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1 May 2002 : Column 234WH

Endangered Species

1 pm

Norman Baker (Lewes): This is a welcome opportunity to discuss endangered species. That the Minister for the Environment is replying to the debate is especially welcome, as, judging by his utterances in this House and elsewhere, he may agree with much of what I say. I hope that he will communicate his enthusiasm to other Ministers who may be more reticent about the subject.

There is no more heinous crime than to stand by and watch the extinction of a species. It is estimated that species are disappearing at 1,000 times the background rate. That is a terrible indictment of the human race: we are in the dock, and any court would find us guilty of causing that massive increase in the disappearance rate. It has been said that forests precede man and deserts follow him. That is a sad truth, as we can see when we look around the world. Bearing in mind how long the planet has existed, we must accept that in the past 200 years, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, we have done untold damage to our natural environment. That damage is occurring at a rate that cannot be sustained; it must be halted and, if possible, reversed.

The Born Free Foundation, an organisation for which I have tremendous admiration, states that there are 2,155 critically endangered species in the world. Cautious estimates from other sources suggest that 20,000 species a year are disappearing—about two an hour, which means that, by the time that the Minister and I have finished speaking, another species will have become extinct.

Among the species at risk are Californian condors, of which there are only 120 left in the world, and Cross River gorillas, of which there are 200. The Majorcan midwife toad is Europe's most endangered species. The Minister may have seen articles in the press about the potential disappearance of the lynx from Portugal and Spain; there is a real prospect of that happening in the next three or four years. Species such as the black-footed ferret are alive only in captivity. Of cuddly animals—although tigers may not count as such—it is estimated that there are only around 400 Siberian tigers left, 40 to 50 of the South China tiger and 400 of the Sumatran tiger. The Caspian, Java and Bali tigers are all thought to be extinct.

That is a terrible indictment of the human race. If any hon. Member feels that the problem exists only in other parts of the world, let us reflect that in the United Kingdom alone, 134 species became extinct during the last century. We have our own work to do in our country. I find appalling the way in which the human race acts towards other species and the environment as a whole. When I lived in Beddingham in Sussex opposite the Mount Caburn national nature reserve, it was a delight to see a carpet of trumpet daffodils and other species of daffodil covering the hillside each spring. One day—literally one day—someone came and cleared the whole lot off, and they have not been seen since. The activities of one person can have a dramatic effect on our environment and on species propagation.

Why does it matter? A Christian would say that we have stewardship of the planet and therefore a duty to look after it. Those of a more Gaian propensity would

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say that we must coexist in harmony with all species, and that what happens to one species affects another. Everything is connected to everything else—I think that Lenin said that, and in an earlier incarnation the Minister may have been familiar with the quote. I do not think that Lenin was thinking about the environment, but it is an appropriate saying to introduce into the debate. Respect for humans and for animals is interlinked. A person who does not respect animal life probably does not respect human life. The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals has done some interesting work to demonstrate that those who are cavalier with animals tend to be cavalier towards children—and with human life in general.

Respect for the environment matters from a selfish point of view, because untold benefits that could help mankind can be derived from the natural world, and we are in danger of losing them if the loss of species continues at the current rate. How many medical benefits could be obtained from rain forests in Brazil and elsewhere? Many have already been identified, but many others will be lost as species become extinct. It is a crime that, for profit and gain and regardless of the consequences, some people are destroying everything in their sight in the tropical rain forests, simply to reach two or three trees many miles inside the forest. They want only to realise the value of a few trees, but we lose everything else in the process. We all have a duty to do what we can to bring a more responsible attitude to bear among human beings and improve the way in which we human beings deal with our environment and other species.

I have identified a number of problems. Ministers are well aware of the issue of climate change and carbon dioxide emissions, and I pay tribute to the Government for the work that they have done in that respect, particularly the Deputy Prime Minister and others for identifying the problem and for committing themselves to achieving significant and real carbon dioxide reductions. The attitude of the Government and of the European Union generally contrasts markedly with that of the United States of America. Like most hon. Members, I am appalled that the USA has repeatedly repudiated the Kyoto protocol on climate change and given in to the big guns of the US oil industry. That short-term political gain will cause long-term human loss. The USA should be ashamed of itself.

I understand that by 2010, global carbon dioxide levels are expected to have risen by 31 per cent. since 1990, which contrasts with the 7 per cent. drop that we envisage. Will the Minister confirm that figure? I hope that he will tell me that it is wrong, because such a figure, if correct, would be horrendous. Other statistics make it clear that global warming is happening and that it is affecting species. The world was warmer in the first three months of this year than at any time in the past 1,000 years. The 1990s were the hottest decade of the last millennium. One consequence of that is that species are having to adapt to fast-changing temperatures—a rise in temperature far beyond what nature would normally generate, and way beyond what species can necessarily cope with.

