As always, Mr. Benton, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I thank the Liaison Committee for making time available to debate this important subject, and I especially thank my colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee, all of whom I regard as friends. I know that only two or three of them can be here today, but they have all contributed to the report, which is a joint effort.
I welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice, to his new role. I have just had it confirmed that this is his first outing on the Front Bench in a debate, apart from Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions this morning. I look forward to hearing his views in his winding-up speech. We always remember the first time we do something; it may be that he will feel he can work with the Environmental Audit Committee on the first issue that he debated as Minister in Westminster Hall. As he is an ex officio member of our Committee, I look forward to seeing him help drive the sustainable development agenda. I also welcome my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner to the Opposition Front Bench in his new role as shadow DEFRA Minister. It is also appropriate for me to say that we appreciated everything that the Minister’s predecessor, Richard Benyon, did on this agenda. I might not always have agreed with his views, but he was always courteous and constructive.
The background to this debate goes back to an Environmental Audit Committee debate in 2004, when we called on the then Government to restate their commitment to tackling wildlife crime and criticised their refusal to accept it as an issue deserving of committed policing resources. Our 2004 report made a real difference. It led to the setting up of the wildlife crime unit. When the Committee decided in the current Parliament to return to the issue, it was natural for us to stick to broadly the same remit as the previous Committee report. We wanted to concentrate on areas where we hoped our unanimous recommendations could make a difference.
In a relatively short time, wildlife crime has gone right to the top of the national and international agenda. I believe that it was right for the coalition agreement to refer to wildlife crime and the importance of tackling smuggling and the illegal trade in wildlife through the new border police force. Events have moved so rapidly that we now have a far greater understanding of how global wildlife crime and illegal wildlife trafficking are growing threats to nature, the livelihoods of the poorest and international security.
Accordingly, our current report began its life with a call for evidence in January 2012. In response, we received 57 separate written submissions from organisations and individuals, a relatively large number of submissions for a Select Committee, which reflects the importance that the public attach to the issue. We followed up the written submissions with seven oral evidence sessions, which, as might be expected, included Government agencies, Government and non-governmental organisations. We finally published our report in September 2012 and got the Government response in March 2013, so it all seems quite a long time ago.
It is worth putting on record that we are disappointed by how long it took the Government to respond to our report’s recommendations; I see all my fellow Committee members nodding their heads. I suspect that one reason—the new Minister might help us on this—may have been some delay by the Home Office in getting back to what the Government were doing. I hope that in future, our recommendations will have speedier responses. After we got our response, it was some time before we could get a debate. What with the summer recess, we are having the debate today.
However, it does not matter that it has taken so long to have this debate, as there have been many significant developments in the short space of time since we reported. One is that the links between wildlife crime and serious organised crime are now being widely recognised around the world. It is clear that the poaching of endangered species has rocketed since 2007. The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be the fifth most lucrative illicit transnational activity worldwide, worth up to £10 billion a year. We are told that increasingly, it is the preserve of organised crime gangs: international criminal networks with links to terrorism, drugs and rebel militia. It is a huge agenda.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her excellent chairmanship of the Environmental Audit Committee. At the high-level meeting on international poaching and wildlife trafficking in New York last month, it was encouraging that the UK supported the proposal for a UN special envoy on wildlife crime. During that meeting, the President of Gabon commented that illicit wildlife crime is, exactly as she said, not just an environmental problem but a serious threat to peace and security. Does she agree that that is yet another reason why the Government should now commit to funding our excellent national wildlife crime unit beyond 2014?
As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. What President Obama has done, and what has been happening in the United Nations in the intervening time since our Committee reported, is making a huge difference. It shows that we must be able to lead internationally, nationally and locally. I keep returning to this point. If the Minister takes away one message from this debate, it should be that the national wildlife crime unit must be supported properly. I will come to those issues later in my report.
I welcomed the May 2013 UN commission on crime prevention and criminal justice agreement, which called on the nations of the world to consider wildlife and forest crime a serious form of organised crime. As we have just heard, that report to the UN Security Council highlighted the potential link between poaching and other organised criminal behaviour, including terrorism.
All that is happening on the world stage, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has prioritised it internationally. Meanwhile, we have many local organisations and non-governmental organisations doing the same thing nationally, operating here as Wildlife and Countryside Link agencies to press the Government to implement in full the recommendations in our report. It is worth putting on record the names of those participating agencies: the Bat Conservation Trust, the Environmental Investigation Agency, Humane Society International UK, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals and WWF UK. They are all saying exactly what my hon. Friend said: what we do on the world stage must be matched by what we do here. That is important.
All those organisations have been very vocal and robust in their work, and supportive of the UK Government’s leadership bid to tackle the illegal wildlife trade by hosting a high-level meeting on 12 and
The first recommendation relates to the national wildlife crime unit. All the evidence told us that it is strategic and co-ordinates wildlife crime enforcement. No one had a bad word to say about it; it was universally praised, which is unusual in a Select Committee inquiry. It obviously has good relationships with UK police forces, Interpol and international enforcement agencies. It has a lot of expertise and is doing a good job in respect of the trade in endangered species, illegal taxidermy and auction sales, bat and badger-related offences, marine species, reptile smuggling, wild bird netting and egg collecting. I cannot get my head around the fact that the sums involved in the unit are very small. DEFRA and the Home Office each contributed £144,000 in 2011-12, £136,000 in 2012-13—the amount is going down—and £136,000 in 2013-14. Those are very small amounts of money, which are making a huge difference.
