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Animal Welfare (Circuses)

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

It is an honour and privilege, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton.

This is an important and timely debate. During the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, the Government gave a clear commitment and undertaking to introduce regulations to ban the use of certain non-domesticated animals in travelling circuses. Lord Rooker has since noted that there is no reason why the regulations could not take the form of a general prohibition with exemptions on a species-specific basis. Yet in every week and month of Government dither and delay, the stress of animals incarcerated and exploited in British circuses continues. With countries such as Austria, Denmark, Israel, Singapore and even India banning such animals in their circuses, why are the British Government being so slow to act?

The Minister will know that there remains strong parliamentary and public interest in the matter. The circus industry says that there is no need for a ban, because if there were a welfare problem, there would have been numerous prosecutions under existing legislation. That is disingenuous. It is impossible for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and local authorities to be present 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all over the country.

The industry says that banning circuses would damage the film industry. Again, I do not believe that that is correct. In fact, it is one of the industry’s weakest arguments. It is really saying that such a ban would damage its pockets. It also says that film makers would be moved eastwards to eastern Europe, where animal welfare standards are not as high. I agree that standards should be improved in some eastern European countries, but I contest whether the consequences of a ban would be as the circuses suggest. Paradoxically, it might drive up animal welfare standards, as the film industry would say in those countries, “We are prepared to work with you only if you improve your standards”. Some of the industry’s arguments are weak.

The industry says that it can regulate itself and that all that is needed is a dialogue with the Government, perhaps through the new system of Performing Animals Welfare Standards International, which the Minister will know about. It is interesting to note that, until the deliberations on the 2006 Act, there was no detailed discussion between the industry, the Government and animal welfare groups. There was always dialogue, but not in the detail that there has been since. I question whether the industry’s heart is really in improving animal welfare standards, as we all want.

I am not suggesting that people in circuses are deliberately cruel—of course not, although there are bad apples in every organisation—but I question their motive for wanting to self-regulate now, when little was done for many years. That is why the welfare renaissance is bogus.

As a libertarian Conservative, I do not really believe in banning things—I shy away from it—but history shows that even the most libertarian Conservative parliamentarians have voted for bans at some point in their careers, when the cause has been justified, which I believe this cause is.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing about this important debate. We must all seek to improve standards of animal welfare in every possible way. Can my hon. Friend give the House specific examples of cruelty to, or a lack of welfare of, animals in circuses? If he can, I shall support him in every possible way. If he cannot, he will deny our children the chance to see the animals and be excited and intrigued by them, which develops people’s conservation wishes.

The Great British public, in whom I have great trust—we are all here as a result of their opinions—overwhelmingly want a ban on the use of non-domestic animals in circuses. I know that my hon. Friend is not suggesting for one moment that constant movement from one location to another in small cages is good for animal welfare. I am sure that he is not suggesting that being locked up in solitary confinement for long hours is good for the welfare of animals, whether our pet dogs or a lion or tiger. I take his point, but I do not think that children get any enjoyment from seeing the exploitation of such animals.

For the record, I am proud to be a trustee of the Born Free Foundation. There are well documented cases of cruelty, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are such exceptions in every walk of life. Does he agree that it is hard to justify the fact that circuses are exempt from standards laid down for non-domestic and caged animals—for example, under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981—because they cannot meet them? Is that not a cause for concern?

It is, and the right hon. Gentleman was a distinguished Minister in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for many years and has a long and illustrious track record of standing up for animal welfare. He makes an important point, which I shall come to later. There is a danger that circuses will benefit if we compare them with zoos. Zoos have breeding programmes for endangered species, are subject to strict regulations and have larger areas for animals such as lions and tigers. Given their itinerant nature, circuses cannot live up to those standards.

I return to the opinion of the Great British public—a good thing to return to. In a recent BBC News online survey, 79 per cent. said that they would like a complete ban on the use of non-domesticated animals in circuses. The Minister is a decent and honourable man, and I hope that he will not dismiss that opinion easily and that he will encourage his officials, who I am sure are equally decent and honourable, not to dismiss it either.

