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The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) on securing this debate. This is a subject of long-standing public interest and one about which many hon. Members feel strongly. In addition to my hon. Friend, I acknowledge the interventions by my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) and for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), and by the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark). I acknowledge, too, the interest shown in the debate by my hon. Friend the Members for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), for Dudley, North (Mr. Austin) and for Eccles (Ian Stewart), and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton, West (Mr. McAvoy). No doubt many more hon. Members would wish to contribute if this were a longer debate.

The strength of opinion on this issue is reflected in early-day motions 237 and 1416. Early-day motion 1416 recognises the great work in the field of animal welfare carried out by the late Tony Banks, and calls on the Government to prohibit the trade in all harp and hooded seal products in the UK as soon as possible. I am sure that hon. Members would want me to join my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley by endorsing the contribution made to the House by our former colleague and paying tribute to the passion and humour that he brought to the causes for which he fought.

I assure the House that the Government make their opposition to the seal hunt known to the Canadian authorities on a regular basis. We maintain an active interest in issues surrounding conservation and sustainability, animal welfare and control of the trade in seal products. I met Mark Glover and Nicky Brookes from Respect for Animals, together with their colleague, Rebecca Aldworth from the Canada section of the Humane Society of the United States, on 15 June last year, and we had an informative exchange on these subjects. Officials from the Foreign Office have since had regular contact with both organisations. I am aware of the results of the opinion poll conducted on behalf of Respect for Animals on attitudes towards the seal hunt in the UK, to which my hon. Friend referred and which
 
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clearly indicate that a majority of the people interviewed for the survey believe that the hunt should not be allowed to continue. Almost three quarters were in favour of a ban on seal products in the UK.

The UK and Canada have common traditions and attitudes. We share close historical links and a strong relationship, which involves working together in a number of international forums. Canada is a liberal country with values similar to ours. The association between Canada and seal clubbing clearly does the reputation of Canadians no good at all. We hope that they will recognise that soon and end all commercial seal hunting. We will continue to press the Canadian Government on that issue. As hon. Members are aware, the hunt focuses on two main species—the harp seal and the hooded seal. The Canadian Government argue that the commercial seal hunt quota is based on sound conservation principles to maintain a sustainable seal population. They state, too, that the hunt provides valuable income to a large number of sealers and their families in Eastern Canada. They argue that the harp seal population has almost tripled since 1970 and their most recent estimate puts the north-west Atlantic stock of harp seals at 5.9 million animals. As my hon. Friend said, the Canadian seal hunt is regulated by quotas set by the Canadian Government and based on the total allowable catch—TAC in the terminology of the fishing industry—which hon. Members may find inappropriate or offensive given what happens in the hunt. The TAC for 2003–05 was set at 975,000 harp seals to meet the Canadian Government's plan to reduce the current population of harp seals from 5.9 million to 4.7 million by 2006.

Judy Mallaber: Have the Minister's civil servants looked at the study by Professor Stephen Harris, which contests the Canadian Government's modelling and casts serious doubt on the size of the seal population and the diversity of stock?

Ian Pearson: I am well aware of those different views, which is why I made it clear that the estimate was made by the Canadian Government, who believe that the hooded seal population is 470,000. A new population survey was conducted last year, but the results are not yet available. The 2006 TAC for hooded seals is 10,000, and the figure has been set at that level for a number of years. With respect to hooded seals, however, it is our understanding that a total of only about 500 have been taken in Canada since 1999.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) made a brilliant speech. Is my hon. Friend the Minister aware of the strength of feeling on the matter among hon. Members? If the Belgians and the Italians, who are also members of the European Union, have introduced a ban, why cannot the Minister announce tonight that Britain will do the same?

Ian Pearson: I shall come to that in a moment.

The methods used in hunting seals have long been mired in controversy. Canada's Royal Commission on Seals and Sealing found that those methods compared favourably to those used to kill any other wild or domestic animal. Despite that, it is alleged that
 
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thousands of seals are killed each year inhumanely. Respect for Animals claims that in 2005, 40 per cent. of the seals were skinned while still alive.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association claims that 98 per cent. of seals taken during the seal hunt are killed in an acceptably humane manner. Even if that figure is accurate—it is the subject of much dispute—this still means that a significant number of animals are not killed effectively. We fully support continued attention being paid by the veterinary profession to the conduct of the seal hunt. If seal hunts are to continue, it is vital that the Canadian Government closely regulate and monitor the hunt to ensure that no seals suffer improper treatment or are killed inhumanely.

My hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley referred to the European seals directive, which was introduced in 1983 and extended in 1989 prior to the entry into force of the World Trade Organisation agreement on 1 January 1995. As she knows, it protects harp and hooded seals from over-exploitation but requires member states only to prohibit the commercial importation of skins and other listed products of certain harp and hooded seal pups. The prohibition, rightly, does not apply to seal products resulting from traditional hunting by the Inuit people, as it recognises that that forms an important part of their traditional way of life and economy and does not have a negative impact on seal populations.

Mr. Newmark: Will the Minister give way?

Ian Pearson: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have only a few minutes in which to answer questions on the legal matters raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley.

The seals directive was transposed into UK legislation by means of the Import of Seal Skins Regulations 1996. The regulations prohibit the commercial importation of raw, tanned or dressed furskins, and other products from whitecoat harp and blueback hooded seal pups. I should explain that a whitecoat pup is a harp seal up to approximately two and a half weeks old, and a blueback is a hooded seal up to approximately 16 months old. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the issue is that sealers wait longer than two and a half weeks and are then free to take the animals.

We are aware that a number of non-governmental organisations and members of the public are calling for an extension of the directive to cover products from all harp and hooded seals, not just whitecoat and blueback pups. However, the view of the European Commission is that there is currently no scientific basis to warrant an extension of the seals directive on conservation grounds. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources' red list of threatened species, neither the harp nor hooded seal species are classified as endangered.

We understand that there is evidence that ice conditions this year in the Gulf of St. Lawrence are extremely poor, and that a recent ice map of the area compared to the same time last year shows considerably less ice, which is generally thin and broken up. This is cause for concern and we will continue to monitor the situation closely.

My hon. Friend mentioned the situation in Belgium. It is my understanding that the Belgian Government have introduced a licensing requirement for the
 
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importation of seal, cat and dog fur products, but that is not a ban on the importation of seal products; it merely imposes a requirement to apply for a licence on anyone wishing to import such an item. They have a royal decree that proposes to introduce a labelling requirement for cat, dog and seal fur products, but it is still at a fairly early stage. I have asked officials to look into the approach that is being adopted in Belgium. It appears, however, that the Belgian Government have concerns about whether a ban could be justified under both European Union and World Trade Organisation rules. I shall talk to officials about the matter.

My hon. Friend raised the question of the legal opinion commissioned by Respect for Animals and the International Fund for Animal Welfare on the EU member state ban on the importation of seal products and its compatibility with the WTO agreement. I have seen the opinion. I am not legally qualified, and it is currently being considered by officials. We acknowledge that there are arguments both for and against WTO compatibility of any extended important ban. As the opinion itself notes, determining WTO compatibility would turn on the nature and scope of the precise
 
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measures. I am happy to have further dialogue with hon. Members, NGOs and interested parties on the legal opinion.


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