HL Deb 05 February 1976 vol 367 cc1422-30

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is the third time that I have come before your Lordships' House and asked that this or a similar Bill be read a second time. The first time was two years ago and after the debate your Lordships decided that the Bill should be read a second time. There was a General Election and naturally the Bill lapsed. During the short Parliament that followed I made inquiries to find out whether I should go forward with the Bill;I was given assurances that the Government would themselves be promoting a Bill. That was 18 months ago. In the following Parliament this Bill was presented again and was read a second time. I did not move for a Committee stage because the assurances that I had been given seemed to make it clear that the Government's Bill would be laid before Parliament. We are still waiting for the Government's Bill. Consequently, I ask your Lordships to look once more at this Bill and agree that we should go forward with it.

The Bill has as its purpose the protection of endangered species of fauna and flora throughout the world. It differs from other Bills which we have passed, which have also dealt with endangered species, in that it does not refer simply to species in this country but to the import and export of endangered species and therefore the control of trade in endangered species. The Bill is a consequence of an international convention adopted at Washington in March 1973. This convention, a copy of which is available in the Library, is one which is concerned with prohibiting the trade in these various species. The convention, when it was first put forward, was signed, I think, by 20 countries; by May 1973, 37 had signed it, and I believe that 57 countries throughout the world have now signed the convention. Our country has done this. But the signing of the convention is merely a statement that you favour the purpose of the convention. The ratification by a country is the operative step in order to ensure that the terms of the convention will be carried out. I believe that now 19 countries have ratified the convention. The convention was to become operative when 10 countries had ratified, so that the convention is now operative.

In this country we have always taken a prominent part in the control of trade in endangered species. This country can claim that it has always been active and has played a very good part in this matter. It is no criticism of the Departments concerned, it is no criticism of any Government, when we ask that a Bill should now be passed which would make the position absolutely clear. The reason for this is that, at the present time, the control of trade in these endangered species and their parts is covered in a very peculiar way. In 1939, at the outbreak of war, there was passed the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act. This Act gave powers to the Government to control, by simple Ministerial edict, the trade in anything, because its purpose was to control trade in time of war. The Act still remains, and it is this Act which is now being used by Government to control the trade in endangered species.

There are two peculiarities about this. First one would have thought that it was stretching the meaning of the Act to use it in this way, but of course once an Act has been passed the question of what it means is not for Parliament to decide but is entirely a legal matter. The other difficulty is that, because it can be done by Ministerial edict, no order has to be laid before Parliament, and consequently we cannot discuss the terms of any restriction that is placed upon import and export. This seems a strange position, and one of the purposes of this Bill is to regularise this and to make it clear how, in future, we are to control trade in these endangered species.

The Department of the Environment, which is responsible for looking after this whole problem, has for some time worked—I know that it has worked very hard at it—to try to draw up proper regulations for controls. Anyone who thinks about this problem realises that it is quite a major job to control these activities of import and export, and to make certain that the way they are controlled is effective and, at the same time, not ridiculously onerous on importers and exporters. No one can complain at the Department taking time to look at the whole matter. In a notice to importers and exporters dated 15th December last, they produced what they called, Conservation Controls on Animals, Plants and their Derivatives. I believe that this was sent out on 1st January. This notice goes a long way, but those who have looked at it—and my advisers—do not believe that the proposals go far enough.

May I just call attention to one or two matters in connection with it. There are many animals, plants, and so on listed; but, although reptile skins are included in the ban on import and export, make-up reptile goods, such as crocodile skin handbags, are not included. This can mean that one has an enormous trade going on —a very profitable trade—which is not controlled, although it quite clearly strikes at the very heart of the matter. I could quote a number of others: for instance, otter skins are not included; lynx skins, and ivory goods, and so on. There may be a good reason for all this, but the important point is that none of this is open to discussion because this is merely a list drawn up by the Department and issued. No order is placed before Parliament, so no discussion can take place in Parliament on this, except on an occasion like this because the order is not subject to our approval. As I am sure many of your Lordships will appreciate, this trade is not on a small scale at all; it is on a very considerable scale.