It may help Members if I say that four of Britain’s nine circuses use non-domesticated and, indeed, domesticated animals as part of their performances. Approximately 47 non-domesticated animals are exploited for profit in those four circuses. That is why they are so keen to hold on to them.

To return to the point made by the right hon. gentleman the former Minister, no defence can be made that vital breeding programmes, such as those in many zoos, are at stake or that there is a need to protect a certain endangered species. In my view, circuses use the animals simply to make money. In a modern, supposedly forward-thinking society, such antiquated and, some would say, barbaric practices should not be allowed to continue.

No hon. Member would like to be kept in close or solitary confinement. I am sure that the Prime Minister might have some recommendations for one or two of his colleagues, but it is not how kangaroos, lions, tigers and camels should be kept. It is clearly not normal. They are kept out of their natural environment and often separated from other animals. Most of them are social animals and interact with other members of their species.People say, “Don’t bring emotion into this argument,” but there is certainly emotion for those sentient animals; they feel emotion. Anyone who keeps animals or lives in proximity to animals know that the majority of those animals about which I have spoken are sentient and highly intelligent, and have emotions.

To return to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), many such animals are exposed to long journeys and continual forced movement—to constant caged motion and alien environments. The era of exposing those precious, sentient and often beautiful wild animals to diminished physical and social environments has to end. It is a blight on our nation’s humanity and character—a nation, supposedly, of animal lovers.

My hon. Friend approaches the issue with the most honourable motives, on which I congratulate him. However, will he provide examples showing how those animals suffer during their caged time? For instance, do they self-harm or develop obsessive behaviours? Are there any examples of that?

Again, I am happy to refer my hon. Friend to the RSPCA, which has a catalogue of evidence. It is interesting that one of the Minister’s advisers on the advisory group—I shall not name him, because it would embarrass him—said in an e-mail to me that there is no evidence of physical suffering among any of those animals. Earlier in the e-mail, however, he admitted that at some time in his career as a vet, he had treated some circus animals, so even the e-mail from a so-called expert was contradictory.

I shall put on the record what I call the industry’s hall of shame: Bobby Roberts Super Circus, Circus Mondao, Peter Jolly’s Circus and the supposed Great British Circus. There is nothing very British or great about exploiting such animals. I am not saying that circus owners or staff are cruel, although there are always bad apples in any organisation; I am saying that the conditions in which the animals live and the way in which they are forced to live are cruel. There are people who say that emotion should not be a part of the argument. There are no tears in this place today, but there are probably tears in the eyes of those animals. One might say, “Well, that’s very sentimental, Mr. Pritchard. We can’t take that very seriously.” But those animals are sentient, they care and they have emotions, so for people to say that we should not bring emotion into the argument is disingenuous. It is interesting to note that it is not permissible to bring emotion into the argument if we are for a ban; if people are against a ban, they are quite happy to bring in emotion.

What is clear, and what even the circus working group agreed, is that the status quo is not an option. The group did not conclude that the evidence of suffering of wild animals in circuses was “inconclusive”; rather, it said that evidence of the absence of cruelty was inconclusive. One academic on the advisory panel said that

“the absence of evidence of suffering is not evidence of the absence of suffering”.

Interestingly, that important and critical statement was omitted from the report, and I should be grateful if the Minister explained why.

The Government should allow the courts to test the robustness of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. They should not allow themselves, as a result of conflicting legal advice, to become fearful and fail to test the robustness of the Act. Indeed, it may be helpful to develop some case law on such issues, because it may recur with regard to pet fairs and other matters on which the Government deferred action during the passage of the Animal Welfare Bill in order to deal with them through regulations or at a later time. The RSPCA is right to suggest that section 12(1) of the 2006 Act allows an amalgam of different information and evidence—including 24-hour video evidence, which the so-called experts did not use—to inform decisions.

The welfare of animals in circuses was explored in detail during the Bill’s Committee stage. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with many of us who are concerned that the Government have backtracked on their promise, that the circus working group’s remit was fundamentally flawed because it examined only travelling, and not other aspects of circus life that can compromise welfare, such as training and performance?

