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20 Mar 2007 : Column 684

Wild Birds (Protection)

3.32 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I beg to move,

The Bill seeks to give added protection to birds and their nests and to regularise existing law, which currently gives birds that nest in Scotland more protection than those that nest in England.

People in the United Kingdom like birds. About 210 species of bird breed in the UK every year, many of which are rare. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has around 1.1 million members. Last January up to 470,000 people took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch, and it is estimated that 2.85 million people regularly go birdwatching. This love of birds and nature contributes greatly to local economies, helping to attract tourists and day visitors, often to remote parts of rural England and Wales.

Shropshire, like Devon, has its fair share of birdwatchers. Let me record my thanks to Shropshire’s “twitchers” for their support for my campaign to obtain county wildlife status for Priorslee lake, home to the occasional visiting purple heron and pectoral sandpiper.

In these days of contemplating the possible effects of climate change, birds and their behaviour are helpful indicators to scientists and Governments alike—perhaps even more reliable, and certainly less expensive, than multi-million-pound meteorological satellites. It may be an inconvenient truth for unscrupulous local authorities and developers, but birds matter.

There is evidence that some winter visiting birds, particularly waders and wildfowl, are coming to Britain in smaller numbers. That may be because the climate in continental Europe is becoming warmer, which means that birds have no need to migrate so far, and engage in so-called short-stopping.

There is also pressure on breeding birds; when feeding and nesting cycles begin to change, it creates new life challenges for all our feathered summer visitors, who may return to find the best breeding sites occupied by resident birds, and the first flash of caterpillars already gone. Much important monitoring work is undertaken by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which owns or manages 200 nature reserves. I am grateful for its support for my Bill, and to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Government rightly made bird populations one of their quality-of-life indicators, but that indicator all too often reveals that some birds, particularly those on farm land, have yet to recover from the major declines of the 1970s and 1980s. It is therefore incumbent on us all, including the Government, to do all that we can to protect and nurture species that are few in number, as well as those that are plentiful, but whose loss would diminish our countryside and our great nation.

With the demand for residential and commercial building growing, the need to protect the country’s birds has never been so pressing. Will the Minister today give an undertaking to ensure that bird populations are not affected by the demand for 135,000
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new homes in Shropshire in the next decade, or the excessive new homes target for the rest of England and Wales? Britain’s most common and best-loved birds that breed in hedgerows and trees all too often fall victim to developers and local authorities, who remove trees and hedges without due diligence and rightful consideration of birds’ nests and the important breeding season. Just imagine if there was no more symphony of the song thrush, no more rhapsody in yellow of the blue tit, no more Mendelssohnian accompaniment of the blackbird, no more red rapturous reaches of the robin, and no more soprano sonnets of the swallow. Imagine a world without birdsong—a desolate landscape, souls unrevived, a gnawing and bereft silence. The Bill seeks to give added protection to those and other birds and their nests.

Under the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, amended by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, it is an offence deliberately to damage or destroy wild birds and their nests, with certain exceptions, for which a licence is required. However, it is not an offence to do so if the accused can demonstrate that they were unaware of the consequences of their actions. The Bill would close that loophole by making reckless damage an offence, and it would require local authorities, developers and others to be far more careful in their local development, particularly in breeding season.

I remind the Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare that introducing an offence of recklessness in wildlife legislation would not be an innovation. Some offences in schedule 1 of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, as amended, include “recklessness”, but the schedule does not apply to the more serious offences of destruction and reckless damage of birds’ nests. We might also look to Scotland, where the Scottish Parliament has rightly given birds added protection. The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2003 and the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 amended the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, making reckless damage an offence north of the border. Scottish legislation says that all birds, and their nests and eggs, are protected by law, and it is an offence, with certain exceptions, to intentionally or recklessly take, damage, or destroy or otherwise interfere with the nest of any wild bird while the nest is in use or being built.

The next time that colleagues see birds flying north, they should reflect that they might just be flying north to escape the weak wildlife laws in England and Wales. Closing the loophole would make it easier to deal with unscrupulous individuals who kill protected birds, sometimes rare species, and then claim that it was an innocent mistake. One example of such an occurrence was the shooting of a bittern, a rare heron, of which there are only about 50 breeding males left in the country. The individual who shot the bird claimed that he thought it was a pheasant.

On another occasion in 2005, two people who were apparently shooting rooks shot a rare marsh harrier,
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claiming that they thought it was a rook. Demonstrating intent in such cases is difficult, so closing the recklessness loophole would make people far more careful when shooting birds. That change could help, too, to protect rarer birds that nest on industrial sites, quarries and wasteland such as the black redstart, the UK population of which consists of fewer than 100 pairs. Other species that nest in those areas, usually near water, include the little ringed plover—another scarce bird—and the sand martin.

