William Hague and the case of the dead parrot

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Indy Politics

The temptation was too great when William Hague, Leader of the Opposition, peered from a Crown Court witness box over the heads of two stuffed parrots and was asked by a barrister to detail his own avian expertise.

Simon Farrell, defending one of Britain's most respected parrot experts against charges of smuggling the creatures, had clearly been told by the judge to cut out the wisecracks. But he failed to check his mirth.

The links between Mr Hague and birds of a colourful plu-mage were immortalised by The Sun months after he became Conservative leader when it concluded his party was a dead parrot, illustrating the point with said expired bird.

Was Mr Hague "a parrot expert?" inquired Mr Farrell at Newcastle upon Tyne Crown Court yesterday. Was he "familiar with, say, the Glaucous macaw, Lear's macaw or blue-headed macaws ... and also the Norwegian Blue and..."

He was brought to book by Judge Whitburn. "I thought we agreed there weren't going to be any wisecracks," he said.

Mr Hague, a prosecution witness happily at home in this adversarial climate, seemed mildly amused.

The witness box, unlike the dispatch box, is not a place for wild or disjointed narrative, he was about to discover.

Mr Hague raced into an account of how Harry Sissen, the 61-year-old defendant, had visited his Richmond constituency office in North Yorkshire on October 30 1998. Mr Sissen had confessed to him to importing rare birds into Britain illegally after visiting Yugoslavia.

"Mr Sissen came to see me to ask me to take up his complaints about the activities of Customs and Excise, who had taken birds away from his premises," said Mr Hague. "They had taken them from him during the breeding season. Some eggs had hatched and there had been some fatalities in the birds."

Mr Hague was asked to slow down his account by Judge Whitburn but, watched from the public gallery by his chief of staff Sebastian Coe, his limited plumage remained unruffled."I was familiar with the fact he owned and bred a wide range of birds," Mr Hague went on. "I am not a bird expert so I don't know what they were called. He was emphatic he had not, in general, smuggled birds and eggs into the country but he did say on one occasion he had smuggled three birds fromYugoslavia." Mr Hague wrote to Customs, expressing his constituent's concerns.

Why, Mr Farrell asked the Leader of the Opposition, had he not mentioned the admission of smuggling? "Because Customs had already made an appointment to come to see me," replied Mr Hague. After his release from the witness box, Mr Hague said: "Speaking to the Prime Minister means I am used to dealing with questions from lawyers." He also revealed he had appeared in a coroner's court in 1976 at the age of 15 in the case of a motorist who died after colliding with his school bus.

Mr Sissen, of East Cowton, Northallerton, North Yorkshire, denies charges involving nine parrots. The trial continues.