HL Deb 28 January 1947 vol 145 cc178-89

3.18 p.m.

VISCOUNT SIMON rose to ask His Majesty's Government what efforts are being made to put into force the Plumage Act of 1921 which prohibits the import of plumage such as that of birds of paradise and egrets, in an effort to prevent or discourage the cruelties perpetrated on these beautiful birds in the collection of such adornments; what instructions are given to the Customs Authorities on the subject, and what is the number of prosecutions and convictions under the Act in recent years.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in putting to the Government the question which I have upon the Order Paper, I may perhaps be permitted in a few words to remind your Lordships of the circumstances in which the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act, 1921, was passed, and to explain why I seek to put this question now. The Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act, 1921, was the result of a long campaign against the barbarities and the cruelties involved in supplying certain kinds of plumage to a section of the plumage trade. The Bill was not passed in haste or under some vague feeling of sentimentality; there had been a close investigation. I have here the Report of a Select Committee of your Lordships' House presided over by the late Lord Avebury which took evidence on the subject and on all the interests. They reported that the evidence proved conclusively that the plumage of many beautiful tropical birds—birds of paradise and egrets, for example—was obtained by reckless slaughter, and that inasmuch as plumes were at their finest in the nesting season, when the male bird puts on all his array, there was not only that extra element of cruelty to the young birds, but the situation was such that certain species were actually being exterminated. I think it was shown that out of eighteen species of humming birds in the island of Jamaica, thirteen had already been exterminated owing to these hunters after plumage.

Consequently, in 1921 the Houses of Parliament—and your Lordships took a prominent part in it—passed this Bill which is now on the Statute Book, a quarter of a century old. The Act prohibits under penalty the importation of certain plumage. There are exceptions, and those exceptions can be further varied by the Advisory Committee of the Board of Trade. For instance, ostrich plumes are obtained without any cruelty, and prohibition in regard to them has never been included in the Act. This Advisory Committee of the Board of Trade has been set up, and from time to time has considered whether the plumage of other species of birds should be included or the existing list should be shortened.

I do not think there will be any dispute at all in any informed quarter that in point of fact the cruelty involved is a thing which any one of us would most gravely and firmly denounce. The dorsal filaments of the egret and the sweeping tail feathers of the paradise birds (and those are the two principal methods of adornment, so far as we depend on tropical feathers) are put on only in what may be called the nuptial period and they disappear, at any rate when the young leave the nest. I am sure that nobody in this House would willingly countenance the harsh cruelty that is involved in gathering these so-called adornments in those circumstances. Of course, I fully recognize that the Bill was only intended to prohibit the importation of these things, but I hope I shall express the feeling of everybody when I say that every effort ought to be made to enforce it, at least so far as it goes.

For a short time after the Act was carried an excuse was put up which I daresay was quite genuine. When you went into a shop and challenged the exhibition of a hat so ornamented, it was said: "That is because we are using up our old stock." As it was not possible in such circumstances to prove importation since the Act—and for my part I would have accepted the explanation at that time—there were not at first many obvious cases of abuse. After a short time, according to my information and belief, the practice in this country of using these particular adornments was dropped, and rightly dropped. The reason why I raise the matter now is that, reading in the newspapers some accounts of recent hat shows and seeing some illustrations of the hats, I find that headgear ornamented—and announced as ornamented—by the plumes of birds of paradise or egrets are on show, and are some of the latest models.

I therefore feel that I am thoroughly justified in asking the Government—and I will venture to read my question—"What efforts are being made to put into force the Plumage Act of 1921 which prohibits the import of plumage such as that of birds of paradise and egrets, in an effort to prevent or discourage the cruelties perpetrated on these beautiful birds in the collection of such adornments; what instructions are given to the Customs Authorities on this subject, and what is the number of prosecutions and convictions under the Act in recent years?" I very much hope that we shall not again hear the explanation, now a quarter of a century old, that this is merely using up old stock.

