over a year ago when the basis of its business was virtually destroyed overnight.

We all know of the grave and proper concern there has been in recent times—it has been taken up by national newspapers and television—over the fate of the African elephant. We have all seen dramatic pictures on television of poachers at work carrying out their heinous, illegal trade in ivory. I am not denying that it is a big problem.

As a result of the publicity, Her Majesty's Government decided suddenly and without real warning to take unilateral, interim measures pending international action, hopefully to deal with the problem. I have considerable doubt about the ban that was imposed.

I am delighted to see the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) taking his seat, as he has played an honourable role in trying to obtain a ban and international action. As I said, I am not criticising the eagerness of the Government or environmental agencies in taking action against the serious problem of poaching.

My view, for what it is worth, is that the ban will probably succeed in driving the illegal trade underground and making it more difficult to control, while forcing out of business firms such as that in my constituency which have acted scrupulously over the years and dealt only in legal ivory. The ban fails to take account of the difference that exists in Africa over stocks of elephants. Attention has been focused properly on the Kenyan problem, but further south in Botswana there has been for many years a regulated trade in ivory and the stocks of elephants are increasing dramatically. Therefore, there has to be culling of the stocks and that has given rise to a legitimate and legal trade in ivory.

That trade has been controlled for many years through the convention on trade in endangered species. The firm in my constituency has always complied to the letter with all the requirements of CITES. It imports only legal ivory and, every time it does so, it has to undertake an elaborate certification procedure to show where the ivory came from. Exports of its finished products had to be certified.

The firm's trade is in cutting keyboards for high-quality pianos and organs. It is an old-established firm which has always been in the Harris family. Its present owners, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd-Owen, are my constituents. Mrs. Lloyd-Owen's maiden name was Harris, and her father was made a member of the British empire in recognition of his services and of those of his firm to exports over many years.

In May last year, largely as a result of pressure from the hon. Member Newham, North-West, the then Leader of the House hinted that the Government might take interim action to deal with poaching. That surprised my constituents, because until then they had always been consulted by the Department of the Environment on various matters connected with the ivory trade—and so they should have been, because theirs was the only firm in the country involved in that aspect of the trade. They immediately contacted me and I tried to obtain further information.

Subsequently, an announcement was made by my noble Friend Lord Caithness, the then Minister for Housing, Environment and Countryside, following a visit that he paid to Kenya, that the Government felt that there should be a ban on trade in ivory and that they would take unilateral action to impose it in the United Kingdom in advance of a meeting of European Ministers on the subject and a later meeting of CITES. It was expected that CITES would move the African elephant from the appendix 2 procedure, which allowed limited trade, to appendix 1, which in effect stopped the trade in ivory of African elephants.

That came as a bombshell to that small firm in St. Ives. Its business was almost destroyed overnight and it had to lay off its sole employee, Mr. Curnow. It had been the ambition of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd-Owen to hand their flourishing business to their daughter to maintain the family link. Their business stopped, and it is now a company in name only.

I do not criticise the Government for imposing a ban on raw ivory, although I have the reservations that I expressed. But any Government who take such drastic action without notice or consultation have a moral duty to compensate those whom they put out of business. I can understand why Governments and international bodies take drastic action in the name of conservation, but they should take account of highly respectable and law-abiding firms such as H. Harris and should compensate them if they are put out of business overnight.

I have had long correspondence and meetings with Ministers on the subject. I pay tribute to them because they have been very courteous and have responded to my letters. I had informal consultations with Lord Caithness on the eve of the important meeting of European Ministers that imposed the European ban. The fact remains that the firm has virtually disappeared.

The Government's attitude is summed up in a letter that I received in June from the Minister for the Environment and Countryside, who said that he could find no grounds for departing from our normal practice of not paying compensation when restrictions on trade are introduced for the purpose of conserving endangered species. Why? I understand that the Government are anxious not to create a precedent. In this environmentally conscious age, Governments usually react quickly under pressure from parliamentary colleagues and the media. Suddenly, a head of steam builds up and Ministers think that they should take sudden action for perhaps political or public relations reasons. That is their right. I referred this case to the ombudsman, who confirmed that right and said that he was sorry that he could not take up the matter. However, I believe that the Government have a moral duty in these circumstances.