Climate change on its own could lead to the extinction of certain species. Some countries such as Russia, Canada, Norway, Sweden and the Arctic countries are likely to lose as much as 45 per cent. of their habitat. As

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many as 20 per cent. of species could be lost in the most vulnerable Arctic ecosystems: for example, it is expected that snowy owls in Canada will lose up to 60 per cent. of their habitat. In Russia, spoonbilled sandpipers, the red-breasted goose, the emperor goose, the tundra goose, the bean goose and others are under threat for the same reasons. Other natural organisms, such as coral reefs, will also be affected. Warming oceans are killing sources of food from plankton to the polar bear. We may not be terribly familiar with it, but the humble plankton is a key to the whole ecosystem and we disregard what is happening to it.

The problem is global and it can be dealt with only globally. I recognise the efforts that the Government are making, but they need to find a way with other partners to do more. It is not sufficient for one country—or even half a dozen—to pound the drum. We need to deal with the matter internationally, and if countries such as the United States opt out of key protocols, we are in difficulties.

The second issue that concerns me is the trade in endangered species in the United Kingdom. For example, 88 per cent. of parrots imported into the country are caught in the wild. That is improper and unsustainable. We have a recognised problem, in that UK Customs dealt with 570 wildlife items every day last year. That is a huge number. We hear all the stories in the newspapers about bushmeat coming in. Few planes are checked, yet illegally imported meat is found nearly every time a check takes place. We need to increase the number of customs officers who deal with checks on the trade in endangered species.

Wildlife smuggling is thought to be worth £3.7 billion a year, which makes it second to only the drugs trade in terms of profitability. Between 1996 and 2000, more than 1 million wildlife items were seized in the UK by Customs and Excise. The trade is gigantic and unethical and we must deal with it. I understand that under UK law criminals can be arrested for importing or exporting illegal wildlife products, but not for trading in them. If that is true—the Minister will correct me if it is not—that loophole needs to be closed.

On 10 April, I asked a parliamentary question about prosecutions since 1997 under legislation on the control of trade in endangered species. In 1997, there were 495 seizures but no one was successfully prosecuted. In 1998, there were 498 seizures and no one successfully prosecuted. In 1999, 336 seizures took place, but no one was successfully prosecuted. In 2000, there were 441 seizures and only one person was successfully prosecuted. In 2001, 434 seizures were made, and two people were successfully prosecuted. I hope that the Minister will not say that those figures, having gone from nought to two over that period, are improving. Something is wrong with a system in which so many seizures can be made and so few people successfully prosecuted.

Under the legislation, although the maximum prison sentence is two years, offences are non-arrestable. The police therefore cannot caution people involved in such crimes. Suspects can be invited for questioning at a police station, but they can refuse, and the police have no power of entry without a warrant. When offenders are caught, they are given minimal fines and rarely sentenced to any terms in prison. For example, a company was fined only £1,500 for possessing 138

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shawls made from the fleeces of slaughtered Tibetan antelope, which the Minister will recognise is a highly endangered species. The shawls were worth more than £350,000 and estimated to represent 2 per cent. of the entire species. Although more than 1,000 antelope were killed to make the shawls, the result was fines equivalent to only £10.87 a shawl, despite the fact that each shawl would sell for between £3,000 and £12,000. What incentive is there in that for people to abandon the trade? They are unlikely to be stopped or caught and, even if they are prosecuted successfully, they are unlikely to be fined significantly.

I refer the Minister to David Cowdrey, the WWF campaign director on wildlife trade, who said:

The Government can do something about that, so I look to the Minister for an assurance that he will take action.

We must also consider inappropriate use of natural resources such as overfishing and whaling. Stocks of once popular North sea species such as cod have plummeted, and fishing for them is subject to strict controls. Overfishing is a misuse of our environment. Our approach to fisheries is not sustainable, and is symptomatic of how we deal with our natural resources generally. After decades of protection, seven of the 13 great whale species are still endangered or vulnerable, yet thanks to the exploits of Japan and Norway, more than 1,000 whales are killed each year for the commercial market.

