§ 2.55 p.m.
§ LORD AILWYN
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.
The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether their attention has been drawn to a Press report of hideous cruelty to animals—to wit, over 1,000 tortoises arriving in this country from Turkey on board a Greek cargo ship, many of them dead and dying, after four weeks at sea, tightly packed in crates, apparently suffering from suffocation, starvation, or crushing; and whether the time has not arrived for some action on the part of Her Majesty's Government to prohibit the import of such vulnerable cargoes.
My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have seen the reports of this regrettable incident, but they do not consider that a total prohibition of such imports would be justified. We have signed, and intend to ratify, a Council of Europe Convention for the Protection of Animals during International Transport which will provide safeguards for virtually all animals during transit, including tortoises.
§ LORD AILWYN
My Lords, while thanking my noble friend for that not entirely satisfactory reply, may I ask him whether he would agree that all the appearances tend to show that the importation of these large numbers of unfortunate animals into an unsuitable climate is essentially for the stocking of pet shops in this country, and subsequently for their 230 sale to young children, who are notoriously inclined to treat these animals as toys rather than as living flesh and blood requiring kindness, thought and sustenance? Would the Government therefore not give further thought to stopping the importation of these animals?
My Lords, I quite agree with my noble friend that the majority of these tortoises go to pet shops. However, I would repeat that we do not see that this one incident is such as to require the total prohibition of such imports. I would also remind my noble friend that the Pet Animals Act 1951 requires pet shops to be licensed by the local authority, who must be satisfied before issuing a licence that the provisions of the Act setting out the conditions under which animals may be kept for retail sale are observed.
§ BARONESS SUMMERSKILL
My Lords, as it is not unusual for the Press to draw attention to cruelty to animals in transport, can the noble Lord say what penalty is imposed in these cases?
My Lords, I explained in my original reply that we have signed a Convention, which it is our intention to raitfy, that will bring the conditions under which animals of this nature may be imported into line with those of other European countries. At the moment we are not under that obligation.
§ BARONESS SUMMERSKILL
My Lords, am I to understand then that the man or men responsible for the cruelty to these animals may go scot-free?
My Lords, for livestock normally associated with agriculture our existing provisions are broadly in line with the Convention provisions, and we have responsibility here. But for other species, for example, tortoises, which are a zoological species, we are taking powers under the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is now before Parliament, whereby suitable provisions will be made covering the whole of that class.
§ THE EARL or CRANBROOK
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the 231 better part of a quarter of a million tortoises are imported every year, and that, with very few exceptions, they are killed by neglect within a year of importation? Would he not think it wise to put a heavy customs or excise tax on these creatures, so that they will be sufficiently expensive to make it worth while looking after them properly, instead of allowing them to die?
My Lords, the Animals (Restriction of Importation) Act 1964 provides power to restrict or prohibit the importation of any species which is considered, on the advice of an advisory committee set up under the Act, to stand in need of conservation.
§ THE EARL OF CRANBROOK
My Lords, my noble friend has not answered my question, because the Act to which he refers relates only to the importation of rare animals—I was chairman of the advisory committee—and is not at all concerned with the importation of animals like these unfortunate tortoises, which are brought in in enormous numbers and die from neglect almost immediately they are landed.
My Lords, I will certainly take account of what my noble friend has said and see whether there is any way in which we can meet him. I will write to him on the matter.
§ LORD PARGITER
My Lords, does not the noble Earl agree that it might be desirable for the Government to confiscate without compensation cargoes which come in under the conditions described in the Question?
My Lords, does my noble friend's reply mean that no prosecution is pending as a result of this terrible case?
My Lords, it is not within the powers of Her Majesty's Government at the moment to institute prosecutions for such imports as those to which my noble friend has referred.
§ LORD AILWYN
My Lords, may I finally ask my noble friend whether he is aware that no criticism of any sort is 232 made against the local authorities at Felixstowe, who did everything they possibly could to assist the salvage operation? I actually saw the R.S.P.C.A. inspector who, with a colleague, rushed from Ipswich to Felixstowe to do his best to succour these wretched animals. I should like to make it clear that there is no possible criticism of the local authority.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for drawing the attention of the House to that fact. From the reports that I have received, what he has said is absolutely true. Everything possible was done to accommodate these animals when they arrived at Felixstowe.
As I understand the situation, my Lords, this country is not in a position to take measures with other countries until the Convention has been ratified: then of course we shall be in a position to take measures with those other countries which have ratified it. But until then we are not in a position to encourage prosecution.
§ LORD CHAMPION
My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether the Greek Government have in fact ratified this Convention?
My Lords, the Greek Government have in fact signed this Convention but they have not ratified it.