Given the range and effectiveness of the NWCU’s work, the Committee concluded that it is excellent value for money and punches above its weight, but how can such an agency be run on an ad hoc, year-on-year basis? It cannot plan future expansion, it cannot keep good staff, and every year it spends all its time making the case to DEFRA and the Home Office for the funding to be agreed in the comprehensive spending review, because the money is not in the baseline budget. Why not? It should be. The Committee recommended that the Government reinforce success by implementing long-term funding arrangements for the NWCU. The previous Minister did well to get a one-year extension, but we need permanent funding.
Another issue of a little concern relates to the then newly appointed Association of Chief Police Officers lead on wildlife crime, Chief Constable Stuart Hyde. He gave evidence to the Committee, and we were looking forward to seeing how his ideas on wildlife crime enforcement would pan out in practice. He was suspended from duty in September 2012 following allegations of misconduct, unrelated to the wildlife crime brief, I hasten to add. How has the work that he was to do been taken up and carried on in his absence?
Staying with enforcement issues, we identified the need for reviews of Crown Prosecution Service wildlife crime prosecutions and the penalties for wildlife crime, the introduction of sentencing guidelines for the judiciary and training for magistrates. Most of those featured in our 2004 report. Despite the Government saying in their response to the report that they would not follow those recommendation, the time for the Government to give them a fresh look is long overdue. There are also issues with invasive species, which some of my colleagues took a great interest in, which we must return to and keep under the scrutiny of the Committee.
Moving on from enforcement, I want to discuss the hen harrier briefly. It is arguably the species most at risk of extinction in England and Wales. I notice that DEFRA has a target in its business plan of no extinctions in England and Wales. It is important that Departments do what departmental business plans say they are going to do. We are looking at a range of departmental business plans, but DEFRA has the target in its business plan, so what is it doing?
I could talk at length about the different views that witnesses who gave evidence to our inquiry had on the cause of the decline in hen harriers. We felt that persecution is a key factor in the decline of the hen harrier. I draw the Minister’s attention to five academic studies, by Redpath, Natural England, Summers, Etheridge, and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee. The JNCC found that the most common form of persecution is deliberate nest disturbance, which is why, after a lengthy discussion, we felt that the Government should evaluate the effect of an offence of vicarious liability in relation to the persecution of birds of prey, as the Scottish Government did in 2011, and consider introducing such an offence in England and Wales, to make landowners responsible for the activities of their gamekeepers. The Government said that they would review the matter as soon as statistics were available, and I can tell the Minister that when the Select Committee visited the Green Investment Bank in Edinburgh, we had a brief discussion with MSPs and put that on their agenda. Are the statistics on the impact of the offence of vicarious liability in Scotland available? Will the Government look at the Scottish experience and report back?
All international wildlife crime is serious. We heard that the tiger, the elephant and the rhinoceros all face extinction in their natural habitats due to demand for illegal wildlife products derived from their body parts. Most troublingly, we heard that those body parts are not, as some had previously assumed, mostly used in traditional Asian medicine, but being traded as investments for their scarcity value. My hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith has done a great deal to publicise that. As those species draw closer to extinction, the value of their body parts increases. We even heard about a Chinese bank that runs an investment fund based on elephant ivory.
In their response to our report, the Government agreed that “investment and conspicuous consumption” are emerging as significant drivers of demand. We were encouraged to hear how the UK is combating such trends domestically by strictly applying the criteria for the re-export of antique animal products, such as ivory billiard balls of all things, but we could question why those criteria were not applied strictly in the first place.
We can make significant inroads only through international co-operation. We therefore recommended that at the March 2013 CITES—convention on international trade in endangered species—conference of the parties, the Government take the lead in encouraging all CITES member states to enforce wildlife law. In particular, we urged the Government to focus attention on the damaging effect of one-off sales of impounded illegal wildlife products, such as elephant ivory, which serve only to stimulate the market and ultimately drive poaching, and we urged the Government to make the case for an unequivocal ban on all forms of international ivory trade. Will the Minister set out the negotiating position adopted by the Government at the CITES conference earlier this year, and the extent to which it was successful?
Will the Minister comment on decision 16.55, which directs that a decision-making mechanism—sorry to be technical—for a process of trade in ivory be adopted at the next conference of the parties? Why does he not call for an unequivocal international ban on all forms of ivory now? As part of the CITES working group, of which the UK is a member, will he call for the suspension of discussions on the decision-making mechanism? As was suggested in the earlier intervention, the agenda has moved on fast, even since we took evidence. We were heartened by the destruction in the US of stockpiles of ivory, which demonstrates that President Obama and others are taking a serious stance on the matter. We are talking about something that might have been considered impossible last May; the question now is not whether it will happen, but how it will. I do not think there is any harm in reviewing the Government’s position.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this debate on her Committee’s report. Given recent developments and links between the illegal ivory trade, organised crime and terrorism in Africa, does she agree that international Governments should approach the matter with the urgency with which they tackled money laundering after previous terrorist events? Governments seemed to be able to break all sorts of impasses then, and similar success in tackling the illegal ivory trade would be welcome.
I am grateful for that intervention, which illustrates that if international leaders decide to take a lead, drive the agenda forward, and show true leadership, it is possible to start to deal with these issues. Returning to biodiversity, which is inextricably linked to the concerns that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, it is important that we do not lose momentum. We understand a lot more than we did six months ago about the interconnectedness of these issues, which is part of the agenda that we are dealing with. He is absolutely right, and that might give the Minister more ammunition, if he needs it, to drive the agenda forward.
To reinforce the point about international leadership, does the hon. Lady agree that the Antarctic is a good example of where international leadership is moving in the right direction when it comes to protecting wildlife, particularly flora, fauna and marine life?
