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Wild Animals (Circuses)

Volume 528: debated on Thursday 19 May 2011

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to explain her decision not to ban the use of wild animals in circuses.

I apologise for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is on ministerial business elsewhere. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) for her question, because it allows me to draw the House’s attention to the written ministerial statement laid by my right hon. Friend at 9.30 this morning.

During oral questions last Thursday, and in the written ministerial statement on Friday, my right hon. Friend and I referred to a current case against the Austrian Government relating to their ban on circuses. However, we now understand that the initiation of court proceedings against the Austrian Government has been delayed, although a case is in preparation and proceedings are expected to commence shortly. On behalf of my right hon. Friend, I would be very happy to clarify the confusion that we might have caused. This does not, however, affect our policy to introduce a tough licensing regime. The very strong legal advice that we have received, which is consistent with the case being prepared against Austria, is that a total ban on wild animals in circuses might well be seen as disproportionate action under the European Union services directive and under our own Human Rights Act 1998—[Interruption.]

We believe that to have pursued a ban in the light of that legal advice would have been irresponsible.

As the Minister has said, the Secretary of State told the House at DEFRA questions last Thursday that

“the Austrian Government have been taken to court by a German circus company because of a breach of the EU services directive.”—[Official Report, 12 May 2011; Vol. 527, c. 1347.]

Her written ministerial statement the following day repeated that allegation, yet today’s statement has confirmed that no legal challenge exists. The DEFRA big top is spinning out of control on these legal cases that do not exist, and hiding behind human rights legislation—

It is the Department that is pathetic.

Given that everything read on the internet should not be trusted, for the future avoidance of doubt will the Minister place in the Library the evidence and the legal advice he has received? The Austrian embassy in London confirms that there was a legal challenge against Austria by the Commission, but it was closed in 2005. The European ombudsman closed the case in 2010.

This House relies on Ministers giving us accurate and timely information, so will he take the opportunity to apologise for misleading the House and the British public and will he stop hiding behind some circus owners who, after six years of failed national and European legal challenges, might well bring another case? That provides no reason not to ban wild animals in British circuses.

There is a further point. The Minister wants councils to license circuses, but there is a problem: circuses move from place to place, so conditions might be adequate in one town, but not in another. Is he aware that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government proposes to remove the powers of local authorities to prosecute owners for animal cruelty as part of his so-called review of the “burdens” on local authorities. He is proposing a scheme that gives authorities the power to license, but no ability to prosecute owners if cases of animal cruelty are discovered.

This is another all-singing, all-dancing disaster from the worst-performing Department in government. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs briefed the Daily Express on 3 April that the Department wanted a ban; the Minister’s Back Benchers and the rest of the House want a ban: it is time for another DEFRA U-turn and a ban on wild animals in British circuses.

I am afraid that the hon. Lady’s record of events is somewhat distorted. We have not claimed that the case brought by the European Commission was anything to do with our decision. I referred specifically to a case that we understand is being prepared, as I have explained, by the European Circus Association against the Austrian Government. I can assure her that my officials have spoken today to the lawyer acting for the European Circus Association to confirm the validity of that. As I have said, we also received advice from our lawyers that the ban could be inconsistent with the provisions of the EU services directive. The hon. Lady has to ask, first, if this is so critical, why did her own Government not do it; and, secondly, if she were a Minister, would she be prepared to override the advice of her own lawyers and risk being taken to court for it, and subsequently having to withdraw the legislation she introduced?

In 1997, the all-party animal welfare group, of which I was then the chairman, produced a report on performing animals in circuses. I handed the report personally to the responsible Labour Home Office Minister. In the ensuing years, the Labour Government took no action whatever, so I do not think we need to take any lessons from Labour Members on this subject. That said, there is no case for performing wild animals in circuses. Given this stay of execution, will my right hon. Friend revisit the issue with a view to a total ban?

My hon. Friend rightly reminds us that the real issue is the welfare of animals in circuses. That is why our policy remains as it was clearly announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Friday. A strict licensing regime has the potential to reduce or eliminate the use of wild animals in circuses if the owners cannot meet the tough standards that we will require, on which we will consult. That can be done quickly, whereas a ban would require primary legislation—and we are all well aware of the time scale that involves.

The Minister talks about human rights, but what about animal rights? Do this Government not care about the welfare of wild animals, which have no powers whatever to exert for their own welfare? Would not the best possible course of action be for the Government to impose a ban and cope with any complications if they arise later? What we want is action from the Government, not subordination to lawyers.

