Common Seal (Protection)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29 July 1964.

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8.40 a.m.

Photo of Mr Anthony Fell Mr Anthony Fell , Yarmouth

There are more hon. Members present in the Chamber now than there have been during the last 14 hours. I do not flatter myself, having been an hon. Member for 13 years, and having got to know something of my colleagues, that this has anything to do with the subject I wish to discuss. I think, rather, that most of them have surfaced hoping that they are about to go home and have breakfast.

I should explain that the fact that no representative of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is here is entirely due to my intervention in this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Bullard) and I saw my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary yesterday afternoon. He was very kind to us and we discussed the situation that has arisen with him.

As far as I can gather, unfortunately only two types of seal are protected in this country—the grey seal and—in a rather different way—the Lord Privy Seal. I am sorry that he is not here. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] I have an apology to make to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary. We agreed on a statement, but in my hurried writing of it I left out two rather important words. I should have said: He"— the Joint Parliamentary Secretary— added that where culling of the common seal which does damage to inshore fishing is necessary he hopes it will be done in a humane manner. Unfortunately, I left out the words "he hopes". I appologise for that slip, but he will, I believe, apologise to me for something else so we will, no doubt, call it quits. I thank him on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn and myself for the courteous and most helpful way in which he received us and for agreeing to make a statement. It is partly out of this statement that the difficulty arises.

Those of us interested in seals know that the grey seal is protected for certain periods of the year, but that the common seal is not protected at all. The Ministry of Agriculture has, I think—one never likes to be too certain on these things—been labouring under a misapprehension in that it told us that the only recourse that could be had for inhumane treatment of the common seal was prosecution under the Protection of Animals Act, 1911. I shall not quote extensively from the Act but only enough to show why I believe that the Ministry is labouring under a misapprehension. It says: If any person shall cruelly beat, kick, ill-treat,"— it does not refer to the Lord Privy Seal— torture infuriate, or terrify any animal"— and it goes on to give other instances.

One would have thought that in English "any animal" meant "any animal", but when we get to the definition of the words, we are told that "any animal" does not mean "any animal" at all. The expression "animal'' means any domestic or captive animal. Therefore, the only way in which to bring a prosecution against someone maltreating a common seal would be to find him having captured a common seal standing with his foot on its tail—if it has a tail—and bashing its head with a stick. That would be a captive seal being ill-treated. I believe that that is the right interprelation of the Act, and the R.S.P.C.A. has had the greatest difficulty because of it.

Photo of Mr Denys Bullard Mr Denys Bullard , King's Lynn

There is another possible method of dealing with this matter which we did not discuss yesterday although we should have done. Because of the value of seal skins when the common seals are shot in the water, people are shooting the animals from boats and skinning them in the boats and then tossing the carcasses into the sea from where they are washed up on the coasts of Norfolk. I do not know whether it is in order for carcasses to be tossed into the sea, but if someone tossed a carcass into the sea from the shore, he would probably be subject to prosecution. This is a disgraceful matter and that angle of the subject, too, should be considered.

Photo of Mr Anthony Fell Mr Anthony Fell , Yarmouth

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention.

I have a letter written by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for The Hartlepools (Commander Kerans) by a lady in Norwich which my hon. and gallant Friend has given me permission to quote. It says: Matters here are getting worse and worse because of the slaughter on the Wash. I saw that yesterday. I went to that coast with my husband and we proved some very upsetting rumours for ourselves. The beach attendant at Hunstanton is having quite a time clearing up corpses and dying seals both adults and babies. At Hunstanton a heavy bundle of two adult and five baby seals all skinned and tied up with rope was washed right to the end of the pier. I will not go on. This is horrible at any time of the day and especially at this time of the morning before one has had breakfast. But that is what has caused this row.

Seals have been killed for a number of years. This is important for fishermen, especially the salmon fishermen in the North. The trouble is that there has been a lot of publicity in the last 12 months about the value of the skins which have been bringing £5 and £7 10s. a pelt. We are now getting crowds of youths, using 22 rifles and any other weapons they can get hold of, going out in boats and shooting blind. Shooting blind is bad when the animal is hit but not destroyed. This is the cause of the furore in Norfolk and this is what is worrying people in East Anglia so much.

We have always prided ourselves on our love of animals. I have the greatest respect for the Australians, but I would not like to think that the British were falling behind the Australians in our love of animals and our respect for the way in which they should be treated. However, the Australians had a problem with kangaroos. People were chasing masses of them for long distances until the animals fell down. They were then knocking the kangaroos on the head and carting them into town and selling them as hamburgers.

At any rate, this was taken up by a number of people in Australia, and the Australian Government found a way of stopping it. I really think that the Government are in a bit of a difficulty about this, but I have no doubt, in view of the very kindly way and sincere manner in which my hon. Friend and I were received by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture that they will want to do something about this.

It seems that we have now got to the position where the poor common seal is not, in fact, protected in any way, either by the Protection of Animals Act, 1911, or by the sort of protection afforded to the grey seal because of its greater rarity. I must say in passing that I think all of us, when we were kids, were fond of seals—almost as fond as of any other kind of toy. I really find it difficult to see a difference between the look of the grey seal and the common seal. They are both very nice animals which have afforded us a lot of pleasure.

When I began, I said how surprised I was to find such a large number of hon. Members present in the Chamber after 18 hours of debate. Owing to what has been going on in the last two or three minutes, I am not only surprised; I am not at all sure that I am completely happy about it either. One thing is clear—I really must stop and let everybody go home to breakfast. But I must say this. We did appeal in a statement we issued for people to send us or the R.S.P.C.A. evidence of cruelty in the killing of the common seal, but, in fact, this is not possible because the Act of 1911 is so framed, I believe, that one cannot get the evidence at all.

This is why I want to appeal to the better nature of those people who just go in for the killing of the common seal to pick up a few pounds here and there to stop this business and leave those who really are practised in it and who know what they are doing to do it only where it is necessary. I also want to appeal to people who read about this to really give these boys a bit of a belting or a bit of a rough time if they carry on doing it. I appeal finally to the Government to try to find a way to get over this business, which really has become a disgrace in East Anglia.

8.53 a.m.

Photo of Mr Robert Cooke Mr Robert Cooke , Bristol West

I do not intend to detain the House very long, but I have a very special interest in these charming animals. I have a zoological gardens in my constituency and I have admired their appearance for many years.

The House will recall the sad occasion when a preacher went to the cliffside to preach and thought afterwards that he had comforted many thousands of persons, only to find afterwards that he had been talking to seals who had come to listen to him. I hope that my hon. Friend's seductive words and charming sentences will not bring the seals to the seashore in their thousands to be slaughtered in this inhumane fashion, and I wish him every success.

8.55 a.m.

Photo of Commander Sir Peter Agnew Commander Sir Peter Agnew , Worcestershire South

I also do not wish to detain the House, but I want to make one point which is relevant to the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill. It appears that the procedure on the Bill has become somewhat perverted, and extra expense has been occurred in the Bill which could have been saved if the House had not to sit all night for what has been nothing more than a series of Adjournment debates, for which a more convenient hour could surely have been provided before the close of the Session.

While it reflects the fair play with which the present Government have always associated themselves in their treatment of Private Members, nevertheless it does not redound to the credit of our Parliamentary procedure within the context of modernisation, and it involves the spending of money through the unnecessary use of time throughout the night in this way.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.