I wish to inform your Lordships before I sit down that since I put this question on the Paper I have received a great many messages in support of it, from, amongst others, members of your Lordships' House, one or two of whom are not able to be here to-day. His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury was good enough to tell me that if he had been able to stay he would certainly have wished to support the question which I put. I would like also to mention the noble Lord, Lord Tweedsmuir, who would wish to be here for that purpose, and, in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Buckmaster, because it was his distinguished father who did more to secure the passage of this legislation than anybody else. I hope I shall not be thought to be delaying the House when there is other very important business pending if I read an extract from the speech of the noble Lord, the late Lord Buckmaster, when he was moving the Second Reading of the Bill. I think it is worth unearthing it from the pages of Hansard, even if only for the purposes of showing that there was a time when eloquence was commanded in this House and when it was magnificently employed. This is what the late Lord Buckmaster said: A horrible thing connected with this trade is not merely that the birds are being slowly exterminated, but that the moment chosen for their extermination is the moment when every living thing, excepting those that are pestilential, has the right to demand and to receive the protection of man. For the time when, in obedience to that strange, mysterious power that moves and vivifies the whole world—at the moment of their nesting season—these creatures put on the full glory of their plumage is the moment selected for their capture, and they are killed in such circumstances as I have mentioned, while their young are left to starve in their nests. Then the noble Lord used these very moving words: I know that the whole of our life is to some extent associated with the pain and suffering of animals, but I am certain that no one whom I am addressing would permit, for a single moment, the infliction of needless cruelty and suffering upon any form of the living creation which has not some full and effective compensation. There is no compensation whatever for the sufferings that these birds undergo. There is not the equivalent of the vigour and the wholesomeness of the life of sport. There is not even the advantage that is gained from the pursuit of scientific knowledge. All this is caused for no purpose whatever, except to ease the ache of a woman's vanity, and to pay tribute to the deity of fashion whom the many worship, and all despise.

It may be that we live in an age when, in recent years, there has been so much cruelty and such frightful, deliberate infliction of torture to man, woman and child, that: interest in these birds is of a very minor order. But I do not think so; I think that to show a sensitive feeling on a subject like this is to preserve one of the characteristics of our people which we should be very sorry to let go. I do not doubt for a moment that the ladies who have been attending these hat shows—fine, gentle, women—would be horrified if they thought they were being invited to adorn themselves at the expense of such cruelty as this. If they contemplate it for a moment, it is because they do not know. I have thought it not an abuse of my opportunity to call attention publicly to this, because they ought to know.

As for the law, I urge the Government (and I invite others to do the same) to use their utmost efforts to see that the Plumage Act is vigorously enforced. I think I am justified in asking, as I do ask, what directions, in the light of this new development of fashion, are being given or will be given to the Customs Authorities whose thoroughness and whose honesty we do not at all doubt, in order that we may prevent a recrudescence of a practice which is horrible and a perfect disgrace to the sentiments so loudly proclaimed when your Lordships passed this Bill a quarter of a century ago.

3.30 p.m.


My Lords, I feel that many noble Lords are grateful to the noble and learned Viscount for having drawn attention to this Plumage Act of 1921. The noble and learned Viscount has presented, if I may presume to say so, with his usual eloquence and clarity of purpose, a very good case for consideration by the Government Department charged with supervision of affairs of this character. There is little I need add, but I hope that we shall receive some satisfaction from the reply when it comes to us from the noble Lord opposite. I think it may be accepted that just at this time there is a fairly general revival in feather fashions, with the result that this plumage, prohibited from import by law and prohibited under this Act of 1921 from being exhibited for sale or being sold, is nevertheless at the present time on view and being sold.

Those of us who are deeply concerned, not only with the cruel methods adopted in obtaining this plumage bat also with the possible and indeed probable extinction of these beautiful birds, cannot be anything but anxious to see the provisions of this Act enforced and the statutory penalties imposed upon those who seek to evade it. I feel sure that we shall be told that steps are being taken to enforce the provisions of the Act, and I can only say in answer that if steps are being taken they would appear at this time to be anything but adequate to prevent the infringement of the law. In other words, may I say that I do not think that it would be giving a wrong impression to say that the Act of 1921 at the present time is somewhat of a dead letter.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, I will detain the House for only a very few moments. I had the privilege of listening to the whole of the discussion on the Act of 1921, and I remember very well indeed the remarks of Lord Buckmaster which have been quoted by the noble and learned Viscount. The case for the Bill was made out so amply that at that time it certainly received the support of every member of your Lordships' House. I have no doubt that if circumstances have arisen—as apparently they have—which lead one to the conclusion, or rather to the opinion, that this Act does not appear to be enforced as it should be, then I believe that the question which is before the House is one which we should wholeheartedly endorse. I trust that His Majesty's Government will give a satisfactory answer to the question which has been put.

