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Mr Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 10390/82 of 25th October 1982 concerning a Proposal for a Council Regulation on common rules prohibiting the import of skins of certain seal pups and products derived therefrom into the Community; and supports the action taken to meet public concern through effective national measures against the import of the products concerned, pending any decision about action at Community level following further investigation of all aspects of the cull. I welcome this opportunity to discuss the Community document that has been circulated, relating to the meeting of the Council of Ministers on 17 December in Brussels. The debate in Brussels will continue at the end of this month, and I am sure that the views of hon. Members will make a useful contribution to our deliberations, which is why I welcome the timing of the debate, even though the hour is rather later than might have been expected.

It will be for the convenience of the House if I first remind hon. Members of the history of the Commission's proposals for a regulation to ban the import of certain harp and hooded seal pup products into the Community. The killing of these pups, mainly off the coasts of Canada and Norway, has in recent years led to considerable public outcry, not just in this country, but in most of the nations in the Community.

For the benefit of non-biologists, which may exclude the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), who I think is a scientist, I should explain that the harp seal pups, otherwise known as whitecoats, are the attractive fluffy white creatures that have received most publicity, while the hooded seal pups, known as bluebacks, are killed in much smaller numbers in the same areas. In a wide-ranging resolution on seals last March, the European Parliament urged that the Community should stop importing these products, and thus put pressure on the Canadians and Norwegians to end the annual cull. The Commission consequently proposed to the Council of Ministers the draft regulation which is before the House this evening.

As I have already reported to the House, I led the United Kingdom delegation at two meetings of the environment council in December when this proposal and possible alternatives were discussed at great length. I should like to expand on my earlier reports now by highlighting some of the issues which were considered.

The immediate obstacle to acceptance of the Commission's proposals as drafted as objection to the use of article 113 of the Treaty of Rome in this way. The article, as I am sure hon. Members will know, is concerned with the Community's common commercial policy, and it has been argued that action under that article must be justified on commercial grounds and no other. Both the Council's legal advisers in Brussels and the legal advisers of several member states, including the Attorney-General, advised that this article could simply not serve as a legal basis for the regulation as drafted. That was because it was based upon moral grounds and not commercial grounds.

The council considered whether there were alternative bases for action, in particular a proposal put forward by the Danish Presidency for a directive under article 100 of the treaty. This article is intended to be used to liberalise trade by harmonising national measures which are distorting the functioning of the Common Market. Given that there were few national measures in force, with very limited effect, and that the proposed directive would clearly restrain and not liberalise trade, there were obvious difficulties in the use of that article as well. Further, the draft proposal before the Council was, like the article 113 proposal, based explicitly on moral rather than purely commercial grounds, and so we and some other member states saw it as trespassing on the perogatives of national Governments.

This brings me to a fundamental point on which I should particularly welcome the views of the House: that is, the extent to which it considers Community—as opposed to national—action on such matters to be desirable. Acceptance of either of the draft proposals before the Council would have given the Community some competence for action in the trade field on moral or ethical grounds, and there would have been a corresponding diminution of national powers. The Government thought that this House, and the country as a whole, would not wish its freedom of action to be constrained in such a sensitive and subjective area, by the consensus views of other member states, on proposals inspired by our European counterparts in Strasbourg.

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Mr Tony Marlow (Northampton North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. He may be coming to the point that I want to make. We now have a resolution and we may well have a regulation. If we have a regulation, it will be based on the same pretext as the resolution—in other words, a moral basis rather than a trading basis. If that were to happen, would we not be faced in this country with a fait accompli whereby we would have to accept the regulation on that basis?

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Mr Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

That would depend on whether the regulation that came before the Council achieved the unanimity required to make it an effective Community instrument and whether it was based on the identical grounds of the regulation that was originally drafted and presented by the Commission to the Council in early December. The regulation that is now before us will be on the agenda at the next meeting of the Council on 28 February. The matters raised by my hon. Friend are germane and I am grateful for his comments.

The competence of the Community is of course already established in certain areas of conservation, a subject which is of particular concern to me and my fellow Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane). Reports last year from both the Nature Conservancy Council and the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas drew attention to the very uncertain status of the hooded seal and I suggested to the Council that the Commission should explore further the justification for a regulation under article 235 of the treaty on conservation grounds. That is the article under which the conservation regulation on whales was taken some years ago. I must tell the House that unfortunately that suggestion found no support.

Apart from the difficulties of finding an appropriate legal basis, member states had some doubts about the principle of Community action on moral grounds. For example, the cull has been condemned too because seal skins are used primarily for luxury items, such as fur coats and apres ski boots. The trade is, however, certainly not a luxury for the several thousands of fishermen in isolated communities in Norway and Canada. They are dependent on the cull for income during the harsh winter months when fishing, which is their main activity, is impossible, and it provides the funds to purchase new equipment for the fishing season. In recent years, about 9,000 fishermen in Canada have been licensed to take seals and sealing has provided one third of the income of many fishermen in Newfoundland. Loss of this income may cause extreme hardship—a point strongly represented to us by the Canadian Government and the premier of Newfoundland and his colleagues.