That intervention highlights the potential for a constructive debate following the publication of a Select Committee report that looked at the question in detail. The hon. Gentleman has great experience on the Antarctic—and, indeed, following our report on the subject, the Arctic—and he has admirably illustrated that there is real scope for leadership. Events in the Antarctic have demonstrated that what happens there affects all of us; what happens in any part of the planet affects all of us. The issues that we are discussing should not be placed in a box labelled “the environment”; they affect everything from governance and war to money laundering. All these things are interconnected. The sooner environmental questions are placed at the heart of international issues, the better.
I do not apologise for the fact that our report is about the detail of what we found in our investigation. We identified a number of absurdities in the implementation of CITES in UK law. Why, for example, should a vet be present when samples are taken from any animal that is suspected to have been trafficked into the UK? That is a reasonable stipulation in the case of a living animal, but given that we cannot even afford to guarantee funding for the national wildlife crime unit, it is a huge waste of resources to require a vet to be present in cases involving taxidermy. It does not make sense. We even heard that a vet would have to be called out before a sample could be taken from a table made from Brazilian rosewood, which is a CITES-listed species of tree. It is difficult for the Government to provide credible international leadership on tackling wildlife crime if they do not put their house in order.
In their response, the Government said that they would attend to the issues relating to the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997, which implement the international agreement on endangered species, but it would be helpful to know from the Minister what the timetable is. How far has the consultation progressed, and, most importantly, when will a statutory instrument be introduced? I hope it will be before the 2014 high-level summit.
Before I move on, I want briefly to mention tigers. We were concerned about the poaching of tigers, and, as with all endangered species, we recognise that attitudes must change if those animals are to survive. We desperately need new ideas to challenge demand for such illegal wildlife products.
In conclusion, I hope that the Minister, and his new colleagues in other Departments following the recent reshuffle, can see the impact of wildlife crime. As we have heard in interventions, that impact is huge, and it is growing by the day. The new urgency requires a clear lead from Government as they prepare for the high-level summit that they are organising in London in 2014, which we welcome. If the Government revisit our recommendations—this is the nature of Select Committee scrutiny—they could go into that meeting in a much stronger position. Not least, they could think again about our final recommendation relating to the Partnership for Action Against Wildlife Crime. PAW, as it is aptly known, is a multi-agency representative body. Its current membership of 140 organisations includes all significant UK conservation and trade bodies with an interest in combating wildlife crime. It is co-chaired by a DEFRA civil servant and a senior police officer. We called for a DEFRA Minister to take an active interest and give political direction by chairing the body. Our suggestion was dismissed out of hand in the Government response, on the grounds that devolved Administrations were not likely to collaborate in the way that we envisaged—perhaps I am taking a little bit of poetic licence there.
I hope that in this short debate we can set out the need for the Government to be bolder in response to all our recommendations, and not simply the one relating to PAW. WWF UK has expressed concern that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are falling behind, while other Departments—DEFRA, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—are forging ahead. DEFRA is the No. 1 Department, with lead responsibility for ensuring that all Departments protect biodiversity. Only by giving further consideration to our recommendations—we would be happy to arrange to discuss them with the Minister—can the Minister demonstrate clear strategic direction and leadership in his new career at DEFRA. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to hold this debate.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate Joan Walley on initiating this important debate, and on making an excellent and impassioned speech, as ever. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend George Eustice, on his appointment, and I sincerely thank my hon. Friend Richard Benyon for his brilliant work on reforming the disastrous common fisheries policy, his work on natural capital and his personal commitment to tackling the illegal trade in ivory.
I recognise that the debate covers an enormous range of subjects, but I would like to focus my remarks on the illegal trade in ivory. Hon. Members probably know that up to 40,000 elephants, on average, are killed every year. That equates to one every 15 minutes. If that rate were to apply continuously, it would render the species extinct in the wild within 10 years. It is a tragedy, by any standard, that Africa has already lost some 90% of its elephants in the past half-century. What makes it an even greater tragedy is that the world so nearly put an end to that madness a few decades ago. In 1989, a worldwide ban on the international trade in ivory was approved by CITES, levels of poaching fell dramatically—not completely, but dramatically—and the black market prices of ivory slumped.
However, only 10 years later, malignant interests were able to have their way, as ever, and so-called “one-off” sales were allowed. For example, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were allowed an experimental one-off sale of more than 49,000 kg of ivory to Japan. In 2002, a further one off-sale was approved, which resulted in 105,000 kg of ivory being shipped to China and Japan. With so much legitimate ivory, if there is such a thing, on the market, illegal ivory was easy to pass off, and demand simply rocketed. More elephant tusks were seized in 2011 than in any year since 1989, when the trade was banned. Sierra Leone lost its last wild elephant in 2009, and Senegal has only a handful or two—between five and 10—elephants left. Congo has lost 90% of them. I could go on through all the African elephant range states.
This intelligent, thoughtful creature is being wiped from the earth, and not for noble reasons. By and large, they are being butchered so that mindless people—mostly, I am afraid to say, the middle classes in China—can buy trinkets, chopsticks, toothpicks, combs and the like. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North has pointed out, they are being hunted down for purposes that are even more sinister, if that is possible, with ivory tusks and rhino horns being hoarded as investment opportunities that rise in value as the species are depleted. It is hard to imagine anything more revolting, but it is happening.
Blood ivory is big business, and it is increasingly sophisticated. In May, 26 elephants were massacred by 17 poachers carrying Kalashnikov rifles in the Dzanga-Ndoki national park, a world heritage site in the Central African Republic that until then had been considered a safe haven for elephants.
