Ivory Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:32 pm on 17th July 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 5:32 pm, 17th July 2018

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, ended on a moving note but it was a remarkably non-pacifist speech before then and I shall think of him in future as “Bazooka Jones”. I was getting rather depressed with this debate during the first six speeches. It did not really turn into a debate until my noble friend Lord Lingfield inserted Disraeli’s paper knife. From then on there has been a degree of balance and real interest in the debate.

There is unanimity in your Lordships’ House about the nobility of the elephant, the necessity to preserve the elephant, and the evil of those who indulge in poaching and make nefarious gains as a result of illicit trade. On all this there is unanimity, and I subscribe to it utterly and totally. There was not a word of the speech of my noble friend Lord Selkirk on elephants with which I did not agree wholeheartedly. However, it is not as simple as that.

I am reminded of the famous instance when, shortly after he became king, Edward VIII said when visiting the Welsh valleys, “Something must be done”. The “something must be done” syndrome is not necessarily the begetter of good legislation. The legislation before your Lordships’ House is well intentioned but flawed. It is not just the road to hell that is paved with good intentions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer—I think that I have the territorial designation right—spoke very passionately about species threatened by the demolition of rainforests. I was very moved by the recent programme in which Her Majesty and David Attenborough walked through the gardens of Buckingham Palace talking about the Queen’s great Commonwealth forest programme, and I agreed with all of that. I remember when the future of the rainforests was debated here, in another place and elsewhere, and I also remember the late Tam Dalyell tackling the King of Spain on a visit to Madrid in 1989, which I had the privilege of leading, but at no stage in that debate did people suggest that in order to preserve the rainforests we should ban the sale of mahogany furniture made in the 18th century. There is an analogy here.

Of course I want to see online sales totally banned and of course I want to see the illicit trade in ivory come to an end, but I also have an interest to declare not just in the heritage of Africa but in the heritage of our country and of Europe. I want to draw attention to the extraordinary importance of many of the finest works of art which were crafted in Europe from the Middle Ages onwards. I think of crucifixes in cathedrals around this continent; I think of small, hand-held devotional figures of the Virgin Mary made in their thousands in Dieppe in the 17th and 18th centuries; and I think too of all the furniture adorned, although not in an extravagant way, with ivory from the 16th and 17th centuries onwards. This is part of the warp and weft of our civilisation and our history, and, although it is not the Minister’s intention, in this Bill we are in danger of trashing much of our history.

My noble friends Lord de Mauley and Lord Carrington of Fulham both gave examples and instances of how difficult it will be to measure the 10% or, in the case of musical instruments, the 20%. This will lead to a bureaucratic minefield if we are not careful. How many elephants will be saved by the rigorous application of these rules and regulations, and how many extinct mammoths—extinct for millennia—will be brought back by musicians having mammoth ivory in their instruments? We have to get this in perspective but I fear that the Bill does not do that.

I am delighted that there is an exemption for miniatures. Much of the provincial as well as the national history of our country is told in miniature paintings. You can go to country house after country house, many of them in the possession of the National Trust, and see miniatures of family members who played an enormous part in that particular locality two or three centuries ago.

I wonder how many noble Lords have read Edward de Waal’s fascinating book, published about four years ago, The Hare with Amber Eyes. It was a moving account of a collection of Japanese netsuke—those little toggles that the Japanese were so wonderfully accomplished in making. How much ivory is involved? A tiny bit, and yet they are not encompassed by this. How many would qualify as objects of great artistic and cultural importance? Some, undoubtedly, but the majority not. Yet some people have made it their life’s work to collect them, entirely legitimately and properly, and even a modest collection can be worth tens of thousands of pounds. Do we really want to support a Bill that sequesters private property in that way and destroys the nest egg of the teacher or the doctor who has collected over the years? That applies particularly to the more domestic things. One of my noble friends mentioned theatre tickets, and there were ivory race tickets too. They are objects of no great beauty and intrinsically of no great value, and yet they help to tell the story of the social history of our country in the 18th century. Are we really saying that the teacher I once met, on a very modest income, who had amassed a significant collection of these things, can keep them as their property or can give them away, but cannot sell them to realise on them to augment their pension?

We are entering deep waters here and it is not helpful for this House to approve legislation, the consequences of which have not been fully thought through. Of course we must do everything we can do deal with poaching; of course we must help those countries in Africa that need help; of course we must follow the advice of the noble Lord, Lord Jones, and my noble friend Lady Chalker and others. But do we really need a Bill this long in this detail, with all its powers for the invasion of privacy, searching out people who have acquired things entirely legitimately and treating them as if they are criminals? That is wrong and it is not in the spirit of our country.

Somebody talked about museum quality. But what is museum quality for the Victoria and Albert Museum here in London is not necessarily the same as museum quality in the city in which I am privileged to live, Lincoln, to which the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, came about 18 months ago and delivered a splendid talk. There are things that we would wish to have in our museum, relating to Lincolnshire families and to Lincolnshire people, that would not be of the remotest interest to the V&A. It is subjective. I believe that, when this Bill goes to Committee, we will have to look at these points very carefully.

Do we really have to boast that our regime is stricter than almost any other regime in the world? In France—where they actually did win the World Cup—they do it with a little more finesse. Of course, online sales are banned completely, dealers have to be registered and certain things have to have certificates, but it could be done in a gentler way. We do not need this complex, draconian legislation. We need to put all our emphasis on the preservation of the living elephants and those that will live in the future—and other species too. But that does not mean that we have to cast doubts on those wonderful walrus ivory chess men from the Isle of Lewis, which are one of the great treasures of the British Museum. Let us get this in perspective and try to improve this Bill, which has an admirable aim but which is sadly deficient in many particulars.