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Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I think that this was a batsqueak of a statement with very little substance behind it, and a reflection of the vanity of those who govern us at present. Matters of great substance have not been addressed, such as international competitiveness for the British economy and how we can recapture or retain our ability to make judgments on regulationsa point raised by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey).
I am struck by the sheer emptiness of the Government's strutting over the past six months. They gave away a huge negotiating hand in terms of the budget. Where is the reform of the common agricultural policy, which is so detrimental to the third world and those who are poor? This was a nothing statement, and an ecological waste of all the paper produced to send more words into the air.
With the greatest respect, I disagree. On the issue of economic reform, not only was there progress on the better regulation agenda, but we set down a course that will, I believe, yield results. Better regulation, whether in Whitehall or Brussels, involves not just process changesfor example, regulatory impact assessmentsbut cultural change. I was heartened in particular by the comment of
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Commissioner Verheugen during the British presidency that he now regards better regulation as a key priority, not simply for the presidency of the European Union for six months, but for the Commission.
On the hon. Gentleman's point about the common agricultural policy, we continue to argue for fundamental reform. We set out our position in the Government paper that was published in December. We have secured the 200809 review, of which I spoke in my statement and which was mentioned in the White Paper. That will be the means by which we can secure further reform of how Europe spends its money.
As for whether it was worth having the White Paper or, indeed, the statement, the Conservative party cannot have it both ways. It argues that national Parliaments are being disregarded in European policy-making, but when there is an opportunity seriously to discuss European issues, it chooses to indulge in arguments that are not entirely convincing.
Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): On the intervention by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) about the future of the pint, if, as the Minister says, we have to have more transparency and more standard measures in the European Union, what hope will there be of saving the pint in the UK?
Mr. Alexander: I do not know how much more clearly I can put it. I am convinced that there is no threat to either the British pint of beer or the British pint of milk. I was making a general point. I think that, within a single marketI hope that, as a supporter of the single market, the hon. Lady may agree with this pointthere is a case for ensuring transparency for consumers. If she disagrees with transparency for consumers, perhaps she could get in touch with me and confirm that.
Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that, unlike the Conservative party when it was in power, we have a commitment to the development of Africa. Is he convinced that European leaders share our commitment?
Mr. Alexander: I was heartened by the fact that we agreed a strategy for Africa at the December Council of the European Union. That decision came after a decision last year by European Union Finance Ministers and, before that, Development Ministers, significantly to increase the level of development assistance both to Africa and to other developing areas of the world. I believe that one of the things that the British presidency and the European Union in 2005 will be remembered for is the significant progress on the development agenda. The credit for that goes not to one country, but to all 25.
The trade of endangered animals on the internet is a growing and serious problem. Independent commentators estimate that the trade is worth up to £25 billion globally and up to £3 billion involving UK websites and consumers. Those large figures include both live and dead animals and animal products. Today, I would like to disaggregate those figures and focus on the millions of pounds being spent in the sale of live endangered animals on the internet, driving some of those species near to extinction.
It may come as a shock to some hon. Members to discover that this morning, in my office at the House of Commons, I logged on to the internet and could have purchased a leopard, a zebra, sea turtles, chimpanzees, an American bald eagle, an alligator, a dromedary, a mountain lion and a Lear's macaw. Sadly, the list goes on and on. I was very interested to hear from the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about the elephant in the room at the Foreign Office. That escaped my research, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will pass on the details to me.
In August 2005, the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that 9,000 endangered live animals were offered for sale online in one week. That search was limited to five categories of animal, but I am sure that the House will be interested to know that animals of all categories are sold every minute of every day, year after year. That same research found that 146 primates were available for sale in the UK. All of the sales were illegal: all the animals were endangered, and all were being traded through UK-registered websites. We do not know where the animals involved in such sales come from, how they are transported, or the conditions in which they are kept.
The Government rightly recognise the need to protect the environment, but what about the natural environment? Given the obvious scale of the problem, is not it incumbent on the Government, industry and us all to do far more to tackle this serious problem? The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), is attending the debate, and I know that he is a good-natured man who takes animal welfare very seriously. I hope that he will consider the suggestions that I have to make, especially given that the Animal Welfare Bill is currently before the House.
