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UK Bird Registration Scheme

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

I was delighted to succeed first time in securing this Adjournment debate on the future of the UK bird registration scheme, which was introduced under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The scheme, which is held in high regard by conservationists in general, and by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in particular, has acted as an effective deterrent to nest robbers and people who wish to profit from the illegal taking of birds in the wild. However, its future has been put in doubt by moves within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to deregulate section 7 of the Act as part of a Treasury initiative to move to full cost recovery on all registration schemes. I, the RSPB and hon. Members from all parties sincerely hope that the Minister will resist it.

It was somewhat remiss of me not to have congratulated my hon. Friend the Minister on her long overdue promotion to Government ranks. She is a close colleague of mine, and we worked together until recently on Labour’s parliamentary committee. She is a passionate conservationist, a politician of substance and not the sort of Minister who will be pushed around by mere accountants in the Treasury. I have no doubt about it. That should have sealed it, anyway.

On the substance of the debate, I shall set out the case for retaining schedule 4 to the 1981 Act, which provides for the bird registration scheme, and I shall challenge the arguments for deregulation. The Minister knows that any good public policy must be based on evidence, and I shall highlight some of the evidence that she has already received from the RSPB, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee and the majority of the countryside agencies.

DEFRA argues that taking schedule 4 birds from the wild poses no conservation threat to the species concerned, and that the national wildlife crime unit has not identified it as a priority, although I must say that that statement has been taken out of context. The argument misses the point about registration, which is, in combination with DNA testing, a tried and tested method of deterring criminal activity, and a major wildlife crime enforcement success story.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if the wildlife crime unit is to mount a successful prosecution, it needs to know where birds should be and to whom they should be registered? It does not matter whether it has DNA, because all that proves is the lineage of the bird. It cannot prove where, and in whose care, the bird should be.

My hon. Friend has considerable experience of the issue, and she is absolutely right. I shall tease out that point later—a point that the police have made in their response to the consultation.

Had the NWCU existed between 1975 and 1995, it would certainly have selected illegal taking, particularly of high-value birds of prey, as an enforcement priority. Prior to the registration scheme coming into effect, up to half of all peregrine falcon nests in the Lake district were robbed annually. That was an outrage, and the scheme has helped put an end to much of it. Only with DNA fingerprinting, which the scheme made possible, have the enforcement agencies managed to reduce such criminality.

In 1993, police investigations in just six cases using DNA evidence found that 13 per cent. of all peregrines declared as captive-bred in that year were not actually related to their supposed parents. There was widespread abuse. A string of high-profile convictions between 1992 and 1998 using DNA evidence led to a dramatic decline in criminality for offences involving peregrines and goshawks, dropping from an average of more than four convictions a year to less than one. The number of peregrine nest robberies has also declined in line with that drop, which all hon. Members welcome.

Most illegal activity that is investigated in connection with schedule 4 birds involves the laundering of young wild birds through fraudulent claims of captive breeding, and uses legitimately captive “parents” as a smokescreen. Since the advent of DNA fingerprinting only one case has not relied heavily on registration data. It is highly likely that without it, the remaining cases would not have been possible. As my hon. Friend said, the schedule 4 bird registration breeding records held by DEFRA are often the key information that allow the police to obtain a search warrant in the first place.

After a thorough scientific review, using criteria agreed by all stakeholders, the JNCC has listed the species that it believes, without the scheme, would suffer illegal taking at a level likely to have a detrimental impact on wild bird populations. Critically, the police have advised that in the absence of the registration scheme, there would be a lower likelihood of any successful enforcement action being taken. That is clear and sound advice, and DEFRA would do well to heed it. I contend that to abolish the bird registration scheme would mean the return of the nest-robbers.

As my hon. Friend has outlined, the origin of the proposals is the Government’s drive for deregulation. The evidence that he is giving demonstrates that the cause of conservation is well served by the scheme. Surely he therefore agrees that it would be short-sighted to sacrifice it on the altar of deregulation, especially considering the million-plus voices for nature that are behind it.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has had sight of my speech or has telepathic powers. I was about to say that the DEFRA stakeholder consultation on the review of schedule 4 sought responses from all stakeholders. The Hawk Board claims to represent 25,000 falconers, but only 21 responded, and only four of those stated that they wanted the bird registration scheme scrapped. There does not even appear to be a groundswell of opinion in the trade, if the numbers are to be believed. Of course, one must weigh that against the million-plus membership of the RSPB, all the major stakeholders and countryside agencies and the police, who have made their view crystal clear.

