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Wild Animals (Circuses)

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 23 June 2011

I beg to move,

That this House directs the Government to use its powers under section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to introduce a regulation banning the use of all wild animals in circuses to take effect by 1 July 2012.

I would like to record my thanks to all the members of the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to raise this important issue. I would also like to thank the Clerks for all their helpful advice and assistance in preparation for today’s debate.

It has been an interesting few days. It remains a mystery why the Government have mounted such a concerted operation to stop a vote on this motion, or indeed a vote on any amendment that would allow a ban on wild animals in circuses. I was flexible on amendments.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Will he confirm that he and his Conservative colleagues who are in favour of helping the lions and the tigers have been put under pressure not just by the lance corporals of the Whips Office, but directly from No. 10, the heart of Government? What is it with our Prime Minister that he should have no affection for the lions and tigers waiting to be released from caged imprisonment?

All I can say is that 64% of Members of this House support a ban on wild animals in circuses. I cannot speak for the Prime Minister; he can speak for himself.

It has been an interesting week. This is a Government who have said from the outset that they want to reassert the authority of Parliament. This is a Government who have said that they want to listen to people. Some 92% of the British public want a ban on wild animals in circuses. More than 200 Members of this House have signed an early-day motion supporting a ban, and in a YouGov poll for Dods, 64% of Members of this House said that they want a ban, so why are the Government not listening to the will of this House and, more importantly, the will of the people?

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Government wanting to reassert the importance of this House, will he explain why they still appear to be claiming that Europe could somehow intervene and prevent us from acting? Will he also confirm that the relevant commissioner said only a few days ago that responsibility for the welfare of circus animals remains in this country, with this House?

My hon. Friend makes an accurate and pertinent point, which, if I may, I would like to address later.

I want to focus on the interesting past few days. On Monday, in return for amending my motion, dropping it or not calling a vote on it—and we are not talking about a major defence issue, an economic issue or public sector reform; we are talking about the ban on wild animals in circuses—I was offered a reward, an incentive. If I had amended my motion and not called for a ban, I would have been offered a job. [Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Not as a Minister, so those who are competing should not panic. It was a pretty trivial job, like most of the ones I have had—at least, probably, until 30 minutes from now. I was offered incentive and reward on Monday, and then it was ratcheted, until last night, when I was threatened. I had a call from the Prime Minister’s office directly. I was told that the Prime Minister himself had said that unless I withdrew this motion, he would look upon it very dimly indeed.

Well, I have a message for the Whips and for the Prime Minister of our country—I did not pick a fight with the Prime Minister of our country, but I have a message. I might be just a little council house lad from a very poor background, but that background gives me a backbone, it gives me a thick skin, and I am not going to kowtow to the Whips or even the Prime Minister of my country on an issue that I feel passionately about and on which I have conviction. There might be some people with other backbones in this place, on our side and the other side, who will speak later, but we need a generation of politicians with a bit of spine, not jelly. I will not be bullied by any of the Whips. This is an issue on which I have campaigned for many years. In the previous Parliament I had an Adjournment debate and I spoke in the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. I have consistently campaigned on this issue, and I will not kowtow to unnecessary, disproportionate pressure.

I am sorry, but I am afraid that I cannot give way because I have very limited time, although I am sure that it would have been a wonderful intervention from my hon. Friend, as they usually are.

The fact is that we are now in a place that I hoped we could have avoided. I tried to co-operate. Even last night in the Lobby, I spoke to the Whips and said, “Perhaps we can amend the motion”—

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Are we actually going to get on to the substance of the debate at any point, rather than discussing my hon. Friend’s—[Interruption.]

Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is there anything more important than a Member of this House being allowed to speak as he wishes and not being threatened and intimidated? This goes to the heart of what we should be debating.

We are here today to debate the motion before the House and that is exactly what we are now going to do.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Today, this country has three travelling circuses with a total of 39 wild animals, including zebras, tigers, lions and camels. Until the recent exposure of the brutality with which Annie the elephant was treated, there were also elephants, but there are now no elephants in circuses in England. Let us remember that this measure applies to England only. I give credit to the Scottish National party for possibly moving towards a ban in Scotland.

The trouble with the Government’s proposed licensing scheme is that it would create a new generation of animals that could be imported. It would give a green light to new imports. We might not have any elephants left in our circuses now, but we would certainly have some if the new licensing regime came into effect. My concern is shared by 92% of the public, and there are very few public policy areas that attract that support. I am concerned about the cruel and cramped conditions in the housing and transportation of these wild animals. Countries including Singapore, Bolivia, Israel and Hungary have banned the use of wild animals in circuses. Many of those circuses are commercially successful. I should also like to pay tribute to the media, especially The Independent and the Sunday Express, which have campaigned on the issue for many years.

I want to address the specifics of the Government’s proposal for licensing. It is well intentioned, but it will not improve animal welfare. It would be difficult to monitor, implement and enforce. The licensing regime would also be very costly; it could cost taxpayers more than £1 million. An unintended consequence of the regime could be inadvertently to legitimise the import of new animals and continue the use and, I believe, exploitation of wild animals in circuses. Are colleagues really prepared to vote for that today?

Some of my colleagues have quite legitimately approached me to say, “I don’t really believe in banning things.” I take a similar approach, but I like to look at each case on its merits and take each issue case by case. If we followed the logic that we do not like to ban anything, the House would not have banned bear-baiting, badger-baiting or dog fighting. Perhaps we would also not have banned carrying knives in a public place, or even slavery.

Some myths have been put about prior to this debate. It has been said that passing this motion would result in the end of zoos. That is not right; the motion would not affect zoos. It has also been claimed that it would put an end to falconry, but that is not right either. It would not affect falconry. It relates only to wild animals, some of which I have listed. The definition of a wild animal is a species that does not originate in the British isles.

Concern has also been expressed in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport about the effect of the motion on the entertainment industry. I reassure the House that it would not have an impact on the film and television industries. Paragraphs 34 and 37 of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ regulatory impact assessment state that travelling circus animals are entirely different from those kept in static locations by private keepers. I hope that with the advancement of digital technology, there will eventually be an end to the use of wild animals in films and on TV because when they are not being used many of these animals are warehoused like a carton of vegetables.

I shall concentrate primarily on the legal issues. Notwithstanding the Government’s written ministerial statement of 13 May and the subsequent revised Government response on 19 May to an urgent question, I hope that the Government will accept that there are no legitimate outstanding legal impediments to prevent a ban in England.

Forgive me, but I am not giving way. I know that the hon. Lady has a long track record on this issue, but I am pressed for time.