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Mr David Ennals (Norwich North)

What is the relevance of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making? The regulation is concerned with stopping the importation of pelts and the products of pelts into certain countries. At the moment, the Minister is talking about what may be done by the native peoples of Canada for an entirely different purpose. Surely they will not be covered by the regulation that will be put before the Council of Ministers.

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Mr Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

The right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) is quite right, in that the regulation does not have a direct effect on any Canadian person or people. It requires the Community to take action on a certain basis under a certain article. I shall answer what is in the right hon. Gentleman's mind more directly later in my speech.

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Mr Andrew Bennett (Stockport North)

Does the Minister accept that the Canadian Government and some of the states in Canada have been making strong representations about the impact that this has on fishermen? Does he agree that they are a small number of people and that it would be easy for a country that is as rich as Canada and, by all accounts, Norway, to compensate those fishermen if they were unable to continue with that activity?

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Mr Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

I must have considerable sympathy with the view that the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) has expressed. It is clearly a small community that is part of a large country. Nevertheless, it is only fair to tell the House that the representations were made in the form that I have described.

Seals are an important seasonal food supplement for many Canadian fishermen. However, there is a more important link between sealing and food supplies. As the House will know, it is that seals consume large quantities of fish. The Canadian and Norwegian Governments have made it clear that they would have to ensure that sealing continued to protect fish stocks, even if there were no market for seal products of the type that are dealt with in the regulation. Such a cull would be likely to concentrate on breeding females. That would have most effect on numbers. It would not concentrate on the young, which have aroused the greatest concern of members of the public.

It is not only the Canadians who are interested in fish stocks in Canadian waters; European fishermen have an interest that must also be considered. That brings me to another issue that I wish to stress—the need to influence Canada and Norway, as the culls take place within their jurisdiction, not the Community's. Merely imposing import bans would not necessarily limit the culls. Canada proposed to the Council that it should establish with the Community and Norway a preparatory commission to investigate the ethical and economic aspects of the cull and to draft an international sealing convention for Atlantic seals, on the lines of the Internationl Whaling Convention. In the Government's view, it would have been foolish to ignore those proposals, which might have a greater long-term effect on sealing than import restrictions ever could, and ensure that sealing is undertaken on a sound scientific basis.

There were, in December, many aspects of the cull which required further examination. There were also legal objections to Community action on the basis proposed. The Government, however, like the Governments of other member states, wished to respond positively to demands for an end to imports, while doubts remained about the humanity and consequences of the cull. Hence the form of the resolution adopted unanimously by all member states which involves preventing imports through national measures, pending a decision about action at the Community level. This Community-wide action will close completely the main market for these products, as the European Community has hitherto accounted for over 90 per cent. of the trade. It has clearly been effective. In Norway, the Seal Hunting Council has recommended a complete halt to hunting seal pups this season and it has recommended that the number of vessels participating in sealing should be reduced from 10 to seven.

I can also inform the House that the major fur traders in Canada have also stated that they do not propose to purchase any seal pup skins in the spring. It is fair to say that this means that closing the main market, as a result of the Community's action in December, has put pressure on the Canadian Government to such an extent that the prospects of continuing with a traditionally sized seal cull must now be severely reduced. I sincerely hope that hon. Members will recognise that the action that has been taken so far has led in the two nations most directly involved to changes in their traditional views of the matter.

The United Kingdom has in the past acted as the major entrepot for skins from Canada destined for other European countries. In view of the public concern about sealing, the British Fur Trade Association has undertaken not to import any seal pup products resulting from this year's cull. Hon. Members will I know be pleased at this responsible action taken by the Association. Those voluntary measures will be monitored by Her Majesty's Customs and Excise, which is establishing three new tariff headings to enable any importation of harp or hooded seal material to be clearly identified if it is properly declared. In addition, customs officers will be scrutinising a proportion of the importations declared under closely allied headings to check that they are not being used, either deliberately or inadvertently, to mask harp and hooded seal material.

I remind the House that the Government had already responded to public concern about sealing, by ensuring that people could identify—and avoid if they wished—the products derived from it. Hence, since the beginning of 1981, all sealskin goods have had to be clearly marked as such, showing the country in which the seals were taken. No other EC country has a marking regime. This measure remains in force, and indeed the European Parliament recommended that this practice should be extended throughout the Community. The Government would, of course, be prepared to support any such proposal by the Commission.

As well as preventing imports, the December resolution requested the European Commission to undertake a comprehensive examination of the cull and to explore the Canadian proposals with the countries concerned. We have just received the Commission's preliminary report of those investigations, which will provide the basis for the Council's review of the issues on 28 February. At first sight the Commission's report—perhaps understandably in view of the timescale—adds nothing significant to the information available to the Council in December, and the Commission makes it plain that it still backs the draft regulation under article 113, which was considered then.

I remind the House that, while we shall be taking a close look at what the Commission proposes, the machinations through which the Council went in its previous discussions make it extremely difficult to proceed on the basis of article 113 or 100. However, what the Government would look for and would press their colleagues on the Council to find is a satisfactory solution that avoids those complex legal problems. The Government wish to respond to the views not only that have been pressed on them by the public at large but that have been expressed by great numbers of hon. Members, that a way must be found to try to secure the prevention of the importation of pup products.

