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Ban on modern-day ivory debated in Parliament

Monday 13 February 2017

Since the Government announced in September 2016 that it would consult on plans for a ban on the sale of modern-day ivory in early 2017, the issue has been debated in Parliament by MPs in a Westminster Hall debate.

The Government’s press releases last year outlined that the ban will cover the sale of items containing ivory dated between 1947 and the present day. Trade in ‘worked’ items, such as works of art and ornaments dating from before 1947 (deemed ‘antiques’) will continue to be permitted.

On 8 December 2016, Jeremy Lefroy (Conservative) MP led the debate outlining the case for ending the UK ivory trade. He said the purpose of the debate was to also address the subject of a petition to shut down the domestic ivory market in the UK, which had attracted more than 75,000 signatures.

Mr Lefroy opened the debate by saying, “what we are speaking about today is not the result of human-elephant conflict, but the deliberate mass slaughter of elephants by criminal gangs who will stop at nothing - certainly not murder - to profit from ivory.”

He added, “The World Wildlife Fund, Tusk and many other organisations support that closure, with small pragmatic exceptions such as antique musical instruments, cutlery or furniture where ivory is a very small proportion of the item. However, even those exceptions need to be drawn tightly to avoid them becoming loopholes.”

The Conservative party manifestos in 2010 and 2015 committed to ending the ivory trade in the UK.

The debate was well attended by MPs including John Mann (Labour) who said, “…in this country we are major traffickers in ivory – we are the third biggest in the world. Another MP, Pauline Latham (Conservative) outlined that she wanted the introduction of a near-total ban on ivory trading in the UK and one that eradicates the current pre/post-1947 divide. She explained, “The only exception—this is the reason I refer to a near-total ban—would be for genuine pieces of art, of cultural value, ratified by independent experts such as museum experts. Evidence suggests that the most effective move that the UK could make to save elephants and combat illegal poaching would be closing the domestic ivory market, and that is what I am calling for.”

The UK has the second largest art and antiques industry in the world

Victoria Borwick (Conservative) explained, “The most important point I need to make is that the antiques trade does not support the killing of elephants, nor does it support any system that allows raw ivory from post-1947 sources to be traded.” She continued, “One of the great misunderstandings about the antiques trade is when people regard all ivory as part of an ivory market: however, the purchaser of a carved ivory medieval Christian diptych who wants the ivory because it is beautifully worked, culturally and historically significant piece that happened to made of ivory is not the dame as a buyer of modern-day trinkets.” 

Margarat Ferrier (Scottish National Party) argued, “The ban on the sale of worked ivory produced after 1947, although welcome, still enables a rogue trade in such items. It is simply not effective enough. A total ban is required if we are truly to stamp out the trade. The other effect of a total ban would be to make ivory undesirable and socially unacceptable. Ivory should not be viewed as a commodity, and should have absolutely zero monetary value.”

Understanding the impact of a ban on businesses, museums and individuals  

In response, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Dr Thérèse Coffey said, “The 1947 date has its foundations in EU regulations, which still remain the overarching legislation for the implementation of CITES in the UK. From a control and enforcement perspective, there are advantages to working with a date that is already used by the rest of the EU and traders to draw a dividing line. We will consult early in the new year on our plans to implement such a ban.”

The Minister also outlined, “As a matter of good policy making, we need to understand better the impact that potentially banning the trade in all those different types of items will have, including on the businesses, museums and individuals who own such items. Therefore, as part of the consultation, we will have a call for evidence on those points.”

Closing the debate Jeremy Lefroy said, “I respectfully suggest to the Minister that she widen the consultation early next year to cover all possible scenarios, including a total ban and a near-total ban with the kind of exemptions to which I referred in my speech, such as those that the WWF suggested—cutlery, musical instruments and furniture with inlaid ivory. Widening the consultation does not commit the Government, but it would show a willingness to take the various arguments into account.”

Read a transcript of the debate in full