If Mr Speaker had selected the amendment this morning, which is relevant to this point, it would have kicked this motion into the long grass and there would have been no ban on the use of wild animals because we would have had to wait, as a country, for other legal cases to be dealt with in other parts of Europe. That, in itself, is a red herring.

In his statement to the House last month, the Minister told Parliament, at column 497, that a court case “against the Austrian Government” would “commence shortly”, given that the Austrian Government wanted to introduce a ban. I understand that the papers have now finally been submitted to the court in Vienna, but there is no live case. Interestingly, despite outright bans in other EU countries—I have already listed some and I could add Greece and Luxembourg—a legal case has never been brought or won before. It is not uncommon to hear of Governments sheltering behind courts in Brussels or Strasbourg, but to hear Ministers in my own Front-Bench team say that this Government are now sheltering behind a domestic court in Vienna is a completely new innovation.

There are two further flaws in the Government’s so-called legal defence. Are the Government of this country suggesting that the threat of legal action or the possible outcome of court cases is enough to paralyse Government decision making? Fear is not usually a prerequisite to success. What is more, the Government are seeking to put Vienna before the courts in London. If the Government waited for the court case in Vienna— the papers have been submitted, as I said—the case went through and the European Circus Association lost, there would be an automatic appeal to the European Court. That would add more delay and procrastination, further getting the Government off the hook when it comes to introducing a ban in this country. Even if that case were spent, there could be another European court considering another case in another European capital.

Notwithstanding my comments, the reality is that the Government’s Austrian defence is a red herring, given that the European Commission has clearly stated that a ban is a matter for member states alone. It is an issue that English courts decide. Surely that is something to celebrate in this age of judicial creep from Europe, and also something to exercise and implement. A ban can be introduced in an English court— without waiting for other European capitals to decide and without interference from Europe, which makes a refreshing change.

The Government have invoked the Human Rights Act 1998—yes, that old chestnut. The sooner the Government scrap the Act and introduce a British Bill of Rights, the better for everyone. Let us test the Act in an English domestic court, where even Brussels wants such cases heard. Let the Government have the courage of their own convictions. Legal advice from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs itself suggests that a ban might breach circus owners’ property rights under the Human Rights Act, so let us test it in the courts. Let us see what the courts have to say—the courts in London and England, not in Vienna, Brussels, Strasbourg, Copenhagen or some other European capital.

I pay tribute to the Minister of State, who has been put in a very difficult position. On 19 May, he courageously and bravely told this House that he personally would like to see a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. We also know that officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs want a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, and it is reported that the Secretary of State herself is minded to favour a ban, yet No. 10 has overruled: so much for devolving power and allowing Departments to get on with their own business, and so much for ending the control-freakery of No. 10; it appears that that tendency under the last Government is continuing under this one.

The Government have also invoked the European services directive, saying that a ban would breach it and would fail to meet the proportionality legal test. I can tell the House that that is not the case, and that the European Commission has denied that it is the case.

I appeal to the House to support my motion. Let us get Britain back to where it was in the last century—leading, rather than lagging behind, the world on animal welfare issues—and let us put an end to the use of wild animals in circuses.

Order. There is a six-minute limit on Back-Bench contributions. As is apparent from the number of Members rising to be called to speak, this is a very popular debate.

I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), and I congratulate him. I do not imagine that he is in the running for his Chief Whip’s Back-Bencher of the month award, and he might have to wait a wee while before receiving further invitations to receptions at No. 10, but he is showing great tenacity and determination in keeping this issue alive in Parliament, and in bringing it to the attention of the House today, with the able assistance of the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting time for this debate.

Some people may not consider this issue to be of major political consequence, but it means a great deal to a lot of people, as evidenced by the thousands of responses to last year’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs consultation, by the number of people signing The Independent newspaper’s petition, by the hundreds of MPs who have signed the relevant early-day motions, and by the e-mails and letters MPs have been receiving not just in the last few days, but over the past 14 months.

I should declare an interest: I was the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister who left this matter to the current Minister of State, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Mr Paice), to sort out, and I apologise to him for that. I am sure he would rather be concentrating on other matters, but he is a highly respected politician of integrity, and I know he will take note of today’s debate and vote.

As the hon. Gentleman had ministerial responsibility for this issue under the last Government, may I ask him a question? In the last Parliament, we spent a lot of time debating the Bill that became the Animal Welfare Act 2006, and we were told that it was the most up-to-date legislation in the world. Therefore, if there is a concern about animal welfare, why is it not covered by the provisions of that Act?

That is a good question, and I will discuss the 2006 Act in due course. It is my understanding that that Act could be used as the enabling legislation to introduce a ban, and I hope that my later remarks on it will clarify the situation for the hon. Gentleman.

When I took over as Minister of State in 2009, the question of wild animals in circuses had been left over from the 2006 Act. That Act was much needed and warmly welcomed and took animal welfare to a much better place, but wild animals in circuses were not specifically covered. I was lobbied by the Born Free Foundation, as well as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Animal Defenders International, and also by many Members. DEFRA organised a consultation, and we all know the outcome: 94.5% of the 13,000 respondents said they wanted a ban. The then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), agreed that we should express our conclusions before last May’s election and we said we were minded to introduce a ban.

Recently, there has been much comment about legal impediments. The European Circus Association challenged the Austrian ban at the European Commission in 2006, and it lost. It invoked the European ombudsman and it lost. The ombudsman asked the Commission to evaluate whether the Austrian ban on wild animals in circuses was proportionate. The Commission’s final opinion of September 2009, as laid out in the documents available in the Library pack for today’s debate, set out why it did not believe there were grounds for an accusation of maladministration and also set out its view on the proportionality of the Austrian ban. It ruled that this was a matter for member states to decide.

Much advice was offered to me when I was a Minister, but my recollection is that the legal questions were about whether a ban would require primary or secondary legislation. I do not remember there being a European dimension to the advice, but of course memory does play tricks on us.

The hon. Gentleman was a good Minister, but does he regret that he did not introduce a ban in his time as a Minister?

I regret that we as a Labour Government did not introduce a ban, but the Animal Welfare Act was a major piece of legislation and we tried our best. Given the constraints and the time frame between when I was appointed Minister of State and the May 2010 election, there was not long enough to introduce that ban. However we gave a commitment to the animal welfare lobby, to parliamentary colleagues and to the public that we were minded to introduce a ban if we were re-elected, which sadly we were not. I am convinced that we would have gone ahead with that.

The biggest obstacle to progress that I can remember, as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for The Wrekin, was at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which contended that any such ban could harm our creative industries by outlawing the use of animals in film and TV productions at worst or by reducing the number of performing animals available at best. Either way, the contention was that the threat to film and TV production would move it abroad and cost us jobs and revenue. We had numerous discussions about this and we were eventually able to reassure DCMS that that would not be the case and that we could limit the ban to the use of wild animals in circuses, as the hon. Gentleman has outlined. DCMS dropped its objection and the Government had a united policy, which appeared in our manifesto in May last year.

