Monday 11 July 2022
[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]
Bearskin Hats: Queen's Guards
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 602285, relating to the use of real bearskin hats by the Queen’s Guards.
The petition calls for real bearskins used for the Queen’s Guard caps to be replaced with a faux fur alternative. The petition has gathered in excess of 106,000 signatures and it is not difficult to see why, given the strength of feeling that exists in the UK against wearing animal fur. Indeed, many of the constituencies with the highest number of signatures are Scottish, which is also not surprising as Ministry of Defence procurement policies and the regulation of international affairs are currently reserved matters and require action by the UK Government. As the petition states, 93% of people in the UK would refuse to wear animal fur, including Her Majesty the Queen, the regiment’s namesake, who has acknowledged the changing societal attitudes towards the issue and who no longer buys fur for her own wardrobe.
Furthermore, a Populus opinion poll held in March 2022 revealed that 75% of the UK population consider the use of real bearskins to be a bad use of taxpayers’ money and support the Government acting to replace bearskins with faux fur. Frankly, at this juncture, it is difficult to understand why the Government would wish to continue with the use of an animal product for ceremonial headgear resulting from slaughtered bears in the face of such strong public opinion.
In their response to the petition, the Government argue that the bear pelts used are the
“by-products of a licensed cull by the Canadian authorities”,
“Bears are never hunted to order for use by the MOD.”
In a 2001 freedom of information request made by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the Army secretariat conceded that it does not know the details of the supply chain. The MOD receives the final product from its suppliers, and that, it seems, is that.
Furthermore, previous inquiries made by PETA to both the federal and provincial Canadian Governments revealed that no formal cull of bears exists in any territory of Canada. What is known, however, is that the Canadian Government issue hunting tags annually to licensed hunting enthusiasts, and that once in possession of those tags, hunters are free to bait and kill bears. To be clear, this hunting involves the violent killing of bears, with many bears being shot several times. In some provinces the use of the bow and arrow is permitted, leading to the slow and painful death of those poor animals. Some Canadian territories have spring hunts, meaning that even nursing mother bears are being killed, leaving cubs to starve. The incentive to hunt and kill bears is greater if there is a buyer for the fur.
It seems undeniable, therefore, that by continuing to purchase hats made from the fur of black bears the MOD is funding the suffering of bears in Canada by making the baiting and killing of those animals and the sale of their pelts a profitable pursuit for the hunters. To make the connection clear, at least one bear is killed to produce a single cap. In 2020, the Government purchased 100 caps in that year alone. At least 100 bears were killed and their pelts used to produce the Queen’s Guards caps. The Government argue that
“there is currently no non-animal alternative available that meet the essential criterion”
and that any alternative material must meet five criteria. I understand those five requirements concern water absorption, water penetration, appearance, drying rate and compression.
In their response to the petition, the Government go on to highlight the man-made fabric manufactured by ECOPEL, which was passed to an independent testing house by PETA and the results shared with the MOD. The Government state that their analysis of the results showed that the faux fur alternative
“met only one of the five requirements”
“to be considered as a viable alternative for ceremonial caps.”
The Government response goes on to state that while it met the basic standard for water absorption, the faux fur alternative did not perform well in terms of water shedding or on the visual assessment. However, PETA has revealed that new tests conducted between December 2020 and April 2022 have shown that ECOPEL’s faux fur product performs in a very similar way to—and in some instances, better than—real bear fur in all the Government’s identified areas.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be helpful if that analysis were shared with the Ministry of Defence, so that we could have a look ourselves? We have not yet had access to any of that data. We would like to find an alternative if it proves useful—we take that seriously—but that has not been shared with the MOD.
I hope I will come to that later, but I believe that the Minister’s point will be heard by the campaign group. I echo his calls for sharing and transparency. One of my requests is that Ministers meet PETA to discuss things further. I hope he will take that on board and that things can get moving to everybody’s satisfaction.
Let us examine these areas and the results in more detail. First, on water absorption, PETA revealed that tests conducted at Intertek, an MOD-accredited laboratory, on 18 December 2020 showed that the faux bear fur performed similarly to real bear fur when wet. When water was poured on a real bearskin sample and a faux fur sample, the water ran off both samples in several places. When wet, both samples formed tendrils, and water droplets were shaken off both samples.
On water penetration, the same test assessed how much water, if any, penetrated the cap. The faux fur cap, like the bearskin cap, showed no wetting at the back of the sample, meaning it is completely waterproof. On appearance, the machinery used by ECOPEL ensures that strands of faux bear fur match the exact length of real bear fur of 9.5 cm. If images of the bearskin cap and a faux fur cap are considered side by side, they are virtually indistinguishable.
I will not make a habit of intervening, I promise. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen the creation of the bearskin using faux fur. I am not aware that one has been created, and I do not know whether it is possible to stretch the faux fur over the wicker in order to create a bearskin. What happens with the drilling of the holes to keep it together? Does that still prevent water penetration? I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to have any answers, but we need to understand those kinds of things if the faux fur is to be a viable alternative. It may be, but we do not know yet.
I appreciate the Minister’s constructive approach to the debate. We probably can keep that going given how few Back Benchers are here. I have not seen them being made physically, but I have seen photographs of the end product and I would be more than happy to join the Minister to see them being made.
We had a couple of examples of the faux fur bearskins at a reception I hosted a couple of months ago. It is all well and good the MOD asking for details of the data from PETA, but it would be helpful if the MOD provided the exact criteria they would need the material to meet. Rather than a constant to and fro, the criteria could be met, which could offer a genuinely cruelty-free solution.
That is a helpful piece of information. There is a willingness for everybody to get together to move the debate forward outwith this Chamber.
On the drying rate, the faux fur cap has been shown to perform better than real bearskin, with a faster drying rate. On 14 April 2022, four laboratory tests showed that the faux fur sample had an average drying rate of 83.3% over a 24-hour period. Real bearskin, by contrast, has a drying rate of 64.1% over 24 hours, meaning that the faux fur alternative is 19.2% better at drying.
Finally, on compression, the faux fur fabric performed well in tests also conducted in April, returning to within 5 mm of its original height within 45 minutes, and achieving full thickness shortly after. To compare, real bear fur has a compression recovery rate of 45 minutes, meaning that both perform similarly.
Based on the results released by PETA, it is hard to understand the Government’s assertion that the faux fur alternative does not meet their requirements. I challenge the Government to explain fully their issues with the faux fur alternative’s water shedding performance and concerns about the visual appearance of the cap.
To be clear, there is potential for an alternative that will end this Government’s involvement with the cruel killing of bears. If there are concerns about this alternative, I would urge the Government to work to resolve them. Indeed, I take some comfort from the Minister’s interventions that there may be a willingness to do that, and I ask the Government to meet representatives from PETA to progress this and to work to create a faux fur cap that is suitable.
In the past seven years, the Government have spent in excess of £1 million on caps that, in my opinion, serve no military purpose and have a clear connection to trophy hunting, at a time when there is a private Member’s Bill before this House to prohibit the import of wild animal specimens derived from trophy hunting. It has been said that these bearskin caps are part of the UK’s military tradition, not least by the current Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), in an amendment to an early day motion in 2006.
As the writer and philosopher G. K. Chesterton wrote:
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”
Instead of giving deference to tradition, we ought to acknowledge that society, attitudes and technology have moved on. I ask the Government to embrace modernity, technology and progress, and to find a solution that ends their involvement with cruel and barbaric practices towards bears.
In conclusion, I believe that the MOD has questions to answer and I hope that the Minister will, as I have requested, agree to meet representatives of PETA. It is fair to say that the Department for International Trade also has a role in this matter. The UK Government are banning the export of fur, but with the failure to legislate an animals abroad Bill and paralysis around the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, it is imperative that the UK Government get a grip and better protect animals. I urge the UK Government to make the right decision, listen to the people and to morality, and prohibit the import of new fur products.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for opening the debate and the more than 100,000 members of the public who signed e-petition 602285, including 116 from my constituency. I also thank Alesha Dixon, Virginia Lewis-Jones and Andy Knott, co-sponsors of the petition and vocal advocates for animal welfare. I thank them for their contributions to this campaign.
