Ivory Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:38 pm on 17th July 2018.

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Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley Conservative 4:38 pm, 17th July 2018

My Lords, despite a ban on the international trade in ivory, as we have heard today, tens of thousands of elephants are killed every year for their tusks. There has been an upsurge in poaching in recent years which has led to steep declines, particularly in forest elephant numbers as well as some savannah elephant populations. It is a tragedy. Thriving but unmonitored domestic ivory markets continue in a number of countries, while insufficient anti-poaching capacity, weak law enforcement and corruption compound the problem.

I served as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from September 2012 to May 2015. During that time, among other things I was lucky enough to play a role in the United Kingdom’s efforts to bear down on the poaching and trafficking of wildlife. Several million pounds were granted to projects around the world which contributed to this effort. We organised a conference at Lancaster House in February 2014, which has been referred to in the debate. It was convened by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and attended by both of his sons as well as heads of state and government Ministers from more than 40 countries. That conference was followed by one the next year in Kasane in Botswana, which I attended on behalf of the British Government, and one a year later in Hanoi. As we have heard, there will be another one this autumn, again in London.

Our commitment should be in no doubt, and we have made some progress. Enforcement is now better co-ordinated, and punishments have been made stricter. But more needs to be done. Consumer countries such as China and Vietnam have become engaged. Indeed, at the beginning of this year, the Chinese Government introduced a ban on its domestic ivory trade with exemptions for cultural relics. However, there is still much to do, so I can understand why the Government propose this Bill and, indeed, I welcome certain aspects of it.

I thank the Government for exempting miniatures, albeit since the Bill’s emergence from another place rather more tightly circumscribed than before. On that point, I declare an interest as the owner of a small collection of miniatures, although I have absolutely no intention of selling them. I am now chairman of LAPADA, the art and antique dealers’ trade association. Although my remarks present my own views, they are informed by what I have learned in that capacity.

The Government now propose a total ban on the sale of ivory, with limited, tightly drafted exemptions. I want to focus my remarks on three specific areas of concern. First, thousands of people will have acquired, legally and in good faith, antique items that contain elements of ivory not covered by the exemptions. At a stroke, those items will be made valueless. I would hate to think that the Government simply do not care about those people. We should bear in mind that the Secretary of State put his name to a document that admits that,

“the UK ivory market has not been directly linked to the trade in recently poached ivory”.

I have heard nothing today to contradict that.

Furthermore, in a 2016 television investigation into the trade in poached ivory, the BBC trawled through online listings of hundreds of low-value solid ivory carvings offered at regional auctions and submitted the nine that seemed the most recently made for scientific testing. Just one of them dated from as recently as the 1980s, but of course the existing law would already be able to deal with that if it was illegally poached. Traffic visited 200 dealers in London in 2016 and concluded that not one of the 3,200 items they found containing ivory was new; they therefore did not contain any recently poached ivory. Only one of the items was reportedly made after the current 1947 cut-off date for offering ivory for sale without a permit.

I could show the Minister many examples of items that would be caught by this Bill, but let me give just one: a George V silver and ivory-handled ink blotter, in respect of which the de minimis level would need to be set at 20% for it not to be caught. Since its ivory content would lie above the currently proposed 10% threshold, such items would need certification as being deemed of genuine artistic, cultural or historic significance. They may well not qualify for that, which would mean they would be unsaleable and therefore worthless and which could ultimately lead to them being destroyed. Many thousands of these sorts of items may go the same way. The Government have said that they do not want to continue to rely on the current 1947 cut-off date, after which worked ivory cannot be sold, but this could offer the key to resolving what might otherwise become a thorny problem. I urge the Minister to consider the fact that 1947 is now 70 years ago and that it is technically feasible to age and then certificate ivory.

Secondly, I want to make sure that what we enact and put on the statute book is workable and does not collapse under the weight of its own bureaucracy. Take a small antique dealer with a booth in an antiques centre. He regularly takes in items from house clearances in his neighbourhood. Every single piece of furniture or small object that he buys will need to have been considered and analysed for its ivory content, however small: chests of drawers with small ivory escutcheons around the keyhole; Victorian games boxes inlaid with ivory; music stands with ivory elements; opera glasses; musical boxes—I could go on. Not only will sellers need to decide whether each item is eligible for one of the exemptions, but for each item they believe meets one of the exemption criteria, they will need to give a full description, take and upload a photograph, carefully describe and photograph distinguishing features, and explain why they believe the item meets the exemption criteria before it can be offered to the dealer. This level of detailed information and time applied might be appropriate for a historical antique worth £10,000 but not for objects that sell for £250.

I wonder whether the Government realise just how many such items will feature on this register. Where small elements of inlay are involved on low-value antiques, it is often the case that ivory does not get mentioned in sales descriptions, so if the Government have relied on online searches for “ivory”, they could well be in for a nasty shock as to the numbers of objects people will need to register.

Thirdly, I want to make sure that we do not put in place a regime which is inappropriately draconian in terms of criminalisation and powers of search and entry. Imagine a young couple who move into an old property they want to do up and discover the loft is full of cardboard boxes containing an array of old objects. They set up a stall at a car boot sale with all the objects lined up and they price at £25 a 19th-century wooden tea caddy with pale cream decorative inlay on the lid, to which they do not give a moment’s thought. A random check by an accredited civilian officer spots the box and tells them that it is almost certainly decorated with ivory, even though it amounts to probably just 5%. They are told they should have suspected it to be ivory and have committed an offence by failing to register it. Furthermore, they are reminded that the civil sanctions alone allow for a penalty of up to £250,000. Subsequently, they are fined.

This situation could easily be duplicated for countless other people who want to sell objects with low ivory content, no matter how small the amount of ivory they contain and irrespective of their value. There are thousands—probably hundreds of thousands—of old domestic objects regularly bought and sold containing less than 10% ivory, for example Georgian silver coffee pots with old ivory insulators, and perhaps tens of thousands of musical instruments containing less than 20%, such as old pub pianos with ivory keys. These are objects for which the sellers and buyers will simply not make a connection between the objects and the elephants we want to save. This begs the question: should people be fined, or even criminalised, for failing to list on a government register so many relatively common domestic antiques? Should we not encourage such second-hand objects to be sold and reused, rather than abandoned?

I completely share the Government’s objective of eliminating the poaching of elephants and other rare wild animals. However, as I have said, I have grave concerns about the impact of this Bill on people who have legally acquired items that will now become valueless, about the unwitting creation of a huge bureaucracy, and about criminalising innocent people.