All kinds of questions were raised about whether wild animals should perform at all and which should be allowed to. My main concern was and is about the conditions in which animals are kept in venues and on the road. We are mostly reassured that modern zoos create environments that try to reflect animals’ origins, natural habitat and behaviour patterns, and we have to ask how that can be done in the back of a cage attached to a lorry driving along the motorways of Britain. Even this morning on BBC “Breakfast”, the camera crew visiting a circus was not allowed to film the animals’ living quarters. I think that that speaks volumes. Why the reluctance? I think we all know.

The Government say they want to introduce a licensing system rather than a ban. The system would mean that any circuses wishing to have wild animals such as tigers, lions and elephants performing in them would need to demonstrate that they met high animal welfare standards for each animal before they could be granted a licence to keep them. Areas being considered as part of the licensing conditions include the rules on transporting animals, the type of quarters they could be kept in, including winter quarters, and their treatment by trainers and keepers.

I know from my time at DEFRA that it wants to improve the welfare of animals across the piece and to improve the situation. It has even been suggested by some that the licensing regime could introduce a ban by the back door, but we do not want a ban by the back door—we want a ban through the front door. We want honesty and transparency in the laws and regulations we debate and introduce. We want clarity, not confusion. The public have used their voice to articulate that they want a ban and Members of every party have said that they want a ban. I hope and appeal to hon. Members in all parts of the House when it comes to the vote at 6 o’clock tonight to support the motion in the names of the hon. Members for The Wrekin, for Colchester and myself.

Animal welfare matters to the British people, but we in the House have a duty and responsibility to make decisions on issues relating to animal welfare based on facts, knowledge and science. If we make decisions based purely on opinion polls and emotions, we shall get ourselves into great difficulty. I heard nothing in the speech of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) about the actual welfare of animals.

I will give way in a moment.

We have to base our decisions on cool hard facts and knowledge of the situation. The speeches I have heard today do not show that; they have avoided the real animal welfare issues and are pandering to the emotions of animal rights activists who care more about their political agenda than about the real welfare of animals.

I condemn utterly and totally cruelty to animals of any kind. I was the shadow Minister for animal welfare for three years before the last election, and I had the same instincts as many people in the Chamber today and many of the people who respond to opinion polls, when they say, “Isn’t it dreadful. It should be banned. How awful this is.”

May I make some progress before I give way?

Instead of basing my views purely on what the newspapers or the opinion polls say, I looked into the matter. The truth is that in this country only a small number of animals are in circuses: 39 in total. They are not captured from the jungle and dragged to the circus; many have been born and bred in circuses for generations. [Interruption.] Their entire rhythm of life is based—

Not at the moment.

For those animals, their entire rhythm of life is based on what they have known since they were born. On the face of it—

May I continue?

On the face of it, I agree that it looks to many people as though it is all very cruel, but in reality many of those animals have been so domesticated over so many years that to wrench them from the life they are used to would be crueller than allowing them to continue it. The Government have to implement welfare and we already have the Animal Welfare Act 2006. If there is real cruelty to animals, we can use existing legislation or, as the Government propose, licensing to deal with it. [Interruption.] It is amazing that we are focusing on an area where there is almost no cruelty—[Hon. Members: “There is.”] There isn’t. [Interruption.] No one wants to hear the facts—[Interruption.] They don’t.

I am fed up with animals being used as a political football. If Members want to campaign for animal welfare, they should look at the facts, examine the reality and not use it to promote a political agenda. I am afraid to say that certain animal welfare organisations—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Rosindell is not giving way, so persistent requests are not helping the situation. I am sure he will let the House know when he is ready to take an intervention.

I should like to take interventions, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am being shouted down, which is not very fair, especially from a Green MP—I should have thought that she would want to hear the other point of view.

I am a champion for animal welfare, but I shall not just follow the crowd. I shall look at the facts. What is being proposed is worse than those poor animals are used to; their entire life has been in the environment they were brought up in. Wrenching them away from the people who have looked after them, loved them and cared for them would obliterate their rhythm of life and would be crueller than allowing it to continue. I shall now give way.

The hon. Gentleman says that he wants science. What about the science from the British Veterinary Association, which says:

“the welfare needs of non-domesticated, wild animals cannot be met within the environment of a travelling circus…A licensing scheme will not address these issues”?

The BVA is one of the most respected scientific organisations for animal welfare in this country. What does he say to that?

Non-domesticated—they are wild animals, but when lions and tigers are 10th generation born in that environment, we are no longer talking about a lion taken out of its natural environment and dragged into the circus. I am afraid to say that the issue is often used by organisations for fundraising. Charities and animal rights groups raise money, and the issue is raised to attract political support and donations, by whipping up emotions instead of treating the facts as they are.

No, I will not.

We have the Animal Welfare Act 2006—a brilliant piece of legislation from the last Government, which we supported—and it can be used when cruelty occurs, but I appeal to the House: do not go with the crowd, look at the facts, do not wrench those creatures away from the life that they are used to and have grown up in. If you do that, you will be more cruel than leaving them where they are, with the people and in the environment that they are used to.

Will my hon. Friend share with the House his views on whether third-generation slaves in the United States, born into slavery, were content with slavery, more so than those who were enslaved in the first place?

I am afraid to say that I am sorry that the debate is being dragged to such a level. Instead of dealing with the facts, you are ultimately saying that animals—

Order. Once again, I can see that emotions are running high, but I remind the House that when you say, “you”, you mean me.

I knew that my views would be unpopular, but I ask hon. Members perhaps to take something away from what I am saying, because I believe passionately in animal welfare. I looked at this for three years. I visited circuses. I spoke to people who deal with training the animals, and I know that they are loved and cared for. This is like a pack hunting a tiny bit of tradition that still exists in this country, where animal welfare standards are greatly considered and animals are loved and cared for. I am afraid to say that, if we rush to make a decision based on pure emotion and opinion polls, I really think that it will be an irresponsible decision. We should look at the facts. We should understand the long-term interests of animal welfare and use existing legislation to deal with this issue.

That contribution can best be described idiosyncratic, or idiotic, depending on the point of view taken. To say that it is not about the welfare of animals is either a display of stupidity that is quite mind-numbing or a deliberate attempt not to face up to the heart of the issue. As the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) said in opening the debate, this is entirely about animal welfare. Only about 40 or so animals are involved—there are various numbers; perhaps it is 36 or 37—but the numbers do not matter. What matters is cruelty.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, in the absence my having been able to intervene on my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). The hon. Gentleman needs to be careful not to be too harsh on my hon. Friend, who wrote the foreword in 2009 for the Great British Circus and previous forewords as well. Perhaps that is why he would not allow me to intervene.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; I suspect that he might be on to something.