The hon. Lady is right, and she has a track record: on the Floor of the House during the passage of the Bill, she raised similar issues. However, the Minister is an honourable man, and I know that he and the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), who led for the Government in Committee and holds similar views, do not want to be seen to be backtracking. They want to keep their promises. I shall address the issues that the hon. Lady rightly raised in a moment.

Some people say that circus animals are no different from wild animals in zoos. That is not so. It is not just a matter of constant travelling. Zoos allow their wild animals to roam, they have specified enclosure sizes, and the animals can meet other animals of their species. The zoo/circus argument is bogus and false, and I hope that the Minister recognises that. Some of the views held by DEFRA’s scientific advisers are contradictory. I mentioned one such view earlier, but I am conscious of time and I must try to edit my speech.

The 2006 Act already provides powers regarding

“any unnecessary cruelty or suffering to any vertebrate animal,”

and within the Act, animal owners have a “duty of care” to look after the welfare of animals in their care. To address the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point, owners have various duties: to provide a suitable place to live—I would question whether they have fulfilled that duty in the situation under discussion—to provide a suitable diet, with which I do not have an issue; to allow animals to exhibit normal behaviour patterns, which are certainly not encouraged if they are made to jump through hoops and so on, usually through fear; to house animals with other animals, or apart from them, if that is relevant, and there is no doubt that that social element is not provided; and to protect animals from pain, injury, suffering and disease. Those duties are part of the 2006 Act, and as circuses fail four of the five criteria, the Government should test the robustness of the measure through the courts to determine whether we can secure a ban.

People talk about the need for regulations. I am relaxed on the issue, although my first choice would be to go through the courts to test the Act’s robustness. However, if the Government opt for regulations, I hope that they will not fall for the belated offer from UK circuses to comply with the model regulations proposed by the European Circus Association. The time for trust in, and self-regulation by, circuses has passed. Can the Government trust circuses to put animal welfare before profits? Circuses claim that they are the victims of “unjust accusations”, but there is only one set of victims in circuses today.

The report by the circus working group states that

“there appears to be little evidence to demonstrate that the welfare of animals kept in travelling circuses is any better or worse than that of animals kept in other captive environments”.

That conclusion, however, supports the case for improving the welfare of animals kept in some zoos, not turning a blind eye to the problem and choosing the lowest common denominator to justify sitting on the fence. Wrongs are being perpetrated in zoos, and although the majority of zoos in this country look after their animals well, that does not justify inaction on welfare in circuses. At best, the findings of the CWG are severely flawed, as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) rightly said; at worst, the research is unsound. There are certainly piles of rhetoric, assertions and assumptions. “Inconclusive” is a key word that many people in the circus industry use, but the research is exactly that. We are in agreement, but the word should not be used as an argument to diminish animal welfare; it should be applied equally to both sides of the welfare argument.

A ban would not mean the end of Britain’s circuses, regardless of whether some or even no domesticated animals remained. Animal-free circuses, such as Cirque du Soleil, continue to enjoy huge success. I encourage the Minister and his officials to return to the progressive agenda and the spirit of the 2006 Act, and not to be the latest victims of highly-paid lobbying by the circus industry. They should acknowledge the will, not just of the Commons, but of both Houses. Dr. Mike Radford, the chairman of the working group, rightly pointed out that the decision on whether to impose a ban was entirely political and that, on this occasion, science failed to deliver what the working group set out to find. It was a political decision by this Government. I know that the Minister and his predecessor, the hon. Member for Exeter, want to fulfil their commitments to the House on this issue. It is a matter not only of consistency, but of trust. Can the Government be trusted on animal welfare issues, and will they fulfil their promises?

I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate, and other hon. Members on their contributions. More Members are present than is ordinarily the case for a half-hour Westminster Hall debate, which reflects the widespread concern in the House about animal welfare. That is likewise reflected in British public opinion. We are rightly proud to be a nation of animal lovers, and we support high standards of animal welfare in Britain, which compares well with the rest of the world.

