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8 Nov 2005 : Column 49WH—continued


12.28 pm

Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this subject. I am not entirely sure whether it has been raised in Parliament before, but if so, it was not in a debate. As you know, Mr. Cummings, aviculture is just another name for the keeping of birds which, in its widest sense, means anything from poultry, pheasants, ducks and owls to more familiar birds such as budgies and canaries and also owls.

I will concentrate on the more usual types of bird and speak briefly on the history of keeping birds. It goes back a long way, as we can see from mosaics from Ancient Greece and Rome, in which parrots and other such things were depicted. It is only in the past couple of   centuries that bird keeping has become more widespread; before that, it was very much the pastime of the rich, and stately homes would often have large collections. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, it became much more the pastime of ordinary working men. Latterly, it has been taken up by working women, too, although it is mostly the pastime of working men.

People kept pigeons or canaries before budgerigars became established in this country. In many mining communities in your constituency, Mr. Cummings, and throughout the country, a lot of people who had very hard lives and worked long hours will have derived great pleasure from looking after and nurturing these living creatures. Keeping birds gave people immense pleasure. It is not just that canaries were kept in the mines; keeping birds was a form of escapism for many people.

When people look after living creatures, they have to make a great commitment to ensure that the animals in their care survive. That requires great dedication, and people tend to their birds daily, if not several times a day.

I confess to hon. Members that I have kept birds, although I regard myself primarily as a birdwatcher. If   I   go back long enough, I can remember a time when I was rather keen on having the usual type of pet, and   I   pestered mother and father for a cat or a dog. Wisely, they said that that would not be all that easy, so we settled on having an aviary in the garden. I derived great pleasure from keeping birds and found out a lot more about them than I would have done purely by going walking around the countryside watching birds. I   found out about breeding cycles and, despite never having been a great scientist, about different mutations; it was good for a young schoolboy to learn about genetics in a simplified form.

Interestingly, two of my friends at school also kept birds. Today, I am here, one of my school friends is a wildlife officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the other runs one of the largest bird tour companies in Britain. Although the latter two do not keep birds any more, I am sure that our great interest was spurred on by the fact that we were in close proximity to birds and were able to learn more about them.

I am sure that hon. Members are thinking, "That is all very fascinating, but why on earth is the hon. Member for Uxbridge raising this issue today?" The reason is
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that bird keepers will potentially be affected by several issues and they feel slightly under pressure, although not under threat. One issue is the Government's impending Animal Welfare Bill. By and large, it is welcome, and I   shall come to it in a minute.

The other issue, which is connected with many of the points that I have raised, is the threat of avian flu coming to these shores. In the past few weeks, there has been publicity about avian flu, including the case of the infected parrot. There is concern that that will worry the   public and that they will think that every budgie in every front room is potentially a harbinger of doom and that the whole family will be wiped out.

I am therefore grateful to the Government for what they have done and particularly to the Minister, who has taken a very responsible attitude to the issue and who has been sending out the right signals. However, I   thought that it was possibly the time to raise some of these issues on behalf of bird keepers. The bird-keeping fraternity is divided, although some of its members are very active and able to put their views across, and does not always present a universal front. There is a certain amount of in-fighting and it is difficult to get all of its   members together and establish a common view. I   thought that this might be the forum in which to get them to understand the problem.

An important aspect of bird keeping that is sometimes forgotten is the potential it brings to learn conservation skills. I sometimes have to fill in forms—I am sure you do too, Mr. Cummings—in which I am asked who my political hero is. On the quiet, I must say that I do not have a political hero. If I were to have a hero, he would probably be Gerald Durrell, who would probably be thought of today as politically incorrect. Like me, he   was inclined to be a little overweight, and probably spoke his mind a little too much. In his youth, he went   out collecting animals for zoos; a lot of his books are about that. After a while, he considered the conservation side of things and realised that there was a need for captive breeding populations. Many of the skills that he learned—I believe that he worked at Whipsnade and, latterly, London zoo—helped him to start up his Jersey zoo, in which he had animals such as the echo parakeet from Mauritius, the pink pigeon and other birds and animals that bred in captivity.

Birds and animals do not breed in captivity if they are just stuck in a cage; they have to be nurtured and studied. Even today, some successful reintroduction schemes rely heavily on the expertise and skills of the people who look after the birds in captivity before releasing them into the wild. Around the world, conservation methods for some species include captive breeding for future release when the habitat is secure.

A more controversial issue, which came to attention with the focus on avian flu, is that of importing wild caught birds. This is not the time to raise that issue, but it needs to be sorted out. I congratulate the Government again on their stance on what is by and large an EU matter, although the mood is turning towards saying that it is not as necessary to have wild caught birds as it once was. Australia imposed an export ban in the early 1960s, and many species are now bred there in captivity. Indeed, some parrots and parakeets are more common in captivity than in the wild because of captive breeding and the impetus of saying that no more wild stock could
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come in, which made breeders and interested parties realise that that would be it if they did not get their acts together.