I am puzzled because this is a relatively minor issue: as I say, somewhere between 36 and 40 animals are involved. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) quoted the British Veterinary Association. The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) did not grasp the difference between domesticated and captive animals. Captive animals may still be wild and nowhere near domesticated. Even until the nth generation, they remain wild and their instincts are those of wild creatures. The British Veterinary Association said that in captivity in circuses, there are no circumstances under which such animals can demonstrate their natural behaviour. That will remain the case, regardless of a regulatory scheme. The big disadvantage of a regulatory scheme is that it would be a more complicated way of dealing with the matter and it would be much more likely to increase, not reduce, the number of wild animals being used in circuses.

I have received a huge number of e-mails and correspondence from constituents about this matter. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), whom I congratulate on having initiated the debate, mentioned how the conditions in which the animals are kept adversely affect them. The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) referred to facts. The usual life expectancy of animals kept in such conditions is much shorter than that of animals not kept in those conditions.

Indeed. The hon. Member for Romford was being most disingenuous or misinformed, depending on one’s point of view, in saying that there was not a body of evidence based on animal welfare considerations that supports the ban. The argument in favour of a ban is entirely predicated on that. He may not have understood the evidence, but that does not mean it does not exist.

As a scientist I am very interested in evidence. Could the hon. Gentleman spot what the facts were that we were being asked to listen to by the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell)? I missed all those, whereas the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) seemed to cite facts that were much more interesting.

The hon. Gentleman has it exactly right. The speech of the hon. Member for Romford would bear rereading, as they say. Perhaps we can have a prize for anyone who can mine a single fact out of it—but please do not send that to me.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), I and Brian Blessed, among others, were over at Downing street towards the end of March to hand in a letter calling for the ban to be introduced. I know that there are those on the Government Benches who are ideologically opposed to bans of any kind, which is a strange position, but it is understandable. Parliament and the whole body of law is about bans of one kind or another designed to change people’s behaviour in different ways. A law says, “If you behave in a certain way, there will be certain consequences,” but no law can ever make people better. What it can say is that there are patterns of behaviour and conduct which are acceptable and there are those which are not. Cruelty to animals is one of those considerations.

Is it not a fact that zoos have spent a great deal of money doing the research to find out what sort of facilities should be made available for the sort of animals that we are discussing? Clearly, travelling circuses cannot provide such facilities.

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. When we speak to those involved with zoos and aquariums, it is clear that they are looking carefully at the kind of animals that they will and will not exhibit. Large mammals and large carnivores are very much at the top of their considerations.

As just about every Member knows, animal welfare is one of the most persistent issues raised with us by our constituents over time. From the 19 years that I have been in the House, I have a database running into many thousands of people who have raised various issues with me. People feel very strongly about these issues, and rightly so. It is the hallmark of a civilised nation that it has the highest possible animal welfare standards, and I still believe this to be a civilised nation. There is a maxim that suggests that the hottest corner of hell is reserved for those who are cruel to children and animals, and in that regard, despite being a life-long atheist, I hope that there is a hell.

Constituents raise concerns with us because they care about them. For the hon. Member for Romford—I do not want to concentrate on his contribution, but it really was quite extraordinary—to describe the entire pantheon of animal welfare organisations, many of which have royal charters and have been around for decades, if not centuries, as part of some kind of trendy conspiracy invented simply to please Guardian readers is ludicrous.

I accept that the Minister is in a difficult situation, and he has made his personal opinion clear. What I cannot understand—the hon. Member for The Wrekin alluded to this—is why the Government have handled such a relatively straightforward issue in this fashion. The idea of No. 10 getting personally involved in such as issue shows a curious lack of proportion. It also appears curious when tested against the idea that the Government are now listening and that listening is a sign of strength.

I am pleased to announce that the coalition Government, certainly on the Conservative side, have heard the voice of the British people, seen sense and will now allow a free vote on the matter.

Well, there are free votes and there are free votes. To paraphrase George Orwell, some of them are more free than others. There is a great deal more to be said on the matter, but unfortunately not by me. I urge Members to support the motion.

I am pleased to be called to speak in the debate, but I find it rather sad that we are still talking about this issue after so much time. DEFRA officials said in 2009 that the ban could be introduced under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. We went wrong when the Minister of State commented recently that a total ban on wild animals in circuses might be seen as disproportionate under the EU services directive and under our own Human Rights Act 1998. I must say that, on that point, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). Having had some contact with the Whips in the past week, I have become quite an expert on the Human Rights Act and particularly knowledgeable on article 8 of the convention.

With regard to the European Court’s case law, it is difficult to envisage a cogent argument that could support the assertion that a ban would engage the other rights set out in the convention, such as the rights to life and to a fair trail. Therefore, I can only presume that the Minister made his comments while considering a ban under article 8.

Article 8(1) has been interpreted extremely broadly by the European Court, whereas exemptions or limitations to the right have been interpreted narrowly. The right has three potentially relevant elements: private life, family life and home. Private life has been held to include the right to develop one’s own personality and relationships with others. The European Court considered that the notion of personal autonomy is an important principle underlying the interpretation of the right.

However, the right has been held not to apply to activities that relate to the private aspects of a person’s life, such as those that take place in public and where there is no expectation of privacy. In the current situation, a ban relates not to the private aspects of the lives of those potentially affected, but to their employment, which essentially takes place in public and without the expectation of privacy. Equally, the ban would not affect the right to a family life, as it would not prevent or interfere with a person living in proximity to their family.

Finally, the concept of home under the convention is wide and would include travelling accommodation as well as permanent dwellings.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right about article 8 of the convention, but at no time have I referred to it. If he had read what I said, he would know that I referred to article 1.

I am happy to stand corrected by the Minister. That allows me to move my argument on.

Another argument is that a ban on animals in circuses would interfere with a person’s right to the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions because it would amount to a control on how those possessions may be used, but such an interference with that right would not violate the right if it were done in the public interest. I therefore urge the Minister to consider a ban in that public interest.

The European Courts have decided that, whether or not the control on possessions imposed by a ban is in the public interest, they will have regard to whether a ban represents a fair balance between the needs of the public interest and the rights of the individual. In other words, I tell the Minister that the European Courts will consider whether a total ban is a proportionate measure to achieve the public interest aim in question.