What could the Government do? First, I encourage them to work in collaboration with internet service providers and auction houses to launch a public awareness campaign on this matter. That campaign should be targeted at both consumers and traders and should inform them about what is lawful and what is not. Secondly, I encourage the Government to establish a hotlinefor telephones and/or e-mailsso that illegal activity can be reported to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. That information should then be shared with wildlife crime officers and the police.
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Thirdly, a legal help desk should be set up so that people who are not sure about the law can contact someone to obtain clarification. Very often, the terms and conditions of websites involved in this trade are hidden somewhere in the back of beyond in the ISP's terms and conditions. We need to expose what is lawful and what is not. Finally, as I said earlier, the Government should liaise more closely with crime enforcement agencies.
Earlier, I saw the Home Secretary appear briefly in the Chamber before dashing out. I wish that he had stayed, because I know that the Government are keen on targets. I hope that the Minister will speak gentle words of encouragement in the right hon. Gentleman's ear about the adoption of a new Home Office target to ensure that police forces around the country bring successful prosecutions of those involved in this illegal trade, leading to their conviction. The House will be astounded to hear that only two successful prosecutions were brought last year for trade involving endangered animals. In both cases, the animals were dead and stuffed, but we know that there is a trade in live animals. With the greatest respect, I believe that the fact that there has not been a single prosecution in respect of the trade in live animals is an indictment of the Government.
The Government and the Minister could take the lead in this matter, both in this country and in Europe. Under the convention on international trade in endangered species, they could use our EU block vote to lead the way internationally. There is a CITES conference in June next year: I hope that the Minister will go there and declare that the UK is leading the way on animal welfare and that it has forged agreement in Europe about a new way forward on the matter.
Possibly the best and most immediate way to deal with the illegal trade in endangered animals is to establish a code of conduct for all ISPs and those involved in the internet market place to ensure that they do not facilitate the sale of endangered animals, directly or indirectly, through their products and services. As a Conservative, I hope that that could be achieved through a voluntary code, not a statutory one. We will have to wait and see whether the ISPs are prepared to go along with that.
What can ISPs do? We know that web content can be curbed because we have seen the excellent work of the Internet Watch Foundation, which works to prevent access to child pornography. ISPs should work in partnership, perhaps with the Government, to extend their remit to involve animal watch internet work. If they are not prepared, or are unable, to do that, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs needs to work with them to set up a dedicated animal watch foundation to ensure that that evil trade stops.
It is no longer good enough for ISPs or the Government to argue that such a task is too great, too complex or the amount of data too overwhelming. We know that when ISPs have a will, they can find a way. For example, they can monitor, block and stop links from sites that promote political thought or messages. We have seen that with Google in China in the past week. If Google and other ISPs can regulate free speech in China, the least they can do is regulate the sale of endangered animals on the internet in the UK.
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ISPs should also co-operate with Government and each other in agreeing a code of conduct. They should make it easier to report illegal activity, because current abuse processes are not user friendly, and provide better training for staff. ISPs should not see this Bill as a threat to their business, but as an opportunity to differentiate their products so that discerning and promiscuousin the marketing senseconsumers can say, "I do not want to give my money to this ISP if it is not animal welfare friendly." Consumers should make the choice. They should email their ISP and threaten to take their business elsewhere unless this issue is taken seriously. I hope that the Government will take the lead on that. ISPs could gain a competitive advantage by taking this matter seriously.
If ISPs do not take action, consumers will, and the courts might. There is a case before the courts at present, but I shall not go into detail. However, we know that the courts may take action if the Government do not. This is a serious and growing problem and I hope that the Government will take it more seriously. I know that the Minister is serious about animal welfarethis is his opportunity to prove that to the country and to put an end to this abhorrent trade.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mark Pritchard, Mr. Roger Gale, Jeremy Wright, David Howarth, Mr. Eric Martlew, Hugh Robertson, Mr. David Drew, Michael Fabricant, Ms Celia Barlow, Mr. John Randall, David T. C. Davies and Mr. Edward Vaizey.
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