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.