Accordingly, it is important to consider why exactly a ban is required in the public interest. If a total ban is proposed to ensure that animals are kept in appropriate conditions and cared for by appropriately qualified persons, there is an argument that, unlike the proposed licensing and inspection regime, a ban is not proportionate to the public interest aim being pursued. If a total ban is proposed because it is considered cruel or ethically wrong to make wild animals perform in circuses in the UK, however, a total ban is the only measure that will achieve that public aim.

Accordingly, if Parliament determines that wild animals performing in circuses is no longer acceptable to the public, it will therefore be in the public interest to have a ban on the use of such animals. The European Courts would be very unlikely to question the judgment of this House as to what is in the public interest of the United Kingdom.

Is my hon. Friend aware that in the UK more than 200 local authorities have bans on animals in circuses, and that more than two thirds of those bans are on all performing animals, the remainder being on wild animals? Is he aware also of any ongoing court cases under human rights legislation?

I am certainly not aware of any cases under human rights legislation, and the situation involves not just 200 local authorities, but countries and principalities in countries, including Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden. All those countries have to decided to take that suggested approach, yet we are once again kowtowing to the European Courts.

On human rights, does my hon. Friend accept that it takes only one person to challenge this decision in order to delay for a number of years the process that every Member seems to want, whereas sensible regulation would achieve the same aims over a much shorter time?

I suggest, as others have already urged, that we take a lead on the matter. As I have said, I have had some experience with the Human Rights Act this week, but when people use it they find that many in officialdom bow down and decide that, suddenly, it is a very important issue and that those people will get away with what they are trying to achieve.

In summary, case law from the European Court of Human Rights indicates that a ban would be within the “margin of appreciation” afforded to the United Kingdom. If a ban is proposed because it is considered cruel or ethically wrong in itself to make wild animals perform in circuses in the United Kingdom, as opposed to a ban being proposed because welfare standards cannot be guaranteed, then a ban is the only measure that will achieve that public interest aim and is therefore automatically proportionate.

Accordingly, a ban will not breach the European convention on human rights, and as a ban is only a control on the use of wild animals in circuses and therefore does not deprive the owner of the animal itself or of their ability to use it for commercial purposes, there is a strong presumption against compensation being awarded to persons who suffer any loss as a result of the ban. If the Government decide to implement a ban, it will not be as revolutionary as we have heard, given the 200 local authorities and the other countries that have been mentioned.

I do not believe that animals should be subjected to the conditions of circus life. Regular transport, cramped and bare temporary housing, forced training and performance, loud noises and crowds of people are all typical and often unavoidable realities for such animals. Therefore, unless the Government give us a time frame for a ban on animals in circuses, I will vote for the motion.

We have already heard many comments from many colleagues, so I will not repeat what has been said. I rise in support of the motion, which

“directs the Government to use its powers under section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to introduce a regulation banning the use of all wild animals in circuses”.

I had the privilege of serving on the Animal Welfare Bill Committee back in 2006. The Bill became an excellent Act with many good measures asking people to think carefully. It was good in terms of introducing codes and saying that animal welfare really matters. During that Committee’s proceedings, however, I raised the issue of banning the use of wild animals in circuses, and I would have liked to have seen a much slicker process in the Bill to progress the matter at that time.

Matters have progressed, however. The consultation that the Labour Government instigated in 2009 showed that public opinion is even more clearly behind a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses than it was back in 2006, with 94.5% of people saying that they would support it. It is therefore a great shame that we did not have the time to introduce that ban before the election, after which the coalition Government chose to disregard public opinion by not proceeding with introducing it.

It is extraordinary that the smokescreen of the European Union has been put up as an excuse for not introducing the ban, because as was explained earlier, the Commissioner has clarified the position and there is absolutely no obstacle whatsoever in the way of our doing so. The European Union does not prevent us from doing this.

My hon. Friend is to be commended for the work that she has done on animal welfare in the last Parliament and in this one. Is it not the case that all that is required to bring in the ban is secondary legislation using the existing provisions in the 2006 Act—a very simple process?

Indeed; my hon. Friend has clarified the position. It is very straightforward. It can be achieved because of the groundwork that was done during the first stages of the Animal Welfare Bill.

Evidence from local councils over very many years shows that when given the opportunity many local councillors, rather than trying to ban the use of animals, have said that circuses are not allowed to come on to their land to perform because they want to make the point and respond to public opinion. We do not want a messy licensing situation whereby this, that and the other has to be done and the situation is unclear to everybody—we want a simple, straightforward ban.

I am sure that there will be party political points to be scored throughout the debate; I congratulate those who have called it. Does the hon. Lady accept, however, that there is a gathering consensus, with the Government’s body language since the announcement on 13 May indicating that there is a growing preference in Government for a ban?

We want a definitive decision to be taken today. We want that decision to go in favour of a ban, and we want that ban to be implemented without any further delays of any sort whatsoever. The consultation clearly indicates where public opinion stands and the reasons why. I am not going to keep listing the terrible instances of cruelty that we have heard about. Even if there were no deliberate cruelty, it is clear to anybody that the lifestyle of always popping in and out of a cage and performing and travelling is not something that anybody could possibly understand as the way that a wild animal would be expected to behave.

On the business about 10 generations, even in the case of our own cats and dogs who may be 10 generations domesticated, we have cat flaps and take dogs for walks. We certainly do not expect them to live the life of popping in and out of a cage and being isolated from other members of their species and taken right of their environment. That is clearly incompatible with their natural way of life. There are many opportunities for young people to see how animals can live in the wild using hidden cameras. We have experts and naturalists who produce fabulous films. We can click on our computers and see it all. We can go to a safari park, without having to travel abroad, to see animals who can be kept in certain ways in this country.

Have we not come to expect, as a society, that animals should live in their natural environment and should not have to exist for the benefit of human beings and their entertainment?

Absolutely. It is a purely selfish idea that anybody would want to see an animal perform in a circus. As my hon. Friend says, we have moved on from that. It is completely mediaeval to think of going back to the idea that an animal is to be taken round on a chain because nobody in the area or in the country has ever had a chance to see that type of animal. We do not want that any more.

There are many important lessons that we want to teach our young people. They will not learn the fundamental lesson about respect for animals and treating them properly and well if they are taken to a circus to see such antics. Young people have to understand that for them to see such things, animals have to travel and undergo very undesirable practices. Animal welfare is incompatible with the life of a travelling circus.

I have personal experience of a wild animal. I found a bear in a cage in no man’s land. He had been left there for four weeks without water. He was entirely miserable and would not even be coaxed out of his cage by honey. We managed to ethnically cleanse that bear out of Bosnia and into Croatia. He is now a very happy bear who is full of life and living in Amsterdam zoo, which is great. I fully support the idea of banning animals in cages, because it would stop that sort of thing.