I do not have time to go into that subject in great detail, but I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that Japan clearly seems to be spending its way into legalised whaling. It is known to have spent $275.7 million on support for countries that will vote with it in the International Whaling Commission. Japan's fisheries aid grants to five Caribbean countries—Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines—between 1987 and 1999 totalled $100 million. The Solomon Islands got £10 million from Japan over a six year period. Morocco received $45 million from Japan: as the Minister may know, Morocco was an observer at the IWC between 1994 and 2000; it joined in 2001 and voted with Japan. Japan gave $7.5 million aid to Guinea in 1998: Guinea joined the IWC in 2000 and voted with Japan. This is about vote buying by the Japanese in order to legalise whaling. The Minister and his colleagues have been resolute in their opposition to whaling and the Minister with responsibility for fisheries has done a splendid job, but we have to deal with a situation in which Japan is buying votes in order to bring back whaling.

We need to deal with sustainable development on a broad basis. We will not be able to protect our endangered species unless we take the view in the round that people across the planet should have access to clean water, food and decent shelter and should not feel obliged—as many do in order to survive—to destroy the very resources that should provide them with sustainable living for many generations. We need to deal with the fact that such people destroy their resources in

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one generation to stay alive. We must deal with the inequalities in the world. I recognise that that is a big agenda, but 82 per cent. of the world's wealth is held by 20 per cent. of its population, whereas the poorest 20 per cent. have only 1.4 per cent. One billion people live on less than $1.50 per day—while each person in the US generates three quarters of a ton of waste each year to go into landfill sites or to be burnt. We must deal with that nationally and internationally.

My last point is about international agreements. We have the convention on biological diversity and the climate change convention, but they are not legally binding, as the Minister knows. However, in parallel we have the World Trade Organisation, which is legally binding. I recognise the danger, but without being protectionist we must change the rules of the WTO to enable countries to resist imports from countries where the natural environment has been degraded unsustainably and animals have been treated in a way that is not acceptable—either species have been eliminated, or their treatment in welfare terms is unacceptable. The WTO agreement needs to be changed to achieve that.

I want the Minister to have plenty of time to respond to the big agenda that I have laid out. Without wanting to overplay the matter, respect for the environment is one of the most important issues faced by the human race; we are not doing very well with it so far.

1.17 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher) : I have rarely listened to a more passionate or better documented speech of just 15 minutes. It contained an enormous amount of detail and a very compelling argument, put forward persuasively. It will not surprise the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) that I agree with virtually everything that he said. He was generous enough to say that the Government have made serious efforts in many areas—I shall try to detail some of my own issues in a moment—but he is right that a great deal more has to be done. We have scarcely scratched the surface if we really are to arrest serious trends.

The hon. Gentleman started with a point that I reiterate. The rate of biodiversity loss is so huge that experts say that it can almost be regarded as the sixth extinction in the history of the earth. There have been five major extinctions, the last of which eliminated the dinosaur 65 million years ago. However, the rate of loss is so extensive—and accelerating—that it can be considered on that scale. He is also right that people who are cavalier with other living creatures are also cavalier with human life. We are the dominant species on the planet—at the moment. The idea that because of our dominance we can disregard the right of other species and other creatures to have their share of life on this diverse and bountiful earth is important: no one has a right, particularly not an enthusiastic Gaian, which I am, to believe that one race can dominate all the others without serious long-term consequences that, in the end, may rebound on our survival.

The hon. Gentleman said a great deal about climate change. I do not have much time to talk about that, but it will unquestionably affect habitats. It has already begun to affect them. We have all read press articles

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about the rapid decline in the number of polar bears in the arctic, which is due simply to the decline in phytoplankton and krill on which they depend. The Larsen iceberg is breaking away, which is having a drastic effect on the capacity to survive of creatures such as the polar bear. The United States is responsible for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, although it has only 4 per cent. of the world's population. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is essential that it returns to the Kyoto protocol or takes equivalent measures. The United States has an important role, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are maintaining the pressure to make it recognise its responsibilities.

We are making progress. I shall concentrate on the loss of global biodiversity and combating illegal trade in endangered species. I have just returned from the sixth meeting of the conference of the parties to the convention on biological diversity in the Hague, where some useful conclusions were drawn. For the first time there is a strategic plan, which aims to achieve globally, regionally and nationally a significant reduction of the current rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. Guiding principles were proposed that aim to reverse the expansion of alien invasive species—the second greatest threat to biodiversity after loss of habitat.

There is an action-oriented work programme on forestry, which includes action against the loss of forest biodiversity. There are also guidelines on access to and benefit sharing of genetic resources—the so-called Bonn guidelines. I take the hon. Gentleman's entirely correct point that they are voluntary guidelines. All I will say is that there are 182 countries, and it is difficult to get their agreement. An agreed framework and guidelines may not be adequate. We intend to monitor them. If there are significant breaches of the guidelines, or if countries fall significantly short of them, we will have to demand at future meetings that the guidelines are made mandatory. It took seven years to negotiate the Food and Agriculture Organisation proposals that form an international undertaking on access to and benefit sharing of plant genetic sources. I accept that mandatory regulations may be the only way to ensure that action is effective.