I commend my hon. Friend on the strength of his case and on bringing the matter before the House. Does he agree that for legitimate owners, registration acts as a form of insurance? As he has said, there is no support at all for removing registration. When considering whether to get rid of any regulation, the key consideration should be whether it serves a sensible purpose and whether it is fit for purpose. This regulation does and is. As my hon. Friend said, our good friend the Minister is a strong environmentalist, and she should return to her Department and tell it to think again.

That is right. “Go back to your Departments and regulate” will be the message from this debate. Many of us came into the House to regulate. We regulated in the employment market to end poverty pay and introduce a statutory minimum wage. Many years ago, we regulated to stop small kids being sent up chimneys. There are many examples of regulation being for the good. I object to the Audit Commission’s perverse neo-con ideology that all government and all regulation is bad. It clearly is not, and as my right hon. Friend says, the regulation in question works.

May I make a little more progress? The Minister has been very generous and agreed to reduce the length of her speech, but it is important that she has a chance to respond.

I shall set out the three arguments that are being made for deregulation. It is said that controls under the convention on international trade in endangered species are an effective substitute for bird registration, which they are not. It is said that the EU’s wild bird import ban negates the need to include exotic species in schedule 4, which it clearly does not. It is said that enforcement could take place without the schedule, which it could not.

I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way; I know the passion with which the matter is addressed by the Members present.

Does my hon. Friend agree that we need the regulation to monitor not people who hold birds legally but those who are on the verge of criminality and using birds for expensive trading, holding them almost as a form of currency? If we do not know where the birds are, we cannot check the trading and illegal movement of them.

I agree. To pick up the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, East (Mr. Smith), the legitimate bird trader has nothing to fear and can only benefit from integrity in the system, both in the value and antecedents of the products in which they trade. That perhaps explains why there was such a minimal response from the trade to the proposal to get rid of the registration scheme.

DEFRA has accepted, in its consultations in 2002 and 2006, that CITES controls cannot replace bird registration because CITES is a wildlife trade regulation that does not have the essential element of possession controls that the 1981 Act has. Once a specimen is sold under CITES controls it becomes untraceable, and the system does not maintain the detailed breeding records needed for DNA profiling inquiries.

DEFRA appears to be arguing that the Commission’s decision to ban all wild bird imports from October 2005, as a measure against the spread of avian flu, has somehow changed the landscape for bird registration to the extent that no non-native species should be considered for inclusion in schedule 4. That is nonsense. The schedule 4 species list proposed by the JNCC in December 2004 and subsequently submitted for public consultation was based on a rigorous scientific review, using criteria agreed by stakeholders, conservationists and bird keepers themselves. The species proposed are all globally threatened birds, specifically those threatened by trade, and include some of the most critically endangered and beautiful birds in the world. They include the Spix’s macaw, which is extinct in the wild, the blue-throated macaw, of which there are fewer than 100 wild pairs, and the Bali starling, of which there are fewer than 20 left in the wild. Any trade in species with such perilously low global populations could have a serious impact on their conservation status. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister would not want her fingerprints on any decision that led to that. For those reasons, it is essential that the Government accept the JNCC’s advice and place those endangered birds in schedule 4 to the 1981 Act.

With regard to whether effective enforcement could take place without schedule 4, the police have made clear their views in their submissions to the review. As we all know, enforcement budgets are extremely tight, and experience has shown that many cases will not be investigated. Because of the prohibitive costs of DNA analysis, they will not be considered a police priority when balanced against other Government crime reduction and detection targets. Considered against competing Home Office priorities and cost benefits, many wildlife investigations will not even get off the ground, because of high cost and an uncertain outcome—an outcome that would be made more uncertain if schedule 4 and the registration scheme were not in place.

Registration is strongly backed by the police, all the statutory countryside agencies and the JNCC. The revised JNCC-recommended list of schedule 4 species includes 42 that, in the absence of registration, it considers would be likely to suffer levels of illegal trade that could have a detrimental impact on wild bird populations. The stakes are high for biodiversity, and that would be simply unacceptable. The JNCC has also proposed the inclusion of globally threatened birds, in support of the UK’s international nature conservation obligations and as a mechanism for monitoring captive populations of invasive, non-native species such as the ruddy duck.