There is a parallel case that affects my constituency. Some bulb growers suddenly found themselves faced with a ban on the use of aldrin. I do not dispute the reason for that ban, but, again, no compensation was given. The Government should rethink their policy about implementing such overnight bans. They should consider whether compensation should be given.

I make no apology for making a special plea for H. Harris, partly because of its long, distinguished history and partly because it is the innocent victim of conservation politics and policies, both national and international. If the Government alter their stance and give compensation to that firm, I do not believe that a queue of other firms will knock at their door, because only this firm has been affected drastically.

My purpose is to make a last plea to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and, through him, to the Government to think again about this case. There have been many consequences for Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd-Owen. They have been left with £30,000–worth of ivory. They have a building in St. Ives which is now empty. They are a few years off retirement and would normally have hoped to carry on for some years. The ban has had a considerable effect on the family. I am sad that this is the end of a firm which has operated for 190 years, and I hope that the House and the Government are sad as well. Rather than just sharing my sadness, I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will respond not just with sympathy but practically to the case of Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd-Owen, and that means compensation.

1.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) on securing this debate. It is characteristic of him that he should use it to put forward the worries of his constituents. I know from reading correspondence from him that he has set out the case vigorously to my hon. Friend the Member for the Environment and Countryside.

My hon. Friend has made clear the effect on H. Harris Ltd. of the imposition of the ivory ban. I have considerable sympathy with those firms or individuals who are affected by any trading bans that arise from international obligations. They are a reminder that environmental protection and nature conservation have consequences for trade and industry. They should be taken into account, and in this case were. I reassure my hon. Friend that we would not have contemplated such a ban unless we were convinced that it was necessary for conservation reasons.

The House will recall that the Government were among the first to recognise the seriousness of the threat to the African elephant posed by poaching and by pressure from human populations. We have been in the forefront of moves to ensure the survival of the African elephant and, I hope, its ultimate recovery. The main instrument through which these efforts are focused is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora, for which, mercifully, there is an acronym—CITES. We were one of the first countries to sign the convention and since its inception we have played a major part in strengthening and improving it.

My hon. Friend will have followed, through his other parliamentary duties, the gradual strengthening of the conservation of the African elephant—in particular, its move from appendix 3 of the convention up to appendix 1. The African elephant was first listed on appendix 3 of the convention in 1976 so that trade could be monitored. In 1977, it was moved to appendix 2 and commercial trade could then be permitted only if it did not pose a threat to the survival of the species. Sadly, despite a tightening of controls in 1985, the number of elephants continued to decline, chiefly because of the activities of ruthless, determined and well-organised poachers. The elephants' number fell as low as 600,000. That may sound a lot of elephants but Africa is a very large continent and the number of elephants had greatly exceeded that in previous times.

On 29 May 1989, Lord Caithness announced the Government's intention to support proposals to list the species on appendix 1 of the convention, thus effectively banning commercial trade in ivory. At the same time, there was the agreement in principle to a ban on imports of ivory into the European Community under the stricter controls already in force within the Community.

On 9 June—while the arrangements for the ban were being made—the Government introduced a unilateral ban on imports of ivory into the United Kingdom, as provided for by the existing European regulations. That was followed by a European regulation imposing a Communitywide ban which came into force on 17 August last year.

As the House will know, the whole question of the conservation of the African elephant and the proposed appendix 1 listing was fully discussed at the seventh meeting of the conference of the parties to CITES held in Lausanne in October last year. It was a long and difficult negotiation but the conference decided to list the African elephant on appendix 1 of the convention and to ban trade until the conference of the parties decided that trade in particular elephant populations can be resumed without threatening the survival of the species.

Another very difficult and sensitive issue considered at the conference was a proposal to allow trade to continue in stocks of ivory accumulated before the decision to transfer the species to appendix 1. That was of considerable interest to the United Kingdom as it affected Hong Kong.

