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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1246—continued

Mr. Greenway: I shall speak again.

Alun Michael: In that event, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to respond in the way that I have suggested. I would then look forward to working with him on the Bill in Committee because I believe that the code of practice has an important role to play in clarifying responsibilities and best practice in relation to weed control.

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We are already reviewing the way that DEFRA pursues its responsibilities under the Weeds Act 1959, but that is not to release additional resources. Anyone who is aware of the needs of the countryside and the pressure on the Department will be aware how stretched we are, but I do believe that there are things that could be changed to make a difference to horse owners and target more effectively the available resources and the action that is undertaken. I hope that the Government's offer of co-operation on the Bill, our willingness to work with the industry to prepare a code of practice and the review of enforcement policy that I have announced today will be a signal to the horse industry, as suggested by hon. Members, that we are listening, that we have taken note of their concerns and that we are prepared to do something about them.

I hope that we shall be able to move forward supporting the Bill—that will help to cement closer working relationships with the horse industry, which is such a strength in the rural economy—and that by protecting the welfare of the horse we shall be able to protect the welfare of the industry and the wider economy. Provided that the hon. Gentleman is willing to commit himself to the approach I have suggested, I will be in a position to recommend to the House that the Bill pass into Committee for further discussion and amendment.

1.32 pm

Mr. Greenway: With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to the Minister but also to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and all hon. Members on both sides of the House for their attendance today and for their approach to the Bill. I do not want to detain the House further, as other hon. Members now wish to pursue their own Bills, but I am happy to respond very positively to what the Minister has said. We agreed earlier this week that the amendments of the kind that he has described would appear to be appropriate, and I am happy to give him that undertaking. On that basis I hope that the question can be put and that we shall have a positive response.

Question put and agreed to.

Read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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Endangered Species (Illegal Trade) Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

1.33 pm

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I should very much like to acknowledge the contribution already made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who introduced the original Bill with this title, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), who encouraged me personally to take up this cause, and the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to the same effect. The Bill has cross-party support.

I do not intend to speak for long, because the Bill is simple. It has just one clause, which increases the maximum sentence for those caught trading in endangered species from two years to five years. That, in itself, is clearly a good thing. However, critically, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, these crimes then become an arrestable offence, which they are not at present. Clearly, that would give the police a great deal more power to tackle these offences.

Why is the issue important? First, the illegal wildlife trade is now the second most important criminal activity worldwide after drugs, even more so than gun running. It is now worth over £5 billion a year. Given the current international situation, and the way in which terrorists and criminals trade their money, this trade needs to be closed down as a matter of urgency. In fact, it is a mystery to me why that has not been done already.

Secondly, the Bill would offer much-needed protection to some of the world's most precious and endangered species. I shall give the House a practical example: a recent police raid in the United Kingdom seized tiger cubs that had been killed when they were less than a fortnight old, before their eyes had even opened, and stuffed and mounted on a branch. The police have also found gorilla skulls, leopards, sparrowhawks, snowy owls, turtles, tortoises, parrots and a host of primates. The Worldwide Fund for Nature recently estimated that at least 20 per cent. of the world's species could become extinct in the next 30 years, and the illegal trade in animal products and the animals themselves is a major contributor to that.

It is worth briefly examining those propositions in more detail. I shall deal first with the use of endangered species as an international criminal activity. As I said, the illegal wildlife trade is worth £5 billion a year. More than 520 million animals and plants are traded internationally each year, and 25 per cent. of the wildlife trade tied up in that is illegal.

I regret to say that the United Kingdom is a major centre for the trade, acting as both a transit route and a final destination. There are clear and proven links to organised crime, with endangered species being traded along exactly the same smuggling lines as drugs and guns. A recent case in Moscow resulted in the seizure of 10 tonnes of caviar bound for Europe—harmless one might say, even tasty. However, with the caviar were 400 automatic rifles and 3,500 rounds of ammunition.

There are four main smuggling efforts: the endangered species are concealed; they are mis-declared; the permits under which they are brought in

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are fraudulent; and there is laundering through re-export. As a result, on average, Customs seizes 570 illegal wildlife items each day. Home Office figures for the period 1987 to 2001 reveal that only 51 cases were prosecuted. That bears repetition: there are 570 seizures of illegal items each day but there have been 51 prosecutions in 14 years. It is little short of a total disgrace.

We are now all aware of the threat posed by international terrorism. Clearly, if we are to defeat it, we must not only defeat the terrorists militarily but destroy their supply lines and finance. There has not yet been a recorded instance of a direct, proven link between endangered species and international terrorism, but the links with international criminal activity, which clearly reads over into terrorism, is very clear indeed.

As I said, we must also consider the effect that the trade in endangered species has on the world's reserves of wildlife. A taxidermist in Islington has admitted 29 charges of obtaining licences by forgery and 12 cases of keeping endangered species for sale without a licence. The endangered species found in the shop included the two tiger cubs that I mentioned earlier, leopards and an elephant's foot that had been turned into a table. The man responsible got six months' imprisonment.