I hear arguments about sustainability being important, which it is, but it is also important that we consider whether some communities in developing countries are more likely to preserve habitats if they are harvesting, so to speak, a species of wild bird there, as with butterflies. I am not sure; I see both sides of the argument.

The vast majority of people who are interested in aviculture or keeping other species such as reptiles or fish are concerned about animal welfare. The last thing that they want is to see any living creature in distress. Some of the pictures that we see on the news go back some way. It is almost as though they are library photographs. There is an image of awful crowded importers' cages in which birds' heads stick through gaps, but such cages have largely been got rid of. That must still be looked into, although for some time there has been quarantine and people have ensured that things have been done properly. Sadly, that is not so all over the world, but Britain has a pretty good record.

I mentioned avian flu because this is a good opportunity to reassure people that the real threat is from migratory birds arriving in this country and having contact with domestic poultry or wildfowl. It is unlikely that birds in aviaries or cages will become carriers of   avian flu, although we must be careful of that. The Minister has taken a responsible view. His Department has studied the effect of imports and bird shows, and has   taken sensible measures. A few weeks ago, the newspapers got themselves into a panic over aviculture, which worried many people. Although avian flu is a serious matter, we must put it in proportion.

Aviculturists justifiably raise the issue of animal welfare legislation and what these days are called pet fairs—when I was younger, I called them bird shows. Breeders and owners show their birds off, rather like the old fur and feather shows that one sees at county shows. They often last only one day. Selling birds worries some of the animal welfare people. These shows are very valuable for breeders, who can swap birds, get new stock and discuss matters. Things have changed since I kept birds. Up to when I was a student, I never went very far; I lived next door to my mum, who has the original aviary, and that is why I still keep birds. What has changed most is security. In the old days, one could put one's name and address in a classified ad and did not   have to worry. People would come and purchase stock. Now people are worried about theft. There are presumably one or two fanatics who object to people keeping birds in captivity. Therefore, buying and selling stock is more often done at these forums, which is why they are important.

Recently, a popular parrot show was held in Stafford—I see the Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), is present. There has been concern about that show in the past. I believe that someone from the Department attended the show and there was a telling veterinary report, which said:

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The report goes on:

The top priority of the people who run these shows is their birds, not just because they like them, but because they are valuable, so it is good common sense. However, it is because they care about them.

What I have said about aviculture is equally true of people who keep reptiles, tropical fish, koi carp, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits or ferrets. I have four ferrets; it is admirable for someone in the Whips Office to have a set of ferrets to protect him at all times. It has always struck me—and there are examples from my constituency—that people keep animals or birds in special schools or in prison. The bird man of Alcatraz—Stroud—wrote the definitive work on bird diseases just from sitting in solitary confinement, keeping birds and looking at them.

There is an important social angle. I know of young people who have got involved in keeping birds, not necessarily through a parent. The joy when they see that the birds have laid eggs, and when, 18 days later, the nestlings come out and must be given different foods, and the birds fledge, sets them up pretty well for life. It gives them a sense of responsibility. That is something in today's world. We are always talking about that in the context of young people, and it is not a bad thing to show them.

I do not think that the Minister needs to worry too much. The bird-keeping fraternity believes, as I do, that he is a very good Minister, particularly with regard to the present topic—so much so that he appears in the   latest issue of the Parrot Society's magazine. It is an excellent picture, in which he looks particularly dapper. If he would like a copy I am sure that the Parrot Society would be glad to help him.

I know that it is a very busy time for the Minister, with the Animal Welfare Bill, but I should very much like to bring a small delegation of aviculturists to a short meeting, in which they could put across their view in person. They want to be able to assure people that they have made their voice heard in Government.

12.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr.   Randall) on securing the debate and commend his constructive and informative speech. He is a living example of the lack of contradiction between an interest in observing and enjoying wild birds and an interest in   keeping birds. He is right to point out that bird keeping is a legitimate and old human practice, dating back at least as far as the Egyptians, and probably further.

The Government estimate that about 2 million people in this country keep birds, and they get great pleasure from it. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, bird
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keeping has therapeutic and social benefits. Many birds thrive in captivity better than they do in the wild. Some live longer, and there can be conservation benefits. Some   species that are rare in the wild have become common in captivity, and aviculture, as the hon. Gentleman also pointed out, has pioneered ways of breeding that are now used to boost the numbers of   several endangered species. Captive breeding by hobbyists, such as the hon. Gentleman, has reduced the need to import wild caught birds.

The hon. Gentleman alluded to the debate about the whole trade in wild birds, which I am sure will continue and in which I hope he will play a leading role, as the European Union must reach a decision on whether to extend its import ban. It is right to point out that there are two sides to the argument. The point is made in some quarters—including the United Nations convention on international trade in endangered species—that for many of the poorest communities in the world as long as the birds are being harvested sustainably they are an important source of income. The trade in some of those places is an incentive to conserve a valuable resource. However, I am sure that we shall return to the debate and that the hon. Gentleman, with his expertise, will play a leading part in it.