All this matters in itself, but anyone tempted to imagine that it is a remote or secondary concern to people in this country should think again, because, as we have heard, this dark industry fuels terrorism and the worst forms of violence around the world. The Foreign Secretary recognised that in his recent comments at the UN in New York, when he said that
“the illegal trade in these animals is not just an environmental tragedy; it strikes at the heart of local communities by feeding corruption and undermining stability in what are already fragile states. And the profits from the trade pose an increasing threat to security by funding criminal gangs and terrorism.”
Only last month, the Foreign Office stated that it was aware of reports that al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-backed Somali terror group, is being funded by ivory. As if to vindicate that, only two weeks later, there were the appalling attacks at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. Some 40% of al-Shabaab’s funding is thought to come from ivory. The issue therefore affects everyone. Blood ivory has helped to finance al-Qaeda. It has funded Joseph Kony’s abhorrent Lord’s Resistance Army, and Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed organisation, and so on. It has to stop.
Although our country is not populated by wild elephants, this Government have a very strong role to play. I was pleased that the Foreign Secretary included a reference to the illegal wildlife trade in the leaders’ communiqué at the G8 summit, and I know that he takes a personal interest in this subject. I am also pleased that the Government will host a high-level London conference on the illegal wildlife trade next February. I hope that the Minister has had time to familiarise himself with, and will tell us more about, the early priorities for the conference.
I know that the Government are considering what support, if any, to provide for the African elephant action plan, which was adopted in 2010 by all 38 African elephant range states, and which represents an agreement on a series of ambitious objectives. It would be useful to hear the Minister’s thoughts about that.
The Environmental Audit Committee report that has triggered this debate said many things, but I want to quote one of its recommendations. I am being repetitive, but this is crucial. In our report, which was unanimously signed off, we said that
“the Government should focus attention on the damaging effect of ‘one-off’ sales of impounded ivory, which undermine the international CITES regime and fuel demand for ivory products, and seek an unequivocal international ban on all forms of ivory trade.”
Given the effects of the partial legitimisation of the trade, this is really a black-and-white issue, and I hope that the Minister will provide the clearest possible endorsement of that.
Finally, the good news is that opposition to the illegal wildlife trade in China is growing. That is clear from the fact that China’s largest online marketplace, Taobao, has banned a range of wildlife products: tiger bone, rhino horn, elephant ivory, bear bile, turtle shell, pangolins—I do not even know what they are—and shark fin are on that long list. That big step would not have happened were it not for a changing tide among Chinese consumers. However, progress clearly is not fast enough. I imagine that the Chinese premier, by one stroke of his pen, could shut down the ivory carving factories. I urge the Government to use every diplomatic lever available to accelerate such a process and to prevent the annihilation of a magnificent animal.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith. Given his incredible wealth of knowledge and passion about this subject, there is clearly no pressure on me to deliver in my short speech. I congratulate Joan Walley and her fellow Committee members on their first-class, professional and vital report. This is an important opportunity to debate an incredibly important issue and, in particular, to highlight the absolute urgency of taking real action.
My interest in this subject is combined with my work with the International Fund for Animal Welfare. I had the honour of being the guest speaker at its event on combating international wildlife crime at the recent Conservative party conference. It was like being back at school: I had to read some serious documents and study lots of facts. My wife is incredibly passionate about this subject and does a lot of fundraising to support work on the issues, so I also had to be on my absolutely best behaviour.
The reality is that the number of forest elephants has fallen by 62% in 10 years, with the kill rate higher than the birth rate. As a layman, I initially focused just on ivory, but there are trades in big cat pelts, rhinoceros horns, bush meat, scales, antelope wool shawls, tortoise shells, bear gall bladders, shark fins and caviar. The list of unimaginable horrors goes on and on. Animals are used for culinary delicacies, traditional Asian medicines, pets, decorations, hunting trophies, clothing, leather products, jewellery and traditional crafts.
As senior and important as we all are in our respective communities, I was delighted that John Kerry, of all people, highlighted the issue at a recent conference. He said:
“How shockingly destructive and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while a great species was criminally slaughtered into extinction. And yet, here we are in the midst of one of the most tragic and outrageous assaults on our shared inheritance that I’ve seen in my lifetime—where an elephant’s dead ivory is prized over its living condition, where corruption feeds on its body and soul, and where money only makes matters worse.”
To put the issue in context, the ivory trade has doubled since 2007 and the price of ivory is now $2,205 per kg, while the price of rhinoceros horn, from an animal which has been brought to the edge of extinction, is now a staggering $66,139 per kg. That is greater than the cost of gold or platinum; a rhinoceros horn the size of a bag of sugar would cost approximately £20,000.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park was spot on when he spoke about links to terrorist groups. Criminal groups, warlords, militants and terrorist groups are all taking advantage by utilising their drug-smuggling routes. This is large scale; it is a huge problem. The WWF estimates that the trade is worth somewhere between $15 billion and $25 billion, but compared with other transnational criminal activities, it carries a low risk of detection, small penalties and minimal consequences, which are attractive incentives and drivers for groups of smugglers. For example, fines are just £300 in India and £900 in Nepal. We are talking about a $25 billion industry, with the equivalent of a bag of sugar costing £20,000, so it is a no brainer that there are drivers and incentives for going into the trade. Groups are taking advantage of their networks and exploiting local people in abject poverty, because the financial incentives prove so compelling. Smugglers are also corrupting officials, and killing the rangers paid to protect these vital animals. There have been more than 1,000 deaths of rangers in 35 different countries over the past decade.
What are the chances of combating global and terrorist organisations? The Government have made a start, but we need to consider a long-term commitment to the national wildlife crime unit. We do not want it to have to lobby every year to secure funding; we want it to get on with the task in hand. We have an incredible opportunity to build on the forthcoming London summit. We, the British, can lead internationally. The Minister, whom I congratulate on his new position, will do an incredibly fine job. He has a great opportunity to lead on this important issue and to be proud on behalf of the UK.
