HC Deb 17 July 2003 vol 409 cc78-80WS
The Minister for Trade and Investment (Mr. Mike O'Brien)

The Government promised to report back to both Houses before the end of the Parliamentary session on investigations into the alleged import of domestic cat and dog fur into the UK.

The Government understand the ethical abhorrence felt about this issue. Our first concern was to try to establish the facts about the extent of this trade and the level of imports of these furs entering the UK. Unfortunately, UK import statistics do not give a clear indication of whether any of these furs are being imported into the UK.

We have faced repeated denials that these furs are entering the UK, whilst evidence that imports have come in has so far failed to show that this is happening on any significant scale, if at all. Clearly, there is a trade in such furs in some other countries. We need better evidence that it is a problem in the UK. We have been examining the options for reliable scientific tests for any products alleged to contain such furs, to ascertain reliably what animal the fur used in a particular product has come from. Such a test will be crucial in enabling Trading Standards officers to address any allegations of mislabelling that may arise under the existing Trade Descriptions Act, where manufacturers choose to label products containing fur. A reliable test of fur, to establish whether it is domestic cat or dog, would also enable the Government to determine more accurately the extent to which these products are entering the UK market.

We have asked scientific experts at the former Laboratory of the Government Chemist, LGC Ltd., to determine what testing methods are available. We have confirmed that DNA testing is subject to a number of uncertainties that make it unreliable as a testing method for these purposes (a paper has been made available in the Library of the House detailing these uncertainties). However, we have now identified a testing method based on "mass spectrometry" that we are more optimistic can be relied upon. LGC Ltd. is working on behalf of the Government to confirm the reliability of this method. We anticipate this work ought to be complete in the Autumn of 2003.

The Government has met interested parties to learn more about the facts of and concerns surrounding this trade. We have met Respect for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States to hear the details of their investigations into this trade. They have provided us with some anecdotal evidence of the situation regarding this trade, and have impressed on us their concern that action is taken to protect consumers, preferably at EU level. At this stage, our view is that we need more evidence of the extent of the problem, and we anticipate that these groups will shortly seek to provide that.

We have also met the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA), the Giftware Association, the British Apparel and Textiles Association and the British Retail Confederation to explore with them what their members know about this trade. All have said that their members are not knowingly importing or selling products containing domestic cat and dog fur at this time.

The British Fur Trade Association have also provided us with details of a voluntary labelling scheme that they will be introducing from 1 September 2003, in parallel with their counterpart organisations in the 14 other members of the EU and in Norway and Switzerland. The scheme will be available not only to BFTA members, who are importers of a comprehensive range of fur pelts, but also to companies that are not members. BFTA has written to all known companies selling fur garments and garments with fur trim in the UK with details of the fur labelling scheme and will actively promote its introduction. While I welcome this development, I recognise that because this scheme is voluntary in nature, it may not fully address public concerns on the specific issue of imports of domestic eat and dog fur.

The UK has also spoken to officials in several other countries where the possible trade in domestic cat and dog fur is a cause of concern. We have learnt from the US Government about the process that led to their introduction of a ban on these furs in 2000, and their experience in enforcing this ban. We have also discussed this issue with the Italian, Swedish and Danish Governments, and with the European Commission to learn from their approaches and to share the information we have gathered on this subject. Our inquiries show that hard evidence about the extent of the trade is difficult to come by.

Nonetheless we have a better picture of the issues surrounding this problem and the level of public concern it provokes, and the Government are prepared to take practical and proportionate action. Given the Single Market, any action on this issue will be most effective if taken at EU level. The European Commission has stated that Member States can take action at the national level.

I am therefore asking interested parties to try in the next six months to produce hard evidence of the extent of this problem in the UK and I am prepared, if such evidence can be produced, to support a ban on the import of domestic cat and dog furs. If, after six months, interested parties have not been able to produce hard evidence of the extent of this problem, the Government will say that it will not legislate until such evidence is forthcoming. In the meantime the Government will work to develop a test to enable enforcement of the Trade Descriptions Act where manufacturers choose to label a fur product and for use if we are able to legislate further.