Illegal Logging

– in Westminster Hall at 3:59 pm on 28th February 2007.

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Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North 3:59 pm, 28th February 2007

I hope that voting in the House will not cause too much disruption to this very important debate on what needs to be done to end illegal logging. By way of introduction, I want to say how pleased I am that my hon. Friend the Minister is in his post, following in a long line of Ministers who have done a huge amount to combat illegal logging.

Let me remind hon. Members how important timber procurement is. Our forests are the jewel of the planet and their value simply cannot be calculated. Millions of people depend on them and they provide a rich habitat for wildlife. Eighty per cent. of the orang-utan's habitat has disappeared in the past 10 years alone. Perhaps most importantly, our forests provide a carbon sink. The total amount of carbon stored in forests is 50 per cent. more than in the atmosphere. Degradation of our forests creates 2 billion tonnes of emissions a year—25 per cent. of all man-made emissions. It is clear that deforestation could be catastrophic for humanity and for our planet as a whole. It is a development and humanitarian issue as much it could be an environmental disaster. It is important for me to explain at the outset that we have a mutual reliance on and therefore a responsibility for our forests, including rain forests.

I think that we are all aware of the damage that is being done. I want to thank in particular those who have played a part in increasing public awareness of the issue over the years, including non-governmental organisation campaigners, who sometimes have even risked their lives to move the issue high up on the political agenda. We have a debt of honour to them: we must ensure that the action needed to outlaw illegal activity altogether is taken. There has been a breakthrough in the past five years. I warmly welcome the Government's recognition that forests are under threat and the subsequent action and recognition that the UK has an important role on the issue. Indeed, the UK has played not just a part, but a leading role internationally.

Let us make no mistake: the trade in illegal timber encourages unsustainable forestry practices. It depresses market prices by 6 to 17 per cent. and clearly undermines legitimate operators. I can vouch for that, having just come from a meeting with representatives of the wood panels industry and having been in contact with representatives of the "Wood for Gold" campaign. They and many others repeatedly make the point that illegal operations undermine the rule of law in many producer countries.

Today's debate is timely, not least because the European Union consultation currently under way closes next week and because it is now five years since the Johannesburg world summit on sustainable development. At that summit, it was recognised that the UK Government have a particularly important role in taking a lead domestically and internationally, and through the EU and the G8. In the past few months, there has been publication of the Stern report, which more than anything has drawn a strong link between climate change and deforestation. It has also impressed on us the fact that time is running out; we must deal with the issue urgently. The Department for International Development has led the way in establishing a role for the forestry industry in respect of international development policies.

Despite all that progress since the Johannesburg world summit, the UK still imports 3.2 million cu m of illegal wood. We are the largest importer of illegal wood in the EU; 6 to 7 per cent. of the wood products that we import are illegal. That amounts to £700 million a year. I want the debate this afternoon to concentrate on how we can stop the trade in illegal logging and ensure that the issue stays at the top of the agenda.

Early-day motion 132, which I tabled, is on illegal logging, and it has signatures from more MPs than any other EDM currently on the Order Paper, so there is a huge number of MPs who I am sure would be here if they were not debating important legislation in the main Chamber. I therefore feel that it is right that we are revisiting the issue today, particularly as it is about a year since the report on sustainable timber was published by the Select Committee on Environmental Audit, whose Sub-Committee on Sustainable Timber I chaired. I am very glad to see here Gregory Barker, given his links with the Environmental Audit Committee. He speaks for the Opposition on these issues. We have been following carefully the Government response to that report. The debate is about reminding the Government that it is time for an update and asking what they will now do—what they will aim for over the next five years.

I want to concentrate briefly on legislation in relation to illegal logging. I understand that the Minister sees the EU as the preferred route for legislative solutions. Those of us who have examined carefully the FLEGT—forest law enforcement, governance and trade—programme and the voluntary partnership agreements applaud the people responsible for those measures. I have said repeatedly that I welcome the political leadership that the Government are providing in Europe. I also welcome the £24 million that DFID has obtained from the Treasury and committed to many of those voluntary partnership agreements. It was clear from the evidence that the Select Committee took that many developing countries depend on that as they go forward. However, the FLEGT programme and the VPAs have shortcomings and should not be seen as the only way of dealing with this issue. I want them to be seen as paving the way for further action in pursuit of a total ban.

When my hon. Friend Mr. Morley, a former Environment Minister, attended the Select Committee, he said:

"I think ultimately that is where we should get to."

He was referring to a ban on illegal timber.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating the debate and I congratulate the Government, who have done a lot of good work in this area. Does she agree that one of the biggest problems with the voluntary partnership agreement is the lack of a proper audit trail and that, until we have legislation in this area, we will never be able to track back properly to see where the illegality starts, where it continues and who makes the money from it?