The use of real bearskin in ceremonial caps is antiquated, costly and unnecessary. It should not take 100,000 signatures and a debate for the Government to acknowledge that. In fact, the opening line of the Government response to the petition is:
“Currently we have no plans to end the use of bearskins.”
Granted, the full response goes into slightly more depth, but it remains inadequate. The Ministry of Defence might argue that there are valid reasons to continue the use of bear pelts in its ceremonial garments, but to present the line in the response that
“Guardsmen take great pride in wearing the bearskin cap which is an iconic image of Britain”
as an argument to continue the practice is embarrassing.
There are alternative materials on the market, as PETA has demonstrated with ECOPEL, and faux fur has been the norm for decades. Vanity and cosmetic appeal should not form part of the debate as they do not hold water, never mind that the newly developed faux bearskin actually matches the current appearance requirements.
Advances in the technology that has developed faux fur, such as ECOPEL, mean that it is practically indistinguish-able from the real thing. Looking at the written Government response to the petition, we see that they say they need the material to perform, as we have heard, across “five requirements”. In addition to the need to “look smart”, those requirements are water absorption and penetration, appearance, drying rate and compression. The Government response states that ECOPEL performed satisfactorily in only one category, so as a result they reaffirmed their position that they will not be taking faux bearskin alternatives forward.
The MOD’s defence that the bearskin is obtained through “licenced culls” in Canada, and therefore the reduction in Britain’s procurement would not lead to a reduction in bear deaths, is weak. A vegetarian does not say, “Well, I can eat this steak because the cow is already dead and it has reached the supermarket shelves.” Morally, it is unreasonably to hide behind that argument.
Bear Conservation—a UK charity—and PETA have highlighted several worrying elements of the Canadian bear culls, noting that many provinces allow bear hunts in the spring, when the bears are just coming out of hibernation and are in a weakened state. Some provinces do not have restrictions on the hunting of mother bears with nursing cubs, which leads to the killing of entire bear families, or orphaned cubs abandoned to die because they cannot fend for themselves.
Recreational hunters are also granted licences to participate in bear hunting or culls, which brings in a worrying sporting element. PETA reports that some hunters use bows and arrows, meaning that the bears do not die instantly—it can be slow and painful death. By financing such activities, and by continuing to participate in the supply chain, taxpayer money is being spent on an industry that—whether or not it is Canadian state-sanctioned—profits from the suffering of bears. The financial cost of those caps is huge: £1 million was spent on 819 caps in seven years. That might not seem a lot of money in the context of Government projects and funding streams, but it is, especially in today’s economic climate, with a fast-growing cost of living crisis and families struggling to put food on the table or keep the lights on.
PETA has offered ECOPEL fur to the MOD, free of charge until 2030, which provides much-needed relief on the public purse. If it truly does not meet requirements—the lack of detail to explain why makes me wonder—why does MOD not offer to join PETA and ECOPEL to strengthen the product, build on the progress that has already been made, and make a faux fur product that does the job in appearance and practicality? Production of fur is illegal in the UK and, for the most part, so are imports—although there are exceptions—so continued use of real bearskins is just outsourcing animal cruelty overseas, and that is a hypocrisy. The overwhelming majority of the UK public—who will inevitably include some of the very guardsman who have to wear the caps—are strongly opposed to fur.
I do not want to be too hard on the MOD, because I know that truly excellent work is going on there—particularly with the current international state of play in Ukraine—but I worry that there is double standard. Unnecessary and even cruel practices are indirectly supported by the Department. I have received many emails from constituents about the use of MOD land for trail hunting, for example, as a smokescreen for fox hunting.
I appreciate the Minister for joining the debate, and I look forward to his reply. I understand that policy changes take time, but I hope that his response will not be just a fleshed-out repeat of the written response to the petition, that all the points that we have raised on behalf of our constituents will be considered and addressed, and that this debate will cause some forward movement away from the use of bearskins. We need to do better, and that is no longer a fringe view; it is the shared view of most of the British public, who do not want to see their hard-earned tax spent in such a way.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for leading the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I am glad that we have this opportunity to discuss the subject of bearskins.
I cannot help but feel a sense of despair. I have spoken on several occasions—both in this Chamber and in the main Chamber—in debates about banning fur imports into this great country. I believe that, if introduced, a ban should also extend to bearskins. For each of the caps used by the Queen’s Guard, a bear is cruelly killed by being shot or ensnared. They can sometimes spend days in painful traps. Ninety-five per cent. of British people object to killing animals for fur, but they are unwittingly paying for it through their taxes. For nearly two centuries, the MOD has waged war on black bears while doing almost nothing to further the search for materials to replace the use of their skins. That is quite simply not good enough in 2022.
There is no reason why the MOD should continue to use real bear fur for purely ornamental caps that serve no military purpose, as had been said, when an almost indistinguishable faux fur has been developed. As I said in an earlier intervention, I have had a chance to see that fabric for myself.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has seen the material for himself. In the MOD, we have not. I have seen photographs, but I assume that they might have been digital mock-ups. I have no idea whether a bearskin cap made of faux fur exists or what it looks like when it is subjected to water. We must bear in mind that the guardsmen often have to wear them in cold weather and very wet weather for long periods of time. I know that he would want an alternative that actually works, as would I, but without seeing the sample—we would like to see it—it is quite hard to check whether it hits those tests.
I thank the Minister for that intervention. I speak as a scientist and work from evidence. I sense almost a desire from the Minister and that he is open for dialogue—hopefully I am not putting words into his mouth. If the material is suitable and fits all the MOD’s criteria, hopefully we are finding a solution. I sense a bit of reticence, though.
I would not want the hon. Gentleman to think that I am reticent. He should be aware that where sustainable, affordable and suitably appropriate faux material exists, we have used it—the busby caps of the Royal Horse Artillery are a prime example—but it is hard to agree to use a material without having seen it.
I thank the Minister for his second intervention. I am sure that we can get a sample of the material for him and the MOD to peruse and run further tests on.
We should all support the fact that there is a virtually identical alternative, and hopefully we can get behind it. The material is waterproof and lighter than real fur, and it makes for a comfortable alternative for our soldiers to wear. Reports from an independent fabric expert conclude that the animal-friendly material meets and, in some areas, exceeds the criteria. I am aware that further testing will be needed against the MOD’s criteria. It would allow the Ministry to retain the aesthetics of the caps while aligning them with the more modern value of preventing cruelty.
I understand that the MOD has been offered the material free of charge up to 2030, whereas sticking with fur would cost well in excess of £1 million a year, so the change is not just the moral thing to do but the fiscally responsible thing to do. The question is why the MOD has not acted if it is not about mere tradition. The idea that guardsmen take great pride in wearing the current cap and would be somehow upset if a cruelty-free material was used appears to be a fallacy—even more so when, as has been stated, the Queen refuses to wear fur. The country has left many traditions by the wayside and consigned them to the history books because they were cruel, inhumane, outdated or—in some cases—just plain wrong. To stick with something through familiarity and to continue to waste taxpayers’ money does not strike a chord with Britain as a strong, advanced, forward-looking nation. It smacks of a country stuck in the past and refusing to move with the times.
I urge the Minister to look at the evidence in the debate. I am reassured by his comments that he is open to meaningful dialogue. Hopefully we can find a strong solution. The new caps are a very good replica and much more ethical. They are 100% recyclable and, most importantly, cruelty-free. I hope that we do not go into another year of hearing about one more black bear being mindlessly and pointlessly killed to keep tradition happy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing this important debate. It is clear that none of us likes the idea of a bear being killed to make a hat. Some of us think it is unforgivably cruel and inexcusable. Others think that while it may be unpleasant, it is justified by tradition. It was previously impossible to reconcile those two positions, but no longer.