It is a sad but important fact that although this House passes laws, as indeed does the European Union, it is for the courts to interpret those laws. If the advice of our lawyers is that the courts might well interpret a ban as unlawful, we must heed that advice. That is what we have done, and that is why we have produced just as tough a regime through the use of licences—which, as I have said, could well mean that animals do not stay in circuses if their owners cannot meet the standards required.

I must tell the Minister that this is just not good enough. Hiding behind 13 years of Labour failure is not a justification for maintaining the present position.

Last Friday, DEFRA—the Department for error, failure and rotten administration—issued a statement that was not correct, and I am not prepared to go along with the clarification that attempted to involve Austria. Does the Minister not accept that this barbaric activity has no place in civilised society?

I am more than happy to confirm my personal view that wild animals do not belong in circuses. The real point, however, is that we are taking action that we can take now and as a result of which, I suspect, few if any wild animals will remain in circuses. If people are really so opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses, I suggest that they do not go to the circus.

The hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr Gale) is wrong. In 2009, when I was Minister of State at DEFRA, we initiated a consultation, in response to which 94.5 % of people said that they wanted the use of wild animals in circuses to be banned. We gave a commitment that we would do that if we were returned to office. The Minister is also—[Interruption.] Will Members allow me to ask my question?

In 2005, the European circus proprietors took action against the Austrian Government at Commission level. When that action failed in 2007, they invoked the European ombudsman, who found in 2009 that the Commission had been correct. I have been told by the Born Free Foundation, Animal Defenders International and the RSPCA that the Austrian Government said yesterday that no legal action was pending. Will the Minister clarify the position?

I can confirm that officials from my Department have spoken to the attorney acting for the European Circus Association, that it is developing a case, and that it expects to issue proceedings against the Austrian Government in the next few weeks.

I am delighted to report that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently visiting the Pickering “slowing the flow” project at the request of North Yorkshire county council.

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that there will not be a knee-jerk reaction banning all wild animals in circuses until we have taken the best possible legal advice? Is it not a little hypocritical of Parliament to receive, in the House of Commons, performers from circuses that use wild animals, and then to reject those very performers?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. Any Government must take serious heed of the legal advice they are given. Any Ministers who wilfully ignore such advice and risk the Government’s being taken to court and losing are, in my view, neglecting their duty. We have made the right decision: we have taken swift action to deal with the issue of the welfare of circus animals, and I believe that that is the right course.

We are well aware that many Members on the Government Benches like torturing animals, but is the Government’s position that if someone in Europe challenges an issue, this Government—this Parliament—cannot act? I find it unbelievable that the Minister would take such a position.

The fact is that we are part of the European Union, and we are obliged to comply with European Union law. If the hon. Gentleman does not like that, it is a matter for him. As I said earlier—to some ridicule from Opposition Members—our own Human Rights Act has an influence on the position, and it was passed by the Labour party, which ought to know what its legislation says.

I believe that a majority of my constituents would want a ban on wild animals in circuses. Will the Minister update the House on how many wild animals he estimates are in circuses, and whether the number has been increasing or decreasing in recent years?

The latest estimate is that there are 39 such animals. Following the recent press exposure, there are now no elephants in our circuses. The last one, Nelly, who we saw being very badly treated, is now in a home.

Last Thursday, the Minister clearly stated to the House:

“There have been recent press reports that the Austrian Government have been taken to court for their attempt to ban wild animals in circuses, so our Government can hardly recommend something that might not be legal.”—[Official Report, 12 May 2011; Vol. 527, c. 1344.]

There are only two possibilities: either the official gave him wrong advice, which I regret to say is not uncommon and in which case the official should go, or the Minister made the wrong judgment even though he had the facts, in which case the Minister should go. Which is it?

What I said, as quoted by the right hon. Gentleman, is entirely correct. There were, or are—[Hon. Members: “Were!”] At that time, there were such newspaper reports, as I reported to the House, so that was a perfectly accurate statement. It now transpires that those newspaper reports, and therefore my comments, were incorrect. That is why I have come to the House to clarify the fact, which I have done.

Will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to zoos in this country, which have steadily improved conditions for wild animals? For example, Twycross zoo in my constituency has wide open spaces for elephants, lions, tigers and giraffes.

I endorse my hon. Friend’s comments about the measures taken by our zoos. If animals cease to be allowed in circuses, or if circuses are unable to meet the licensing conditions, I suspect many animals will move to zoos.

Order. While paying absolutely no disrespect to zoos, may I request that we return to the subject of circuses?