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is spot on: we do need such an audit trail. He has highlighted a point that I want to make later—there is not one simple, single solution to all this; we need progress on all fronts, in one direction, all at the same time. Certainly the voluntary partnership agreements could be much more effective if there were such an audit trail, but there again we are not going to get that. The situation is a bit like that with the Government's recent statement on housing, setting out that they want all homes to be carbon free in 10 years' time. We need to be setting out now the direction of travel for the regulations that are needed, so that everyone connected with this has time to put in place step by step the different measures that are needed.

One matter that the Government have been considering is the possibility of a Lacey-style Act, which I think at one stage was being considered in Germany. Certainly we heard evidence to the effect that that type of legislation could be adopted in the EU in such a way that World Trade Organisation rules would not be contravened. I would like to hear from the Minister how thinking on that issue has moved on. With the WTO, it is perhaps a question of just saying, "Right. This is the action we're going to take and we're going to go ahead now and do it."

Photo of Gregory Barker Gregory Barker Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this very worthwhile debate; it has our wholehearted support. She has just made a point about the similarities with going carbon neutral. There are very real and understandable reasons why it is difficult to go immediately to being carbon neutral. There are genuine reasons why people would have to employ fossil fuels—for heating by gas, for example. However, there can be no excuse and no justifiable commercial reason why anyone should now be using illegally logged timber. We must make that very clear.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I partly agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I refer him to the point made by my hon. Friend Mr. Drew. If people do not know what they are using because they do not have the proper certification and there is no audit trail, they might well have no excuse—other than that they do not know what they are using and there is no traceability in respect of the journey from the producer country right the way through to the point where the sale took place between the developer or the commissioner of construction work and the supplier of the timber. The issue is putting in place the whole series of steps that will make all those things possible.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Labour, North Swindon

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate, which is, for the reasons she gave, extremely timely. The discussion reveals the need for legislation—crucially, rapid legislation—not only because it would enable the audit trail to be constructed effectively, which it currently is not, but because, as Gregory Barker said, we have to give a powerful signal that this practice is no longer acceptable. Legislation would provide a means of enforcement, and it is the most powerful way in which we can signal that, culturally, this practice is no longer acceptable, for all the reasons that my hon. Friend has so cogently stated.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I know that he has done a huge amount of work on this issue over many years, of which I am sure that his constituents are aware. He is right to say that we cannot have one thing without the other. We have had five years since Johannesburg, but progress has been slow and painful. We have started to put in place different initiatives such as the voluntary partnership agreements, and now that we have done that we can make a step change and go a lot further and faster. We can have a situation regarding illegal timber that we could not have dreamt of having five years ago. Now that certain things are in place, we can change the pace. If today's debate does anything, I want it to signify that all those Members who signed my early-day motion, such as my hon. Friend, are absolutely insistent that we must go full steam ahead to get what we need. In that respect, will the Minister tell us whether the Government will contribute to the EC consultation and whether that will be made public? Will he be consulting regarding what goes forward? Perhaps we can use the debate as a basis for that.

Does the Minister believe that the VPA process will stop illegal timber entering the EU? Does he recognise that there will be gaps in the VPAs, with circumvention, for example, and that we have to do it all together in one go? Does he believe that certification could be used to prove legality? Does he recognise that legislation could complement the VPA process?

Will the Minister set out which of the four options that are up for consultation he believes should be taken forward? Having spoken to a number of people, including at Chatham House, I believe that we might need an amalgam of the four options in the European paper that is out for consultation. The Government need to work urgently with non-governmental organisations and the industry to find a way of putting forward a ban that makes sense.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

Order. As there is a Division in the House, I suspend the sitting for 15 minutes, until 4.28 pm. However, if all Members present are back before then, I shall be happy to resume the debate earlier.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

It is most difficult to keep the thread of the debate at a time of interruption. I hope that we will not have further interruption, but it might be appropriate for you to relay information about this situation back to the Administration Committee, Mr. Bercow. Perhaps we need to have voting facilities in Westminster Hall for occasions when debates are going on both here and in the main Chamber.

I was discussing what assurances the Minister can give us. I wanted to end that section of my speech by saying that irrespective of what he is able to do on illegal timber, it is important that he tells us what he can do on the social aspects of sustainable timber procurement, because that is a vital issue.

On public procurement policy, our Government have the ability and responsibility to develop a market for legal and sustainable timber. As I have said, I applaud all that they have done, including their commitment to buy legal and ideally sustainable timber, and in particular the establishment of the Central Point of Expertise on Timber Procurement—CPET. My concern, however, is that performance across Government has been very variable. There has been a good response in some Departments, but a haphazard one in others. I understand that there has not been a perceptible increase in demand for certified timber from suppliers.