We are told by Ministers that the bear hunt is not the purpose of the activity. It is not like foxhunting, where red coats, an exhausted fox and blood are—apparently—part of the fun. The hunting of bears serves only one purpose: to procure fur for a hat that, it is argued, looks good and honours a tradition going back centuries. Therefore, if a product involving no death can be found that is in every way as handsome and durable as that obtained from a living creature killed for the purpose, surely we can all agree that that is the ideal outcome. Why do we seem to be making so little progress moving from bearskins to cruelty-free synthetic alternatives? In April this year, I hosted a reception in Westminster, in conjunction with the charity PETA, to raise awareness about the issue. I can confirm to the Minister that the hat he has asked several questions about was there. I got to hold it. I got to wear it. Others, I am sure, looked much better in it. However, it exists—so we can clear that up, immediately.
Importantly, on the day of the reception, the Secretary of State for Defence wrote to all MPs attempting to justify the continued wearing by soldiers of hats made out of real fur. His defence of the practice had two principal grounds. First, that synthetic alternatives still failed the Ministry of Defence’s quality control, which living bears sadly pass. Secondly, bears are not wantonly killed for the purpose of making caps; the bears would be killed anyway as part of a regulated licensed cull by the Canadian authorities to manage the wild bear population.
Those two claims should not be hard for the MOD to prove. Nonetheless, it took a freedom of information request to extract some answers. PETA, the animal rights charity, asked whether the hunts killed bears to order for the MOD. In other words, if a certain number of hats are required, would a certain number of bears be killed to make them? We can see why that matters; if it is about managing the bear population, the number killed would not be based on the number of hats needed. The MOD’s answer was,
“No information in scope of this element of your request is held by the department.”
That sounds like a computer writing.
There is no basis for the Secretary of State to assert that the bears would be killed anyway. He does not know.
I want to try and help the hon. Gentleman on that point. The last research I have seen was from 2007, which was by H. Hristienko, and J. E. McDonald, who estimated the Canadian black bear population to be around 434,400. I understand that a report from 2017, not by the Ministry of Defence but by the Canadian Government, said that there was 5% to 6% human-induced mortality among black bears, including car and train crashes involving bears. The hon. Gentleman can do the maths; in the last financial year we bought 31 bearskins. I totally appreciate that there is a point of principle here, and I am sure that is the point that the hon. Gentleman is driving at. However, I do not think the numbers would suggest there is an appreciable impact on bear numbers—killed through licensed culls—because of orders from the Ministry of Defence. I fully appreciate that it is a matter of principle—which I respect.
It is a matter of principle. It is not about the number of bears killed, but the principle. It would not be a difficult question for the MOD to answer, but the MOD chose not to answer. It said that it could not answer because it did not have the information. Perhaps the Minister could update the MOD on that.
It is clear that there is no basis for the Secretary of State to assert that the bears would be killed anyway. He does not know. It may well be that the bears are only killed because he orders a certain number of hats—whatever that number is. In fact, that seems highly likely. In truth there is not, and never has been, any evidence of a widespread licensed cull authorised by the Canadian authorities. It just sounds better, when MPs and campaigners ask awkward questions—as we are doing today.
To address the Minister’s point, the evidence is that most bears in Canada are killed by trophy hunters who know there is a market for the skins. Canadian Government culls are infrequent and only authorised to kill the small number of bears straying too close to human habitation. The MOD has no idea about the provenance of the dead bears it buys. The evidence, again, is that they are often nursing mothers. When they are killed to make a hat, their cubs starve to death.
That deals with one MOD claim—it does not stand up. Let us turn to the other claim made by the Defence Secretary in his letter to MPs. Hon. Members will remember that that was about the look, quality and durability of faux fur alternatives to a living bear’s skin. PETA has commissioned an alternative faux fur product called ECOPEL. It has been tested to rigorous standards, and it lasts longer than real animal fur, which has a short post-mortem lifespan. That is why we have to keep killing bears. One generation of soldiers cannot pass on caps made from real bearskin to the next generation. Real bearskins fall apart. By contrast, faux fur does not wilt or decay—it lasts longer. It looks indistinguishable from real fur: I can attest to that. My partner has been abused in public by animal rights activists—hooligans, no doubt—for wearing what they thought was real animal fur. It was not; it was faux fur.
Faux fur is more water resistant. It would also, as we have heard, be free to the public purse. ECOPEL say it will provide custom-made hats to the MOD for a decade without cost. Those hats now exist—I have seen them. I would advocate that the Minister has a look. I would have thought that this all sounds good, but apparently not for the Defence Secretary. He said the faux fur did not meet necessary standards. What are those standards? How do we test them? I do not think it is unreasonable to ask that the Minister shares the analysis: he did not do so. If the MOD shared the specific detailed requirements that ECOPEL needs to address, it and PETA would undertake to meet them. There is some agreement on that point—we could move forward.
This is the first of two animal welfare debates today. The second is a debate looking at the violent whaling and dolphin killing in the Faroe Islands. Both debates come at a point of friction between tradition and animal welfare, but for traditions to be transferred from generation to generation, they must evolve and adapt. We cannot defend cruelty on the basis of tradition, otherwise we would still be bear-baiting. Come to think of it, we may still be. My constituents in Ochil and South Perthshire and the country at large care passionately about animal rights, as I know from the correspondence I have received. People find it jarring to see soldiers wearing hats made out of dead bears when a viable, affordable and ethical alternative is available. They have pressed me to get answers today, and they are watching. Of course, it may well be that we are all shadow boxing. The Secretary of State and the MOD may well have no intention of ever replacing real fur with a cruelty-free alternative. They may not care how the bears are killed or whether faux fur is as good as, or better, than real fur as a product. However, that is not what they say, so will they please say what they mean and mean what they say?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. The men and women who make up our armed forces keep our nation safe, and we are immensely proud of each and every one of them. We recognise and take pride in the many traditions of our armed forces, including the ceremonial caps worn by the Queen’s Guard. Indeed, before the use of khakis, these iconic caps were worn more widely among our forces, most notably during the Crimean war. They remain an important symbol of our country to this day. People travel from across the world to see them at the gates of Buckingham Palace, and they are a staple at ceremonies such as Trooping the Colour, the jubilee celebrations and other vital moments in our history.
While backing our armed forces and these traditions, Labour also backs high animal welfare standards. It is for that reason that we recognise the real concerns about the use of bearskin for ceremonial caps. It is understood that to make just one cap takes the skin of at least one bear. As such, we strongly believe that no bear should ever be hunted or killed to order for use by the Ministry of Defence.
The price of real fur caps has risen in recent years, increasing to over £1,700 per bearskin and totalling over £1 million in recent years, as outlined by the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier). The Defence Secretary has said that no non-animal alternatives are available or suitable for use as ceremonial caps. In contrast, we know that the Queen announced that she would stop wearing fur in 2019, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) highlighted. I ask the Minister: how many alternatives to real bearskin hats have been tested to date? What faux fur is used by the King’s Troop, and how does that fail to meet the criteria for the Queen’s Guard caps?
Despite outlining problems with fake fur options, including failing water shedding criteria and visual assessments, the Department has not published any of the analysis or data that substantiate those claims. That is not good enough. Alternatives to the use of the real fur must be fully assessed and the results made public, as argued by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford). More than 100,000 people signed the petition leading to this debate, clearly showing that this issue is something the public care about deeply. The Government owe the public complete transparency on this matter.
I would like to therefore ask the Minister if he will commit to an immediate review of the possible alternatives to bear fur, taking an in-depth look at contracts and costs and assessing the suitability of all fake fur options against clearly defined criteria. Any review should speak directly to troops, taking their views seriously and ensuring they form part of any decision for the future. If the Government will not commit to doing this, Labour would do so in government. It is incredibly important that traditions develop and adapt if they are to survive.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss the Army’s use of bearskins as headwear for the Household division. The country is proud of its military and the traditions of selfless service that it represents. The country is also proud of our record as a leading nation in supporting animal conservation and welfare. I am pleased to have this opportunity to explain the Government’s position in greater detail, and I hope to dispel a few of the myths surrounding this issue.