The House should take considerable comfort from the fact that in the action so far taken a fundamental change has occurred—90 per cent. or more of the cull has been prevented from reaching its markets, one Government have announced a suspension of the cull—the Norwegians—and the second Government are under great pressure from their fur trade association to review, and I hope reduce substantially, the traditional cull of seal pups.

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Dr David Clark (South Shields)

I shall explain why in a moment. If the hon. Gentleman had followed the issue over the years as closely as some of us, he would understand why.

I have a stack of press comments suggesting that the Government are selling out completely to the commercial lobby.

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Dr David Clark (South Shields)

Let me try to explain. We have in front of us not a regulation, but a take-note motion that is cleverly worded. It says two things; first, that we take note of the European Community document and, secondly, that we support any action to meet public concern through effective national measures … pending any decision about action at Community level. It seems that that motion is satisfactory to most people in this country. I am sure that hon. Members have received much correspondence on the issue. Over 300 Members, a record number, signed an early-day motion on it last Session, calling on the Government to prohibit this scandalous trade.

Let us be quite clear about what we are discussing. I do not think that the Minister, in his haste to get as much as possible into as short a time as possible, made this quite clear to the House. We are discussing prohibition of the import of the skins of two specific seals—the harp and the hooded seal—and we are talking not about adult seals but about pups. I emphasise that.

The EC has a great responsibility in this, as it is responsible for 70 per cent. or more of the market for the product in question. Prohibition is needed now, on grounds of cruelty and on grounds of conservation. I am not so stupid as to think that there is no need to cull animals, including seals in certain cases. I recognise that there are good grounds for culling grey seals in certain parts of this country. I am not naive in these matters. Nevertheless, the way in which the pups that we are discussing are culled and the conservation issue demand that we consider the matter far more seriously than the Government seem prepared to do.

It is, of course, an emotive subject. We have all seen the horrific television films of the brutal clubbing of what look like very pretty mammals. They are white, fluffy and cuddly, with big eyes, and when one sees their blood contrasted with the white snow as their mothers look pathetically on. One's heart is naturally moved. Not only are people's hearts moved, however, I am sure that there is cruelty involved.

As a nation and as a Community we must respond to public opinion. No Member here can deny that public opinion is against this trade. A petition was signed by nearly 5 million people and early-day motions were signed by more than 300 Members of the House. Extremely responsible bodies have organised campaigns to put across not propaganda but the truth about this issue. There is the Seal Protection Group, composed of the RSPCA, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, the World Wildlife Fund and many others. They are not fly-by-night organisations but highly reputable bodies in the conservation world.

The Government are trying to have their cake and eat it as well. We get plenty of tears and sympathy from them, but they must be crocodile tears, because there is no action.

The Minister seems to dismiss the conservation issue. He referred in passing to the Nature Conservancy Council. That body is funded by the Government and has an immense international reputation. In its evidence to the Commission it said: In the NW Atlantic management has halted the previous dramatic decline to less than half the unexploited size. There has been some improvement, but that is only in relation to the harp seal. The situation is still dangerous, but it is certainly not critical. Referring to the hooded seal or blue-back, however, the council says: The position of the hooded seal is in every respect more serious. On the available evidence management measures appear to have only reduced the rate of decline rather than halted it. In considering conservation measures, we have a responsibility to proceed very cautiously, to err on the side of the animals and to make the most positive assumptions when reaching decisions affecting conservation measures. I could cite many other examples, but I will stay with the British Nature Conservancy Council as its reputation and international standing are such that I am willing to accept its findings. We should take those findings as seriously as we can.

I have heard a great deal talked about how this will affect the Greenlanders and the Eskimos, but it has been made plain that we are trying to exclude aboriginal hunting. The Greenlanders and the Inuit Eskimos are generally not as barbaric as we civilised people, who club young seals to death. It means more to them to hunt the adult mammal so that they can obtain food and the skin for their own use. That makes sense and it is a sad commentary on civilisation that it is the supposed civilised element of society that goes around clubbing the baby seals to death. We can exclude that aspect.

We hear that it will upset economics; and the Minister has played on that. There is plainly a problem. The Minister says that it is a small problem, but I concede that it is 100 per cent. important to the people involved. Basically it affects two countries only. The Norwegians traditionally have 30 per cent. of the killing. Their Government are not of my disposition. It is the Hoyre Government, who are similar to that of the Minister, but they have responded to public opinion. They are not arrogant like this Government. They do not block their ears. They have no election coming. They have something to lose economically, whereas we have nothing to lose. They have said that this year there will be no pup cull, which is to be welcomed. I take my hat off to the Hoyre Government in Norway. They are prepared to make an economic sacrifice because they believe that it is morally right so to do. They do not shilly-shally as the Government do.

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Mr Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

The hon. Gentleman has suggested on four occasions that the Government have done nothing. I must refute that in the strongest possible terms. The Government have put in place a national ban by virtue of the arrangement made with the Association of Fur Traders which has effectively prevented something like 90 per cent. of the import of seal products through us into the Community. The hon. Gentleman is right off the beam.

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Dr David Clark (South Shields)

The Minister says that there is a national ban. If there is, why is it not made law? There is a voluntary ban which has no legal backing. The Government are depending on the good will of the importers and traders. The Minister can do nothing to stop anyone importing seal pup products. There is no ban; there is a voluntary agreement. I shall return to that point later.

