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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.