HL Deb 28 January 2004 vol 656 cc9-10WS
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My honourable friend the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Mr Mike O'Brien) has today made the following Written Statement.

On 17 July last year I made a Written Statement to the House (Official Report, cols. 79–80WS) on the issue of cat and dog fur. I asked interested parties to try within six months to produce hard evidence of the extent of imports of domestic cat and dog fur into the UK. I said that if such evidence could be produced, I would in principle be prepared to support a ban on the import of these furs. If, after six months, hard evidence had not been produced, the Government would not legislate until evidence is forthcoming.

The six-month deadline has ended. The Government understand the ethical concerns about the alleged import of cat and dog fur and are therefore reporting back to both Houses on progress made over the last six months.

Our priority on this issue has always been, and remains, the need to establish the facts about the extent of this alleged trade and to act in a measured way.

The Government have maintained regular contact with interested parties over the last six months. However, over this time we have received only one alleged sample of domestic dog fur and no samples of domestic cat fur.

We have asked scientific experts at the former Laboratory of the Government Chemist (LGC Limited) to determine the reliability of "mass spectrometry" as a possible means of accurately distinguishing the furs of domestic cats and dogs from that of other animal species. Such a test is necessary to determine whether domestic cat and dog fur is being imported into the UK, to permit effective enforcement of the Trade Descriptions Act and that of any future legislation governing the import of these furs.

Known samples of fur from both domestic and wild species within the cat and dog families, fur from other animals and the alleged sample of domestic dog fur were sent for testing last year. Some of these samples were also tested in an altered state to replicate the effects of textile processing. Thirteen samples were tested in total. All of them were tested twice, further to the discovery that technical problems might have affected the initial results.

LGC Limited has confirmed that four of the 13 samples were correctly identified in the initial testing and six out of 13 were correctly identified in the subsequent testing. Less than half of the samples were therefore correctly identified, and probability ratios demonstrate that there is a high chance that these samples could in fact have come from another species. Given these results, LGC Limited has recommended that "mass spectrometry" is not yet currently sufficiently reliable as a means of identifying domestic cat and dog fur from the fur of other animal species. I have placed copies of LGC Limited's report in the Library of the House.

While these results are very disappointing, there is some evidence that the reliability of "mass spectrometry" may improve as the database of known samples is built up and the software improves.

In my previous Written Statement, I made clear that, while the Government are prepared to take practical and proportionate action to address this matter, any action would be most effective if taken at EU level. There is stronger evidence that domestic cat and dog fur has been used in products found in some other EU countries. For this reason, we have been working hard over the last six months to raise the profile of this issue at EU level. In November last year, I publicly supported calls by the European Parliament for an EU ban on trade in cat and dog fur, while making clear that it was also essential to have in place a reliable scientific test to ensure effective enforcement. The UK has also, in the context of various EU meetings, either raised the issue of cat and dog fur or supported calls by other member states for the European Commission to consider this issue further. We continue to be in regular contact with officials from other countries and from the Commission in order to share information and our approaches to this emotive issue.

In July I undertook to give support to a ban on the import of domestic cat and dog fur if clear evidence could be produced of the extent of this problem in the UK. This has not been achievable over the last six months, and as I made clear last summer, I cannot therefore support an import ban at this point in time. However, this Government will continue to encourage interested parties to provide evidence of the extent of this problem. I have also asked LGC Limited to submit new known samples of fur for testing in order to further analyse the reliability of "mass spectrometry" and we will continue to push for greater EU involvement on this issue.

I can assure the House that this Government remain fully committed to establishing the facts about this issue and to taking proportionate and practical action. I therefore further undertake to report back to Parliament on progress made at the latest within 12 months and earlier if there are any substantive developments.