We need to consider how we can provide viable alternatives for communities in abject poverty. There are opportunities, I suggest, within the foreign aid budget to create sustainable alternatives. We need to look for commercial opportunities. A good example is the work that the International Fund for Animal Welfare has done with whaling in Iceland. Tourists are now flocking to see whales in real life. It would not help that commercial and profitable trade if people were to see them being butchered for meat.
Working with IFAW, we want to see that wildlife crime is treated seriously, on a par with drugs and human trafficking, and that requires international pressure. We want to see other countries prioritise the matter, too. We need to co-ordinate international action, especially on law enforcement capacity and developing effective judicial systems, which come naturally to us but perhaps not so naturally to some other countries where such crimes are prevalent.
We need to encourage, develop and implement regional strategies in areas such as central Africa and the horn of Africa, and recognise the new challenges that come from China. Huge Chinese investment into many African countries brings with it Chinese workers, thereby bringing demand to the heart of the country and removing the need to smuggle the goods. We must take action in those countries and address the growing demand and availability of ivory, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park highlighted. We saw demand drop, but now it is coming back strong. Worryingly, 80% of Chinese people do not realise that an elephant has to be killed to get ivory.
Yesterday, the Public Accounts Committee, of which I am a member, took evidence from representatives of the UK Border Force. I am delighted to say that when they were asked about two of their performance targets—the number of seizures under CITES and seizures of products of animal origin—they recognised that more training and support was needed. Next year, additional funding has been found, which is a good thing in such straitened times. In evidence, we were told that it was difficult to recognise the products and when they are recognised it is not always clear what needs to be done, so I welcome more training.
In conclusion, I hope that our new, exciting and fantastic Minister will pick wildlife crime as one of the issues that he can be exceptionally proud of dealing with. I hope he will be articulate and lead at the forthcoming conference, giving this country the opportunity to be at the head of this issue. I want Britain to be proud and to make a difference.
It is a great pleasure, Mr Benton, to serve under your chairmanship in this debate. I pay tribute to the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, my hon. Friend Joan Walley, who usually does a sterling job in steering her group of colleagues to impeccable conclusions, and this report is no exception. I welcome the Minister to his new position. I had the pleasure of serving with him on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and I know that he brings to his new role not only a wealth of experience and knowledge but a great deal of passionate commitment, and I look forward to working with him.
It has been a good debate. We have gone over many aspects of the original EAC report, but I still have a few issues to highlight. First, there is a need for the Government to clarify their position on controls of the possession of certain pesticides, in view of the effect that they can have on wildlife and the way they are used in wildlife crime in this country. I refer to the supplementary evidence that was submitted to the Select Committee by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and particularly want to draw it to the attention of the Minister. Currently, offences occur as a result of improper storage and use of approved pesticides contrary to the statutory conditions. The improper storage and use of pesticides that have had their ministerial approval removed is, of course, an offence. There are also examples of people storing legitimate pesticides specifically for attacking wildlife in this country, and they are escaping the law at the moment.
Carbofuran is an example of a pesticide that has had its ministerial approval for use removed, but can still be properly stored in England. Section 43 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 creates an offence of possession of pesticides harmful to wildlife prescribed by the Secretary of State. That is a method of ensuring that we capture the storage of those pesticides for illegal purposes—where they are being used to kill wildlife. An order listing the prescribed pesticides could be made, which would deal with that issue.
In Scotland, a list of eight pesticides has been prescribed—aldicarb, alphachloralose, aluminium phosphide, bendiocarb, carbofuran, mevinphos, sodium cyanide and strychnine—under the Possession of Pesticides (Scotland) Order 2005. We need such legislation in England. We have the provision for it under the 2006 Act, and the RSPB, in its supplementary evidence to the Committee, made a strong case for legislation. I hope the Minister will look at the matter seriously. It is one way in which the pesticides used in poisoning wildlife in the UK could be brought under control. A full enactment of section 43 NERC controls would be a powerful tool in the fight against wildlife crime and the illegal poisoning of wildlife in particular.
As I have said, that offence in Scotland has shown its value with at least 10 successful prosecutions involving at least four of the products on the current list, one of which involved the possession of 10.5 kg of carbofuran. Let me put that in perspective. That amount of carbofuran is enough to poison the entire Scottish population of birds of prey six times over. I recommend that the Minister considers such legislation. It is a remedy that is easily available to him. It has proved its efficacy in Scotland and should be replicated in England.
On the subject of birds of prey, I want to echo the wise words of the Chair of the Select Committee about raptor persecution and vicarious liability. No one should underestimate the true effect of raptor persecution on some of the UK’s most endangered species. According to the Government-sponsored joint nature conservation committee report on hen harrier conservation, 2013 was the first year in which there was not a single successful breeding pair in the UK. That is extraordinary, and I know that the Minister, although new to his position, will take the matter seriously. There is enough appropriate habitat in the UK to support 324 to 340 breeding pairs of hen harrier. Today, we have zero breeding pairs.
As for the peregrine falcon, the goshawk and other raptors, it is absolutely clear that someone is more likely to see a peregrine falcon from the terrace of the House of Commons than they are on a walk through the north-west Peak district. Why? That is a question that the Minister should ask himself. The Committee was entirely right to focus on vicarious liability, because without vicarious liability we will lack a key piece in the puzzle—highly intensive, driven grouse moors with irresponsible owners. At this point, I will say that there are many grouse moors that are sensibly, properly and responsibly managed. However, we all know that there are also irresponsibly managed moors, and the evidence shows that they are having a devastating effect on the populations of some of Britain’s most iconic birds of prey.