In April 2000, a company was caught in possession of 138 shahtoosh shawls, made from the fleece of a slaughtered Tibetan antelope, which is an endangered species. The combined value of those shawls was £350,000; the fine for the people caught in possession was simply £1,500—an utterly pathetic £10.87 per shawl. Those shawls had a retail value of between £3,000 and £12,000.

In 2002, a survey by Traffic of Chinese medicine shops in the United Kingdom showed that 64 per cent. of them sold illegal products, such as protected plant and animal species, including leopards, bears, musk deer and the extremely rare costas root.

Finally, there is a recent case of a shop that sold whole lions, stuffed, for £5,000 each. It also sold antelopes, porcupines and large live snails. The man responsible received simply a four-month sentence. That is pathetic and extremely damaging.

Those are the reasons why I believe that the Bill is so important. That criminal activity has simply been allowed to continue unchecked for far too long. The current international situation lends the issue urgency, and the Government should act at once. The Bill could not be simpler—it has just one clause—and it would clearly make a demonstrable difference. I urge the House to give it a Second Reading.

1.41 pm

John Mann (Bassetlaw): I congratulate the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) on introducing this private Member's Bill, which will receive support from all corners of the House. It is timely and, if enacted, its result—raising sentences—will be long overdue.

Current provision is inadequate. The prison sentences are far too short—if they are imposed at all—and the fines are paltry, as the hon. Gentleman said so

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eloquently, so the incentives for those who take part in this lucrative trade are enormous. It is fair to say that the criminals involved in that trade are taking a disproportionately low risk compared with other types of crime, given the proceeds and penalties. He is rightly seeking to redress that imbalance with the Bill.

As the chair of the all-party endangered species group, I know that it has attempted to highlight wildlife crime in the past year. In the last Session, early-day motion 862 received the signatures of more than half the House. Indeed, if it were not for the protocol in relation to certain Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen and Ministers, in excess of 90 to 95 per cent. of the House would have signed that early-day motion. That demonstrates the depth of support for the Bill, for the early-day motion was precisely along the lines of the wording proposed by the hon. Gentleman.

The consensus in the House on the importance of the issue was further emphasised by the contributions in considering the Criminal Justice Bill in Committee, when an amendment that I tabled received open and positive support from Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members.

London has become something of a centre for the illegal trade in endangered species. The depth of the problem is best summed up by the case involving shahtoosh shawls. Not only was the fine absurd in relation to the possible profits, but the find represented at least 2 per cent. of the entire world population of that species. That haul shows how quickly and monstrously a species can be eliminated by such international crimes. The hon. Gentleman illustrated the range of different examples in this country, which I shall not repeat. If the trade has a good base in this country, many other international centres will be involved, too.

The better-known examples include ivory, rhino horn and tiger parts. There are tiny numbers of tigers left in the world, as the Indian Wildlife Board has explained in great detail to me, because they are constantly under pressure from poachers who are openly prepared to risk their lives for the profits available. Much of that trade finds its way to London, which is a significant danger. Of course, precisely the same problem occurs with less well-known species such as the chiru antelope.

The other issue that I want to bring to the House's attention is the linkage with criminal gangs. The survival of the tiger, the rhino and other endangered species should be a fundamental concern of politicians in this House and throughout the world. We would betray future generations were we not to make sure that our house was in order, in Britain, in terms of how we attempt to play our small role in protecting those species. That is precisely the aim of the Bill, which would assist in that attempt.

In addition, the House should be under no illusions about who are in these wildlife crime gangs. They are not localised, cowboy-type poachers who happen to encounter an animal, kill it and somehow try to sell its parts. It is an organised trade. The same gangs are laundering money and smuggling people, drugs and arms: the worst kind of arms. Even when that has been identified, it is difficult to catch them.

To give some examples, at Heathrow, a consignment of live foreign snails packed with heroin was found. In Miami, boa constrictors smuggled in as part of a

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shipment of 312 animals from Colombia were found to be filled with cocaine—39 kg of it—and all the reptiles died. The same gangs are involved. The profits are of similar margins, and, therefore, be it ivory, heroin or people, they will take their chance on each and every one.

The Indian Wildlife Board has illustrated that in great detail by tracking to whom the people doing the poaching in the wildlife sanctuaries and national parks in India are linked. It is the same organised crime gangs who are smuggling drugs from Afghanistan, and smuggling people from Albania and the Balkans, into Britain and other countries. Therefore, by increasing the penalties for this particular crime, we assist in tackling those two major problems in today's world.

I commend the Bill, and I hope that, in the same way that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn) did, the Minister will be minded, considering his consultation on the issue, to give a clear guarantee to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent that amendments will come forward at the appropriate time, later this Session, under the Criminal Justice Bill.

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