The Norwegians have acted in an honourable way. The Canadians have problems, but if one looks at all the sea take of Canada, which is a rich country, 1·4 per cent. only is in the form of seals or other sea mammals. It compares with 3·8 per cent. for seaweed. It is chicken feed and affects only those small communities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) said, surely a country as large as Canada can do something to offset and mitigate the problems.

The Minister has skated over what is happening in the EC. He has not been as forthcoming as I should have liked.He did not tell us much about the Commission's meeting yesterday. Has he had no reports about the meeting? I understand that the Commission studied this subject in great detail and came to the conclusion that the conversations that it has had with the Canadians and Norwegians have introduced no new elements and have done nothing to dissipate the doubts in the public's mind. The Commission agrees that the scientific evidence must be collected and it is willing to do everything that it possibly can in that respect, but it believes that the ideas put forward by the Canadians, particularly, for a convention to look into the problems of baby seals will mean more and more procrastination. That does not cut much ice with the Commission and I believe that it will not recommend the Council, which meets in a couple of weeks, to take any such decision.

But what the Minister did not tell the House, and I believe that he should have done so, is what the European Commission recommended at its meeting yesterday. I shall tell the House if the Minister is not prepared to do so. It recommended taking into account the observations about which I talked, and states: The Commission is led to the conclusion that it should maintain as it stands the proposal transmitted to the Council on 19 October 1982. It is saying that the original ban and the regulation that it proposed on 19 October should be carried out. I go along with that, and I should have thought that the majority of the House would go along with it. The early-day motions last year attracted 304 and 272 signatures. The opinion is backed up not only in Britain but in Europe.

The Minister told us today that he is not prepared to support that resolution at the Council of Ministers on 28 February. I may have misunderstood him, but that was my understanding of his speech. That will cause deep disappointment, not only to me and to many will cause deep disappointment, not only to me and to many Conservative Members but to people throughout the Community. We have no friends. The Germans were our allies, but perhaps the Minister has not realised that there will soon he an election in Germany. That country has "green politics" and many politicians are becoming worried. Herr Vogel is catching up with Herr Kohl, and Herr Genscher has now changed his mind and said that the German presidency of the EC Council would press for an immediate import ban. The British Government are now in isolation and have lost all their friends. I do not understand why the Minister is prepared to take such a dog-in-the-manger attitude. It is very strange.

I could understand the Government's attitude if they had a strong economic case or a great deal to lose, or if they believed that there was a moral reason for resisting the regulation, but none of those grounds apply. The Labour party does not accept the Minister's view that there is doubt about the legality of article 113. The Commission does not believe that there is doubt, nor do the other EC countries. The Germans are calling for an immediate import ban. The Prime Minister has assured the RSPCA and other bodies that she is concerned about those poor little mammals, but at the end of the day she is prepared to do nothing. It is sad that the British Government should be the only Government in Europe to hold up the regulation. It will cause great disappointment to millions of British people. It is a pity that the debate is taking place at this time of night— [Interruption] Hon. Members may scoff about that. Perhaps Conservative Members do not worry about how the British people feel. However, I do not believe that that is true, because the 300 hon. Members who signed those early-day motions will stand by them. We have had animal welfare debates in the House before. I have stood at this Dispatch Box and I have seen the Government defeated on animal welfare because there were always sufficient Conservative Members who, when it came down to it, were prepared to give their Government a bloody nose if they believed that they deserved it. I am disappointed that this time we shall not have more pressure on the Government to change their mind.

I hope that the Minister will not put the Government out on a limb. The Germans have gone along with the regulation, and we should do the same. I plead with the Minister to stop this barbaric trade and to ensure that we support the Commission's recommendation when it comes before the Council on 28 February.

1:09 am
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Mr James Spicer (West Dorset)

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State knows that my interest in this matter goes back a long way; indeed, to when it was first raised in the European Parliament by my good friend Mr. Stanley Johnson, a Conservative and a Member of the European Democratic Group. But we moved on from there and had the full-hearted support of the Parliament in taking the matter to the Commission, whose subsequent actions speak for themselves.

Mr. Johnson's motion called for an EC import ban on products coming from young harp and hooded seals, or from seals whose stocks were depleted, threatened or endangered. It was the starting point for one of the most enormous upsurges of public feeling, especially in Britain. Three million people—we have heard that it was nearer 5 million, which may be right—in Europe signed a petition. I, and certainly many other hon. Members, had our fair share of the 60,000 letters that came in from our constituents. The early-day motion that was supported by more than 300 hon. Members has already been mentioned.

What happened thereafter has already been referred to in the debate. The Commission responded by calling upon its scientific advisers to make a report. Subsequently, the Commission prepared and transmitted to the Council on 17 October last year a proposal for a Council regulation, which is the subject of our debate.

The Council, meeting at the level of Environment Ministers, has twice considered the Commission's proposals but has not yet given its final approval. I had hoped that one result of the debate tonight would be that the United Kingdom Government would find themselves, with full parliamentary support, able to come out in favour of that regulation. The Commission's proposal is in its view—I say "in its view" because I do not put to one side the views of the Attorney-General as lightly as the Opposition seem to do—based firmly in Community law. It has taken the view that it cannot be right for different countries within the Community to have different standards for the importation of seal products. An import ban is an import ban and cannot operate sensibly on a voluntary basis.