I have just had called to my attention the current issue of the New Scientist, and there is an article headed, "The Superfatted Turtle Oil Hand Soap Shops". We all know that these marvellous expressions are used about superfatted soaps and so on, but, when one realises that they are using the turtle for the purpose, this seems quite astonishing, and when one realises that turtles are an endangered species, it seems utterly monstrous that this trade should go on. If we are to control the trade, it is important that we not only control the import and export of turtles but also of the products; that is why this Bill specifically refers to such matters.

I do not want to weary your Lordships with detail but I wish to point out certain matters connected with the Bill. The Bill covers both fauna and flora, and there are a number of clauses in the Bill. I would not for a moment pretend that every clause is word-perfect. In fact, I have noticed a number of misprints, and a number of inaccuracies for which I must take the blame. There are several matters which will require modification, but minor modification which can easily be done at Committee stage.

Taking the clauses as they are, Clause 1 allows the Government to control, by licences issued on the advice of a scientific authority or authorities, all import, export and transit of all rare animals and plants in their province. The important point is that it is proposed that scientific authorities should be set up, that the Government will act on the advice of the scientific authorities, but that every order made will be laid before Parliament. Clause 2 requires that all listed species can be dealt with only under import licences. In other words, there is not an absolute ban on the import of anything, but anyone who wishes to import one of the listed species must get an import licence. This import licence will be issued only if he is doing it for what is recognised as being a sensible purpose and not for commercial purposes.

The third clause in the Bill requires that all wild animals or plants which are imported shall be accompanied by a declaration of the species or, failing that, as accurate a description as possible and the place of origin of the item. The reason for this is simple. It may well be that a particular importer will claim that he does not know. If you look at the Bill you cannot blame him for that. The description in the Appendix is given in Latin and the importer does not necessarily know that the species he is importing falls into that category. But if he knows that it falls within a certain category and cannot describe it accurately he must give as good a description as possible in such terminology as he has available and he must state the place of origin, in which case the species can then be identified.

The proposal in Clause 4 is that proper records should be kept of all people dealing in rare animals and their progeny. If some rare animal is introduced into this country and used for breeding purposes—which can be quite legitimate under the Bill—there is no reason why the progeny of that animal should not be capable of being transferred to other people, but unless records are kept any one can claim that the particular animal he has obtained was the progeny of some animal previously brought into this country quite legitimately. By keeping records we know exactly what is happening and can control any trade of this type.

Clause 8 covers the extension of this Bill to any dependency. The point of this is that there may well be—in fact, we know there are—dependent territories which at the moment have no legislation covering this. They may be prepared to accede but this can only be done with their consent. If they consent to it, then when this Bill becomes an Act it can be extended to cover them. We have here a Bill which is attempting to deal as clearly and as well as possible with the whole of the trade in these plants and animals which it is internationally agreed, and no less by people in this country, should be controlled, and where species are endangered we should not by our own action add to the risk of those species.

It may be argued that many species disappear for causes which are not man made. A change of climate, over-stocking or famine can cause species to disappear, but over the last few hundred years more species have disappeared by man's action than by any other way. Most of the present situation is the result of what has been happening over the last 50 to 100 years where an enormous amount of hunting has gone on, much of it illegal, and the great traffic which has occurred. This has made it possible for whole species to be wiped out almost overnight. This is something for which all of us, particularly in the Western World, carry a considerable responsibility. If we make it possible for the commercial sale of these animals to be extremely profitable to unscrupulous people we are playing a part in it, and we can stop this only by taking action of the type proposed in this Bill. My Lords, I am satisfied that the Bill in essence will serve the purpose for which it is intended. I do not for a moment claim that the Bill is word perfect, but I suggest that it is worth while continuing and, there. fore, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Wynne-Jones.)

3.55 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, as my noble friend has said, this is not the first time that he has moved such a Bill. I am sure the whole House will wish to pay tribute to his tenacity and to the concern on his part that this reflects for the survival of the world's wildlife. At the same time, it presents me, a newcomer to this subject, with something of a problem. I must ask the House to bear with me as, inevitably, I go over some of the ground that has already been covered on previous occasions by my predecessors.