The regulatory burden on the trade has been given as an argument for deregulation, but the burden on bird keepers and dealers has already been considerably reduced following previous consultations. In 1994, about 15,000 were removed from the list, substantially reducing the regulatory burden on keepers. Following the 2002 review, the burden was further reduced when the need to register each bird every three years was removed and marking requirements were simplified. Registration impacts on about 2,000 bird keepers, but the effects of increased nest robberies would be felt by 2.85 million birdwatchers and could have economic consequences. For example, many of us will have enjoyed the beautiful countryside, vista and bird life at Symonds Yat. The peregrine nest there, which used to be regularly robbed, attracts 55,000 visitors a year. They contribute £551,000 to the local economy. There is a biodiversity, conservation and economic argument not to remove regulation that works.

Finally, on cost recovery, DEFRA is clearly under pressure to recover the full cost of running the scheme. A possible way of resolving that is to add more species to schedule 4 and introduce a sliding scale of charges to reflect the conservation status, market value and vulnerability to illegal trade of those species. The registration scheme has been essential to locating and identifying birds for DNA testing to allow enforcement authorities to check captive breeding claims.

I urge the Minister to accept the recommendation of her parliamentary colleagues present and the conclusions of the JNCC, police, major conservation organisations and the RSPB. The bird registration scheme must be retained with the list of 42 species proposed by the JNCC. It has served the country well and is an essential tool to maintaining biodiversity and tackling wildlife crime.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on securing the debate and I thank him and my other hon. Friends for their contributions. I must remind him that the Government’s decisions on these matters relate to England alone, because they are devolved to Scotland and Wales. I will, however, work with those Administrations as far as is practical so that we have a common British approach.

I am proud of the Government’s record on protecting the environment, particularly on conserving birds of prey. Information provided by Natural England indicates that in the past 10 years, no populations of birds of prey in Britain have declined, and that many, such as the peregrine falcon, the red kite and the buzzard have increased. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that no action should be taken that could put the conservation status of those iconic birds at risk.

The registration of certain birds held in captivity is required by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. My hon. Friend has given information showing that from that time, there has been a fantastic amount of wildlife crime, including the taking of eggs from nests. We believe that the Act has led to a great deal of progress over those years, and that it was not the bird registration scheme in itself that resulted in a change of practice. However, the scheme exists and is administered by animal health. Under the registration scheme, every person in Britain who keeps a bird of a species listed on schedule 4 must register it with animal health, for which they pay a small fee.

The cost to DEFRA of administering the scheme is approximately £350,000 a year. A further estimated £100,000 is spent by those who have to register the birds and on fees for keepers, of whom there are 1,730. As my hon. Friend said, Treasury policy requires us to take rapid strides towards full cost recovery for such administrative operations.

Some schedule 4 birds are also subject to controls under the convention on international trade in endangered species. If people wish to trade in CITES-listed birds they must apply to animal health to do so. A bird keeper may therefore have to make an application to register a bird and a separate application for a CITES commercial use certificate before selling or displaying the bird.

I am intrigued, as I know the Minister would have been several months ago, by the concept of Treasury policy. I am not quite sure from where the Treasury party is elected. Given the pressures on DEFRA budgets to move to full cost recovery for registration schemes, does the Treasury pay to DEFRA any fines that DEFRA is able to take or achieve in a court for breaches of wildlife legislation, or does the money go to the Treasury?

My hon. Friend probably knows the answer to that question. It is a matter of debate as to how Departments relate to the Treasury, but I advise him that we are under an obligation to do what I said we have to do. In fact, the latest review was prompted by the National Audit Office, so we have to consider it.

I have given the future of the scheme a great deal of thought over the past few months, as my hon. Friend knows. I have received many submissions from hon. Members, most of whom are hon. Friends and are in this Chamber today. As a result—again, as he knows—I convened a meeting of all the interested parties so that I could hear their views on the scheme. I am sorry that my hon. Friend was not there. I understand that he was otherwise engaged in his other passion, which is fishing—not on the river bank, but in the debating Chamber.

As my hon. Friend said, the future of the scheme has been the subject of much discussion for some time, and conservation and enforcement bodies have been keen to retain it or even enhance it, as they perceive that it offers several advantages. He set out what he believes are the advantages, and asserted that the scheme has a great deterrent effect.