The EAC report shows a clear understanding of that problem. Of those convicted of raptor persecution, 70% are gamekeepers. There is no getting away from that fact and it is something that the Department must address by looking seriously at vicarious liability.
I take very seriously what the hon. Gentleman says, but I hope that he will also recognise that the population problems—particularly with regard to hen harriers, which he referred to—is not restricted exclusively to areas where there are either amateur or professional gamekeepers. Indeed, I also hope that he will concede that even RSPB reserves have failed to establish any breeding pairs of hen harriers. So, I hope that he is not implying that this problem is purely down to one cause, and when the Minister responds to the debate I hope that he, too, will take that point on board and recognise that the problem is a little more complex than that.
I am very happy to accept what the hon. Gentleman says. He is, of course, right that there are many and complex reasons why a species may become extinct in the UK. However, the fact is that the species that I am talking about is on the brink and is being persecuted by some irresponsible gamekeepers. That is absolutely clear.
I welcome all that the game industry is doing in terms of distraction feeding and so on; it is making serious efforts. However, some irresponsible gamekeepers shoot raptors and they have a vendetta against hen harriers in particular. That must stop and the way to achieve that is through vicarious liability.
We are pressed for time and I want to leave the Minister enough time to respond to the debate. Four key points have been raised today by colleagues. First, which chief constable is currently responsible for the national wildlife crime unit? We need to know that, because the person we all thought was responsible has been suspended. Secondly, will the Minister give an assurance that the NWCU will continue beyond 2014, and will he consider incorporating it into the Department’s three-year funding cycle as part of its base budget and stop this nonsense of one-year roll-on? Thirdly, will he commit to running a more effective convention on international trade in endangered species regime domestically, under the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997? Fourthly, there has been an impassioned plea to stop the illegal slaughter of elephants, as Zac Goldsmith pointed out. Incidentally, I just say to him that the pangolin is a scaly anteater; it is Manis manidae. However, it is a mammal, even though it has scales. The hon. Gentleman pointed out, quite correctly, the connections with al-Shabaab, Janjaweed and the Lord’s Resistance Army. This is big business, and it is big criminal business. For that reason, I heartily endorse his remarks and hope that the Department will take this issue very seriously indeed. If it does not, its staff will look very silly next year at the meeting next February to discuss international wildlife crime, which we are hosting.
I am grateful to the Liaison Committee and to Joan Walley, who is the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, for securing this debate. It is a shame that it has taken so long to secure it. She explained to me earlier that part of the reason for that was that, with the summer recess coming, it was not easy to get a slot. She also made the point that it took the Government some time to respond to the Committee’s report. I am able to say that that was nothing to do with me, because I was not in the Government at the time. However, what I can say—a number of people have said this already—is that my predecessor, my hon. Friend Richard Benyon, was absolutely passionate about these issues, so I do not think anyone should read into that delay that there was any lack of interest in the issue of wildlife crime on his part.
As we have heard, wildlife crime is a matter that we all care deeply about. Hon Members are quite right to seek reassurance about what the Government are doing to tackle the issue. Efforts to tackle wildlife crime have moved forward hugely in the last 10 years, thanks to the commitment and enthusiasm of successive Governments, the enforcement agencies and the many non-governmental organisations that willingly share their expertise and experience. We should take a moment to reflect on what has already been achieved, and to put on record our appreciation of the contribution that has been made by everyone who has been involved. Their work has helped to make the UK the envy of many countries around the world on this issue.
The range and nature of the evidence submitted to the Committee’s inquiry—we heard from the Chair of the Committee that there were 57 submissions—showed how interested people are in this issue, and there was a range of perspectives. As the Chair of the Committee said, the threat from the international wildlife trade has come into sharper focus this year. I welcome hon. Members’ support for the action that the Government are taking to work with the international community to tackle this issue. The increasing levels of elephant and rhino poaching, and of illegal trade globally, are indeed very worrying. They not only threaten individual species but governance, national security and development goals.
The Chair of the Committee said that the illegal wildlife trade is the fifth biggest criminal activity globally. The figures that I have been given suggest that it is now the third biggest, behind only drugs and people trafficking. It has now been categorised by the UN as a serious organised crime. As many hon. Members have already alluded to, as part of our commitment to tackling this trade we will host a conference in London on
Perhaps I will pre-empt what the Minister was about to say, but I wanted to pick up on the point that the Chair of the Committee made earlier about the London conference, which we all welcome. Can the Minister assure us that in addition to Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers and officials being there and taking a lead as we would expect they would—we know the Minister’s commitment—will he ensure that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice will play an absolutely key role at the conference too, because unless they are also on board I fear that we will not see the positive outcome that we all want?
I was about to go on to say that, although I cannot say exactly which Departments will be represented at the conference, in the run-up to it the Government are collaborating closely with other countries, the royal household, multilateral organisations and major NGOs to agree a way forward and to reach a consensus on the required outputs from the conference.
A number of Members have spoken in the debate. My hon. Friends the Members for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke passionately about the problems of the ivory trade; it is clear that there is a very strong feeling about this issue. The Chair of the Committee asked specifically what the Government’s negotiating position on this issue was when it was discussed at the convention on international trade in endangered species conference. I must be honest; being so new to the job, I will have to write to her specifically to set out the precise position that we took. However, looking at the Government’s response to the Committee’s report I know that they obviously touched on some of these issues and made it absolutely clear that we want to maintain the existing ban on raw ivory, although they also highlight that there is a slight difference with some of the antique ivories, which tend to predate 1947; indeed, they are required to predate 1947. There is a slight difference there, but I will write to her to clarify precisely the position that was taken.