That leads to the thorny issue of enforcement. While I welcome the fact that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act increased penalties for wildlife crime—offenders now risk being jailed for up to six months or being fined up to £20,000 for damaging sites of special scientific interest—those laws must be enforced, and the police, Natural England and the Countryside Council for Wales must take wildlife crime far more seriously.

In conclusion, will the Minister consider introducing measures to require local authorities and developers to carry out nest surveys before commencing works? The survey need not be complicated, but, if a development is likely to impinge on a habitat with nesting birds, surely developers should have to demonstrate that a bird survey had been undertaken. Will the Minister work with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to agree what constitutes the breeding season? Currently, the breeding season is not defined in UK law, but the law does give protection to a nest while it is being built or is in use. That confusion does not help to reduce wildlife crime.

Bird populations should become quality-of-life indicators for local authorities, perhaps audited by the RSPB or by local wildlife trusts, and wildlife crimes should become performance indicators for police forces. Unless that happens, wildlife crime will continue to remain low on the police’s list of priorities. There should be a standard police reporting format, which would allow greater transparency and traceability of action taken—or not taken—by police forces. The Government say that they want to save the planet, but if they cannot save the thousands of trees and hedges that are destroyed each year, and the bird species that rely on them, what real hope is there for any of us? Mankind does not own nature—we are its custodians—so it is the duty of all of us, including Government, to ensure that birds throughout England and Wales live to sing another day.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mark Pritchard, Mr. Kenneth Clarke, Mr. John Randall, Mr. Eric Pickles, Mr. Stewart Jackson, Mr. Elliot Morley, Lyn Brown, David Taylor, Mr. David Drew, Mr. Tom Watson and Tim Farron.

Wild Birds (protection)

Mark Pritchard accordingly presented a Bill to make further provision for the protection of wild birds’ nests: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 83].

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Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Tony Cunningham.]

3.44 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): Today, the House commemorates the 200th anniversary of its legislation to abolish the appalling and unacceptable slave trade. This indeed is an historic moment for the United Kingdom, which led the world in legislating against the vile trade in the slavery of human beings. I welcome the participation of the right hon. Members for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) in this debate, and I thank them for their support for this year’s commemoration.

Today is also an opportunity for me to thank publicly the members of the bicentenary advisory group, as well as my ministerial colleagues, the Leader in the other place, Baroness Amos, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) and the Minister for Women and Equality, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Meg Munn). I am grateful for the hard work and imagination that they and their staff have brought to this important year of events. I also want to express my appreciation for the work of many stakeholders and local authorities around the country who are participating in the commemorations, especially in Liverpool, Bristol, London and Hull, the home of William Wilberforce MP.

Events for this year are to be found in the commemorative booklet to be launched on Thursday, which will be made available to Members of both Houses. The events can be found in more detail on the BBC website, along with a superb set of programme discussions of the highest quality, which I am sure Members will have noticed have already begun. On behalf of the House, I congratulate the BBC on its efforts, especially Chantal Badjie, the project director of the BBC’s season on the abolition of the slave trade.

The House will be aware of the launch of this year’s commemoration by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, followed by a wider series of events over this weekend. There will be a national memorial service at Westminster Abbey next Tuesday, and a parliamentary exhibition will open in Westminster Hall from 23 May to September. There will be a young persons’ debate here in Parliament in September, at which young people from Africa and the Caribbean will join youngsters from Britain.

Two replica slave ships are making voyages to commemorate the north Atlantic slave trade this year. The Zong, the ship from the film “Amazing Grace”, will arrive in the UK next Thursday. The Amistad will sail from America on 21 June, arriving in the UK in time for 23 August, the annual UNESCO day against slavery, as part of the commemoration by museums and local authorities. It will call at Bristol, London and Liverpool, and then sail to Africa and the Caribbean.

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We are also encouraging a debate about how we can commemorate the anniversary as a national event in the future. Should we have a national day of commemoration every year, and if so, when? The House may be aware that the European Commission supports 11 June as the European day against human trafficking. That day could be a candidate for an annual commemorative event, but I leave that for discussion.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to William Wilberforce’s 20 year campaign to secure the first piece of legislation to make slavery illegal. To put that in perspective, Parliament, prior to that legislation, had already passed over 100 laws accommodating the slave trade. Those laws allowed slaves to be treated by the courts as property, not as people. Many died and, yes, some were murdered, in the most criminal circumstances, with no redress.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): The Deputy Prime Minister is right in what he says about William Wilberforce, and the whole House would support him, but does he agree that slavery has not disappeared? We have a new form of slavery, which is the trafficking of human beings. Does the right hon. Gentleman think it right to say that slavery has disappeared when it has not?

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, and I will make that clear in my speech, as the hon. Gentleman did in the debate in Westminster Hall, which I read. The most horrific circumstances were described there, and we are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for holding that debate.