The British Government are taking several initiatives. The Darwin initiative is a collaborative grant programme that uses British expertise to promote biodiversity conservation and sustainable use in less developed countries. Since 1993, the Government have also provided £27 million to more than 230 Darwin projects with links to some 80 developing countries. That is a relatively small, but not insignificant, sum. If other countries did the same, it would have a serious impact.

We are also one of the first to signal support for the new great apes survival project—otherwise known as Grasp—that was launched by the United Nations Environment Programme last year. The project seeks to raise funds for great ape conservation, and to develop a global conservation strategy for that species. This year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office contributed £175,000, which is a substantial proportion of the $2.9 million sought by UNEP. I hope that other countries will follow that example in order to strengthen and extend that sort of work.

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need more checks on aeroplanes. It is true that food such as bushmeat is confiscated even today. The problem lies with the number of Customs officers and the fact that they must deal with drug smuggling, arms dealing, tobacco fraud, and preventing the spread of animal diseases such as foot and mouth. I take the point that it is vital to protect species as well as people in this country. The trade in illegal species and illegal meat must be stopped.

The Government are fully committed to the fight against wildlife crime. It is the second largest form of illegal trading in the world after drugs. One informed reckoning states that it accounts for $20 billion a year, of which a quarter is illegal. We are trying to raise awareness of the controls on the import of wildlife to the UK as tourist souvenirs or through the pet trade. Unfortunately, too many tourists return from their travels, often unwittingly, with souvenirs made from endangered species.

Extensive powers are already available to deal with illegal imports or exports of species listed under the convention on international trade in endangered species. I agree that we need more prosecutions and higher penalties. We must also ensure that potential criminals understand that there will be deterrent fines and that they are likely to be apprehended. That is not the case at the moment, but I met representatives of the World Wildlife Fund and other Departments, including Customs, this morning and I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am determined to increase the numbers of prosecutions and the level of fines or introduce imprisonment.

Under the provisions of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979, people found guilty of smuggling endangered species face up to seven years in jail. Unfortunately, there are not many examples of when that ceiling has been used. I want it to be used more often. Earlier this year, a person found guilty of illegally importing birds of prey into the UK from Thailand was jailed for six and a half years. That is a significant penalty, which sent shockwaves through some parts of the criminal community, and I would like to see many more such examples. In June 2001, two London shopkeepers were sentenced to four months in prison for smuggling and selling illegally imported bush meat. That is a low penalty, but it is imprisonment, not a fine, which is significant. In March 2000, a parrot breeder was sentenced to two and a half years and fined £5,000 for smuggling rare parrots, including three Lear's macaw, of which fewer than 150 pairs remain in the wild. The penalties are beginning to be increased, but we still have a long way to go to dissuade the criminal fraternity.

We are about to begin a review of the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997, and as part of that we will consider whether the current maximum penalty of two years for such offences remains appropriate. In my view, it is not. Although it is the Government's responsibility to ensure that the penalties attached to offences are commensurate with the seriousness of the offence and compatible with the general sentencing framework, we must seriously consider increasing the penalties for COTES offences and making them arrestable. At the moment, people cannot be arrested once they are through customs, which is a clear loophole.

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As part of the work to take forward the recommendations of the Halliday report on the review of the sentencing framework, we are also examining the scope for a new set of sentencing guidelines under the auspices of a statutory body. I am keen to pursue that, and we will publish a White Paper this year. We are also working hard through the Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime, which is sometimes known as PAW, to find further opportunities to increase awareness of wildlife crime and its implications among the judiciary.

Finally, our work to combat illegal wildlife trade took a significant step forward when I announced the establishment of the national wildlife criminal intelligence unit. The Government are committed to ensuring that the unit will be a success. I was very impressed by the police officers whom I met on that day, and we are providing some £440,000 to support the unit until March 2004. Together with the £100,000 provided by the police chief constables, which is a lot of money out of their constrained budgets and shows their commitment, our investment will get the unit up and running. It will work at national, international and strategic levels to collect and analyse intelligence from a wide variety of sources. It will then refine that information into operational and manageable packages to be passed to the appropriate police or Customs officers to investigate jointly with the unit. It will not take over from the police and Customs officers in the field: they do a great job and need more support. It will not carry out investigations and prosecutions in its right but it will work at the strategic level.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very warmly for his outstanding speech that was delivered with real passion. There is a case to answer. I am determined to ensure that we answer it.

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