Previous Section Index Home Page

The earth's rain forests are not only one of the greatest wonders of the natural world; they are the green lungs of the planet. They are also the source of the forest resources that help to support the livelihoods of nearly 1 billion of the world's poorest people. Moreover, the carbon dioxide emissions that arise from the annual burning and destruction of rain forests account for about 17.5 per cent. of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the whole global aviation and transport sector put together. Without urgent action to halt deforestation, we shall have no chance of beating global climate change. Even if there were no threat from man-made climate change, we could not stand by and see the forests destroyed, because of the vast and unique ecosystems that they support and the livelihoods that depend on them.

Saving the rain forests is something that we can achieve if we can find and summon the necessary political will, and it is certainly something that fires the imagination and support of my constituents. Like all good climate policy, however, urgent action to save the world's forests is a good thing in itself. Ultimately, we need to continue to find ways in which to create an economic value for tropical forests in particular, so that they are worth more standing than as timber.

There is no magic solution to saving the rain forests, and good progress was made at Copenhagen on support mechanisms for forestry, but one measure that we can take now is to choke off demand for illegal timber here in the UK market. In a speech before the Copenhagen summit, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, made plain the strength of the Conservatives' commitment to halting deforestation, and in particular to addressing illegal logging. He gave the clear commitment that a Conservative Government would make it a criminal offence under UK law to import and possess illegal timber.

Three weeks later, during Prime Minister's Question Time-and during the Copenhagen summit-my right hon. Friend asked the Government to support that proposal, and in January, during the first Energy and Climate Change questions after the summit, I repeated his call for the Government to match our commitment to action. The Government's own Back Benchers have mounted concerted and considerable efforts and campaigns to secure a measure to criminalise illegal timber activity, yet, despite encouraging rhetoric, the Government themselves have refused to legislate, choosing instead to hide behind the slow and indecisive process taking place in the European Union.

Conservative Members have supported, and remain committed to, a strengthening of the draft EU regulation

16 Mar 2010 : Column 738

I pay tribute to my colleagues, and indeed members of all political parties, in the European Parliament who have also pressed for a more ambitious regulation. However, it is clear that action at European level will not go far enough.

On 1 March, the EU Council adopted a common position on the regulation, which lays down only the minimum requirement that companies trading in timber and timber products should exercise due diligence to minimise the risk of placing illegally harvested timber and timber products on the internal market. It lacks an explicit overarching prohibition on illegal timber in the EU market. With no explicit prohibition, there is no incentive to exclude illegal timber from entering the market; there is only an incentive to prove that the company concerned has tried to prevent it. Furthermore, the regulation applies only to those companies that place timber and timber products on the market for the first time, rather than all operators involved in the distribution chain. Loopholes are therefore created whereby all downstream companies-the majority of EU traders-are exempt from even the bare minimum of due diligence requirements. A prohibition on illegal timber needs to apply to all companies that make timber available to the market, whatever their position in the supply chain.

Unlike the EU, the USA has shown real leadership on this issue. In 2008, the United States amended the Lacey Act and made it illegal for a person or company to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase illegal timber or illegal timber products. The Lacey Act amendments are widely seen as a historic breakthrough and are already leading to changes in practices among US retailers and importers, and manufacturers and logging companies. There is no reason why that legislative change cannot be replicated here in the UK with the creation of an offence of selling or distributing imported wood illegally harvested in its country of origin, or, indeed, of importing such wood into the UK. The Environment Secretary himself has said

but to date his Department has stubbornly refused to legislate to that effect with the introduction of simple and specific domestic legislation to make the sale of timber produced illegally an offence in the UK.

The effectiveness of the Lacey Act lies in its simplicity. It defines in law what companies must not handle, but gives companies the freedom to find ways to meet that obligation. My Bill is intended to replicate the Lacey-style approach in the UK. It would apply equally to all operators in the UK supply chain and prohibit illegal timber in the UK market. Agreement at the European level and tough action by individual member states is now no longer a matter of either/or, given that there is not an agreement at Council to go any further than a due diligence system. The clarity of this Bill would complement the due diligence approach in the EU and, given that the UK is the third largest importer of illegal timber in the EU, measures taken in the UK would have more than merely a token status: they would have a significant impact on illegal logging and on the EU market.

This Bill is endorsed by not only environmental groups such as the WWF and the Environmental Investigation Agency, but by the certification bodies the Forest Stewardship Council and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes, and also by major retailers such as B&Q and Timbmet, the UK's
16 Mar 2010 : Column 739
largest hardwoods importer, which already proves that it is possible to be both kind to the environment and deliver real value and choice to customers. It is also endorsed by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, an umbrella organisation that accounts for the majority of the world's rain forest nations. This Bill is also directly consistent with the "legislative principles on forestry" adopted by 120 legislators from the world's major economies at the GLOBE Copenhagen legislators forum last October.