I have to say that I think the Minister’s position is an extraordinarily cowardly one. May I remind him that there was legal advice against a seal ban—a ban on the import of seal products—yet the courage of member states led to that being overturned? There was also legal advice against the ban on the import of cat and dog fur, but, again, the courage of individual member states led to that being overturned. May we have a bit of spine from this Government, and will they respect the wishes of the vast majority of people in this country and ban now these wild animals in circuses?

The hon. Lady needs to reflect on the proceedings she has just mentioned, because they are very different from that which is under discussion now. Those situations involved European member states taking action at European level, whereas this situation involves a single member state, and we believe that if we take this action we may well be infringing European law, to which we are committed.

A reference in Friday’s statement to the legal context of a ban is relevant only if the Department had been seriously considering a ban. Will the Minister therefore enlighten the House about that and tell us whether the Government would review the situation and consider an outright ban if the legal impediment could be overcome?

I assure my hon. Friend that we considered all options, because we had the benefit of the consultation that the previous Government had initiated and the responses to it. Clearly, however, on the basis of the information and advice we received, we believed a ban was not the right way to proceed. We wanted to be able to act swiftly, and we can do that through a very strict licensing regime. I must repeat to the House that very tough standards will be imposed on how these animals can be kept, and it is possible that circus owners will not be able to meet those standards, in which case we will have achieved a ban without having to pass primary legislation.

The people in my constituency who protested when the Bobby Roberts circus appeared there would be stunned by the pathetic defence the Minister has put up today. Quite apart from the fact that he got the name of the elephant wrong, can he tell us why we should rely on his defence when he cannot tell us which bit of the Human Rights Act enshrines the right to be cruel to animals?

That question does not really deserve an answer. The hon. Lady knows full well that no bit of the Human Rights Act says that, but other bits of the Human Rights Act could be infringed by a ban on wild animals in circuses.

I urge the Government to think again. A performing circus is simply no place for magnificent wild animals such as lions and tigers and the public overwhelmingly agree. The Minister mentions the possible obstacles of primary legislation and legal challenge. May I put it to him that if he took the bold step of proposing a total ban, he would find a great deal of cross-party agreement for that primary legislation? Indeed, were there to be subsequent legal challenges in the courts, he would also have the support of the House.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. Of course I appreciate, as does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, that there is very strong public support for a ban as well as support across the parties in this House, but Ministers must take all the issues into account, including the legal advice to which I have referred and on which we believe that we have acted.

If the Minister will not introduce a ban, will he at least consider extending the provisions of the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 so that circus animals have the same rights and protections as zoo animals?

I am happy to agree to consider that. Circus animals are, of course, covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which enshrined the five freedoms, but if further issues arise from the 1981 Act I am more than happy to consider them. While I am on the subject of licensing, Mr Speaker, may I say that although the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) referred to local government, this is not a local government issue? The inspectors would be DEFRA inspectors appointed by us.

I hope that the Minister understands the frustration of Members and our constituents when it seems sometimes that the script of prevarication is written by officials and does not change, whoever is in government. Will the Minister at the very least publish the legal advice on which this decision rests?

I am happy to discuss that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who must make that decision.

On whose authority did the official at DEFRA phone up the lawyer of the European Circus Association to find out whether there was a preparation in the pipeline to make a legal challenge? Will he confirm that if that challenge continues to be in the pipeline, his Department will continue to do nothing, which gives the association a perverse incentive to make it last as long as possible?

The answer to the first question is that my noble Friend Lord Henley is responsible for this policy within the Department. The answer to the second question, which is completely fallacious, is that we are not doing nothing. We have already made it clear that we will introduce a tough licensing regime soon.

Is the Minister not aware that advisers, including legal ones, advise and Ministers decide? In reaching this decision today, he appears weak-kneed. He has agreed to see one of his hon. Friends afterwards on the question of legal advice, but perhaps he could include an Opposition Member in that meeting. There can be nothing in the legal advice that is remotely binding on this issue and he is failing to respond to the feeling in the country and in the House, which goes way beyond the number of animals involved. It is a question of principle.

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point, and of course Ministers must make the final decision. We accept that responsibility. Advice to Ministers can sometimes be fairly evenly balanced and sometimes pretty heavily balanced in favour of one side or the other. The outcome of the ministerial decision is likely to depend on that.

Order. It is usually a great pleasure to hear the right hon. Lady, but I fear that she was not in the Chamber at the start of these exchanges, so we will have to wait to hear her views on a subsequent occasion.