I want to concentrate on what we can do to put the spotlight on procurement policy in every respect. Will the Minister say to what extent the Government recognise the importance of adequate data as the foundation for a successful procurement policy—a point that was ably raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Stroud and for North Swindon (Mr. Wills)? In addition, what is the point of having a target if we cannot properly verify it? That was brought to our attention by the Environmental Audit Committee's inquiry. Why were no targets for timber procurement included in the new sustainable procurement targets for the Government estate set in June 2006? There may be a target, but is it being properly verified?

With the launch of the sustainable action plan in June 2006 and the new sustainable procurement targets for the Government estate, have there been any developments on how to obtain proper data to verify those targets? What further measures has the Minister taken to strengthen central procurement? Does he agree that there is no place for illegal timber in any public procurement project? What progress is he making on the new local authority engagement strategy? To what extent are the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government working together on a comprehensive strategy for all councils to advise and train their procurement officers?

A further issue concerns the Learning and Skills Council and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. To what extent is the subject being included in the new qualifications for construction workers, so that everyone has an understanding of where sustainable timber fits in? Overall, what potential is there better to synchronise public sector procurement strategy throughout Europe?

Finally, while preparing for this debate, I spoke to the Olympic Delivery Authority. The Government have said that they intend the London Olympics to be the greenest ever. The most recent policy statement sets out not just a principled way of moving towards the procurement of sustainable timber, but a framework through which industry, NGOs, the Government and everyone else can work together to provide an exemplar of best policy. If the Minister can tell us today how those initiatives are being taken forward and how he is playing an international leadership role in the wider negotiations through the G8 and the follow-up to the world summit on sustainable development, perhaps we can make real progress in imposing the ban on illegal timber that is needed, as well as the other action plans.

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs) 4:33 pm, 28th February 2007

My hon. Friend Joan Walley will know how delighted I am that she secured this debate, not only because of its importance, but because of the work that she has done in her various capacities in the House over a number of years, not least in the Environmental Audit Committee. She has been committed to the matter for many years, and I am delighted to respond to her questions.

My hon. Friend talked about accelerating progress in addressing the legality of wood supplies coming into the UK. I want to make it clear that progress is accelerating. That is critical to my message today.

My hon. Friend spoke of the incalculable value of forests. That may be incalculable, but the $15 billion lost each year by some of the poorest countries in the world through illegal logging is calculable. That is the extent of the problem that she has put before us. Some of the poorest people in the world lose the most. More than that, 20 per cent. of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere, which contribute to climate change, come from deforestation. That is a measure of the social importance of the issue. It is absolutely right that my hon. Friend raised it in those terms today.

In both procurement and the wider control of wood supplies, sustainability absolutely remains the Government's goal. Verification of legality—we spoke much about legality in the debate—is simply the first step and an indicator of sustainability. It is not an alternative to it.

I shall now address some of the points that my hon. Friend and other hon. Members raised. We are pursuing three main courses of action: public procurement, partnerships with producer countries, and a complementary, comprehensive EU law review.

My hon. Friend referred to CPET, which reviewed the five forest certification schemes that were first addressed in 2004. Three schemes made changes to their requirements to meet the Government's criteria. CPET is focusing on the implementation of our policy by the UK public sector. There have been training workshops—my hon. Friend spoke of the need for training, and she is absolutely right. That training is not simply in central Government; it is to spread CPET's work to local authorities throughout the country, many of which would like to participate with us in their procurement policies, but do not know how to do so. That is why we made CPET experience available more widely to them.

CPET has also embarked on visits to Departments to monitor application of the policy, and to offer advice. It is assisting by promoting harmonisation of policies in the EU. I am pleased to report that Denmark and the Netherlands are both advising public sector organisations in their countries to use CPET's advice on which schemes should be accepted by them as guarantors of sustainability and legality.

There are some differences between the Government's policy and that being adopted by some member states. In particular, our standard contract requirements exclude reference to the protection and well-being of forest-dependent people. My hon. Friend made that point, and the UK has been challenged on that. We are a signatory to international agreements on sustainable forestry that recognise the importance of protecting forest-dependent peoples' rights and customs, so that challenge is understandable. We are seeking further advice on procurement law, and will change our position to include relevant social criteria if we are confident that it would be appropriate and legal to do so.

My hon. Friend will be aware that the Governments of Denmark and the Netherlands concluded that that was appropriate and legal. Our previous legal advice is that that would not be appropriate or legal, and we are considering whether to revise that and whether we can press it further.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Labour, Stoke-on-Trent North

Will the Minister indicate when there might be an outcome and a decision on that?