As my hon. Friend knows, Hong Kong has been a major traditional ivory trading centre for many years and it was estimated that 3,000 local people depended on the ivory trade for their livelihoods. The Hong Kong authorities had reaffirmed their commitment to complying with the ban, but they were understandably concerned about the need to allow some time for their ivory traders to dispose of their stocks. For this reason, the authorities approached the British Government and asked to register a temporary reservation against the appendix 1 listing on their behalf.

The Government considered that request carefully and supported it. The effect of the temporary six-month reservation that resulted was that during the period that it remained in force, Hong Kong could export its existing ivory stocks to CITES parties which had entered appropriate reservations, or to non-CITES states. The reservation was the best way of meeting the Government's responsibilities to a dependent territory without compromising our support for measures to conserve the African elephant.

Mr. Harris

Does my hon. Friend agree that an arrangement similar to that made for the 3,000 people in Hong Kong should have been made for the three people in St. Ives who were involved in the trade? At least that would have given them a period in which to adjust. One of the great problems that they have faced has been the lack of information, from, I am sorry to say, the Department of the Environment on where they stood.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I recognise that British ivory traders may feel that they have been treated unfairly in comparison with those in Hong Kong. I am not unsympathetic to the problems that the ban has caused, but I must make it clear that our unilateral ban on ivory imports was introduced under existing European controls, which require us to refuse imports when we consider that they would have a harmful effect on the conservation of the species.

We were concerned that, unless such urgent action was taken, poachers and others involved in the illicit trade would intensify their activities in the months before international action could be agreed at the CITES conference. A dispensation for United Kingdom traders on the lines of the Hong Kong reservation would not have been possible under the European controls.

I fully understand why my hon. Friend's constituents would have welcomed prior notice of our intention to act in that way, but it would not have been fair to alert a single trader without issuing a general warning and that would have been an open invitation to poachers to step up their activities in the intervening weeks or months. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand why it is not our policy to advertise our intention to introduce restrictions of that kind, as that could undermine the effectiveness of stricter controls.

The Government are conscious of the effect that their interim measures have had on the businesses in my hon. Friend's constituency. However, I repeat that controls on the African elephant have been increasing steadily since 1976. Our unilateral ban on ivory imports was introduced under existing controls which had been in force since 1984, and there have been many previous instances in which import restrictions for other species—for example, cockatoos and grey parrots—have been introduced under the EC CITES regulations.

It has not been our practice to pay compensation when restrictions on trade are introduced for the purpose of conserving endangered species, so although I sympathise with my hon. Friend's constituents, I regret that I can find no grounds for making an exception in this case. As I have already said, his case is illustrative of the costs involved in conservation efforts.

However, I hope that I can offer some consolation to my hon. Friend and his constituents. As he may know, the European Commission has said that the movement and sale within the Community of ivory legally acquired before 18 January 1990, when the international ban on ivory came into force, may be allowed. I am pleased to say that my Department has recently given formal consent to the sale of various pieces of ivory in the possession of my hon. Friend's constituents and they will therefore now be allowed to dispose of those stocks within the EC.

Mr. Harris

I understand that only four licences have been given. I gather that there are technical problems which mean that the whole stock is not covered by those four licences. I do not expect an answer now, but will my hon. Friend consider that so that sufficient licences can be given to enable the firm to dispose legally of its stock, although one has to accept that, as the bottom has fallen out of the market, it probably will not get anything like its value?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I undertake to do that. I was not suggesting that the whole stock—my hon. Friend referred to £30,000 in his introductory remarks—was to be disposed of under existing or new licensing arrangements. If, in the future, some additional licences can be granted, I shall ensure that that is processed as fast as possible.

I appreciate the points that my hon. Friend made. I am sorry to disappoint him in some respects, but I can at least assure him that disposal in the European Community, in so far as it is agreed internationally, may bring some relief to the business concerned.

My hon. Friend and his constituents will be pleased to hear that there are indications that the ban on the trade in ivory is proving effective in the war against ivory poachers. It may not bring much comfort to the business concerned, but I hope that, should the situation in Africa continue to improve, it may be possible in the not-too-distant future to allow the ivory ban to be lifted in some respects. If that happens and it can be done while preserving the population of African elephants, it may prove possible for the business in question to be rescued and possibly to grow in future.