In conclusion, without urgent action to halt deforestation we do not have a chance of beating man-made climate change. In January, I gave a commitment that if this Government do not act to make the sale of illegal timber a criminal offence, a new Conservative Government will, and, moreover, a Conservative Government will work with other EU states to do the same. However, I hope that after the election, if it falls to the Conservatives to form the Government, we will have the opportunity to bring forward this measure on the back of a new consensus that recognises the part that Members from across the House have played in the campaign. I should like to note that this Bill is co-sponsored by colleagues not only from the shadow Cabinet, but by distinguished Labour Back Benchers and former Labour Ministers. I particularly want to pay tribute to the huge body of work on this issue by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner)-the Prime Minister's former special envoy on forestry-and the efforts of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), but it seems that it will require a new Conservative Government to take this vital step forward on to the statute book and send a message to the rest of Europe that the UK is ready to change and to take the lead on the campaign against illegally harvested timber.

Question put and agreed to.


That Gregory Barker, Mr. William Hague, Greg Clark, Nick Herbert, Mr. Oliver Letwin, Charles Hendry, Barry Gardiner, Alun Michael, Mr. Peter Ainsworth, Bill Wiggin, Mr. Hugo Swire and Mr. Nick Hurd present the Bill.

Gregory Barker accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 7 May , and to be printed (Bill 87).

16 Mar 2010 : Column 740

Opposition Day

[6(th) Allotted Day]

Equitable Life

[Relevant documents: The Second Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2008-09, on Justice Delayed: The Ombudsman's report on Equitable Life, HC 41, and the Government response, HC 953, and the Sixth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Session 2008-09, on Justice denied? The Government's response to the Ombudsman's report on Equitable Life, HC 219, and the Government response, HC 569 .]

Mr. Speaker: I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.10 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): I beg to move,

It is hard to believe that nine years after Equitable Life's policyholders saw the value of their policies slashed, six years after Lord Penrose identified regulatory failures, 18 months after the ombudsman's damning report on the regulation of Equitable Life and more than a year since the Government's response, policyholders are still no nearer to knowing what the outcome of their fight for justice will be. They have been given no timetable for payments and no certainty as to how much they will receive. That is the tragedy of Equitable Life for its policyholders, many of whom will not live to see justice done.

The truth is that it did not need to be this way. The Government deliberately chose, at each turning point on the road to justice, to take the longer and more difficult route- there were no short cuts for the Government, because the delays suited them-and from the outset they sought to block the campaign. The pattern of the Government's behaviour is clear. They wanted to block, frustrate and then delay the fight for justice. They could have chosen a better, quicker route to justice, but they dogmatically chose a different path: one that has delayed justice. Who has paid the price for that? The answer is Equitable's policyholders, the people who have faced an uncertain future, the people who are struggling to make ends meet because their pension is not as much as they expected, not because of the market, but because of actions taken by the management of Equitable that were not picked up by regulators over the course of a decade. Every Member in this House will know from their postbag the personal cost of this to their constituents, but whatever the outcome for policyholders we know that more than 30,000 will not
16 Mar 2010 : Column 741
see justice. We also know that as every day goes by, more and more policyholders see the prospect of justice disappear.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): May I cite the case of a constituent of mine, Mr. David McKeever, who has been particularly critical and believes that the Government are doing all they can to delay payment to the victims of the Equitable Life collapse? He told me that, since 2002, 10,000 of the 54,000 annuitants have died. Does my hon. Friend believe that the Government want to wait until all of these people die?

Mr. Hoban: My hon. Friend makes an important point, because there have been huge delays during this process-I shall detail some of those that the Government have engineered-and, as a consequence, many of the policyholders have died and will not see justice delivered.

The fight for justice has united Members from all parts of the House, and I commend the creation of the all-party group on Equitable Life policy holders, which is chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton), a Labour Back Bencher. I pay tribute to the work that they have done within this House to ensure that Equitable remains on its agenda. Tribute must also be paid to the Equitable Members Action Group-EMAG-which has galvanised policyholders into an effective campaigning body. EMAG's members have not been slow in making their views known to Members of Parliament and their lobbying has been effective in maintaining the profile of this issue for many years.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I am following the hon. Gentleman's remarks closely. Does he agree that as a gesture of compassion, given that 10,000 pensioners have already died unpaid and waiting, the Government should instruct Sir John Chadwick to make an interim tax-free payment-as advocated by EMAG-equivalent to two years on account to alleviate some of the hardship and stress that pensioners are facing now?