As I have said, society has moved on. We do not expect to see the cruelty of animals being kept in circuses in this day and age.

We want this ban to be sorted out in the most efficient way for the whole country, not in little bits and pieces or through half measures. We want a proper ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. As I have said, there are many other ways in which young people can be educated about animals. They do not need to see cruelty to animals in the circus. I fully support the motion. I congratulate the Members who called for this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing it.

I am delighted to speak on this incredibly important motion, and I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. It is fair to say that I do not always agree with him, but I recognise his strong commitment to animal welfare, which I share.

Hon. Members had the opportunity to debate banning wild animals in circuses in a Westminster Hall debate secured by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on 8 June. I am delighted that we now have the opportunity to debate it on the Floor of the House and to vote on it. I make it clear that I will be voting for the motion. There have been suggestions that Conservative Back Benchers are being or have been whipped to vote against the motion. I state categorically that I have not been whipped by any Liberal Democrat Member to vote either way. All I say to Conservative colleagues who may be thinking of voting against the motion is that they should bear in mind the level of public support throughout the country and, more specifically, in their constituencies for a total ban on the use of wild animals in circuses.

My concern is that the Government’s proposal of introducing a licensing scheme may inadvertently legitimise the use of wild animals in circuses, resulting in an increase in their use and an increase in suffering.

Another problem with licensing is that it does not deal with the issue of animal welfare, because the animals still travel and are still kept in unacceptable conditions.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman; I was about to make that very point.

Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of wild animals in circuses. There are now only about 38 or 39 animals being used in three circuses. That is a welcome decline and I hope that the trend continues as more and more people support a complete ban. Recent surveys have suggested that at least 70% of people support a complete ban, and more than 94% of people who responded to the consultation did so as well.

Unfortunately, I understand from the Captive Animals Protection Society that the day after the Westminster Hall debate Malcolm Clay, secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain, said that far from a licensing scheme discouraging circuses from using wild animals—which the Minister suggested might be the case—

“Once we have… regulation which reassures the public we may see some circuses return to using animals.”

Surely that is not the Minister’s intention.

There has been a public focus on the issue of wild animals in circuses in recent times, not least because of the spotlight on the poor treatment of Anne the elephant, but also owing to the number of people who have seen the film “Water for Elephants” in the cinema. I urge Members who have not seen the film to go and see it. Unfortunately, however, the plight of Anne the elephant has muddied the waters to some extent. I do not think anyone would deny that no one with a brain would condone the mistreatment of animals, and I have no doubt that this was only one of a very small number of instances of animal cruelty in circuses. I am sure that the vast majority of wild animals in circuses are looked after as well as they possibly can be. What concerns me is that the nature of a circus, which involves moving from place to place in cramped conditions, makes it impossible to provide a suitable living environment for wild animals.

The nature of a circus also makes it impossible to provide an inspection system that could adequately check that regulations were being adhered to at every location unless that system is ridiculously expensive. Although the Minister has said that the cost will fall on the circuses, I suspect that the result will probably be an inadequate inspection system and an insufficient number of inspections. An inspection system will not work, and may result in more wild animals in circuses and more suffering. It will not address the fact that the constant movement of animals in cramped conditions is not good for the welfare of the animals. The only way to ensure an end to animal suffering in circuses is a complete ban, and I urge Members in all parts of the House to vote for that ban

Order. So that more Back Benchers will have an opportunity to speak, I am reducing the time limit to five minutes.

I pay tribute to the Members who tabled this important motion.

We need a ban on keeping wild animals in circuses because it is cruel, but we also need a ban because the welfare of those animals is emblematic of the way in which we treat all animals, and is symbolic of the kind of society in which we live. The Government are wrong to suggest that the European Union is somehow preventing us from dealing with the issue. In response to the insistence of Ministers during the last debate on this subject that a legal threat in Europe had been a major factor in the prevention of an outright ban, leading animal protection organisations called a meeting with the European Commission’s Head of Representation, at which it was confirmed once again that the issue of wild animals in circuses was a matter best left to the judgment of member states.

When I was a Member of the European Parliament, we did a great deal of work trying to make progress with animal welfare issues in the Parliament. Often, the advice was to go back to member states in the first instance and to rouse them to act. I have therefore urged Ministers to consider, for example, the action that was taken first on dog and cat fur and then on seal fur. On both occasions, leadership by member states prompted the EU to ban imports of those types of fur. It is significant that the legal advice that was used in an attempt to stop those bans was that there were so-called “outstanding legal impediments”. Exactly the same excuse is being used today. Governments were given the legal advice that it would be impossible to ban imports of cat and dog fur, and the same was said of seal fur, but when individual Governments challenged that dubious advice, they were able to make the bans happen.

It is when a number of forward-thinking member states call strongly for action on something that we see progress on the EU position. There are clear precedents, not least in animal welfare policy, in which action by individual states has been the means by which animal welfare protection has been secured across the EU.

In an attempt to find out whether the Government were genuinely looking for a legal way to make a ban on wild animals in circuses happen, I tabled a written question asking whether the Secretary of State had received any legal advice on

“instances where a single EU member state has taken unilateral action on animal welfare matters which has led subsequently to a change of EU policy in line with that action”.—[Official Report, 9 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 408W.]

The extraordinarily complacent response was that the Secretary of State had “no recollection” of any such advice. Why is she not going out and asking for that advice? Why is she not looking for the legal means to go ahead with a ban, in line with the wishes of the vast majority of people in this country? Instead, she and her Ministers have been looking for legal cases to cower behind as a cover for not acting.

It is worth reminding ourselves that it is not just because of public opinion that we need a ban, important thought that is. Members have spoken about the importance of science, and I have cited the evidence of the British Veterinary Association, which has stated that

“the welfare needs of non-domesticated, wild animals cannot be met within the environment of a travelling circus; especially in terms of accommodation and the ability to express normal behaviour. A licensing scheme will not address these issues”.

We are not criticising individual circus owners; we are saying that the very nature of being in a circus means that animals’ welfare needs cannot be addressed.

At first, my feeling was that the Government’s position was extraordinarily cowardly. As the debates continue, I am sadly coming to the conclusion that they do not want to act because they do not like to be seen to be banning things, and are therefore looking for excuses. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that successive UK Governments have been in breach of their obligations under the bathing water directive since 1975. Although it is nice to see DEFRA suddenly discovering the idea of complying in full with what it perceives to be its EU obligations, perhaps it is not too cynical to suggest on this occasion that they simply do not want to act.