As has been said many times, both in this House and elsewhere, the Government wholeheartedly support the general aim of my noble friend's Bill and the objectives of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to which it is related. The convention marked a great step forward in international co-operation in nature conservation, because the survival of the world's wildlife affects us all and it can be ensured only by the concerted action of many countries. The convention provides, for the first time, a framework for regulating trade in wildlife within which all countries can work to the same end. We in this country have traditionally been among the leaders in nature conservation. The British contribution to the negotiations leading up to the convention was notable, not only for its wide expertise but for its concern that the measures that emerged should really be made to work. The strength of public opinion here in support of the convention is probably as great as, if not greater than, in any other country in the world. The Government have repeatedly emphasised their support for the convention's aims and I am sure that the overwhelming opinion of this House is that the convention must be made to achieve its aims.

The Government have not only expressed their support for the convention; they have acted. As was announced in the House on 15th December, the convention was effectively brought into operation in the United Kingdom on 1st January of this year. We have introduced import and export controls covering all the species of animals and plans listed in the convention—and there are several hundred of them. Some idea of the complexity of the convention can be gained from that one fact. The convention requires different forms of control for the endangerous species in Appendix I from those for species in Appendix II which may become endangered if their trade is not regulated. It requires the control of readily recognisable parts and derivatives as well as of whole animals and plants. It sets out detailed requirements to be observed by scientific and management authorities, and those vary between exports and imports.

It has taken time to make sensible arrangements to deal with all those complexities and to ensure that the controls both reflect the aims of the convention and can be enforced. I know that many of your Lordships feel that it has taken too long and certainly there are others outside this House who have protested most vociferously about the delay. But time was needed to do a good job in this complicated field and I think we can take pride in the fact that, although some other countries may have implemented the convention before us, we are, I am sure, in the forefront as regards the effectiveness of our controls. I will not allow modesty to prevent me from saying that a number of countries have asked us for details of our control arrangements as a possible basis for their own.

I should like, if I may, at this stage to refer briefly to the international position on the convention. It came into force last summer when the first 10 countries had ratified it, and it has now been ratified by 22 countries. It is a source of regret to the Government that although we have implemented the convention we have not yet been able to ratify it. This is, of course, a reversal of the usual procedure. There are two reasons for this. We have been seeking agreement on the best course of action with the Commission of the European Community and our partners. Moreover, although we, in the United Kingdom, have the powers necessary to implement it, not all of our dependent territories are in the same position. We naturally wish as many territories as possible to observe the provisions of the convention in order to increase its effectiveness. Our discussions with them are well advanced.

We fully expect to be in a position to ratify the convention early this summer. This will enable us to play a full part in the first conference of the parties to the convention, which is expected to take place in the autumn of this year. The conference will consider the working of the convention and the amendments that should be made to the Appendices. This country with all its knowledge and experience of wildlife conservation, should be able to make a very positive contribution at that conference. Returning now to the domestic position, although the powers under the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act 1939 have enabled us to implement the convention in the United Kingdom, the Government have many times made it clear that new measures, tailored to meet the convention's requirements, are most desirable.

The legislation that is required must provide for the fulfilment of the Government's obligations under an international treaty. With all respect to my noble friend, these are not usually matters that are appropriate to a Private Member's Bill. The convention itself is complex. New legislation must meet those requirements and fit in with our licensing system, which is already in operation and which has subsumed a variety of controls exercised under earlier legislation. It must also fit in closely with the existing powers of the Customs and Excise. I am very glad to say that my noble friend's tenacity has paid off and to be able to announce that the Government intend to introduce a Bill in this House next week. It will be designed to provide us with specific powers to operate the controls we have already introduced but, of course, there will be every opportunity for Parliament to examine it closely and to debate it fully.

I should like to conclude by thanking my noble friend for raising this issue once again and to express particular appreciation to him for his forbearance, tolerance and understanding. He has many times and most eloquently expressed to this House the need for this country and, indeed, for the world to strive to retain the richness of our natural heritage and the need for mankind not to squander irreplaceable resources. The Government share that view, have acted upon it, and will continue to do all in their power to ensure that those aims are achieved. Because the general aims of this Bill are so worth while, I hope the House will agree to grant it a Second Reading. But, in view of the undertaking I have given that the Government will introduce a Bill on the subject next week, I hope that my noble friend will then be able to see his way to withdrawing his Bill, rather than seeking to make further progress with it.

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