First, the cap itself: I do not need to tell the House that the bearskin worn by the Queen’s Household division is an iconic emblem of our country, whether seen outside Buckingham Palace or, on occasion, outside Holyrood or Edinburgh Castle. As pointed out by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day), the caps have been worn for more than two centuries by members of the Household division. They are a lasting reminder of the famous victory at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, when the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards defeated Napoleon’s Grenadiers and, in doing so, helped to establish the circumstances in which the UK would remain at peace with the European powers for 40 years and with those of western Europe for a century. Their reward was not just the title of Grenadier regiment, but the right for every solider to wear a bearskin. Even today, the opportunity for soldiers to don the cap is regarded as a great honour, whether they are in the Grenadier Guards, the Scots Guards or any of the five regiments of Foot Guards.
We are not unique in making use of ceremonial bearskin caps. They are part of the uniform of some 13 other nations, from Canada and Kenya to Spain and Sweden. However, I would hazard a guess that it is the British bearskin that is most noted around the world.
I want to make it clear that the Army is not wedded to the material that makes up the cap. Where man-made alternatives to replace natural fur items provide a suitable, affordable and sustainable alternative to animal products, the MOD will use them. However, until that material is sourced and proven, the UK goes to great lengths to ensure that the pelts that make our caps are procured in the most responsible way possible.
The hon. Gentleman is pre-empting me, but I will get there. There is a long record of examining the alternatives, stretching back to when other parties were in government.
In response to the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), let me be clear: bears are never hunted to order for the MOD. Bear pelts used for the Queen’s Guards’ ceremonial caps are sourced exclusively from Canada precisely because it is a regulated market and a declared party to the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora. A CITES permit is required for the export of pelts from Canada to the United Kingdom. Provincial, territorial, federal and international laws also provide strict trade regulations to protect against unlawful trade in black bears, both within Canada and internationally. The pelts required are by-products of legal and licensed hunts, which are authorised in Canada by provincial and territorial governments.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk mentioned that the total number of bearskins acquired in 2020 was 120—I have it down as 107 in 2020. The hon. Gentleman might be right; my numbers are by financial rather than calendar year. We acquired 31 bearskins in 2021. In response to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), I have put that into perspective. In other words, any reduction in the number of bearskins procured by the MOD would not have any meaningful impact on the Canadian conservation and population management policy. However, I appreciate that there is a point of principle that goes beyond that.
We are also very sparing in the acquisitions that we make. Individual soldiers do not possess their own hats; they are cared for and shared within the Household Division. Despite their constant use, every effort is made to carefully prolong the longevity of each ceremonial cap. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire is concerned that the caps do not last; actually, they usually last for more than a decade and some have been in use for as long as 60 years. They are carefully looked after as treasured items.
None of that is to say that we would not be perfectly willing to embrace a faux fur material that is up to the job. The Department has already made it clear that where suitable, affordable and sustainable alternatives to animal products exists, they will be used. The Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Barnsley East, referred to the faux fur used in the smaller busby hats, worn by the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery; those hats do not need to be worn with such regularity or all year round, in all manner of demanding conditions. The bearskin caps are taller, broader, made of longer fur and inherently weightier. They must also retain their distinctive shape and appearance for far longer durations than required of many other items of ceremonial wear.
I think the Minister confirmed, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), that the Government are open to the possibility of a sustainable and viable option other than real fur. If the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and others can demonstrate that such a product exists, would the Minister be willing, subject to costs and all the other considerations that have to be taken into account, to switch to that product?
Absolutely. As I said at the outset, we are not wedded to the material used but we are wedded to this iconic symbol of the British Army. If there is an alternative that works, it will be taken seriously. Affordability, sustainability and other criteria are important, but whether the other material works is key.
It sounds as if we are making progress, which is a rarity in such debates and quite exciting. Will the Minister give us a pathway and agree to a meeting, so that the manufacturers can turn up, provide the hats and agree to a timetable for them to be analysed? If they pass, that will be great and we will all be happy; if they fail, will the Minister provide the manufacturers with a breakdown of how they have failed so that they can address the problems and we can make progress?
While we have been in this debate, I have contacted PETA and can confirm that its representatives are ready and waiting to meet the Minister, and ECOPEL’s offer still stands. They can bring the prototype hat to the meeting and samples of other faux fur. Is the Minister willing to meet PETA and ECOPEL to go through the options?
Let me go through what we are doing. Finding a faux fur alternative is not without its challenges. Until 2007, research into faux fur replacements was conducted by Defence Clothing. It looked at more than 50 different types that used many different fibres in many combinations, both synthetic and natural. None were found to be acceptable and many created static and the fur stood on end.
In 2007, PETA submitted two samples that MOD agreed should be looked at in detail. A number of test methods were developed to compare the faux fur with real fur and assess its performance. Both samples were rejected as they allowed water penetration, did not shed water but absorbed it and did not shake it off.
Some seven years later, in 2014, PETA approached the MOD about submitting more faux fur samples and understandably wanted to know the required parameters. The tests devised previously were formalised and agreed with PETA as the starting point that the faux fur had to meet before being considered as a replacement.It was agreed that the test house would be Intertek and that the MOD would be sent a copy of any report.
In 2018, PETA submitted a sample to Intertek that was not taken forward as it showed unacceptable water penetration. In 2019, PETA submitted a sample to Intertek that had improved water-penetration results. However, although the water penetration was greatly reduced, the wet appearance was unacceptable, with rat-tails and dripping. The sample was not passed to the MOD to verify. In February 2020, PETA submitted a sample to Intertek that had greatly reduced water penetration but, again, a poor wet look.
Another sample was tested in December 2020 and there was nil penetration, although there were still problems with appearance. In 2021, the testing house shared its report with the MOD. I am afraid we do not have any detail on the fabric or the supplier, or the technical details, such as how to seal stitch holes and any seams needed to retain the waterproof barrier. It is yet to be established whether the sample could be formed over the wicker framework to resemble a real fur, and a trial is needed to gauge performance in use. For example, does the material succumb to static problems? What does it look like if it is wet? I was pleased to hear from the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) that a faux fur bearskin over a wicker frame has now been created, which sounds like good news. I was not aware of that before this debate.
Earlier this year, PETA issued another report, in conjunction with its campaign, claiming that all five tests that the MOD require have now been proven in the use of faux fur. Thus far, however, we are unsighted on the latest test results.
I wish to calm down excited Members but give them encouragement. The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) said that it was taking a long time to change policy. There is no policy issue here to be concerned about. If there is a faux fur alternative that works and overcomes the hurdles I have described, we will look quickly at affordability, sustainability and the other boxes that we need to tick. There is no opposition at all to the idea of using faux fur if it can be proved to work. As I say, in other circumstances we have actively and willingly embraced faux fur alternatives. We would be keen to see whether faux fur works in this instance.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk said that there are questions to answer; if PETA helps us to answer those questions by providing to the experts in the Ministry of Defence the material—the faux fur bearskin—that PETA has created, we will without doubt have a look and consider the results seriously.
The House can rest assured that we will continue to keep these matters under review and, as I say, if PETA or any other body wishes to share the details of any tests with us, those details will be analysed. The best way to help to make us use faux fur in future is to share with us the data. If the data proves to be right and we can genuinely believe that there will be a viable faux fur alternative, we will be happy to take it forward and then test it against sustainability, affordability and other criteria.
At the moment, however, the jury is out. We need to see the results of the tests, which have not yet been shared with us, and evidence that faux fur can be made to work and can hit our five criteria. If we have that evidence, we will happily take faux fur on, but that is the hurdle that we need to get over, and it is in the hands of others. We are willing to receive any information.
On behalf of the Petitions Committee, I thank the Members who have come along to the debate. Perhaps we are lacking in numbers, but we have had good, informed content and I hope that some progress has been made. I take some heart from the fact that the Minister said that the MOD will use man-made alternatives if they can be proven to be satisfactory.
