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Illegally Logged Timber (Prohibition of Retail, Wholesale and Distribution)

Volume 507: debated on Tuesday 16 March 2010

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the retail, wholesale and distribution in the United Kingdom of timber and wood products that were obtained or produced illegally in their country of origin; and for connected purposes.

The earth’s rain forests are not only one of the greatest wonders of the natural world; they are the green lungs of the planet. They are also the source of the forest resources that help to support the livelihoods of nearly 1 billion of the world’s poorest people. Moreover, the carbon dioxide emissions that arise from the annual burning and destruction of rain forests account for about 17.5 per cent. of global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the whole global aviation and transport sector put together. Without urgent action to halt deforestation, we shall have no chance of beating global climate change. Even if there were no threat from man-made climate change, we could not stand by and see the forests destroyed, because of the vast and unique ecosystems that they support and the livelihoods that depend on them.

Saving the rain forests is something that we can achieve if we can find and summon the necessary political will, and it is certainly something that fires the imagination and support of my constituents. Like all good climate policy, however, urgent action to save the world’s forests is a good thing in itself. Ultimately, we need to continue to find ways in which to create an economic value for tropical forests in particular, so that they are worth more standing than as timber.

There is no magic solution to saving the rain forests, and good progress was made at Copenhagen on support mechanisms for forestry, but one measure that we can take now is to choke off demand for illegal timber here in the UK market. In a speech before the Copenhagen summit, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the shadow Foreign Secretary, made plain the strength of the Conservatives’ commitment to halting deforestation, and in particular to addressing illegal logging. He gave the clear commitment that a Conservative Government would make it a criminal offence under UK law to import and possess illegal timber.

Three weeks later, during Prime Minister's Question Time—and during the Copenhagen summit—my right hon. Friend asked the Government to support that proposal, and in January, during the first Energy and Climate Change questions after the summit, I repeated his call for the Government to match our commitment to action. The Government’s own Back Benchers have mounted concerted and considerable efforts and campaigns to secure a measure to criminalise illegal timber activity, yet, despite encouraging rhetoric, the Government themselves have refused to legislate, choosing instead to hide behind the slow and indecisive process taking place in the European Union.

Conservative Members have supported, and remain committed to, a strengthening of the draft EU regulation

“laying down the obligations of operators who place timber and timber products on the market”.

I pay tribute to my colleagues, and indeed members of all political parties, in the European Parliament who have also pressed for a more ambitious regulation. However, it is clear that action at European level will not go far enough.

On 1 March, the EU Council adopted a common position on the regulation, which lays down only the minimum requirement that companies trading in timber and timber products should exercise due diligence to minimise the risk of placing illegally harvested timber and timber products on the internal market. It lacks an explicit overarching prohibition on illegal timber in the EU market. With no explicit prohibition, there is no incentive to exclude illegal timber from entering the market; there is only an incentive to prove that the company concerned has tried to prevent it. Furthermore, the regulation applies only to those companies that place timber and timber products on the market for the first time, rather than all operators involved in the distribution chain. Loopholes are therefore created whereby all downstream companies—the majority of EU traders—are exempt from even the bare minimum of due diligence requirements. A prohibition on illegal timber needs to apply to all companies that make timber available to the market, whatever their position in the supply chain.

Unlike the EU, the USA has shown real leadership on this issue. In 2008, the United States amended the Lacey Act and made it illegal for a person or company to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase illegal timber or illegal timber products. The Lacey Act amendments are widely seen as a historic breakthrough and are already leading to changes in practices among US retailers and importers, and manufacturers and logging companies. There is no reason why that legislative change cannot be replicated here in the UK with the creation of an offence of selling or distributing imported wood illegally harvested in its country of origin, or, indeed, of importing such wood into the UK. The Environment Secretary himself has said

“illegal timber should be just that—illegal”

but to date his Department has stubbornly refused to legislate to that effect with the introduction of simple and specific domestic legislation to make the sale of timber produced illegally an offence in the UK.

The effectiveness of the Lacey Act lies in its simplicity. It defines in law what companies must not handle, but gives companies the freedom to find ways to meet that obligation. My Bill is intended to replicate the Lacey-style approach in the UK. It would apply equally to all operators in the UK supply chain and prohibit illegal timber in the UK market. Agreement at the European level and tough action by individual member states is now no longer a matter of either/or, given that there is not an agreement at Council to go any further than a due diligence system. The clarity of this Bill would complement the due diligence approach in the EU and, given that the UK is the third largest importer of illegal timber in the EU, measures taken in the UK would have more than merely a token status: they would have a significant impact on illegal logging and on the EU market.

This Bill is endorsed by not only environmental groups such as the WWF and the Environmental Investigation Agency, but by the certification bodies the Forest Stewardship Council and the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification schemes, and also by major retailers such as B&Q and Timbmet, the UK’s largest hardwoods importer, which already proves that it is possible to be both kind to the environment and deliver real value and choice to customers. It is also endorsed by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, an umbrella organisation that accounts for the majority of the world’s rain forest nations. This Bill is also directly consistent with the “legislative principles on forestry” adopted by 120 legislators from the world’s major economies at the GLOBE Copenhagen legislators forum last October.

In conclusion, without urgent action to halt deforestation we do not have a chance of beating man-made climate change. In January, I gave a commitment that if this Government do not act to make the sale of illegal timber a criminal offence, a new Conservative Government will, and, moreover, a Conservative Government will work with other EU states to do the same. However, I hope that after the election, if it falls to the Conservatives to form the Government, we will have the opportunity to bring forward this measure on the back of a new consensus that recognises the part that Members from across the House have played in the campaign. I should like to note that this Bill is co-sponsored by colleagues not only from the shadow Cabinet, but by distinguished Labour Back Benchers and former Labour Ministers. I particularly want to pay tribute to the huge body of work on this issue by the hon. Member for Brent, North (Barry Gardiner)—the Prime Minister’s former special envoy on forestry—and the efforts of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), but it seems that it will require a new Conservative Government to take this vital step forward on to the statute book and send a message to the rest of Europe that the UK is ready to change and to take the lead on the campaign against illegally harvested timber.

Question put and agreed to.


That Gregory Barker, Mr. William Hague, Greg Clark, Nick Herbert, Mr. Oliver Letwin, Charles Hendry, Barry Gardiner, Alun Michael, Mr. Peter Ainsworth, Bill Wiggin, Mr. Hugo Swire and Mr. Nick Hurd present the Bill.

Gregory Barker accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 7 May, and to be printed (Bill 87).