If the Government wanted to stop this cruel practice, they would be acting. In their defence we would have another euro-sausage type story, with headlines about the UK having every right to act and comments like “How dare the EU interfere?”, as we saw with the “Defend the British banger” story. Yet in this instance, the EU is not telling us what to do. Instead, we are inventing barriers where none exists.

The hon. Lady is making a marvellous speech. My understanding is that every legal case brought by European circus owners, like the one in Austria that has been mentioned, has been lost. There seems to be almost no real basis at all for the Government’s claim.

The hon. Gentleman’s intervention is very helpful in pointing out that that argument is a smokescreen that the Government are hiding behind. Indeed, the Head of Representation of the European Commission here in London recently wrote a letter to the Captive Animals Protection Society stating plainly, yet again, that the EU considered that

“the welfare of animals…is a matter best left to the judgement of Member States”.

It is not acceptable to have a policy which leaves us just hoping that regulations will have the same effect as a ban, particularly given that the secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain stated on the day after our last debate that he did not believe the new costs of regulation would discourage circuses from having performing animals. Instead, he stated that

“once we have robust regulation which reassures the public we may see some circuses return to using animals”.

How perverse would that be as an outcome of having licences?

For the avoidance of doubt, will the hon. Lady confirm that the EU has not said just that these issues are best left to member states? The Commissioner has specifically said that they are the responsibility of member states. That is what gives us the legitimacy to have a ban, and to have it now.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is the responsibility of member states to act, and it is within our remit and right for us to do so. That is what the EU is saying, so it is incredibly perverse to try to do otherwise.

In conclusion, the Government’s judgment on this matter is woefully lacking. They have got it wrong on this one.

I am sorry to intervene on the hon. Lady towards the end of her speech, and I thank her for allowing me to do so. If the vote tonight is in favour of a ban, does she, like me, expect the Government to act on that and bring in a ban as quickly as possible?

I think that were the Government not to act in that way, the Great British public would be shocked and any sense of democratic accountability would be undermined. I agree completely with the hon. Lady that they should respect the wishes of the vast majority of people in this country and immediately ban the cruel practice of keeping wild animals in circuses. Personally, I would go further and ban all animals in circuses, not just wild animals. I refer hon. Members to Cirque du Soleil, one of the most famous and successful circuses in all of Europe, which uses no animals at all.

The outcome that the Government imply they want is for there to be no wild animals in circuses. If that is the case, I call on them to show some real leadership and effect a ban now.

I pay my respects to my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), whom I cannot see in the Chamber, and congratulate him on securing this important debate.

I should like to put it on the record that I am grateful that we will now have a free vote. Applying a three-line Whip to an issue such as this would have made a mockery of the relationship between Parliament and the Government. That is a welcome move in the past couple of hours.

I shall not pretend that this is the biggest animal welfare issue, because it clearly is not. There are 30 or 40 wild animals in circuses in this country. That does not compare with the millions of animals that have to experience daily the brutality and horrors of factory farming. This is none the less an important issue. There is no justifiable reason for keeping animals such as elephants, tigers, lions and so on in small, travelling cages, away from any semblance of what for them would be a normal life. That is just not civilised.

My understanding is that until recently the Government took the same view, but that that changed somewhere along the line. It is hard for me—and, I believe, many others—to understand why that happened. For one thing, the vast majority of people support a ban. All the polls suggest that. The public appetite for such entertainment is, at best, fading. It is certainly not a growth sector.

With overwhelming public opinion against the use of animals, might such a ban help circuses, because it could attract customers who, like me, are appalled by the use of wild animals, back to them?

That is an extremely valuable point. I have been to circuses in this country, but I have made a point of choosing to go only to those that I know use no wild animals. It would be nice not to have to do that research. I am sure that many people are repelled for that reason.

The general public, MPs and even Ministers are opposed to live animals in circuses. Is it not clear that the only person blocking a ban is the Prime Minister?

I have no idea. I do not know the politics and I do not know the Prime Minister’s position. I accept that the vast majority of the public are opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses, as—I believe—are the vast majority of Members of the House.

It is particular confusing that whereas the Government have a stated ambition over the course of this Parliament to reduce red tape and bureaucracy, their alternative to a straightforward ban affecting 30 or perhaps 40 animals is to construct a new regulatory regime, with licensing and inspections and the various associated costs. That goes against the Government’s general thrust and direction—and all for 30 or 40 animals. That makes no sense at all.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the strength of public opinion. Why were his Government and his Prime Minister prepared to have a three-line Whip for Conservatives until the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) stood up?

I began my speech by welcoming the change of heart over the past couple of hours. I have not been part of that process, so I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I am very pleased that we will have a free vote—it is the kind of issue that should have a free vote. I am very much on the record before the debate as saying that I would have defied a three-line Whip and voted for the motion, as a very large number of Government Members would have done. That is perhaps one of the reasons why we will now have a free vote.

The most disturbing aspect of the Government’s change of position is that it is not based on a change of heart. As a number of hon. Members have pointed out, the only reason we have been given is that the Government fear a possible EU legal challenge some time in future. The Minister was quoted in The Independent today, I believe, as saying 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”.

If that is true, it is hard to imagine anything more embarrassing for the House. The Government are effectively saying that even though they want to do this minor thing, and even though the public would support such a move, they cannot do it because they no longer have the authority. What does that say about Parliament, democracy or this country?

Let me put it another way. What is the point of making promises up and down the country in the run-up to an election on the campaign trail if we no longer have the authority to fulfil even the most basic promise? That makes a mockery of parliamentary democracy in this country.

I am sure my hon. Friend will recall the issue of prisoners’ voting rights, when the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights told us we were not allowed to deny them those rights. I was pleased that hon. Members, particularly Government Members, had the opportunity to show the will of Parliament. This is an opportunity for us to show our will again.

I absolutely accept that point, and there are other examples too. We had a debate a month ago on fish discards, and the House unanimously agreed a resolution requiring that the Government veto any reforms to the common fisheries policy unless they included our reasserting control over the 12 miles around our coast. It remains to be seen whether we have the strength to show our will again, although I very much hope that we do, just as we did over prisoner votes. In this case, the legal advice is, at best, ambiguous, and I am convinced by the arguments used by a number of speakers that there is, in fact, no genuine threat at all, and that this is something that the Government should and must do. I am going to back the motion, and I hope that colleagues will do the same, if not for the wild animals themselves then simply to send a message to the public that Parliament exists, and exists for a purpose.

For once—perhaps the only time—it is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). I suspect that there might be many occasions on which we do not agree, but on this one we certainly do.