The main job of Government is to ensure that the welfare and conservation of birds will not be jeopardised and to prevent the spread of avian flu between birds or from birds to humans. The Animal Welfare Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons last month, should help to ensure that the welfare needs of birds kept in captivity in this country are met. As the hon. Gentleman said, the vast majority of owners, who love their birds and care for them diligently, have nothing to fear from the Bill. However, a small number do not come up to scratch, and the Bill will help allay the fears of those animal rights fundamentalists who believe that it is intrinsically cruel to keep birds; we believe that they have nothing to worry about.

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Animal Welfare Bill is not about banning anything; it is about increasing welfare. If he is interested, I hope that he will be fortunate enough to secure a place on the Committee that considers the Bill when it eventually comes before the House; his expertise will be a great help to the Committee.

We have no intention of banning the keeping of particular species, either in the Bill or in secondary legislation. The Bill should not ban anything unless an incontrovertible case can be made that an activity is intrinsically cruel, and we have no evidence to suggest that bird keeping or bird showing, as he described it, is cruel. However, the Government are considering whether more protection should be given on conservation grounds to some of the world's most endangered species.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, article 8.2 of the EC regulation that implements CITES provides for member states to prohibit the holding of endangered species, particularly live specimens of the most endangered species. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), launched a public consultation in July to seek views on the option to
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regulate the holding of certain species subject to control under CITES. That concluded on 31 October, and the results are still being considered.

The Animal Welfare Bill should help to clarify some of the controversy surrounding pet and bird fairs to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I was sorry not to be able to attend the parrot show in Staffordshire. It was held on a Sunday, and as a busy Minister and constituency MP, my Sundays are particularly precious, but I hope to attend a similar show in future. However, John Bourne, the head of my animal welfare team who is leading on the Bill, was there, and it may have been his report that the hon. Gentleman cited.

I would be happy to meet a delegation from the Parrot Society UK to discuss some of its fears. The hon. Gentleman is right that there are some well organised and well funded non-governmental organisations; he is right also that those who keep birds tend to be quiet individuals who are not used to coming together to agitate or to organise political activity. It would be useful to hear their views before considering the relevant provisions in Committee.

The Government do not have any evidence that bird and pet fairs are intrinsically incapable of providing for the welfare needs of the animals in question. The hon. Gentleman eloquently outlined some of the potential benefits of fairs. People are nervous about putting small ads in papers, especially for reasons of security given the high value of some birds, and such gatherings allow the   exchange of information; indeed, if our proposals go through, they will be able to license birds. Licensing will be welcomed by most of the organisations that run such events; it would help deal with potential welfare problems, especially in organisations that are not so well run.

Naturally, future proposals made under the Animal Welfare Bill will be made through secondary legislation. Such instruments will be subject to full public consultation and approval by both Houses. Again, I   hope that the hon. Gentleman will play a leading role in those deliberations.

The hon. Gentleman was also right—I am glad that he welcomed this—to highlight the recent temporary EU ban on gatherings like bird fairs and the import of wild-caught birds on health grounds in the context of   avian influenza. I was grateful for his considered response, and I hope that he will continue to be involved in the dialogue on whether a ban is justified and, if so, for how long. It is important when making such decisions that the Government take account of the views of the organisations and hobbyists that he speaks for—I hope that he will continue to do so—as we weigh up the animal and bird risk, and the human health risk associated with avian flu. The ban will be reviewed again next month. However, that does not affect the Government's long-term proposals for the licensing of   bird fairs or our long-term policy on the import of wild-caught birds. I suspect that the hon. Member for Uxbridge is absolutely right to say that there is currently a shift of opinion on the import of wild-caught birds. In a way, the avian flu outbreak is a diversion from the issues that he raised on conservation and ethical matters, which have helped to spark a debate that will continue as we reconsider the ban in the weeks ahead.
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The hon. Gentleman will know that another result of the discovery of highly pathogenic avian flu at the quarantine facility in Essex has been an independent review of Britain's quarantine procedures. That was a   sensible measure and has raised questions about quarantine procedures, including the practice, for example, of mixing species of birds. Perhaps we should do more to separate species in quarantine. Of course, that is a hypothetical matter at the moment because the import ban is in place, and no birds are being imported. However, were the import ban lifted, we would have to be satisfied that the quarantine procedures are robust and are being correctly implemented and enforced. That investigation is continuing and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has assured the House that she will keep hon. Members updated as and when information comes to light.

I hope that the hon. Member for Uxbridge will take part in future discussions on the ethical, health and conservation considerations of the international trade in wild birds. Mr Cummings, I would be happy to have the coverage of my activities in the Parrot Society's magazine mentioned by the hon. Gentleman for Uxbridge. If you have not already seen it, Mr Cummings, I commend a recent profile of the hon. Member for Uxbridge in Cage and Aviary Birds, which was a charming report of both the hon. Gentleman and his mother. There is a picture of him beside his aviary and a picture, I assume, of one of his birds. That report demonstrates nicely the pleasure and sense of responsibility that is derived from keeping birds. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter, and I hope that I have been able to reassure him about some of the concerns that he expressed about the potential impact of the Animal Welfare Bill, the current debate on the import of wild birds and the in many cases unfounded fears of the public about avian flu.

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