I am sure that our Committee would welcome a formal response setting out that position. However, some of the evidence that we received suggested that the Government’s position might not make any difference to the reduction, or growth, of the particular species that we are talking about. So, before he writes that letter, may I ask him to have a second look at the evidence that we received and accordingly base his reply on that evidence?
Given the strength of feeling on this issue—there are Members who have already made that point—we will indeed look at that and we will get back, in detail, on it.
I remember that when I was given this job my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park sent me a text message saying that he needed to talk to me about elephants. Now I know what that meant and we are talking about it for the first time here. The Government have been a major contributor to the African Elephant Fund, which funds the African elephant action plan, agreed by all the countries that have African elephants. The first objective of that plan is a reduction in the illegal killing of elephants and illegal trade in their parts or derivatives. There is certainly a commitment on the part of the Government. I welcome and respect the passion that my hon. Friend has brought to that element of the debate.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North talked about problems of raptor persecution. A number of hon. Members mentioned hen harriers in particular and problems relating to those. The persecution of birds of prey is of grave concern. Although many of our birds of prey are doing well, their persecution is not acceptable. We remain committed to addressing the illegal killing of birds of prey. Persecution can take many forms, such as poisoning, shooting and deliberate destruction of nests, and it is totally unacceptable.
Bird of prey persecution remains one of the UK’s wildlife crime priorities and we will continue to work to ensure that we take the right steps to take enforcement action in respect of any offences being committed. DEFRA is working with the police and other stakeholders who are best placed to help facilitate a reduction in bird of prey persecution. The group working on this has been looking at types of offence that occur and, earlier this year, established maps that show where incidents of bird of prey poisoning have taken place. This will help detect to trends and inform decisions on where action might be targeted.
A main focus of our efforts will be the hen harrier, populations of which in England are critically low. No nests appear to have been successful this year. Hon. Members commented on the number of hen harriers. There are some breeding pairs in Scotland. Although full details are not available, there are apparently 12 breeding pairs in England and many more in Scotland and Wales. Persecution is regularly cited as a reason for failure for the hen harrier population to grow, so considering how enforcement tools can be best used to protect it is an important strand of work in assisting its recovery in England. Let me assure hon. Members that there is a robust legal framework for protecting birds of prey in England, with penalties including imprisonment for offenders.
There is almost universal agreement—the Committee’s report contained a strong recommendation for it—on recognition for the important work of the national wildlife crime unit. I recognise and appreciate the huge contribution that the unit makes to wildlife law enforcement, both in the UK and internationally. The unit is small, but its impact is big. It has helped raise awareness of wildlife crime and provided professional expertise and support for wildlife law enforcers across the UK, enhancing their ability to identify and tackle wildlife crime. It has also played an important part in a number of Interpol initiatives targeting particular species groups and has lent its expertise to and assisted in global efforts to conserve those species most at threat from illegal international trade. It clearly has strengths and expertise that would contribute to the UK’s response, which is another reason why we need to reach a decision on the future of the unit as soon as possible.
The hon. Lady asked specifically about the Association of Chief Police Officers head of the NWCU, wanting to know who has taken on the role. I am told that it is currently in the hands and under the leadership of acting Chief Constable Bernard Lawson from Cumbria, who took on the role temporarily from Chief Constable Hyde. A new head of wildlife crime for ACPO will take on the role permanently, once they are appointed.
The Committee recommended that long-term funding for the unit should be secured and the Government have confirmed that funding will be provided until the end of March next year. Many hon. Members agree strongly with the Committee—I have listened carefully to the points made, including by the shadow Minister, Barry Gardiner—about the importance of securing funding for it. I understand the frustration with the fact that it has not been possible to do that so far.
The funding is not as straightforward as it might appear. Hon. Members will be aware that the unit is currently co-funded by DEFRA, the Home Office, the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland Government, ACPO and the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland. All these bodies are considering their position on the future of the unit and recognise how important it is that we come to a decision as soon as we can. We will advise the House as soon as a decision has been made.
The shadow Minister mentioned possession of pesticides, particularly in the context of harrier populations. The Committee raised this concern in its report. Specifically, there is concern about possession of carbofuran and other pesticide ingredients and whether we should follow the Scottish example and the approach taken there. The Committee recommended that possession of such chemicals should be an offence. I am grateful to hon. Members for raising this today, as it gives me an opportunity to clear up this matter.
The hon. Gentleman says that it is legal to store these chemicals, but not to use them. However, the advice that I have been given is that approvals for the use of pesticide containing carbofuran were revoked in 2001, which means that the advertisement, sale, supply, storage or use of carbofuran is already a criminal offence under existing UK legislation. Therefore we do not need to change the law. We simply need to recognise that it is already illegal to store it.
Of course, this is not only about carbofuran, but about a range of other chemicals that can be used to poison wildlife, not just hen harriers. I agree that it is not necessary to change the law. There is a perfectly sensible provision, under the NERC Act, that would allow a list of chemicals to be drawn up that can be, and are being, used in this way. The Scottish experience shows that by putting chemicals on that list and applying the law, and then successfully enforcing it and prosecuting people, it is possible to target the criminals who are doing this.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point—I probed it when looking into this issue—but approval for the majority of pesticides linked to wildlife poisoning cases has been revoked, or they have never been approved for use. Carbofuran tends to be, as it were, the weapon of choice for those who want to poison these birds. It is already illegal under existing pesticides legislation. This legislation, together with the use of amnesty initiatives in place in some areas, already addresses this issue. Therefore there is no need to create a new offence.
