Parliament House of Commons
A parliamentary debate on the ivory trade was held on February 6 in the House of Commons' Westminster Hall ahead of the launch of a government consultation.

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Environment minister Dr Therese Coffey, speaking at the parliamentary debate on the UK ivory trade in Westminster Hall last night, warned against taking “symbolic action” to achieve “our shared goal of ending poaching and saving elephants”.

“The kind of assessment we will need to make is how prohibiting the sale of a 17th-century ivory carving would prevent the poaching of elephants today,” she said. “We must make sure our rules are robust and proportionate and will achieve the aim of ending the poaching of elephants.”

The government is set to publish “initial proposals” for a complete ban on the sale of ivory artefacts carved after 1947, Coffey said.

Coffey spoke after a number of MPs argued for a total ban to include antique ivory.

Support for ivory antiques

However South Antrim MP Danny Kinahan and Kensington & Chelsea MP Victoria Borwick were among those MPs at the debate who spoke up for the museums and antiques trade that own and sell antiques containing ivory.

Kinahan said: “I want a ban that recognises the antiques trade. We need the right balance.”

He argued the economic case of the antiques trade and raised concerns a ban would damage it. He added: “We can set up a committee that can give certificates, advise and set the rules.”

Borwick, who is also president of BADA, said: “Genuine items of cultural and artistic heritage should continue to be exempt.”

Many MPs calling for a total ban actually acknowledged that there should also be exemptions.

Rebecca Pow, Taunton Deane MP, said: “We are not anti the antiques trade. I have inherited ivory brooches... I don’t think I should crush them. They are part of our nation and history.”

Tory MP Owen Paterson, a former environment secretary, said: “We should allow [some items] to be traded but under very strict conditions. We need a near comprehensive ban.”

However he added: “You cannot compare ancient jewellery with a living animal. We will run out [of elephants]. We need to get that into our heads.”

Paterson also called for the UK government to look to the US on how it had dealt with the ivory trade and suggested a “de minimis” rule of allowing the trade in items with small amounts of ivory.

Industry reaction

BADA chief executive Marco Forgione, who attended the debate, said afterwards: "I welcome the fact that from across the political parties there's a growing recognition of the need for exemptions for the antiques trade, that the focus has to be on preventing the slaughter of elephants in Africa and Asia, and rigorously enforcing an end to this abhorrent trade in poached ivory." 

Forgione urged the trade "to continue heeding Victoria Borwick's call to write to MPs and fill in the consultation questionnaire when it's published". 

Yesterday’s parliamentary debate was triggered by a public petition which received more than 107,000 signatures. The debate can be watched again at http://www.parliamentlive.tv/.