Mr. Hoban: The hon. Lady raises the plight of a very important group of Equitable Life's policyholders. It was noticeable that in the third interim report that Sir John published last week he highlighted that one group to have suffered a disproportionate impact from the failures at Equitable Life and from the failure of regulation was the so-called trapped annuitants. We are all mindful of the suffering that they face and of the fact that they have faced a loss of income. However, the challenge is this: if we make an interim payment now to the trapped annuitants, how much will that leave for the other policyholders? Surely the best thing to do is to move as quickly as possible to resolve the entire problem and then to consider how we prioritise payments, perhaps, once that settlement has been reached, so that the with-profits annuitants receive a fair deal then.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Stepping back from all this, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we all know what the common-sense answers are? The obfuscation does not disguise them at all and if we are to see justice, the Government need to prove that they are not trying
16 Mar 2010 : Column 742
to save money by waiting for more people to die. Instead, they need to accept the clear guidance that we have already seen, which the hon. Gentleman is outlining and with which those on the Liberal Democrat Benches and the majority of the Government's Back Benchers agree-they should pay out, sort it out and put an end to this utter tragic travesty.

Mr. Hoban: The problem is that this process has dragged on for far too long. All groups of policyholders have lost out as a consequence of the delays and we need to see a clear timetable setting out when payments will be made to them. It is very disappointing not just to Members of the House who have been part of this long fight for justice but to policyholders that the Government seem to be no closer to producing a clear timetable for payments to policyholders.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): My hon. Friend spoke about the good work done by the action group. Many of its key executives live in my constituency and I have worked with them for nearly 10 years now. Is he aware of their frustration at the progress made by Sir John Chadwick, who they feel is doing nothing but repeating the Government line?

Mr. Hoban: I understand the frustration that EMAG's members feel about the process and the time that has been taken. The group announced earlier today or late last night that it had chosen to withdraw from further discussion of Sir John Chadwick's work. I have some sympathy with its frustration about the process, but it is important that a strong voice on behalf of policyholders is party to the finalisation of Sir John's report. Speed is of the essence because, as hon. Members have said in a number of interventions, the longer the process is strung out, the fewer the policyholders who will see justice.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The hon. Gentleman rightly makes the point that time is ticking on. Some 2,500 policyholders might die in the coming year and is that not the reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) is right that we need interim payments to be made, which would, after all, represent a small fraction of the overall compensation that we expect to be paid eventually and could be deducted from any final rewards? That would at least give people such as the Rev. and Mrs. Littlewood, in my constituency, some hope of seeing some money in the near future.

Mr. Hoban: Of course, the truth is that we do not know how much compensation will be payable to policyholders. We will not know that until Sir John has completed his final report and his conclusions have been applied to the data supplied by Equitable Life. We need to bear it in mind that we do not yet know what the bill will be.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Liam Byrne): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous, for giving way. I wanted to clarify one point that comes from his answer to an earlier intervention. Is he proposing that the Government drop the John Chadwick process and revert to the process set out by the ombudsman?

16 Mar 2010 : Column 743

Mr. Hoban: I did not make that sort of comment at all. I am not quite sure what the right hon. Gentleman is referring to. I know that over the past few weeks he has adopted a habit of flip-flopping on a range of issues, but I am not going to flip-flop on this. We need to ensure that the process is completed as quickly as possible so that we get the right outcome for policyholders who have had to wait too long for justice. They have had to wait so long for justice because the Government have sought to block, frustrate and delay the progress on that report.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I agree with everything that my hon. Friend has said so far. Does he agree that this debate is rather like watching paint dry but without the paint? According to the action group's spokesman today, more than 1 million people have lost £4 billion, but it is estimated that only several hundred million pounds, at most, will be recovered. In those circumstances, it is a question not only of those who have died, of those who will continue to live. Under present arrangements, they will not get anything realistic.

Mr. Hoban: As I said earlier, we will have to see what the outcome of Sir John's work is, and how his recommendations are applied to the information supplied to the Treasury by Equitable Life, before we can work out what the total compensation bill will be.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend very much for giving way. Does he agree that the extent of the problem is even greater than the statistics show? The policyholders who have died and not benefited have left behind widows and dependants who will never benefit from the investments that their husbands and spouses made over many years.

Mr. Hoban: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We need to think carefully about how we deal with the widows, widowers and dependants who have been left behind, and about the compensation scheme that they need.

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, as he has been most generous. Following on from the previous point, is it not all the more important that the Minister give the House two assurances today? First, he must assure the House that the full detail of all the actuarial reports and background material that have been made available to Sir John Chadwick will be published. Secondly, he should rule out, clearly and unequivocally, that any compensation will be subject to means-testing. I hope that he is moving in that direction, and that he will make it clear today that there will be no means-testing. For people who have suffered a great deal of delay already, even the thought that compensation might be means-tested would really add insult to injury.

Mr. Hoban: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the transparency of the process. We must make sure that Equitable Life's policyholders have confidence in that transparency, and that requires a reasonable degree of disclosure about the basis for some of the judgments that have been made. That would help to reassure people that this is not a stitch-up but a proper and rigorous process.

Next Section Index Home Page