HL Deb 13 March 1997 vol 579 cc427-30

3.32 p.m.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking in the Council of Ministers to ensure that Regulation 3254/91 banning the import into the European Union of furs from animals caught in the leghold trap is implemented without any further delay.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the Government have strongly supported the regulations which were adopted by the Council of Ministers in November 1991. The European Commission is negotiating with the main fur-producing countries an agreement by which the principles of the regulations can be implemented. The Council of Ministers has requested the Commission to introduce an import ban if no satisfactory agreement can be reached.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Yes, but is it not a fact that it is five years since the regulation was passed? It is over a year since an agreed date for its implementation was fixed as January 1996. There is no end date for the negotiations yet agreed so that the implementation can begin. Is not the villain of the piece the Commissioner for trade? I am sorry to say he is a British Commissioner in the European Community who is holding up the obvious desire of the Environment Council, the responsible body, on which I am glad to say our British Minister has played a distinguished and firm role, by all sorts of procrastination and dragging of feet?

Does the Minister agree that the fur trade in this country and throughout Europe has become uppish again as a result of that dilatoriness? So today we see restored on the backs of beautiful women from Madonna to the models on the catwalk the furs which may have come from animals caught in that barbaric and cruel trap. Does the Minister therefore agree with me that we should encourage British women to refuse to wear fur, saying that it is not a badge of fashion but a badge of shame?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I admire the noble Baroness, Lady Castle, enormously and always have done. I long to agree with her. I always have done. But, unfortunately I have never been able to. I am afraid I do not agree with her today at all. She says that there is no end date to the negotiations. She is perfectly right. There are no end dates to negotiations; you have to find a solution to them. She blames the Commissioner for Trade but she is, if I may say so, quite wrong. She says that there has been procrastination and, if I may say so, she is quite wrong. In 1991 the environment Ministers agreed to ban the import of furs. What we are trying to do now is to agree how that should be done with those countries—in particular Russia, Canada and America—where there are problems. It is better to have an agreement. If we do not get an agreement, there is the problem of contravention of World Trade Organisation agreements and a trade war. That is what we are trying to avoid.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is often impossible to know the genuine provenance and destination of many goods circulating in Europe, given the fraudulent nature of the single market? In this case, can my noble friend tell the House how the regulation proposes to tell the difference between the skin of an animal that has been caught in a leghold trap and the skin of an animal that met with a less painful end?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is one of the factors in the negotiations.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, will the Minister accept that when I started in politics quite a long time ago, I was known as "the poor man's Barbara Castle"? I now realise what a compliment that was. Given that this country banned the traps as long ago as 1954, is it not a great shame that we now have to reproach a British Commissioner with apparently delaying the implementation of the new agreement? I wish to add my compliments to the present Secretary of State for the Environment who has worked hard to get the agreement adopted. I think we should give him credit for that. However, perhaps some reproach should be given to the British Commissioner for not implementing the agreement.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the compliment paid to the noble Baroness was a good one and she need feel no shame about it. It is a great glory. Having said that, I believe that she also is wrong. We must get away from the business of trying to reproach the Commissioner. What happened was that the environment Ministers agreed that there should be a prohibition. What was not agreed was how the ban should be implemented. It is in order to try to negotiate how to implement the ban and the factors involved that the discussions are continuing. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State wants an unconditional ban on steel-jawed leghold traps and action to phase out padded leghold and aquatic traps. If an agreement cannot be arrived at, then the instructions are that the proposal should be implemented. But there are dangers with it. It is better to get an agreement than to have a trade war.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the proposal being considered for approval by the International Organisation for Standardisation, which has a role, would allow traps that take up to three minutes to kill the animal? That would allow significant injuries such as the amputation of digits, bone fractures and tissue lacerations. The proposal would allow a trap-to-death time of at least three minutes and probably much longer. Do the Government agree with the Labour Party that such traps are completely unacceptable and, with us, will they oppose any attempt to allow them as a way of getting round the proposed ban on the import of furs?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State went to the Council of Ministers with a steel-jawed leghold trap and a pencil. He put the pencil in the leghold trap in front of his colleagues on the Council of Ministers and the pencil was stripped in two. That shook his colleagues. It is for that reason that my right honourable friend is doing all he can to get the leghold traps banned. But you have to get the agreement of your ministerial colleagues and then try to get agreement with the countries who use them not to import into Europe furs procured by such methods. It is better to try to get an agreement with them rather than to have the possibility of a trade war.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Is the Minister aware that he is no better than the Commissioner for Trade, Sir Leon Brittan? The Commissioner stated that there can never be any international agreement to curb an iniquitous practice because it would interfere with the GATT agreement. Does the Minister know that Article 20 of the GATT agreement allows exceptions to be made when necessary to protect public morals or the life or health of humans, plants and animals? This is a clear case coming under Article 20, as argued very effectively in the Environment Council by, I am glad to say, a British environment Minister. So why do the Government not have the courage to tell the British Commissioner for trade that he is defying both the will of the Council of Environment Ministers which is the responsible body and which has unanimously rejected these spuriously humane methods of trapping and also the will of Parliament? Are we in this House saying that the Commissioner can defy all the democratic controls in Europe?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Baroness sometimes becomes very irate and sometimes she is quite rude to people. I think she meant to be rude to me this afternoon. In fact she has paid me the greatest of compliments. She says that I am no worse than the Commissioner. My goodness me, I regard that, rather like the noble Baroness behind her, as a great compliment.

I must try to get over to the noble Baroness a point that she seems to be finding very difficult to accept for some reason. The fact is that it is not the fault of the Commissioner for Trade. From a sedentary position, the noble Baroness says yes, it is. I can assure her, no, it is not. The fact is that the Commissioner for Trade is doing his best to reach an agreement, which is much better than having all-out conflict.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I hate to take the personalities out of this discussion. However, will my noble friend the Minister confirm that the problem has arisen because Directorate-General XI on the environment totally failed to consult and work with Directorate-General I on GATT. The whole issue stems from relative incompetence, I am sorry to say, in manoeuvring and managing this business in the Commission. It is not a personal matter; it is a matter of bad organisation.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am not sure whether or not that is supposed to be a compliment. I shall take it whichever way I can. The fact is that the regulations were agreed to be implemented, but there was no decision on how the ban should be carried out. That is the problem that is being overcome. No matter whose fault it is, the main principle is to try to get in place as soon as possible the ban which the noble Baroness wants to have in place.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

Has the Minister been to Strasbourg in the past few days, as I have, and talked to the Commissioner for Trade, Sir Leon Brittan? Has he heard him admit that he is the prime mover in trying to thwart the will of Parliament and of the Council and to push through the spurious agreement on humane methods of trapping, which merely consist of putting a bit of plastic round the jaw but still holding the animal in pain and panic?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I have not had the privilege of going to Europe as the noble Baroness has. I have been detained in your Lordships' House because her party is being so difficult over some of the business we have to transact. Unlike the noble Baroness, Ministers are not allowed the privilege of escaping. I am surprised that her Chief Whip allowed her to escape whereas mine does not allow me to do so. Nor did I have the privilege of being a fly on the wall and hearing the noble Baroness's conversation with Sir Leon. Although I have the greatest admiration for her integrity, I think that I would like to hear Sir Leon's version of the conversation as well as hers before I come to a conclusion.