This week the Government are holding a drinks party to congratulate themselves on the new European Union directive on illegal timber. The directive is five years late. It is toothless and it fails to achieve the objective of putting an end to this trade that costs developing countries up to $15 billion each year.
Our guest writer is Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North; he was Parliamentary Under Secretary for Rural Affairs, Biodiversity and Landscapes, and Minister for the Horse (2006-7) and the prime minister’s special representative on forestry (2007-8)
This week the Government are holding a drinks party to congratulate themselves on the new European Union directive on illegal timber. The directive is five years late. It is toothless and it fails to achieve the objective of putting an end to this trade that costs developing countries up to $15 billion each year. So let me suggest some toasts that may bring an unwelcome air of reality to their revels…
“Let us raise a glass to the first ditching of a manifesto commitment!” The promise was to introduce UK legislation to ban the import and possession of illegal timber. In a speech to the Green Alliance last November William Hague set out Conservative policy to pass radical new UK legislation on top of a strengthened EU directive.
He was right then. He is wrong now. Back in November I even publicly praised him for his bold stance outflanking Hilary Benn! — Unsurprising really since the proposed Bill was a carbon copy of the one I had introduced unsuccessfully in 2008.
“Let us raise a glass to our leadership in Europe!” In November Hague promised “to send a message to the rest of Europe that we are ready to lead on closing the market to illegally timber”. Now the Government has decided not only to leave everything to the EU but to ditch any separate stronger legislation.
“Let us raise a glass to corporate lawyers!” The new EU directive will leave an enormous loophole that allows smart lawyers to set up “shell companies” for each consignment of illegal timber imported into the EU. The effect of this is that genuine importers who make an honest mistake will be penalised whilst genuine criminals who know precisely what they are doing will get away with impunity. The government knows this. Officials admit this. But who am I to spoil a good party.
The EU has been through a tortuous process to get this perverse legislation passed. Bi-lateral voluntary partnership agreements to improve forest law and governance (FLEGT Agreements) were to be augmented by “Additional Options”
But after three years of stalemate these were dropped in favour of a “due diligence” model that set up a series of tick boxes whereby each country could adopt its own preferred route to laxity and inaction. Some credit is due to the European parliament who fought against the Commission’s pathetic proposals and got the slightly tougher but flawed final directive we now rejoice in.
Ironically there was no need for the EU to become so traumatised creating these new regulations. The United States had already passed perhaps the most elegant and simple legislation to stop illegal timber and the destruction of the world’s rainforests. The Lacey Act applied Occam’s razor and said “bring in what you like, but if we can show it was illegally sourced you will suffer big time!”
Overnight importers began to clean up their acts and check their supply chains for any chink of illegality that might bring not just the loss of their consignment, but fines of up to US$100,000 and five years imprisonment. No big bureaucracy of paperwork. No hundreds of new customs officials: Just a credible threat of big penalties graded by culpability.
So one more toast… “To bureaucracy and big business working hand in hand to destroy the lungs of the world!”
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