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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1254—continued

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend will appreciate that I should not refer to conversations and exchanges in government. However, given his discussions during proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill, he will know that Home Office Ministers and officials are working on the issues. DEFRA has lead responsibility for our policy on the protection of endangered wildlife, but there is a Government-wide approach that aims to strengthen the way in which we address it. The Bill and related initiatives would increase penalties for specific wildlife-trading offences, and Home Office and DEFRA Ministers are engaged in an approach to that.

John Mann: I was not attempting to entice the Minister to give us details of private discussions but his response was slightly vague. Will he confirm whether there have been formal discussions on the issue between the Home Office and DEFRA?

Alun Michael: I shall outline the ways in which we are pursuing the issue and deciding whether we should

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introduce legislation. I am not sure whether I misunderstand my hon. Friend. If he is trying to ascertain whether there is ministerial and official discussion between the Home Office and DEFRA on those issues, the answer is yes. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responds on behalf of the Government as a whole.

Let me outline the Government's position. Many hon. Members have made it clear that they support increasing the penalties. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on attracting 344 signatures to his early-day motion in the last Session and on his tireless work that has done much to raise awareness of the issue. He made a strong point about the connection between different types of crime, including the read-across to drug and people smuggling. I am sure that he will agree that we need to ensure that people involved in the unpleasant trade are pursued effectively and strategically. There must be a lot of co-operation and the courts must be able to impose an appropriate penalty on people who are prosecuted.

We accept that increasing the penalties is justified. In fact, we suggested that in a consultation paper that we published in January, which covers a range of other enforcement issues. The consultation has not finished yet, but in the meantime my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw has tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill currently going through Parliament, calling for increased penalties for illegal trade in endangered species. It was considered in Committee on 27 February, when the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), said that, depending on the outcome of the consultation, the Government would return to the issue on Report. I hope that both the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw will accept that it would be premature for the Government to support the Bill while public consultation is still in progress. We will, however, return to the matter during the later stages of the Criminal Justice Bill, when I hope we shall be able to introduce exactly the measures that the hon. Gentleman seeks today.

Hugh Robertson: Is the Minister committing the Government to supporting my proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill, subject to the positive outcome of the review? Can we therefore expect legislation in the current Session?

Alun Michael: It would be inconsistent for me to say that we should await the completion and outcome of the consultation before deciding firmly on the next step. My precise words were "We will, however, return to the matter during the later stages of the Criminal Justice Bill, when I hope we shall be able to introduce exactly the measures that the hon. Gentleman seeks today". I also referred to what was said by my hon. Friend the

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Under-Secretary in Committee. The hon. Gentleman should accept that as a firm indication of intent on the Government's part.

Hugh Robertson: Given that the Minister has been about as clear as it is possible to be, I do not think I need detain the House further. With the leave of the House, I will withdraw the Bill.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman may wish to do that, but he has raised an issue, and I think it sensible for us to explore what is being done.

Hugh Robertson: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Now that I have been given the commitment that I sought, I do not think we need detain the House further on my account. Is it in order for me to withdraw the Bill?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): In a sense the Minister is giving as firm a commitment as he can, but there is a hint, shall we say, of some objection to the withdrawal of the Bill at this stage. Perhaps it would be as well if we heard the rest of the Minister's speech.

Alun Michael: I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Gray: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am a little puzzled. My hon. Friend has sought to withdraw his Bill, and the Minister has not formally objected to that. How can the Minister, who says that the Bill is unnecessary because its proposals will be included in another Bill presented by a different Department, none the less want to go on discussing a Bill which cannot now become law by any stretch of the imagination?

Madam Deputy Speaker: The Minister's objection is to the withdrawal of the Question. The debate can therefore continue.

Alun Michael: I have tried to help the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent—

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Friday's business always consists of a series of private Members' Bills, and several were tabled for discussion today. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) has received assurances from the Minister which have allayed any fears he had that the Government would not consider the matter, and he has said that he no longer wishes to pursue his Bill. Surely it is not in order for a member of Her Majesty's Government to prevent discussion of another Bill when the promoter of the Bill currently under discussion has stated so firmly that he wishes to withdraw it. I seek your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, because that suggests that a private Member is not in control of his own legislation.

Madam Deputy Speaker: As I understand it, the Minister is responding to an intervention. I expect him to complete his response to that intervention.

Alun Michael: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. In fact, these interventions are taking up time.

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I want to set the Bill in context, but first I wanted to satisfy the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent as to the direction in which I intended to take the debate. He has raised important issues, so it is only fair to ensure that the House is aware of the steps that the Government are already taking to deal with some of them.

Despite the strict controls on the trade in wildlife, there will always be people at one extreme who are genuinely unaware of them and, at the other, who deliberately and cynically breach them. People who bring home holiday souvenirs may not know that their new possession has been crafted from a highly endangered species, although they find out quickly enough when Customs officers seize the items.

However, the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw want to deal with much more sinister wildlife criminals. Some of them collect wildlife specimens for their aesthetic appeal, breeding potential or rarity. They will pay almost any price and have no regard for the effect of their purchases on the conservation status of that species. The demand for traditional medicines fuels the trade in certain endangered species, especially the tiger, the bear and the musk deer. Although work is being done to identify alternative products, the demand continues and provides an incentive for illegal trade.

John Mann: If the Bill were enacted, what would be the position as regards European legislation on wildlife trade, such as EU regulation 338/97?

Alun Michael: We are working hard with our colleagues in Europe to strengthen the steps being taken by the Commission.

Mrs. Gillan: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In response to my earlier point of order, you said that the Minister was responding to an intervention and that we must wait until he had done so before my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Hugh Robertson) could withdraw his Bill. It is obvious that the Minister has been reading from prepared notes and he has now responded to another intervention, so he must have come to the end of the—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. That is not a point of order for the Chair. I assure the hon. Lady that the hon. Member promoting the Bill will have an opportunity to respond.

Alun Michael: In view of the comments of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent, I am shortening my contribution so as to place the Bill in context and not delay the House. However, it seems from her repeated interventions that the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) does not want the House to understand the context of the trade in endangered species—

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