I repeat my call: I hope that, perhaps through my office, we can arrange a meeting with the Minister and PETA to take this matter forward, look at the evidence and then move on to the next stage. I hope the Minister will be appreciative when he gets a letter from my office to that effect.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 602285, relating to the use of real bearskin hats by the Queen’s Guards.
Dolphin and Whale Hunting: Faroe Islands
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 597171, relating to the hunting of dolphins and whales in the Faroe Islands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the 104,664 petitioners who made this debate possible, and Dominic Dyer for his continued passion and drive to protect animals. On Sunday 12 September last year, a small armada of boats herded a large group of mammals towards a beach. Those in the boats were not tourists, not scientists, and not hungry and looking for food. They were islanders in a sophisticated country in the north of Europe, a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world: the Faroe Islands. The creatures were highly intelligent mammals—dolphins—and they were being driven towards the Skalabotnur beach.
Dolphins are playful creatures and not suspicious of mankind. They probably had no idea of their intended fate until it was too late. It was originally estimated that there were 200 dolphins in the pod, but we now know that the number was much higher. Over 1,400 white-sided dolphins were set upon with knives, ropes and blunted hooks. It took hours to kill them all. Once the hours of senseless killing had stopped, the sea had turned red. The scene resembled something from a biblical plague. Had that killing happened here, the thugs responsible for such a wantonly cruel act would face the full force of the law and would serve prison sentences. Remarkably, however, in our near neighbour, the Faroe Islands, what was done was absolutely legal. Although what happened was grotesque, the killing of mammals on such a scale is, sadly, a regular occurrence. Last year, excluding the event on 12 September, 667 long-finned pilot whales were killed in the Faroe Islands. This year alone, 182 have been killed—intelligent aquatic mammals needlessly, brutally killed.
The practice of driving whales into specific bays is called Grindadrap or, more commonly, the Grind. It has its origins in the middle ages, when sailors would drive the whales and dolphins to beaches and kill them with spears and rowing boats. The killing of whales at that time was justifiable. The whales, killed in far fewer numbers, were vital to the survival of the Faroese people, who lived at the edge of northern Europe in an unforgiving winter climate. I know a bit about those climates—my family on my father’s side are from the Outer Hebrides. My surname, Nicolson, is Nordic and from Orkney, the Faroe Islands’ southern neighbour. My family lived for countless generations there, too.
All three archipelagos have suffered famines throughout much of their history. Fresh meat and whale oil were once vital to the survival of folk so reliant on barley, seafood and, later, potatoes. But no longer. The Faroes are, thankfully, highly prosperous. The slaughtering of dolphins and whales is not required for meat. In fact, the slaughtered animals are hard to get into the human food chain, as so few people, especially young people, want to eat them.
As for the method of slaughter, who could justify it? And on what basis? Tradition? Sailors now use boats with electric motors to drive large numbers of whales and dolphins into killing bays. I apologise in advance, but it is important to know exactly how these mammals are killed. It is not a quick death. Sea Shepherd has reported that the killing of dolphins regularly takes over two minutes and can take up to eight—eight minutes dying at the hands of sailors using rudimentary tools such as knives and blunted hooks.
The fate of the whales is even more monstrous. They are killed by what is called a spinal lance. If used correctly —an unfortunate word under these circumstances—it will paralyse the whale, which will then slowly bleed to death. On average, the process takes 13 minutes—13 minutes of that wounded, paralysed, sentient being floating in its own blood while other creatures are killed round about it. The killing is indiscriminate, with pregnant mothers, juveniles and calves all being slaughtered. All of that takes place in the 21st century, just 250 miles from the coast of Scotland.
The UK Government have expressed their opposition to that barbarism and to the hunting of sea mammals more generally, and that is welcome. The International Whaling Commission has condemned the killing too. However, no amount of condemnation has worked, so we must get tougher. That is why this petition advocates a greater use of the Government’s levers of power. That is the only way that we can ensure that that brutality does not continue.
There are very few advantages to Brexit, but post Brexit, the UK was able to enter into a free trade agreement with the Faroe Islands. Although the isles have a minuscule impact on our trade, we have a disproportionate impact on theirs. Their exports to the UK have gone up 157% since we signed the free trade agreement. We import £864 million of goods and services from the Faroe Islands, yet we export only a minuscule £17 million to them. For us, obviously, that is an inconsequential deal, yet for the Faroe Islands it is vital.
We have the power to make the Faroe Islands focus and desist. Condemnation alone will not stop the medieval practice of the Grind. We must let them know that we will back our condemnation with trade action, and we will not be alone. On Capitol Hill, congressmen increasingly see this issue as part of their environmental agenda, and focus on the Faroe Islands is increasing. We must let them know that their ghoulish barbarism will not be excused by mutters about tradition. The days of the Grind are numbered.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) on speaking with such horrific eloquence about what is going on with the—I think it is pronounced “grinned” rather than “grind”, but I am not sure. I was just googling, but perhaps it is—
Okay. Well, the hon. Member is closer to the Faroe Islands than I am, but I think it is pronounced “grinned”. Regardless of that, I was researching for this debate and saw the footage of what is happening there.
I once went to an event—I think it was probably something like Vegfest in Bristol—where someone on a stall showed me a tourist brochure for the Faroe Islands. There was a double-page spread showing red water with the bodies of animals in it. This was, “Come and witness our cultural traditions.” It was actually seen as a wonderful, spectacular event, in the same way that people might have been invited to watch bullfighting in Spain. It really was quite horrific, and I think the hon. Member from the Petitions Committee more than did justice to how horrific it is.
Over the years—this dates back to discussing the derogation at EU level—I have seen so many excuses made by people who are really just washing their hands of the blood of these thousands and thousands of whales and dolphins. I gather that the Faroe Islands Prime Minister promised a review at some point, but we have seen very little in terms of outcomes.
My understanding is that we have now seen the early fruits of that review. It has resulted in a cap. The Government’s position is that any continuation of this practice—notwithstanding the reduction through that cap—is still unacceptable.
It is worth clarifying for the hon. Lady that the cap is set—on a provisional basis until 2022-23—at 500 dolphins. The problem is that that number is not only higher than the total number of Atlantic white-sided dolphins that are usually killed in a year, but could be increased in future.
I think we all agree that allowing the slaughter of even one dolphin or whale is unacceptable.
I pay tribute to conservation groups such as Born Free and Sea Shepherd, as well as to Dominic Dyer, for their campaigning on this matter. However, the burden of pressing for change should not fall on them; change requires international pressure and trade negotiations at Government level, where we have leverage. It is clear that the British public think that the Grind is horrific, but consumers who would be absolutely sickened by the bloody images from the Faroes are simultaneously—if completely unwittingly—buying products from the Faroe Islands in British supermarkets. There is a separate debate to be had about transparency around the issues in our food supply chains, be that deforestation in Brazil, the worst animal welfare practices in other countries or human rights abuses. Clearly, if people knew that they were propping up the Grind, they would not continue buying these products.
Where we are now is a post-Brexit development. We were told that we would be masters of our own destiny after Brexit, so I do not understand why our Government, who have placed on the record their strong opposition to the hunting of whales and dolphins, have failed to make banning it a prerequisite for any trade agreements. As we have heard, the Faroe Islands have very little leverage—we are way bigger than them in terms of what we bring—so this would have been an ideal opportunity to put pressure on them.
The Government’s response to the petition states that they are opposed to the hunts and are committed to
“upholding high animal welfare standards in…trade relationships”,
but is unclear what will happen if the hunts continue. Should the UK not model its opposition by playing a stronger hand to encourage bringing the hunts to an end?
I agree with the hon. Lady. I have seen this so often. I remember sitting in a meeting with a Trade Minister—this goes back some time, because I have been around for quite a bit. When I spoke about human rights in China—I was shadowing the human rights Minister in the Foreign Office team—I was told that trade is a separate matter. I was told, “Human rights is dealt with by the Foreign Office. We are here to talk about trade and to get deals done.” That is entirely wrong. I could mention all sorts of examples that we should not accept of a lowering standards or of human rights abuses in other countries. We should use trade negotiations to set a clear marker on our standards and the standards we are prepared to accept from other countries.