My hon. Friend talked about articles 113 and 235 and the difficulty of taking action on a Community basis. If that cannot be done, can action be taken on a national basis? What national action can be taken? I take the point made by the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Clark), that a voluntary ban in these circumstances is not good enough.

Other member countries have already taken the step of imposing a total ban within their own countries. If we do not go to the next meeting and support the Commission's proposals, I cannot see why we cannot go along and say "All right, but we will impose a national ban instead." As was said by the Minister, the terms of the Commission's proposals were: The member states pending any decision about action at Community level will take all necessary and possible measures within the limits of national competence to prevent the importation into their territory of products of young harp and hooded seals. If we are unable to agree with that, and if we are to stand fast and say that articles 113 and 235 do not apply, can we not take upon ourselves the national responsibility of turning that voluntary ban, which is a temporary measure, into a full blooded ban, which everybody in the House would support?

The point has been made that the West Germans are not backsliding any more. Many other community states have already taken action. If we take similar action, we shall effectively ban the importation of baby seal products into the Community. We are the people most closely identified with this importation. If we were not importing, the entire trade would collapse.

There are other hon. Members who wish to speak and I therefore move on quickly to add one further point, which came to my notice the other day. Recently, a delegation of seal hunters from Greenland spoke of the adverse effect that the public discussion of the Canadian seal hunt had had on their lives. Those Greenlanders are taking adult seals from non-endangered species. There is a world of difference in that, and that is what culling is all about. One does not go up into the Highlands and cull deer at birth. One takes ones cull from the upper end of the age bracket. That can be done on a massive scale, if need be, when dealing with seals, particularly if a fishing industry is suffering.

Those Greenlanders said that they were not killing baby seals or threatening seal populations. Because of the present uncertainty, they are finding that their markets are being threatened. An EC regulation or directive which is clearly defined, as in the Commission's proposal, would remove that uncertainty and enable the legitimate activities of Arctic and Greenlander populations to continue unimpeded.

The Government have much to be proud of in terms of environmental policies, both within the Community and outside it. Some mention was made of our position on whaling. It was the clear lead from our Government that led the way to the ban on the importation of whale products. That ban was based not only on conservation grounds but on humanitarian grounds. In particular, the Government and most people in the country were rightly concerned about the methods of hunting, especially the use of the cold harpoon.

I appeal to my hon. Friend, in advance of the meeting on 28 February, to review the Government's position with his colleagues—his colleagues in the Department of Trade most particularly. If he finds it impossible to support a Community regulation, for heaven's sake let us at least go there prepared to undertake our own positive ban on the importation of seal products.

That is what our people want. It has nothing to do with politics. It is simply that we as a nation do not like this sort of senseless killing, which is quite unnecessary and the products of which are used only in a luxury trade which we could well do without.

1:17 am
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Mr David Ennals (Norwich North)

I warmly welcome the thrust of the speech of the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) on the vigour with which he presented his case. I do not go along with him entirely, because the Government have done something.

Before the two meetings on 3 and 17 December, there is no doubt at all that the British Government were campaigning hard behind the scenes to persuade other members of the Ten not to take action, as was recommended by the Commission. I believe that they gave in to the pressure of public opinion.

I am sad that, even now, the Minister underestimates the depth of feeling that exists about the massive cruelty which the Canadian cull has caused over the years. I sometimes find it sad that people in Britain seem to be more concerned about cruelty to animals than about cruelty to human beings, but I associate myself with the depth of feeling about cruelty to defenceless creatures.

I can scarcely remember an issue on which the public has expressed itself so explicitly, emotionally and strongly. All hon. Members have received a massive mail bag on the subject. In addition, we have now had three all-party early-day motions that have been signed by more than 300 hon. Members. It is not a party issue in any sense at all.

The Government decision to persuade the British Fur Trade Association to enter a voluntary agreement was a worthwhile but temporary step. A temporary and voluntary agreement cannot be satisfactory. It means that we constantly have to return to the House with all the uncertainty that this causes in Greenland and Canada about where we stand. How will the Government monitor the extent to which the fur traders operate the voluntary agreement? What happens in the case of fur traders who are not affiliated to the association? I myself might return from Canada with two large suitcases containing pelts. It must be realised that there are grave difficulties involved in operating a voluntary agreement.

This is recognised by the Commission. The resolution passed on 17 December was a temporary arrangement pending the studies that the Commission was required to make before reporting back to the Ministers for a final decision. The moment of decision on 28 February is rapidly approaching. I do not think that the Minister did actually say—I am glad that he did not—that he was committing himself to vote against the regulation when it comes before Ministers on 28 February. If he did, I ask him to intervene to make it clear. I hope that he will not intervene because it is the purpose of Opposition Members and of the public to persuade him.

The Minister must consider seriously the conclusions reached by the Commission. It considered that recent conversations with the Canadian Government had not introduced elements that would enable the doubts expressed by public opinion on a much wider scale than in Britain alone on the baby seal hunt to be dissipated.