I appreciate the Minister’s engaging in a dialogue on this point. If prosecutions were taking place under the existing proscription of these chemicals, we would be more confident that the law was effective in stopping their being used for poisoning wildlife. Given that that is not so, and that the Minister will accept that they are still being used to poison wildlife—not just carbofuran, but the other ones I listed—perhaps it does make sense to put them on the list under NERC.
If, as the hon. Gentleman says, there is a low conviction rate for the illegal use of these chemicals, that suggests a difficulty in or lack of enforcement, not that the law is falling short in allowing prosecution. There is no material difference between being able to find that somebody is storing a chemical or having it hidden away in the garage or a farm shed and their having possession of it. Therefore that would not change the ability to get convictions on this front.
The Committee recommended that the Government introduce a new offence in England of vicarious liability—mentioned by the shadow Minister and other hon. Members—following the Scottish Government’s decision to introduce the offence in January 2012. The Law Commission has been considering the issue further as part of its wildlife law project. I understand that the commission will publish a report shortly setting out its conclusions following consultation, which will include its views on whether to introduce an offence of vicarious liability. It would probably be prudent to await that report before commenting further.
The Committee also recommended that the national wildlife crime unit be directed and funded to develop a wildlife crime database of incidents reported to the police and of prosecutions. Although I can see why the Committee made that recommendation, recording that information alone is not the answer. To better understand the nature of wildlife crime being committed across the UK, the unit works with Government Departments, police force intelligence bureaux and scientific and other organisations to produce an intelligence-based assessment of current, emerging and future wildlife crime threats, with recommendations for action. That approach ensures the best use of the unit’s time and resources and focuses attention firmly on intelligence, which is consistent with modern policing procedures and practices. I am concerned that if we diverted the unit’s efforts into developing a database, it might take effort and resources away from intelligence and the pursuit of leads.
The unit launched a new website in June 2013 that contains lots of useful information and background, and it is already proving to be a useful resource and source of information. I hope that hon. Members who take an interest in wildlife crime will look at that website, because it helps to share information.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned the rather technical issue of the proposed changes to the COTES regulations and asked specifically when that is likely to be concluded. There is an ongoing consultation, and the tweaks to the COTES regulations are quite technical. We had initially hoped to conclude at some point this year, but since then there have been additional EU directives that the consultation must take into account. As a result, we expect the consultation to be published some time in 2014. The consultation, nevertheless, is under way, which I hope reassures her.
As I draw to a close, I once again thank the hon. Lady for introducing this debate. I also thank all the hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions. Wildlife law enforcement is of course a wide-ranging issue. The law is sometimes complex and overlapping, arising as it does from international, European and domestic legislation. There will always be a balance to be struck, for example, between what we can achieve and where best to focus our combined energies and commitment to deliver the greatest benefit, and I suspect we will never all agree on where our activity should focus. I am absolutely convinced, however, that this is an area where we cannot reduce our effort and where we must continue to work together in partnership.
The UK has a good story to tell on its approach to wildlife law enforcement, and our general approach is widely respected across Europe and internationally. We absolutely cannot be complacent, however, and although the Government cannot accept all the Committee’s recommendations, we welcome the Committee’s interest and engagement in this matter.
I would briefly like to say how valuable this debate has been. I am grateful to everyone, not just to members of the Environmental Audit Committee but to other Members, for contributing. The debate shows that Parliament has a role in dragging up the Minister’s trouser legs to push the agenda further forward. That was the original intention when the Environmental Audit Committee was set up, in the words of my noble Friend Lord Prescott. The strength of feeling this afternoon shows that this debate is not simply a question of there being a Select Committee report and a Government response—that is it, the matter is closed. What we want to get across is that the agenda is fast changing, and we would welcome the Minister, perhaps in informal discussions with us, reconsidering not just the Government’s response but where we might make further progress. I hope that that can happen.
If I were an elephant in need of a friend, I would want a friend in Richmond Park. I genuinely believe that the contribution of the hon. Member for Richmond
Park (Zac Goldsmith) flagged up the importance of everything that we need to be doing. I hope firm conclusions will come from that.
The contribution of Justin Tomlinson shows and reinforces the role of Parliament. It is not just the Environmental Audit Committee but the Public Accounts Committee; given what is happening with the UK Border Force and how CITES is going ahead, all of Parliament’s Select Committees have a role. Duncan Hames referred to the international aspects. It is not just a matter of this Parliament and its Select Committees; we need to be networking much more closely with select committees in Parliaments across Europe and elsewhere to keep the momentum going on this agenda. This debate is important.
I welcome the contribution of my colleague on the Front Bench, my hon. Friend Barry Gardiner. He rightly raised the issue of carbofuran, to which the Committee gave a lot of attention. The Government’s response has been to dismiss the issue out of hand, and they have been unwilling to consider introducing an order under section 43 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. As in Scotland, we believe there should be an order of possession. Is it all right for a gamekeeper to have carbofuran in his pocket? Will that protect raptors? That is worth revisiting.
I welcome many of the Minister’s responses to our recommendations, but the Government have not considered the matter in the cross-cutting way that is now needed given the urgent threat to endangered species. I wonder whether there is a small opportunity prior to the 2014 summit for the Minister, once he is into his new role, to bring together Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Home Office to thrash out how the Government are to show true leadership.
I understand that funding for the national wildlife crime unit is contributed by many different parties, but should it not just be in the basic line of Government spending? The funding should be automatic. Perhaps that needs to be revisited.
This debate has been useful, and I say to everyone who has contributed that the Environmental Audit Committee will not just leave the matter here. We will keep following up. The sooner we start working together on those issues, with Parliament having a say and having influence, the better.