The Government said in February that the UK
“continues to call on all whaling nations, including the Faroe Islands, at every appropriate opportunity to cease their whaling activities”.
I do not understand why the trade negotiations that took place in early 2019 were not an “appropriate opportunity”. What counts as an appropriate opportunity? Perhaps the Minister can tell us what discussions were had back then.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she share my concern that, in addition to the cruelty and barbarity of such spectacles, there is—according to our research briefings—no real idea of the number of whales left in the ocean surrounding the Faroe Islands? Indeed, the last assessment was conducted way back in 1997. Are arguments about the Grind being sustainable not completely undermined by that very omission?
Yes, they are. We should protect and preserve the ocean, not plunder it; what is in the ocean is certainly not there for the sake of such horrific pastimes. There is a conservation issue, and that is one reason why successive Governments have taken such a firm stance against whaling.
Some people would try to defend whaling as a traditional activity, but a snap poll of Faroe Islanders, conducted following the infamous 12 September Grind, found that over 50% of respondents were in favour of halting dolphin hunting. Save the Reef reported that fewer than 20% of Faroe Islanders consumed any pilot whale meat or blubber at all. Yet that meat was the reason for the derogation; it was said that it was needed for the local food supply. We know that that is nonsense if we look at the numbers of whales and dolphins that have been killed. As has been mentioned, a record 1,428 dolphins were slaughtered in the 12 September hunt last year—the single largest killing event in the islands’ history. It is clear that that was for no other reason than for pleasure and the spectacle—it was nothing to do with food.
It is important to recognise cultural traditions, and the role they play in binding communities together and sustaining age-old customs. However, we have a responsibility to evolve, as we have seen in this country with the discussions about fox hunting and in Spain with the discussions about bullfighting. There are many practices that would once have been deemed acceptable but that no longer are.
On that point, does the hon. Lady agree that arguments in favour of the practice continuing on the basis of cultural heritage would be far more powerful if hunts were conducted, as they used to be back in the 15th century, using wooden rowing boats and rocks, rather than modern machinery? To my mind, the idea that this pines back to cultural heritage is somewhat hollow, given that they are not conducted in the way they were in the 15th century.
I am not sure I would advocate throwing rocks at whales and dolphins—although I suppose there is a good chance they would miss, so it has to be better than the way things are done now. I take the hon. Gentleman’s point: this has evolved into something way beyond the traditional practice.
Whale and Dolphin Conservation, which I have worked alongside in the past, described pilot whales as very sociable and incredibly loyal, with an inquisitive nature. They are highly intelligent social mammals. Humans have taken advantage of that social nature by subjecting pods to incredibly stressful hour-long hunts that culminate in whales watching their kin being killed in front of them and bleeding to death. There is no regulation or oversight; killings can be indiscriminate and methods are unchecked. It is not always apparent that a spinal lance has been used to administer a quick death, and there are frequent reports of knives being used to hack away at the meat. We have heard some of that before.
This practice falls well below anything that the UK would accept, but the fact is that we are tacitly accepting it, although I know the Minister will try to assure me that we are not. We are endorsing these methods by virtue of the fact that we are signing a trade deal with the country that carries them out. It will be the people and the Government of the Faroe Islands who ultimately determine if and when the slaughter ends. However, we have an opportunity to play our part and to end our complicity by suspending the free trade agreement. I hope that the Minister, who I need to welcome to his place—it is so confusing at the moment, because we have no idea who may turn up—will get off to a flying start by telling us all exactly what we want to hear.
I, too, welcome the Minister to his place. I am delighted to participate in this debate calling for the suspension of trade agreements with the Faroe Islands until all whale and dolphin hunts end. The debate was well opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson). The petition attracted 104,664 signatures from across the UK. People in my constituency of North Ayrshire and Arran care deeply about the welfare of animals, and I believe that is replicated in every constituency across the UK. The practice of hunting whales and dolphins dates back some 1,200 years, but not all traditions are worth preserving, with about 800 whales being hunted every year.
The practice of hunting whales and dolphins is cruel, inhumane and must be condemned. In any case, we now know that the meat on pilot whales—the type of whale that is primarily hunted—is toxic, as it contains high levels of mercury, and can cause health challenges when consumed by humans. It is no longer the case that the people of the Faroe Islands need to hunt whales to survive—those days are gone. It is the scale of the slaughter, as well as the cruelty, that has caused international concern. Last year, more than 1,400 dolphins were slaughtered, and the outcry against it prompted the Faroese Government to review the practice. That shows that when concerns are properly expressed and directed, the international community can effect change—if, that is, we drive that intention to its end, which we have not yet done.
The review is obviously welcome, but it is not enough—action is needed. The frustration and deep concern about the hunting of dolphins and whales has led to calls for the suspension of trade agreements until the practice has ended. The call for the suspension of trade agreements is borne of deep frustration with the Faroese Government’s lack of action. The reality, particularly in Europe, is that such unnecessary and cruel treatment of our fellow creatures makes most people recoil with horror. There is little tolerance of it, even if such cruelty is carried out in the name of sport, culture or some half-baked excuse about necessity. It simply will not do.
I continue to be deeply opposed to and concerned about Brexit, but I recall how many Tory MPs were willing to proclaim the huge benefits that Brexit would bring. Well, with Brexit came a UK free trade treaty with the Faroe Islands, which by the end of 2021 accounted for more than 25% of the islands’ global trade. The agreement’s value in Faroese exports to the UK reached a staggering £864 million; in comparison, total UK exports to the Faroe Islands were a mere £17 million in the same period. The UK Government are therefore perhaps uniquely placed with the leverage to effect real change and to encourage the Faroe Islands to prohibit the barbaric practice of dolphin and whale hunting, in line with the rest of Europe.
The hon. Lady is making a passioned argument for some of the benefits of an independent trade policy, although I accept that, in this respect, that has yet to be fully realised. Will she clarify whether the European Union is taking any action, and whether it is now the policy of the Scottish National party not to abrogate responsibility for trade deals to the European Union?
The point I am making is about the Brexit that was trumpeted and sold by the Tory Government. I remember Minister after Minister saying on television that Brexit would provide the opportunity to improve animal welfare standards. I have seen no evidence of that, but the Minister has an opportunity today to show me not only that he believes in it, but that he is willing to sell that message abroad. From what he has just said, I fear that he is not. He is using what-aboutery to excuse a lack of action; that is really not the big, shiny Brexit we were promised.
A massive 69% of people support the UK Government taking some degree of diplomatic or economic trade action against the Faroe Islands to encourage or pressure that country into ending the practice, and 65% of people in European countries would support boycotts over it. There is real concern about this matter. Of course, once the Minister has sold the unacceptability of this practice to the Faroe Islands on behalf of the UK, he could go and evangelise in Europe if he thinks it helpful and set an example to all of us.
The fact is that the health of our oceans and marine life has been undermined over a long period by mankind. We need more marine mammals in our oceans, not fewer. Marine mammal movements in the ocean account for a remarkable one third of all ocean mixing, transporting vital nutrients around the world and oxygenating the ocean. In addition, whale and dolphin faeces stimulate the growth of phytoplankton—the ocean plants that produce most of the world’s oxygen. Enhancing and encouraging cetacean species can therefore help tackle climate change.
Encouraging or pressuring the Faroe Islands to outlaw the horrific practice of hunting whales and dolphins could boost its economy. Nations that used to allow whale hunting now engage in whale watching, which generates far more economic benefit and employment through whale tourism than hunting ever did, as well as winning international approval.
It has to be remembered that in the so-called review that the Faroe Islands said it would establish and that we were told was being carried out, only the dolphin hunt is currently being reviewed and not the entire grind tradition, which Members have spoken about. In the Faroese grind tradition, grind hunters surround dolphins or pilot whales with a wide semicircle of fishing boats and drive them into a shallow bay, where they are beached. Then, as we have heard, fishermen on the shore slaughter them with knives.