There is no doubt that at the present time there is on the market this means of adornment, and much has been said on this matter far more eloquently than I could say it. The facts seem to be undisputed, and I wish to support the noble and learned Viscount on the question he has asked. For the sake of this country, for the sake of this House and for the sake of the fine feelings which animate our people, it is essential that we should have an emphatic and satisfactory reply to-day.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I also wish wholeheartedly to associate myself with the speech that has been made by the noble and learned Viscount. No one can question the fact that this practice is again growing and that there must be some laxity in the administration of this particular Act. I noticed last Thursday that it was actually reported in the Evening News of that date that birds of paradise feathers and egrets had been on show at a mannequin parade for ladies in London. I should have thought that that would have drawn the attention of the authorities concerned to the growing practice of entirely ignoring the Act. I have in my hand an article which draws attention to the fact that the feathers of these very beautiful birds can be bought almost with impunity at the present time in London. I therefore wholeheartedly support the claim that has been made by the noble and learned Viscount and others that the attention of the Government should be drawn to the fact that this Act must have been evaded very considerably, and I greatly hope that the Government will give the reply that steps will be taken to see that the Act is most rigorously enforced.

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships will join with the noble Earl, Lord Shaftesbury, in expressing our debt to the noble and learned Viscount for having brought this matter to the attention of your Lordships' House. This country has been, I think, a pioneer beyond all other countries in the prevention of cruelty to animals, and it is right that we should be vigilant and that we should take every step to see that the high standard which has undoubtedly prevailed in regard to these matters in the past is maintained, and indeed raised.

We have a public opinion which is very sensitive to these matters, as was quite clear in the speeches in support of the noble and learned Viscount's remarks in question this, afternoon, and the correspondence which has been going on in The Times within the last few days on the subject of cruelty to animals at cattle fairs and slaughter houses is further good evidence of the very proper sensitiveness of public opinion in this country in regard to these matters.

The noble and learned Viscount has properly remarked that it may seem rather strange—and indeed I know from what I have myself heard that it does in fact seem strange to some of our foreign friends—that people in this country can spend so much of their time, at a period when the future of the human race itself appears to be somewhat dismal, on discussing and getting really very hot about questions of this kind. For my part—and I am quite sure I only re-echo the sentiments of many members, if not of every member, of your Lordships' House—I should have little desire that the human race should continue if matters of this kind did not, at any rate to my fellow countrymen, continue to be matters of very great concern.

There is in addition in this country a very wide and indeed a growing section of our people who are particularly interested in the bird part of creation, which contains some of the loveliest of all God's creatures, and the Government are well aware that over recent months this section of our people have been particularly anxious on this matter. It was largely as a result of their unremitting work that the Act of 1921, to which the noble and learned Viscount has drawn attention, was put on the Statute Book, and I am quite sure your Lordships will wish to pay a tribute to the work which he himself did at that time and the attentiveness he has devoted to this matter since then. It is well known that he is particularly sensitive to these particular matters. He has, in fact, asked the Government what they are doing to enforce the Act. I must explain to your Lordships that the Act itself was suspended and has been suspended since 1939, so that so far as the Act itself is concerned, the Government cannot take any steps to enforce it.


Will you explain how the suspension has come about? Was it under some Regulation under the Defence of the Realm Act?


The noble Viscount is really concerned to find what steps the Government are taking to prevent the exploitation of bird life, and actually, although the Act of 1921 has been suspended, the prohibition of the import of plumage is still in force. The Act of 1921 was suspended as a result of the import, Export and Customs (Defence) Act of 1939, Section 1 of which conferred the power on the Board of Trade to prohibit the import of any articles and to suspend the operation of Statutes prohibiting the import of certain articles. Under that Act the Import of Goods Prohibition No. 1 Order, 1939, was passed on September 3, 1939, and among other articles it prohibited the importation of plumage and suspended the operation of the Act of 1921. That suspension is still in operation. The Import: of Goods (Control) Order of 1945 maintains the prohibition of the importation of plumage and there is no intention of reviving the Act of 1921 until the currency position improves very substantially. It is intended to continue to operate under this Order of 1945, which from the administration point of view is very convenient. But actually, of course, from the point of view of preventing the importation of this plumage there is no difference between the two.

I should explain that it is possible for parcels to be imported into this country up to the extent of 22 lb.—gift parcels. They have to bear a label setting out what is inside them, and plumage is an article which cannot be imported. It has been suggested that there may possibly have been some leakage in regard to plumage coming in in parcels of this kind. There is no evidence that this has been so, but I think I ought to mention there is this exception to the General Order in relation to gift parcels up to 22 lb. in weight—that plumage is one of the articles which cannot be legally imported in such parcels. Of course, if Customs authorities find plumage in such a parcel they will confiscate it.