This Government introduced the first piece of animal welfare legislation for nearly 100 years. We have not been in power for all those 100 years—only for a handful. Nevertheless, we have a proud record, and it was good that there was a great deal of consensus on the issue, because it gave us the opportunity to introduce legislation. As hon. Members know, there is always a great clamour about which Bills to introduce and thus a lot of competition, but the Government prioritised animal welfare, and the measure was welcomed across the board.

I think, therefore, that some of the hon. Gentleman’s comments about broken promises and so on were a little disingenuous, particularly given that animal welfare organisations, and the RSPCA in particular, can now act before, and not just after, concerns have been raised about an animal’s welfare. That is a very important principle. We applied it to child care legislation before we applied it to animal legislation, and it is about using expertise and recognising the potential for animal suffering.

I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. Although I agree with what the Minister is saying, I receive more letters on this subject than on more obvious ones, such as the European Union. I hope that we do not let down our voters on this issue.

That does not surprise me, and I am sure that it is reflected in a lot of hon. Members’ postbags. However, we probably will not hear that from the Conservative party during the debate on Europe in the coming weeks in the House.

We have all received expressions of concern from our constituents, and we are pleased that the 2006 Act is in place, as it places on those responsible for animals a duty to promote animal welfare. That duty applies, too, to those responsible for the training and management of animals used in circuses. The Act has been in place for less than a year, but already the Department has received positive feedback that the duty to promote welfare has proved a watershed in animal welfare law. At long last, it is possible to take action before an animal is mistreated.

I am grateful to those sectors of the performing animal industry, including the circus industry, that have taken very seriously the implications of the Act and have taken positive steps to raise their standards. I am grateful, too, to those welfare organisations that are working with the industry to raise standards. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that the legislation put in place specifically to protect performing animals—the Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925—is inadequate. During the passage of the 2006 Act, DEFRA Ministers accepted that the 1925 Act needed to be repealed and replaced by a regulatory system that worked.

The recent DEFRA-commissioned report by Mike Radford and a group of distinguished academics on the welfare of wild animals in travelling circuses, looked at issues relating to transportation and accommodation. The academics reviewed scientific evidence produced by the industry and by welfare organisations. Colleagues have criticised the report, but they will know—especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley)—that DEFRA decisions are science-based. I do not think that we could have assembled more distinguished individuals than the academics and veterinarians whom we selected.

Does the Minister not think that it is odd, given the distinguished nature of those involved, that they did not meet to discuss the matter, and that the majority of the report was done by e-mail? I also point to my closing remarks, in which I referred to Dr. Radford’s opinion that the decision was political, not scientific. It is for Ministers to make a decision. When can we expect a decision on the further deliberations of the report?

I shall come to that point in the remaining minutes left to me.

The report concluded that there was insufficient scientific evidence that animals suffer as a result of their use in travelling circuses.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said that the status quo is not an option. I accept what the Minister says about the science, which is important, but this is the 21st century. The history of circuses and of gawping at animals that are doing tricks and are dressed up is not compatible with modern society.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s intervention.

The report rightly noted that in the circumstances it would not be possible to use secondary legislation to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. It also noted that the Secretary of State’s standards for modern zoo practice could form the basis for regulations to promote the welfare of animals in travelling circuses. We want to see improvements in winter quarters and travelling conditions, and we will undertake a feasibility study to see whether the regulatory system to promote welfare is workable. I expect that study to be completed by early spring. Ministers will have to consider it carefully and report back to the House.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that different experts and scientists will be involved in that feasibility study instead of the same old suspects?

If the hon. Gentleman wants to criticise highly-qualified and eminent academics, that is a matter for him, but it does not move his argument forward.

The study will involve DEFRA veterinarians, zoo licensing inspectors and economists talking to the industry, and seeing what safeguards are currently in place and what could be done to improve them. It will also take account of the views of animal welfare organisations. We have made it clear that we want to hear the views of parliamentary colleagues, which is why this debate is very welcome. We will look at the study and report back to the House. The 2006 Act has been in place for a year, and we need to take account of how it is promoting animal welfare. So far, the feedback has been positive. We will look at the feasibility study and report back in order to consider how to move it forward.

Does the Minister accept that the circus industry and those in the performing industry want regulation and are willing to work with the Government to find a sensible way forward without the banning of circuses?

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.