In February, it was reported that the Faroe Islands had begun discussions about the future of its controversial dolphin hunt, with a decision expected in subsequent weeks. Meetings were held to discuss the conclusions of the so-called review, which started last September. We were told that several options were on the table. In February, we were told that a decision would be announced in a few weeks, but here we are in July and nothing seems to be happening.
We have waited and waited, and I got to the point where I honestly thought that the Faroese Government had no intention of outlawing the practice of hunting dolphins and whales in any meaningful way. Their review was so limited in scope that many feared it would not result in much at all. It has taken so long, and has led to very limited action on the issue. I thought it was all starting to look as though the review was announced not because the Faroese Government felt that change was needed, but simply to placate international outrage after the mass slaughter of more than 1,400 Atlantic white-sided dolphins was publicised and sparked an outcry last year. And no wonder—it was the biggest organised killing of dolphins on record.
It seems that I was right to be suspicious. The review has now concluded. The cruel hunts are not to be banned. Instead, the Faroe Islands has proposed an annual catch limit of 500 dolphins on a provisional basis for 2022-23. Not only is that number higher than the total number of Atlantic white-sided dolphins normally killed in a single year; the total could be increased in future years, potentially making the already appalling situation worse.
The Government of the Faroe Islands are simply not listening, even though most people in the Faroe Islands want these hunts to end. No quota can be substantiated scientifically. It is clear that the international community must look less to carrots to influence the Faroe Islands and use a bit more stick. The UK Government have a significant stick that they could use in the UK’s importance to the Faroe Islands as a trading partner.
I know that the UK Government refuse to consider suspending their free trade deal with the Faroes over this barbaric practice. Sadly, I am not surprised by that, since we know that the UK is willing to sell arms to the most barbaric of states; consequently, killing dolphins and whales is unlikely to cause much of a ripple around the Cabinet table.
As is often the case, the public are well ahead of the Government on this issue. They do not approve of the cruel and barbaric hunting of whales and dolphins, and they want the UK Government to use whatever clout they have to encourage and pressure the Faroe Islands to end this practice. The Government should listen and, alongside the rest of Europe, exert every lever of influence they have over the Faroe Islands to stop this unacceptable and shocking practice, which has no place in an enlightened society.
It is clear that the Government of the Faroe Islands are not serious about stopping this practice, so the UK and other European nations need to do more to persuade and encourage them, in the strongest terms, to get serious, and should lay out what consequences will be faced if the practice continues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher.
It is also a pleasure to welcome the Minister to his seat. I think he is three days in—well, one parliamentary day in. Wikipedia says that he was appointed on Friday, but this is his first full day as a Trade Minister and I welcome him. Doing so makes me feel like an old-timer.
I am pleased to speak for the Opposition in this important and timely debate on the cruel and abhorrent treatment of whales and dolphins in the Faroe Islands, and to follow the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). There have been useful interventions as well.
As has been pointed out, over 100,000 people have signed the petition, which shows that people across our country are rightfully concerned about these awful practices. Equally, they want the Government to do much more. Over 150 of my constituents have signed the petition; they are concerned about the UK’s ongoing failure to do more on animal rights, whether that is on whaling, the imports from trophy hunting, or the sale of fur or foie gras. I note that 92 people in Uxbridge and South Ruislip have signed the petition as well, so I am sure they are looking forward to the Prime Minister leaving No.10 and becoming a doughty and dogged constituency MP on this issue.
We have heard from hon. Members about the horrific ongoing hunting of whales and dolphins around the Faroe Islands. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire described what has happened very graphically and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East said, the pictures we have seen of the sea turning red are truly horrific. The events of last September, when over 1,400 white-sided dolphins were killed and butchered, as well as a number of whales, represented the single largest slaughter of dolphins recorded in modern history. As the charity the Born Free Foundation said, the “ferocity and scale” rightly caused outrage around the world, including in the Faroe Islands.
The conservation charity Sea Shepherd reported that the dolphins were driven into shallow waters by speed boats and jet skis, and every single one of the 1,428 dolphins was killed. As we have heard, they died slowly because of the time it took to kill such a large number of dolphins. New technology, such as jet skis, can do things that more old-fashioned boats cannot. I have seen the pictures, and anyone who, like me, has had the honour to be on a boat with dolphins swimming alongside will be particularly moved by what they have seen and heard.
Turning to the role of this Parliament and this Government, we cannot merely be bystanders to this slaughter and throw up our arms in horror. We can do something; this Government can do something. We have the UK free trade agreement with the Faroe Islands. Faroese exports to the UK are valued at £864 million, while UK exports to the Faroe Islands are a mere £17 million. That sets the context for the influence that Ministers at the Department for International Trade have—the power of the pen and of diplomacy.
What have UK Government Ministers done to tackle this shocking practice? I fear that Ministers at the Department for International Trade have tended to follow the same old playbook—the same one we see when trade unionists are killed in Colombia and when women’s rights are trampled on in the Gulf states. The Government say, “By nature of our trading arrangement, we are able to have influence over the actions of other countries and to raise these issues directly with so-and-so Government.” Indeed, the Government will boast that the animal welfare Minister, Lord Goldsmith, wrote to the Faroe Islands Minister for Fishing and that the Faroe Islands Government have launched a review, but we are still waiting for the results and changes from the review, so what has happened since then?
In February this year, the Government signed the annual agreement on fish quotas with the Government of the Faroe Islands. The Labour party supports the UK’s fishing industry, yet we also believe that the Government must not sign these agreements in a vacuum—certainly not a vacuum of values. I looked at the Government press release of 8 February announcing the fish quota update; the Government did not mention animal or whale hunting, whether the UK had raised this issue before signing the new agreement, or what further steps the UK Government would be taking. Once again, it seems the Government are using the same old playbook of sweeping important issues under the carpet and pretending that they do not exist.
One issue that is raised is the cultural history of whale and dolphin hunting in the Faroe Islands and how, historically, people needed dolphin meat and, in particular, whale meat to stay alive. However, I have just looked it up, and the Faroe Islanders are not poor. In fact, they are better off than we are. The GDP per capita in 2017 was $54,800, whereas the figure for the UK was $40,200, so the Faroe Islanders are better off per capita than UK residents. As we have heard, there is strong evidence that Faroe Islanders themselves, especially young people, increasingly oppose this slaughter, particularly since the September 2021 slaughter.
This brings me to the wider problem and the failure of our approach to trade. The only significant discernible trade policy the UK Government have is to secure free trade agreements with countries covering 80% of UK trade by the end of this year. That policy leads the Government to rush to sign any deal they can, without thinking about the influence the UK could have in the trade negotiations. We are—when I last looked—the sixth largest economy in the world. Whether it is on animal welfare, climate change, women’s rights, workers’ rights or environmental considerations, the UK can and should be using trade as a way of ensuring that our basic and fundamental values are protected around the world and as a lever to improve them. Trade cannot and does not happen in a vacuum.
I would like to ask the Minister a couple of questions. Since the letter that Lord Goldsmith sent, what further steps have the UK Government taken to raise this issue directly with the Faroe Islands Government? What assessment did the UK Government make of the protections in place for dolphins and whales when they signed the recent fishing quota agreement? What plans do the UK Government have if the Faroe Islands Government do not implement any of the required changes?
I thank the tireless campaigners who have worked so hard to raise awareness of dolphin and whale slaughter, particularly Dominic Dyer of Sea Shepherd, and the need for the UK Government to act. Whether it is the charities that have lobbied, the individual campaigners or even those who took the step of signing the petition, they have made a difference, so I thank them. Now we will see whether the UK Government are prepared to play their part to make that difference.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the mover of the motion, the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson). I know that he cares deeply about the health of our oceans and has done much over past decades to protect the animals and other marine life that live within them. I thank the Petitions Committee, Dominic Dyer and the more than 100,000 people who signed the petition for enabling us to hold this important debate and rightly use Parliament’s voice to send the clear signal that we call out this practice. Both side of the House are united in condemning it. This is clearly an emotive issue, which evokes a strong response from parliamentarians and people across the country. We have heard many deeply considered contributions during the debate, and I thank all hon. Members for those contributions. I will do my best to respond to as many points as possible.