The Commission underlined the point that the reinforcement of scientific work, and of measures leading to an improved management of the stocks … are not such as to deal with the problems which are the object of the preoccupations expressed by public opinion. The Commission considers that measures tending to reduce substantially the baby seal hunt will also contribute to improving the conservation status of the species concerned. It was concerned with conservation as well as the humanitarian aspects of cruelty. The conclusion was: The Commission is of the view that these measures"— the voluntary measures— are very disparate and their comparative evaluation is for this reason very difficult. The maintenance of the present situation risks provoking distortions and discriminations". which means, I suppose, that some countries will carry them out more effectively than others.

and that the compatibility of the national measures with the rules of the Treaty is far from being assured. This is a reference to articles 30 and 85.

The Commission added: This unclear situation cannot overcome the uncertainties bearing upon the fur trade as a whole which have led it to come down in favour of a clear ban. Taking account of the above ob servations"— I have not read all of them— the Commission is led to the conclusion that it should maintain as it stands the proposal transmitted to the Council on 19 October 1982. The commission is clear about it. It has fulfilled the mandate placed upon it by the decision of Ministers in December. Now we come to the final moment of decision. Some people thought that when the Ministers had their meeting and a voluntary ban was agreed, it was all over. All of a sudden there were no more signatures on the early-day motion and the postbag dried up. Everyone thought that everything had been resolved. We now know that it has not been resolved, but we are determined that it will be. The German Government, who had been one of the sticking points in getting the regulations through, have completely changed their point of view. What would the reaction be if the British Government were the only Government who would block a ban for all time on the admission of these two types of baby seals, harp and hooded seals? The Government would come under great criticism if it were thought that they were standing in the way of general agreement. The Minister would not have heard the end of it.

I hope that we continue to act across the Chamber in the spirit that we have done tonight. If the British Government were to be the Government who prevented the ending of the importation into the Commission countries of baby seal pelts and products it would become a sharp issue. I would want to see a vote against the Government on that. I would campaign in the country against the Government. I do not want to do that.

This is a non-party matter and the all-party nature of the early-day motion can be preserved only if the Government go along with the other members of the Community on 28 February in support of a mandatory ban for all time so that everyone knows the position. I hope that the Minister has not ruled that out, and that he will agree with the other Ministers. If not, public opinion will be harshly against a Government who are so pusillanimous as to stand in the way of a general ban.

1:27 am
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Mr Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

Hon. Members have been rather less than generous to my hon. Friend about the explanation he gave at the outset. I am satisfied with what he said and with the terms of the motion. The Government will go along with the Community in due course. He was right to make the point, as I understood it, that we must always be masters of our own fate. On moral and commercial issues we must reserve the right to take our own decisions, however emotional the subject may be.

We are a member of the European Community, as we should be, although there is controversy about that. To a certain extent we have to go along with many diktats of the EC, but in other cases we must exercise our own judgment, even if at the end of the day we agree with the decision of the EC. My hon. Friend was right to make that point.

I declare an honorary interest in the issue under debate. I am chairman of the United Kingdom branch of the Wilderness Foundation, which is dedicated throughout the world to the preservation of the wilderness and to the preservation and conservation of wild life. There are large numbers of animals under attack. They do not all get the same exposure as seals because, as has already been said, seals are peculiarly attractive animals. When the subject is given television and press coverage, emotions are aroused immediately and we get an avalanche of correspondence. One thing which the Wilderness Foundation did successfully was to preserve the white rhino in Africa. Today, far from being in danger of extinction, it is flourishing. No one would say that compared with the seal it was a cuddly, nice animal. Therefore, we must retain a sense of proportion when talking about any species of wildlife. However, I agree that much has been wrong. It is no good others saying that the livelihoods of Norwegian and Canadian fishermen will be at stake if they are not permitted to go ahead with the cull, or to get the pelts and skins for manufacturing luxury goods. One could argue in favour of all sorts of dubious activities on the basis that to stop them would lead to unemployment. The countries concerned, particularly Canada, should consider other ways of sustaining those who would be materially affected if large-scale culling were stopped.

There is no doubt that the culling that we have seer and heard about is very distasteful to the public. It cannot be sustained by Britain or other European countries, because it involves, almost exclusively, luxury goods that are imported into Europe. Different criteria would apply if it were a question of food or essentials. However, there can be no defence in this case. No one in his right mind would pretend that the slaughter of seals was unnecessary, but it should be necessary only when there is a severe threat to fishstocks or when the balance of nature is being affected. That applies to all sorts of wild animals. If we bear that point in mind, we shall be on the right lines.

I defend the attitude of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. We must use our own judgment. The Government have not been hesitant about sticking up for animal interests. Although they may not be affected by the more hysterical elements of the animal lobby, they take account of the moral dilemma facing us. From what my hon. Friend has said, I believe that we are on the right lines. However, we must be in a position to exercise our own judgment. I should be very surprised if we did not support the final decision in respect of the Community. Like the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals), I shall bring to bear whatever slight influence I may have on the Government so that they take the right decision.

1:32 am
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Mr Andrew Bennett (Stockport North)

I shall try to be brief. I hope that the House will be able to give the Minister a more or less unanimous message to take with him to the EC. The people of Britain want a permanent enforceable ban as soon as possible. I am sure that most of my constituents find the killing of baby harp and hooded seals barbaric, and they want it stopped very quickly. They want it to be stopped because of the cruelty, and because of the whole argument about conservation. They fully accept that some form of culling may be necessary should the seal population become too great. However, they believe that baby seals do not need to be attacked.

