HL Deb 06 December 1995 vol 567 cc964-6

2.42 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are contributing to international arrangements to prevent the smuggling of rare birds' eggs.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, the Government take seriously their commitments as a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. The UK has led on a number of initiatives to enhance international enforcement. Trade in a wide range of birds' eggs is restricted under the convention and the UK Customs and Excise enforces the controls on imports from and exports to countries outside the EC.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his reply. Did he see the press reports that eggs of rare birds had been discovered at an airport, concealed in special compartments of the culprit's underclothes, designed to continue incubation during the flight, thus illustrating the lengths to which crooks will go to obtain young birds of great value? Since British special agencies are now seeking a new role after the end of the cold war, can they not be used to help stop such pernicious trafficking?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, like my noble friend, I saw that press report. It gave a new twist to the idea of an undercover operation and a plot hatched somewhere between Australia and Wales.

We take very seriously such matters as the trade in birds, particularly in this case the interesting way in which the people chose to carry the eggs in order to keep them warm so that they could continue to be incubated when they reached Wales. I am happy to tell my noble friend that a court case has proceeded in Australia and people have been convicted and sent to prison. In this country the people involved have also been convicted after pleading guilty. They are awaiting sentence.

Lord Peston

My Lords, I am intrigued that this is a Treasury matter. Can the Minister clarify how the law proceeds in this situation? Is it the case that the supplier, the smuggler, is committing an offence as well as the demander? Does Customs and Excise proceed by endeavouring to catch both those who are selling and those who are buying? Does it work from both ends in an attempt to stop what was rightly described as a pernicious trade?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, like the noble Lord, I wondered why I had got this Question. I thought that it might be considered by my friends that I could handle difficult issues without dropping eggs all over the place.

The noble Lord is quite right that the authorities both in this country and in Australia have worked at investigating not just the person who carried the eggs and who was picked up at the airport but also the people taking them from the wild in Australia and supplying them, as well as the people incubating them in this country. So we take seriously our investigation into and our intelligence on the trade not only in birds' eggs but in birds, live animals and other species covered by international conventions.

Lord Renton

My Lords, will my noble friend make inquiries as to whether the penalties under our law for smuggling and stealing the eggs of rare birds are adequate and have been sufficiently updated to enable us to comply with our international obligations?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I have no reason to believe that we are not fully complying with our international obligations. Certainly in Australia two of the people convicted received prison sentences of 18 months and one of six months. The judge still has to sentence the people convicted in this country. I shall look into the point which my noble friend makes, but from what I have read I believe that we have sufficient powers to deal with people convicted of such offences.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us what kind of rare birds they are? Are they hawks, parrots or geese which lay golden eggs?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, if they were geese that laid golden eggs, I suppose it would be appropriate for the Treasury spokesman to answer. However, as these birds have not been found—not even apparently by the party opposite—it would appear to be parrots that are largely the victims in this and other cases. People in this country and other countries of Europe seem to wish to keep rare parrots, and their eggs become extremely valuable if they can be smuggled from the wild.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that press reports indicated that cockatoos were involved? In a lighter vein, if my suggestion about special agencies were to be adopted, might not the situation then be described as the successors of 007 being in pursuit of the chicks? Little would have changed.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I think I have gone far enough with these tempting analogies. As with other items smuggled—perhaps I dare say more serious items like drugs—Customs has moved very much into the intelligence and investigation field. Apprehension and conviction are part of the success of its intelligence operations.