I am sorry to have to tell him that it has not been possible for us to ascertain how the deterrent is actually working. We have not been able to bring evidence to bear, nor have we been able to get the JNCC to present us with the level of proof that we require of it in respect of what it believes to be the threat to the conservation status of the birds. We have had to return to it for further advice, which of course we have done.

I am sorry, but I cannot. It is impossible for me to take interventions in the amount of time that I have left.

If we continue with the two registration schemes, keepers will be charged some £90 for each bird if they have to get a CITES export licence and a bird registration document. That enormous increase would be required under full cost recovery. The consequence of a move to full cost recovery is the danger that birds will not be registered and that the trade will be driven underground, which is clearly not what any of us would want.

In November last year, my Department consulted on whether the regulatory burden could be reduced without compromising the sustainability of wild bird populations. The consultation explored whether the current system of registration was the most appropriate to effect controls on the species listed on the schedule, and also which species should be listed. Officials presented several options ranging from outright abolition of the scheme to revisions of the list of birds requiring registration, based on the advice of the JNCC.

Since the consultation closed we have banned the import of birds because of avian influenza. That was put in place in July last year and is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. In effect, it bans the commercial import of birds into the UK from countries outside the European Union and, as a consequence, there is no rationale for including such species on the bird registration list. If a bird has been imported illegally, it is highly unlikely that the keeper of the bird will register it, so there is absolutely no case for having those birds included in schedule 4.

I have just been advised by the Clerk that there is a further 15 minutes to run on this debate. I am sure that the Minister could find time to take further interventions from hon. Friends.

I have exactly six minutes.

In our view, there is no rationale for including on schedule 4 the birds that are now prohibited from import.

The primary purpose of schedule 4 at its inception was to aid the conservation status of certain native birds thought to be at risk from illegal take. The role of the scheme changed over time with the addition of a number of non-native bird species that were also subject to the convention on international trade in endangered species controls. With a ban on the import of species from outside the EU, it became clear to us that the future of schedule 4 should be judged on its relevance to the conservation status of wild birds within Britain. In essence, I think that is what my hon. Friend wants to achieve.

Last March, DEFRA asked the JNCC to provide fresh evidence in light of the important change. The evidence that we asked it to give us was to be based on the strict test that

“the wild population is so small that even the taking of a very few individuals would have a detrimental impact on the conservation of the wild population.”

While the JNCC did not favour such an approach per se, its revised advice recommended 16 native species of birds, which is very much reduced from the numbers that my hon. Friend has quoted and the current list of 59 species. The JNCC list contains seven birds of prey and nine other species. The issue became whether bird registration was a proportionate burden for the keepers of these particular species. In order to assess that, issues such as the value of the species, their longevity and any demand for keeping needed to be taken into account. It is obvious that there is no point maintaining birds on this list if nobody is collecting or trading in those particular species.

Having taken all those factors into account, there is merit in maintaining the bird registration scheme in England, but for a very much more limited number of birds. Pending further discussions with my counterparts in the devolved Administrations, that number should include species such as the goshawk, the golden eagle and the marsh harrier. I do not believe that a conservation case can be made for all the other species that are currently listed.

The peregrine falcon may well be increasing in numbers nationally, but there are hotspots in the UK, including the area that I represent, in which the peregrine falcon is completely absent. Wildlife crime is rampant in the north-east Peak district. Surely taking the peregrine falcon off the scheme would send out the wrong signal to people who want to commit wildlife crime?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the peregrine falcon is a valuable and iconic bird that could potentially be the subject of wildlife crime. However, we have no evidence to prove that having peregrine falcons and other birds on schedule 4 has resulted in preventing crime. We believe that much else has changed, particularly the captive breeding of birds. The trade can be supplied legitimately and properly from the birds that are bred within this country and from where trade occurs from that stock, which is here.

Therefore, I say to my hon. Friend that I see merit in having the scheme. I have written to the devolved Administrations—peregrine falcons are obviously very important in Scotland—to see whether we have listed the right birds to remain on the scheme. That is the position that I propose today and more work needs to be done. I am at the end of my time.

No, I am sorry.

I see merit in retaining the scheme. It is my intention that schedule 4 provisions should continue, but that there should be fewer birds on the list. We will see whether we can simplify the two systems of registration, CITES and bird registration, to ensure minimal burdens on keepers.