My constituents are correct to believe that there is no overpopulation of either of those species, and no justification for killing any of them. My constituents also accept that, if livelihoods are put at risk, there must be some compensation. However, since the two countries involved are relatively rich, my constituents rightly believe that Norway and Canada can provide that compensation without causing any hardship. My constituents believe that that should happen. They do not want to take away anyone's livelihood.

There is a tendency for my constituents, and many others, to be concerned about conservation of species elsewhere in the world—perhaps more glamorous species—and to forget that there are many less glamorous species at risk in Britain. We must be careful that we do not become hypocritical and insist that the Canadians and Norwegians do something while we are prepared to allow species of dragonfly, butterfly or other small creatures to become extinct because we are not prepared to take conservation measures. It is important that, when pressing other people to do things, we are prepared to do them ourselves.

The essential point is that we do not want voluntary and temporary measures. They mean that we must continue to campaign because there is slow erosion of those powers. My constituents want the clubbing of baby seals to be stopped for ever as a result of permanent, effective, enforceable legislation.

1:36 am
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Mr Teddy Taylor (Southend East)

I accept the opinion of the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett), and the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer), that what we are discussing tonight probably stems from the great upsurge of anger and anxiety about the inhumane killing of baby seals. Undoubtedly it is a wider issue and is not concerned only with seals. There is growing public concern about the appalling and inhumane practices in factory farming and some of the practices nearer home, such as the clubbing of young foxes. That is another intolerable activity. I hope that the Government will respond to what is undoubtedly an upsurge of concern.

My only fear is that there appears to be a great deal of concern about whales and seals, which are far away and largely outwith our control—other than the importing aspect—and not so much concern about things nearer to hand and well within our control. All parties will have to take account of that.

We should concern ourselves with how we can best take action. My fear is that if we adopt the policy suggested by the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West, it might be a means of washing our hands of the position. I wonder whether it would have as much possibility of succeeding in eliminating the practice of clubbing baby seals as the course of action proposed by the Minister. Most of the seals come into Western Europe, and to impose an immediate ban would have a dramatic effect on the market. But for how long would that last? Other markets could well be found, perhaps in the Far East, and we could find ourselves able to absolve our consciences while not having had an impact on stopping the clubbing of baby seals.

What my hon. Friend the Minister said showed the course of action that he put forward as basically designed to obtain a change in attitude by the Canadian Government and others. That is a far more fruitful, helpful and constructive attitude than simply to say that Britain and Western Europe will wash their hands of the position by not purchasing any more baby seal products. We should not disregard the fact that there is always a danger of extending, far more dramatically than hon. Members might think, the scope of the Treaty of Rome by introducing legislation that would be an unusual use of article 113.

I should not oppose a ban on the importation of seal products. We are aware of public anxiety and of the need to do something. If we are genuinely concerned about the inhumane treatment of seals, we should set out sights on how we can stop the practice in Canada, and not only do something ourselves.

My hon. Friend the Minister expressed very clearly and fairly the views that I hold, and which the majority of those concerned about animals hold. If he continues with determination on the course that he has set, which is how to bring about a change of attitude and practice in Canada, he will have my wholehearted support and that of the majority of people in Britain.

1:40 am
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Mr David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

I do not disagree with anything that my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) has said, and would go so far as to endorse everything that he has said, particularly his expression of the widespread concern of the civilised people in this country about the annual culling massacre of these helpless creatures that we witness on our television screens year after year. Anything that we can do to prohibit the importation, availability and sale of these products, we should do without hesitation.

However, were this resolution a once-and-for-all act, I should share the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness that has been expressed by so many hon. Members in the debate this evening. I do not see this as being a once-and-for-all move, or a final move. It is the first and very helpful step forward to securing some form of Community agreement. It should be forcefully expressed that the resolution goes on to ensure that the justification for further Community action on, for example, conservation grounds, is fully investigated, and the Canadian proposals for the international management of seals are considered thoroughly. This is a means of opening a door to even more positive Community action.

I address a personal note to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. When the matter comes before the EC, it is obvious that the Community will take action. Knowing that the Community has an obsession for harmonisation, I should like my hon. Friend to consider that the United Kingdom should be a pace setter, rather than being swept unwillingly and unwittingly to accepting what is common sense, humane, compassionate and dignified.

1:42 am
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Mr Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

By leave of the House. I have valued every contribution made from both sides of the House on this issue. It is extremely helpful for me to hear the views of hon. Members, and it is clear from the way that each hon. Member has addressed this problem that there are certain views that we can all share. The first is the view that the practice of clubbing baby seals has reached the point where hon. Members are clear that action should be taken as far as possible to see that that practice ceases. Secondly, hon. Members are anxious to see that the initiatives taken so far are fruitful in stopping the importation of products.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer), the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) were critical that the actions so far taken are insufficient to achieve that objective. I plead with hon. Members to recognise that the actions that we have taken have not yet become effective, and will not be effected by the British Fur Trade Association until 1 March. I know that hon. Members will agree that the actions proposed are designed to prevent products from the traditional culling period from finding their way to this market.