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs)

My hon. Friend seeks a deadline; I seek an outcome. She knows that I am as keen as she is to press ahead, but I do not even pretend to understand lawyers' minds, or the length of time it takes them to deliberate. I see a lawyer standing in the Chamber, no doubt to remonstrate with me.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Labour, North Swindon

Alas, I am not a lawyer, but I am concerned about the speed of progress. I want to pick up on the pressure that my hon. Friend Joan Walley is putting on the Minister. Does he accept that speed is of the essence, because while the threat of legislation exists but is not realised, illegal logging is likely to escalate, and even more of the world's forests will be lost? Speed really matters, so can he assure me that the Government have taken account of that?

Photo of Barry Gardiner Barry Gardiner Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Biodiversity, Landscape and Rural Affairs)

Yes. The development of a discerning market for legal and sustainable timber requires institutional and market processes to work together. The UK has continued to support co-operation with the timber trade, especially in getting messages to the supply chain that legal timber is now required. Much has been achieved—that has been acknowledged in this debate—but I am determined that there must be a serious step change in Government procurement and in our actions to address illegal and unsustainable timber production. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks that the Government and I recognise that time is of the essence. As the Environmental Audit Committee noted in its most recent report on sustainable timber, there is an absence of targets and reliable performance measurement. I expect to be able to make an announcement on the issue before Easter 2007.

Persuading UK local authorities to adopt responsible timber procurement policies has proved to be challenging. I share the EAC's disappointment that the majority of local authorities continue not to adopt such policies. As local sustainable development policy is devolved, it is not appropriate for the Government to be too demanding or critical in that respect. However, that is why we have commissioned Chatham House to examine the timber supply chains of some local authorities in the north-east, and to show other authorities how responsible timber procurement can be achieved. That is also why we made CPET's expertise available to local authorities throughout the country.

I can report accelerating progress in restricting the trade in illegal timber on two fronts. The negotiation of partnership agreements with producer countries under the EU's forest law enforcement, governance and trade programme, or FLEGT, is developing apace and things are at last moving on the potential development of complementary measures at an EU level. Malaysia and Ghana have started formal negotiations, and Indonesia will do so next month. We anticipate that several more countries will confirm their intention to proceed with negotiations by the summer. The length of negotiations will vary, but we expect the first partnership agreement to be signed by the end of this year. The Department for International Development is supporting negotiations in Ghana and Indonesia. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North remarked, the UK has allocated £24 million over the next five years to tackle illegal logging through that process.

Progress in negotiating partnership agreements has been good to date, but partner countries must see a defined market for legal and sustainable timber to give them both first-mover advantage and a long-term future for their forest products. Our procurement decisions must assure partner countries that we are providing such a market. That is why the UK public procurement policy will accept FLEGT-licensed timber.

My hon. Friend spoke at some length about options for comprehensive control of illegal timber at EU level. The Government have been pressing for serious exploration of options for further legislation at the EU level. Progress has been disappointing, but there are now clear signs that progress is picking up pace. The European Commission opened a public consultation on options on 20 December last year. It is important to stress that those options are presented in outline. The Commission has made no formal proposal to the Council of Ministers. Detailed work must be done to ensure that any future legal instrument represents good and enforceable law.

However, it is time for serious, mature and more detailed debate about the options to begin. Of particular interest are proposals to make the import, export and commercial transfer of timber products illegally logged in their country of origin, illegal in the EU. That approach, which relates to the remarks that my hon. Friend made about a Lacey-style Act, has a number of merits. It is not discriminatory against imports, but does discriminate against illegality wherever that occurs, and places a duty of due diligence and a risk of prosecution upon anyone who deals in timber. Such an approach also avoids the need for mandatory and complex paper trails to accompany all timber shipments. That said, there are a number of legal issues to be explored with care before a firm view is taken, as I am sure my hon. Friend realises.

My hon. Friend mentioned imposing a ban on illegal timber imports, which some have proposed, as opposed to the Lacey-style enforcement that I have described. A ban would mean new legislation to prohibit the import of timber that was not accompanied by proof of legality. There are a number of problems with that, which I hope she will take on board and understand. A ban would be based upon the assumption that most illegally logged timber originates outside the EU, which could fall foul of World Trade Organisation rules. A ban would impose a considerable and unnecessary administrative burden upon the vast bulk of legal trade. Evidence of legality for import might also be regarded as having the same status in the market as FLEGT-licensed timber, which might have higher production costs. That would reduce the incentive for timber-producing countries, which are some of the very poorest, to enter partnership agreements to improve their governance and sustainability, and their processes for achieving that in future. A ban is one of those ideas which sounds effective, attractive and simple, but it is not. The Lacey-style approach that my hon. Friend discussed is the better way to go.

In conclusion, all in this debate want to see healthy and sustainable forests and a healthy and sustainable timber industry. The Government are firmly committed to using Britain's influence as a timber-consuming nation. I believe that we are on the point of making substantial progress on procurement, on legislation, both domestically and in the EU, and on aligning our partner countries throughout the world to achieve those objectives.