First, let me be clear that promoting animal welfare is a key priority for this Government. This debate is about the best means to end whale and dolphin slaughter, and no one disagrees with that. As we chart a new course, which is something we heard about from the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), a new UK independent trade policy promoting animal welfare in all its manifestations is central to our trade negotiations and dialogues with partners. We will continue to negotiate dedicated animal welfare articles into new free trade agreements, which hon. Members will know we have done recently in deals with Australia and New Zealand—something we could not have done before we left the European Union.
We continue to utilise our existing trade agreements—those that have been negotiated in the past, not more recently—to keep diplomatic channels with partners, such as the Faroe Islands, open. We will work with Members of Parliament and stakeholders to ensure that we deliver the policies in the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which will strengthen domestic animal welfare protection for kept animals, by delivering this Government’s manifesto commitment to end the export of live animals for fattening or slaughter.
As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran reminded us, not all traditions are worth preserving. I and this Government agree. The Government are deeply concerned by the hunt that took place on 12 September last year and the continued hunting of cetaceans in the Faroe Islands. As we heard in several contributions, almost 1,500 beautiful Atlantic white-sided dolphins were killed in one day. That is more than six times the number of white-sided Dolphins usually killed in an entire year. The hunts are cruel and unsustainable.
We heard from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire and others about the fate of those mammals and the inhumane methods used to kill them. In the years prior to the hunt, the UK Government consistently raised concerns with our Faroese counterparts. We have urged them to switch to alternatives to hunting cetaceans and have emphasised the economic and social benefits that responsible, fantastic whale watching can bring to the community. We heard from the hon. Members for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and for North Ayrshire and Arran about the benefits to the local economy, which is many times any economic benefit that can be achieved through the slaughter.
I assure all Members that we will continue to make those points ever more strongly further to this petition. As the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) reminded us, it was after that hunt that my colleague Lord Goldsmith, the Minister of State for the Pacific and Environment, wrote directly to the Faroese Government in the strongest terms to express our condemnation of the hunt—something agreed by all sides of the House—and to call for the end of hunting of cetaceans in the Faroe Islands. In his letter, he stated how unacceptably cruel the hunts were and talked about the immense stress and suffering that they caused those animals.
The Government continue to engage with their Faroese counterparts on this important issue. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), visited the Faroe Islands in the last few weeks and raised this issue. I hope that goes some way to answering the question of the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth about what the Government are doing to take forward this campaign following Lord Goldsmith’s letter.
The hon. Member for Bristol East reminded us that 50% of the Faroese are in favour of ending the practice. One can only imagine that, due to both the pressure of the world community and the fabulous education that younger generations now receive on issues such as the climate and the marine ecosystem, that number will increase over time. No suspension of a trade agreement would end the practice; it will be ended only by the action of the Faroese Government themselves.
Although there is further to go, I am pleased that the collected efforts seem to be starting to make a difference. In my earlier intervention I talked about the cap, and the Faroese Government have started to review the regulations around it. It is a step in the right direction, but we remain strongly opposed to the killing of any dolphins, and we will continue our calls to the Faroese Government to stop the practice.
Now I have set out some context, I will turn to the specific circumstances of the trade agreement. Since leaving the European Union, the UK has agreed trade agreements with 70 countries, including rolling over the agreement that we were previously party to in our membership of the European Union. The agreement, which dates back to 2019, exactly mirrors the text and the abilities that we had under the European Union, where member states had less power to act bilaterally as we do now. We have reformed these deals with these countries, which allows us to deepen our relationships because they become bilateral relationships. It gives us a greater ability to influence crucial issues such as animal welfare.
That is why the Government’s position is that removing the deal—aside from the legality—would be counterproductive. We all want to achieve the same aim, which is to end this barbaric practice; the question is how best to achieve that. As I have said, we are fully exploiting all the different channels that our free trade agreement opens to us. It strengthens diplomatic ties between our nations, which gives us the power to influence and change practice.
The Minister talks about the bilateral relationships that free trade agreements give the UK, which allow it to influence animal welfare. That is a very good point. On that basis, can he tell us specifically what influence the UK Government have had on stopping the practice or getting the Faroe Islands Government to a point where they will stop the hunting of dolphins? The new cap that he talks about is just smoke and mirrors. What other influence have the Government brought forward?
It is about the continued engagement that we are able to have on a bilateral basis—not just Lord Goldsmith’s engagement, but across a panoply of international forums and issues, including the upcoming UN convention on biological diversity. With us holding the seat ourselves, as an independent nation state, we now have influence in all of those.
There are growing ties between the part of the United Kingdom that the hon. Lady represents and the Faroe Islands, including significant economic ties. I am unsure of the pronunciation, but there is a term for the significant investment being made by Faroese companies in Scotland and the United Kingdom.
We have managed to obtain groundbreaking animal welfare provisions in the new agreements we are signing, including those we have recently agreed with Australia and New Zealand. For the first time in any such free trade agreements, we have dedicated chapters on animal welfare, including commitments on non-regression and working together to raise standards. Such provisions are not in the Faroese agreement, but they are in agreements using our new powers going forwards. That is equally true of the agreement with New Zealand, which includes a standalone chapter on animal welfare, on non-regression, non-derogation and, again, measures to champion animal welfare.
Outside of our trade agreements, as I hope hon. Members on both sides will recognise, the UK will continue to work internationally to protect whales and other cetacean species. As a country, we are proud to play a leading role in the International Whaling Commission, where we work with international partners to encourage countries around the world to protect species. In addition to our subscription fees to the IWC, we have made several additional contributions to its voluntary funds. One such fund that is relevant to the dolphin species that we have spoken about is the small cetacean fund, which funds important conservation work focused on small cetacean species—dolphins—around the world. We will continue to encourage the Faroe Islands to engage with the IWC.
We are also playing a leading role internationally in protecting the ocean in the lead-up to the conference of the parties on the United Nations convention on biological diversity, which will take place this December. The UK is leading a coalition of 110 countries committed to protecting at least 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 and, of course, 30% of the species within those oceans.
In conclusion, the Government welcome the petition, the debate that it has sparked, and the opportunity to send a clear message today. We appreciate and share the signatories’ reaction to this abhorrent hunt, and the Government stand strongly against the hunting of cetaceans in the Faroe Islands. The review announced by the country’s Prime Minister was welcome, but it is just a start. By maintaining, using and exploiting our diplomatic channels with the Faroese Government, we will continue to prosecute the case to encourage them to reform their practices.
As an independent trading nation, the UK is leading the world in improving environmental, animal welfare and labour standards more than ever before. In the years and months ahead, we will continue to use our independence to defend the rights of animals through international forums. We will put animal welfare provisions at the heart of our trade negotiations, and we will continue to promote animal welfare through the diplomatic channels that our agreements create. Protecting animals is part of Britain’s DNA—we love doing it as a nation—and that is exactly what we are doing as an independent trading nation.
I reiterate my thanks to the members of the public up and down the country who signed the petition and secured this invaluable debate. I stress that the UK Government stands with them against this abhorrent whaling practice. Through our diplomatic channels and our free trade agreements, we will continue to encourage reform and seek to replace cetacean hunting with new, better and more humane economic opportunities for the Faroese people.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, for chairing today’s debate. I thank the hon. Members who spoke and, belatedly, welcome the Minister to his place. I thank the constituents who have written to us for their engagement and, indeed, those who are sitting in the Gallery. There is a great deal of agreement across the House, and I was delighted to see the recognition of the Faroe Islands’ extraordinary financial turnaround, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury). It is remarkable what a small independent country can do, is it not?
On the substance of the Minister’s point, I do not think that exploiting diplomatic channels is enough. It is too opaque. I do not think that angry letters from Members of the House of Lords in ministerial positions is enough. Exhortation is not enough. Action is now required. Financial pressure is essential.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 597171, relating to the hunting of dolphins and whales in the Faroe Islands.