I emphasise to hon. Members that the consequence of the United Kingdom, through the fur trade association, achieving a voluntary agreement against the importation of these products has been, above all else, a major determinant of the size of the problem faced from the other side of the Atlantic. Absolute access to the market is not now available.

Without the action taken, through the fur trade association, by the United Kingdom Government, we should not he able to tell the House that some 90 per cent. of the trade in these products will not take place this year. It was as a consequence of that that there was initially the decision by the Norwegian Government to abandon culling seal pups, and latterly, and only very recently, the decision by the fur traders in Canada to react also. I accept the strictures that have been laid at my door on the Government's apparent unwillingness to go along with the immediacy of a ban as requested by the Commission to the Council. However, the actions that have been taken have shown that they are having an effect.

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Dr David Clark (South Shields)

I understood the Minister to say that the Government will not go along with the proposed regulation of 28 February. Am I right or wrong in that assumption?

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Mr Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

We have not yet decided what action we shall take on 28 February. It would be a discourtesy to the House to invite its comments on this problem if we had prejudged the issue. Action is already in place that is not based upon the regulation that was drafted by the Commission and it has already had an effect.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West said, in effect, "The action taken so far is all very well, but it is only voluntary." He and others wish to see a positive statutory base for the action that is proposed. I think that the House would be well advised to allow the voluntary ban to proceed. However, if the monitoring procedure that we have introduced shows that the voluntary ban has not proved successful in preventing the importation of pup products, I agree to consult my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade, whose responsibility this is, on the possibility of taking statutory action. It is clear that we wish to see the trading in these products cease. We believe that the method that we have selected is the quickest and most effective way of doing so.

The origin of the trade, the method of the cull and the emotional problems that are so rightly worrying the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett) and many others are outwith the competence of the House or the Community. They lie within the competence of the Canadian and Norwegian Governments. It is crucial that the United Kingdom should play its traditional role of being a Government who have, and wish to develop further, relations with Canada of a character that will allow us to use our good influence, I trust, in fulfilment of what hon. Members wish us to do.

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Mr David Ennals (Norwich North)

The Minister knows that I gave credit for what is, I hope, a temporary step pending a later decision. I was glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that a decision has not yet been taken. If it is decided that we should have only a voluntary agreement, that will ensure that every other country has a voluntary agreement. Without Britain's support the regulation would not be approved. That would mean that the Commission's fears that different countries would operate the agreement in different ways would all be true. I do not understand why there is any doubt left in the hon. Gentleman's mind whether he should sign the regulation and go along with what I understand will be all the other countries in the Community.

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Mr Giles Shaw (Pudsey)

Perhaps I did not make it sufficiently clear to the right hon. Gentleman that all of these matters were discussed at two Council meetings in December. There was considerable resistance by many states to accepting the Commission's proposals. We arrived at a point where a resolution was the only effective way of taking some Community action. As the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, that resolution combines both a voluntary and two statutory methods. I hope that it will have some effect. It is difficult to find a legal basis upon which the Community can act on what is essentially to do with the emotional nature of the cull and the reactions to it, when the Community's legal instrumentation is entirely based on trading factors or factors that are of a measurable and commercial character.

The exception to that is article 235, the conservation article. I accepted what the hon. Member for Stockport, North said. The conservation case is one that I, on behalf of the United Kingdom, pressed most vigorously at both the Council meetings.

With regard to the hooded seal, there must be considerable doubt whether its population is of a size at which conservation should not be introduced. With regard to the harp seal, there are fairly substantial numbers of breeding stock, and there is little doubt that there is hardly a conservation case there. I assure the House that I shall do my utmost to raise the conservation issue in a way that will try to find a regulation or directive that is based on article 235.

I accept that the problem is a continuing one. We should not turn our backs on the problem on the assumption that we can sit back, even in the Council on 28 February, and believe that the matter has been dealt with. We must ensure that the trade is effectively stopped in so far as the Community members of the Community can make that happen, and ensure that our influence is brought to bear. Therefore, I believe that the offer that has been made by the Canadian Government of some commission on sealing is worth examining. I believe that the extent of the contact that has been made so far should be increased if that is possible so that we can get more scientific evidence on the conservation case for the hooded seal.

The opinions that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House with great clarity will be of great importance to the Government in being able to say, "This is what the United Kingdom Parliament wishes us to do." We understand and take the message. I shall do my best to ensure that we can build on the point we have reached. That is the important achievement of a voluntary ban here which will effectively prevent, if it is successful, the majority of the importation of these products.

We shall build on the fact that the Norwegian Government have stopped, and we hope to build on the fact that the Canadian Government are now under pressure to review, their culling practice, and we shall see whether there are ways forward that we can legitimately accept as a basis for Community action. The ways forward that were previously offered were very difficult and may not have had the flexibility that is essential to deal with a case which could have a significant conservation component, which we must examine most carefully and which may not be necessary if we can achieve the banning of the products by other means.

I am most grateful for the speeches that have been made from both sides of the House. I shall bear all these matters most carefully in mind.

Question put and agreed to,

Resolved,That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 10390/82 of 25th October 1982 concerning a Proposal for a Council Regulation on common rules prohibiting the import of skins of certain seal pups and products derived therefrom into the Community; and supports the action taken to meet public concern through effective national measures against the import of the products concerned, pending any decision about action at Community level following further investigation of all aspects of the cull.