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Judy Mallaber: I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely helpful information.

The trade has been banned in the United State since 1972. Greenland, which carries out its own indigenous seal hunt, recently stopped all imports of seal skins from Canada. I understand that that happened just after pictures of the Canadian seal hunt were broadcast on national TV there. If the film that I watched this morning was shown on our television, the Minister would be inundated with requests to ban hunting, although I am not sure that our television companies would wish to show such horrific filming.

Earlier this week, the Italian Government announced a temporary ban on the import of seal products and announced their introduction of a Bill to end the trade permanently. Mexico decided last week to prohibit the trade in all marine mammal products, and Belgium now has a licensing scheme for imports, but has made it clear that no licences will be issued and that it will also bring in comprehensive legislation.

The case for banning the import of, and trade in, seal products is now overwhelming. A recent opinion poll commissioned by Respect for Animals found that 79 per cent. of people in Britain want the seal hunt to be banned and that 73 per cent. agree that the Government should act to ban the import of seal products. I pay tribute to Respect for Animals, which has provided me with information for this debate. It is based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker). If he did not have to act as a Trappist monk as a Whip, I know that he would wish to be up here introducing the debate.

I specifically wish to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to confirm that he has seen the legal opinion obtained by Respect for Animals and IFAW and given by Philippe Sands QC, one of the world's leading experts on international law and European trade. It shows in great detail the legal basis for his clear and strong view that the UK, under World Trade Organisation rules, can legally ban the import of harp and hooded seal products.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) and to many others in Respect for Animals who have campaigned on this issue. Is she aware of the similar debate on the ban on cat and dog fur imports in which the European Commissioner responsible said that, in his view, it was a matter for national Governments to decide whether they would prevent the import of such products? We do not need to be concerned about that aspect of the issue.

Judy Mallaber: That is extremely helpful; it confirms one of the points that I was about to come to. I am well aware of all the work that my hon. Friend has done on the issue.

I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to confirm that he has seen the legal opinion and to say whether he has a preliminary opinion on it—I know that it is still out with the lawyers—and when he expects to respond. As my
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hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) said, some are trying to persuade the Minister that the United Kingdom does not have competence and that this is a matter for the European Union. The fact that that point was not accepted in the case of cat and dog fur products is extremely helpful.

The legal opinion that I have specifically states:

The opinion that Philippe Sands gives, which is about the basis for the extension of a ban by the European Union, also applies in exactly the same way to member states. He argues:

and therefore by member states—

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The Canadian Government often argue that this barbaric practice continues in order to protect fish stocks and the recovery of those of Atlantic cod. However, recent global studies show that marine mammals very rarely conflict with the fish that are commercially fished. There is relatively no overlap, so that argument does not hold water.

Judy Mallaber: A number of arguments about fishing and sealing in the Canadian context do not make any sense.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Judy Mallaber: Yes, but I want to allow the Minister time to respond.

Mr. Newmark: I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing the debate to the House and pay tribute to Tony Banks. I am most concerned with the animal welfare issue. I would like the people listening to imagine their dog or their cat being clubbed and then skinned alive. It is the animal welfare issue that we should be most concerned about.

Judy Mallaber: I absolutely agree. Unfortunately, the Minister has to be able to counter all the legal arguments that have been made on why we cannot enforce a ban, so we are trying to prove that we can. We have a legal opinion that shows that we can do that in the primary argument made by Philippe Sands about protecting public morals.
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The ethical argument for banning the seal hunt is made comprehensively and with great authority by Rev. Professor Andrew Linzey in the pamphlet "Public Morality and the Canadian Seal Hunt". He talks about how the activity is devoid of moral justification and his detailed conclusions have been endorsed by more than 70 leading academics, theologians and philosophers from 14 countries. The other aspects of the legal opinion by Philippe Sands are detailed and comprehensively argue why, under several strands of the WTO rules, it would be completely possible for us to go ahead with the ban.

The matter is more critical than ever this year because the melting of the ice will present a real threat to seals' whelping areas in Canada. Will the Minister call on the Canadian Government to respond to the situation by banning the hunt this year as a matter of emergency? I urge him to accept the legal arguments to which I have referred and ban the appalling trade.

The Canadians will say that they are arguing for their sealing community. Sealers are fishermen who make a small sum by killing seals for just a few days a year. The activity is dangerous, dehumanising and provides them with less than 5 per cent. of their annual income. Some 1,200 sealers have died during the history of the seal hunt and two died as recently as 2002. The Canadian Government already have measures in place on fishing diversity and compensation for fishermen that could be applied to the sealing industry, so their argument does not hold water.

The ban in other countries has not been challenged, so I do not think that a ban that we enforced would necessarily be challenged. I know that the Minister will be given endless arguments by civil servants and lawyers about why it would be legally impossible to enforce a ban, but we have strong legal advice that suggests that it would be possible. We will have to bite the bullet, go ahead with a ban and challenge the Canadians on the matter. They have not taken it up with other countries, so there is no real reason to expect them to do that with us. We should thus go ahead with a ban.

Two early-day motions before the House refer to the seal hunt. Early-day motion 237 has been signed by 182 Members. It notes that trade data show that thousands of seal skins were imported into the UK between 1995 and 2003 and calls on the Government to prohibit the import of all seal products into the UK.

Early-day motion 1416, which was tabled more recently—in only the past month, I believe—already has 118 signatures. It honours the life and work of Tony Banks. At the time of Tony's death, he had started a new initiative and was working with Respect for Animals to encourage people and retail outlets to boycott Canadian seafood products. I understand that most of the trade into this country goes straight out again to other European countries, so we probably cannot create pressure as easily as we could through a consumer boycott. The Government must thus put the main pressure directly on the Canadian Government through a legal ban. They must also try to persuade other European countries to go ahead with a ban.
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Early-day motion 1416 also calls on the Government to ban the trade in harp and hooded seal products. As Sally Banks wrote to me:

We have put forward arguments on how the Minister can achieve that. On behalf of the hon. Members who signed the early-day motions and those who would like to sign them, but cannot because of their ministerial positions, on behalf of the British and Canadian public—my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris) mentioned Canadian views—whose attitude has been shown in opinion polls both in Canada and this country, on behalf of simple human decency and, finally, as the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) pointed out, on behalf of the seal cubs that are brutally clubbed to death each year and have no voice of their own, will the Government take the simple legal and effective step of banning the import of all harp and hooded seal products?

10.19 pm

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