No licence was granted to import the plumage of rare birds under the 1921 Act except in a few cases for scientific purposes and for museums. Under the War Emergency legislation, no licences for the importation of plumage of any kind has been given except in regard to ostrich feathers. As the noble Viscount knows, ostrich feathers have always been exempted from the operation of the Act of 1921. Customs inspections and instructions to customs officers in these matters, are quite explicit. Their attention is specifically drawn to the 1921 Act and to the fact that it has been suspended under the Orders of 1939, that these Orders prohibit the importation of plumage. They are instructed that if any plumage is found it is to be detained. Over the last months there has been some anxiety in these matters. Questions have been put to my right honourable friend in another place, and very great care has been taken at the Customs to see that no plumage is coming in. There has been no evidence of any plumage coming in at all. There have been no prosecutions. Searches have been made, but there has been no prosecution, at any rate, during the last ten years.

The noble and learned Viscount has pointed out that this is a Statute which does not prohibit the sale of this plumage or the wearing of it; it is an Act which prohibits simply the importation of it. Now the noble Viscount has said that when a question was asked on the 1921 Act soon after the Act was passed, as to why egrets and birds of paradise feathers were still on sale in shops, it was said that they were imported before the Act of 1921 came into force. I am afraid the official view still is that those feathers which are now on sale are very largely feathers which were imported before that time. The Act of 1921 has a suspense clause by which it did not come into force until nine months after it was passed. No doubt very substantial quantities of this plumage were being imported during that period. There is also no doubt that there was a considerable slump. The fashion changed very shortly after this Act was passed, and feathers went out of fashion; therefore there would be a considerable amount in reserve, so to speak, which never got into the shops.

This phenomenon is quite well known. For example, in textbooks on economic history your Lordships will find, if you care to refer to them, references to ostrich feathers, which were outside the Act. A precisely similar phenomenon took place after the First World War when there was a prohibition on ostrich feathers. In the first years of the century, farms were started in South Africa for the production of them. A year or two before the war the peak was reached, and then suddenly they fell out of fashion, the value of ostrich feathers declined to 25 per cent. and the unsold feathers were put on one side in reserve. Something of the sort must have happened in regard to egret and bird of paradise feathers, for although over the last months the Customs Authorities have been paying particular regard to it and making special investigations to discover whether there has been any leakage, in fact no leakage of any kind has been found.

I am afraid my answer will not be very satisfactory to the noble and learned Viscount, but I would assure him that if he has any evidence which would enable the Government to take steps we would be only too glad if he would put it before us, and every possible step would be taken. The Government will continue, through the Customs officers and through other officers, to investigate and keep a close eye on the situation, in order to make quite sure that none of these lovely birds are, at any rate in the interests of trade in London, being despoiled in the way he described. Therefore if he, or any other member of your Lordships' House, can give the necessary evidence which will enable us to take action, we shall be very glad to have it, and I can assure you that every effort will be made to bring this traffic to an end.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for the explanation which he has given. So far as the general sentiments which he expressed, are concerned, I think that everybody will share his feelings. I must confess, however, that I am not very well satisfied. I blame myself that I had never hitherto realized that for some five years the Plumage Act has been suspended. It seems a very good example of what happens when you rely on Regulations and Instructions which never reach the intelligence of Parliament. Can one imagine a more remarkable case? I think that I understood the noble Lord to tell us that it was done in the interests of the finances of this country, and that until the finances improved it was not proposed—


It was maintained in the interests of finance.


It was imposed for some other reason, and it is being maintained and will be maintained in the interests of the finances of this country. Really, is a lady who wears these plumes in her hat to have the satisfaction of feeling that, after all, she is helping to support the exchange?


May I interrupt the noble and learned Viscount once again? I cannot have made it clear that the importation of this plumage is just as much prohibited now under this emergency Legislation as it ever was under the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act, 1921.


Then, I begin to wonder why it is thought necessary to continue it, until the financial situation changes, in the form of a Regulation, instead of restoring the law of the land. At present I have not understood that at all. But it is not a matter for controversy across the Table now, and I will not occupy any more of your Lordships' time. I shall consider most carefully what the noble Lord has said. I confess that it is with a twinge of cynicism that I hear that one of the excuses is that there is still so much old stock about. I begin to wonder, since a quarter of a century has passed, exactly what period of time is likely to elapse before we shall reach the stage when we really may know that the feathers are new. I hope that the ladies are not being sold old feathers for new ones, because that would be another reason for objecting. However, I think that both my question and the answer which the noble Lord has given have served some useful purpose, and I am glad indeed to know that those who speak for the Government are most anxious so far as possible to get the illegal importation of this plumage stopped.

3.55 p.m.

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