William Wilberforce was the parliamentary leader of an abolitionist movement that embraced thousands of people, from all walks of life. It became a mass movement of popular discontent against a barbaric and inhuman trade. Parliament had to accept the will of the people and the cause of the abolitionists. This bicentenary is an opportunity for us all to remember the millions who were sold into slavery, and also to remember the people who were horrified by the inhumanity and indignity of slavery and whose values of fairness and social justice led them to fight slavery. They included slaves and former slaves, Church leaders, Quakers, politicians and countless ordinary citizens who signed petitions, marched, lobbied and campaigned for change.

Some of those are remembered on the stamps which the Royal Mail is issuing for the anniversary on Thursday. The stamps depict William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, a major campaigner at home and abroad, the philanthropist Granville Sharp, and the philanthropist and religious writer Hannah More.

The stamps included leading former slaves who became inspirational campaigners—Sancho and Equiano, who helped free slaves to resettle from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone. In 1792, the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, said that the slave trade was

More than 200 years later, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said:

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I understand that as many as 40 per cent. of the slaves who were shipped from Africa went through the ports of Ghana and Sierra Leone. The House is aware that last week President Kufuor of Ghana had a very successful state visit. In July last year, he visited Hull to open the Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, the first academic institution dedicated to the study of past and modern-day slavery. In August, it will hold a conference in Ghana with UNESCO on the abolition of the slave trade.

This weekend, I am looking forward to welcoming, with my parliamentary colleagues, the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mr. Owen Arthur, to Hull to give his Wilberforce lecture. He will receive a book on the remarkable contribution of Caribbean workers to the success of the national health service, produced by the Department of Health and to be presented by the Minister of State, Department of Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton).

Last month in Ghana, I saw at first hand Elmina castle, which was used in this pernicious slave trade—a symbol of man’s inhumanity to man. I saw the dungeons. The cold, dank stench of evil remains there today, as do the stone walls—“the point of no return”. Those dungeons have become shrines, with wreaths laid by Americans of African descent who came to witness the remains of this repugnant trade. In Freetown in Sierra Leone, I saw where the slaves liberated by the Royal Navy came ashore via the freedom steps—such a contrast to the point of no return. Indeed, we should recognise the important role played by the Royal Navy in arresting ships and freeing slaves and returning them to Africa.

A memorable part of my trip was visits to schools, where the children were enthusiastic and keen to learn, and so proud to wear their uniforms. The Vine Memorial school in Sierra Leone is twinned with Kelvin Hall school in Hull. I also visited the Montessori school at Cape Coast, which is twinned with a school in Derbyshire. The children expressed their feelings in the most dramatic re-enactment of the slave chain that I have ever seen. They said:

an accurate and powerful statement on that evil trade from the mouths of schoolchildren.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, should feel the sorrow, the pain and the regret—yes, the regret. As the Ghanaian Minister for Tourism said to me during a UNESCO conference that we both addressed: “We don’t need apologies. We need forgiveness—from all and for all—for man’s inhumanity to men, women and children.” The Minister pointed out that the community of the African diaspora were distributed around the world and called on their descendants to come back to help Ghana and other African nations in what he described as an act of pilgrimage—to come to visit and to help in their development and in the education of their children.

Indeed, it is one of the world’s greatest scandals that, even today, 100 million children across the world do not go to primary school; they are denied one of the
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most basic rights of all—the right to education. Up to two thirds of Africa’s children never complete a full primary education. What a waste of talent and potential. History has given us an obligation to help them to realise their full potential, recognising that education is central to tackling inequality. The Government are working with countries around the world to do this. As announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Britain is planning to spend £8.5 billion over the next 10 years to support long-term education plans in poor countries—that is four times as much as in the previous 10 years. We call on other rich countries to follow so that by 2015 children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete at least five years of quality education.

Today, we look forward to realising the huge potential of a new Africa in which every person can one day be freed from injustice, poverty, disease and modern slavery. Poverty and social exclusion are at the root of most forms of slavery and forced labour today, but Africa is the only continent that is getting poorer and where, in many places, life expectancy is falling. Africa is currently failing to meet its millennium development targets.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): I had the privilege of meeting my right hon. Friend in Hastings, Sierra Leone, with which my own town is twinned. Is it not a disgrace that Sierra Leoneans have £40 a year spent on their health, education and all their other needs, while we have £9,500 a year? Is it not shameful that such differences still exist in this century?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is a powerful statement. My hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), joined me in Sierra Leone, where we visited schools and saw the quality of the education and the buildings there. I would like to congratulate both my hon. Friends on making a contribution to the community by helping to develop community facilities and improving the education for the children. Many other local authorities could help by making contributions there as well, and I shall come back to that in a moment.

The world is now focusing on how we can help Africa to tackle its problems. I am proud that the UK led the way with African countries in setting up the Commission for Africa to address those issues. Through the UK’s partnership in aid and investment with African nations, and our support of the global work of UNESCO and other international organisations, our Government are working to help Africa to help itself.

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