I want to make a short contribution because it is important that the House is seen to reflect public opinion and the views of our constituents. Like other hon. Members, I have many constituents who care passionately about animal welfare. They do not see it as part of a political agenda that they are working to for their own sake or to gain a position; they believe genuinely in what they argue. I pay particular tribute to one of my constituents, Maureen Rankin from Kilmarnock, who over the years has done a huge amount of work on the issue of wild animals in circuses. I am glad that the tone of debate has moved on from what was a fairly sparky beginning to starting to find consensus across the House and political parties. That is what the public are looking for on an issue such as this. There will be times when we disagree, and there will be nuances and differences.

My hon. Friend will be well aware that the Labour Government allowed a free vote on tail docking. Does she agree that her constituents would expect there to be an automatic free vote on an issue of this importance, which is cross-party rather than party political?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I certainly was glad to hear, during the debate, that the Government have decided to offer a free vote, because it gives Members the opportunity genuinely to reflect the views of their constituents.

The arguments for the ban have been well rehearsed during the debate, so I do not want to go over them all again. It is important to recognise that the arguments being made by organisations such as OneKind, Animal Defenders International and the Born Free Foundation arise out of the view that has grown up over the years that it is no longer acceptable for animals to be used for entertainment in circuses. After many years in politics, albeit in another Parliament, I am glad to be with 95% of the public rather than trying to change opinion and argue my case, which was the position I was in when I first entered politics. It has been mentioned that several local authorities, including in Scotland, have already decided not to allow circuses with wild animals.

Does my hon. Friend agree that despite some of the doom and gloom, including in my city, when local authorities took that step about 20 years ago—people said, “Well, that will be the end of circuses in the city”—we have seen some superb circuses every year since?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. In Edinburgh, Fife and my local authority area in Ayrshire, there was cross-party support for not allowing circuses with wild animals on to council land, but the local authorities I know of, particularly in Scotland, want to take further measures to ensure not only that such circuses are not allowed on their land but that they cannot enter other locations in the council area.

Mention was also made in the opening speech of the Scottish Government’s position. My understanding is that the new Scottish Government are sympathetic to a ban. However, when I questioned the previous Scottish Government last year on their position, they said that they were awaiting the results of the DEFRA consultation. Securing a vote today and, for once, taking the lead on this issue would not just send a powerful message to England and Wales, but would be helpful to colleagues in the Scottish Parliament who want a ban enacted there.

The hon. Lady may also be aware that colleagues have tabled a motion in the Northern Ireland Assembly on banning wild animals in circuses, but when I corresponded with the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development I was told that the Department was looking to DEFRA to take a lead and establish the principle.

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. The devolved Administrations have powers that they can use, but on issues such as this, which are important across the UK, it is important that DEFRA Ministers show leadership.

I understand that the Minister may be in a difficult position. It is always difficult if a Minister has strongly held personal views but the advice that they receive—legal advice, or advice from others in the Department or civil servants, or even from higher up their political party—does not correspond with those views. I hope that the strength of feeling shown across the House today will give the Minister the opportunity to give us hope that the Government might be able to move if this vote is passed. That is certainly what my constituents who have been writing to me all week expect. We have a consensus building in the public’s mind. It is time to show a consensual approach and, come voting time, to ensure that this afternoon’s vote is registered in support of public opinion, the organisations that have campaigned over many years and, most of all, the animals who would otherwise continue to be at risk.

Order. As the House can see, several Members are still trying to speak. The wind-ups will start at half-past 5, so if Members can show restraint and reduce their five minutes themselves—perhaps to three and a half minutes—everybody might get in.

I will try to be brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on calling this debate, which gives me the opportunity to introduce the House to Donkey, who is a Barbary macaque who now lives in my constituency—if Members want to see what he looks like, I would be happy to show them afterwards.

Donkey’s story is not a happy one. Caught as a youngster and smuggled into Europe from Morocco, probably via Spain, Donkey wound up as a circus performer. Donkey suffered years of abuse in the circus, where he was beaten and forced to perform in front of large crowds. He was castrated, to avoid him becoming aggressive towards his captors, and denied the company of others of his kind, which causes immense mental and emotional suffering in all primates. All primates are highly social animals. Maternal deprivation is known not only to hinder psychological development, but to have physiological consequences, such as abnormal brain development. Donkey displays all those damaging signs: he has very poor social skills and is underdeveloped for a monkey of his age.

Donkey will never be able to return to the wild, owing to the damage he has sustained, but he now lives with friends of his own species. I hope that in time Donkey will be able to live a fairly fulfilled life in my constituency, at the Wild Futures monkey sanctuary near Looe. I would like to give a quick plug to the monkey sanctuary, which does fantastic work. If hon. Members are down our way during the recess, they should pop in and see the sanctuary, because Donkey and all his friends would love to see them. More importantly, the entrance fee and donations will feed him and other rescued primates at the centre.

Please remember Donkey, and the message that he cannot bring to the debate himself. It is time to ban wild animals in all circuses, so that the terrible life that Donkey has suffered need not be repeated. This is why I will support the motion.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), who has spoken up for animals such as Donkey that cannot speak up for themselves. It is also a pleasure to speak in this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Colchester (Bob Russell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on bringing it before the House. There is overwhelming public support for the introduction of a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses, and it is crucial that we have a vote on this motion today. I am pleased to hear from the hon. Member for The Wrekin that there is to be a free vote across the whole House. That is what the country is asking for on this issue, and it is what the country should have.

There are only three circuses left in the UK that use wild animals in performances. It has been recognised that to use them for human entertainment is unethical and unjustifiable, and that it should therefore be opposed. The previous Government consulted the country on a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses in 2009, and the consultation closed in March 2010. It received more than 10,000 responses, 94.5% of which supported a ban. That illustrates the extent of public opinion, which has been reflected in our postbags over the past couple of weeks.

I have received just one item of correspondence from someone who is against a ban—he is not a constituent of mine; he was writing from an address in Dorset—but I have had hundreds of e-mails and letters from my constituents calling for a ban.

I have received no correspondence opposing a ban. Indeed, we have heard from only one Member this afternoon adopting a different point of view. It is good that that point of view has been aired, because it is important in democratic debates that all points of view are heard.

I am particularly pleased to see a good turnout of Lib Dems for this debate. I suspect that they feel a certain empathy with circus animals, as an endangered species being kept against their will for the entertainment of others. [Laughter.] But this is a serious issue, and if the motion is carried today, the Government should listen to hon. Members on both sides of the House and to members of the public. They should listen to what the British people are saying, and they should stop clowning about and introduce a ban on wild animals in circuses.

As a child, I used to get rather excited by the prospect of a visit to the circus; one reason was that I wanted to see all the exotic animals that I could not normally get close to, apart from those that I saw in zoos, which in those days were rather caged affairs. Obviously, however, things have changed. We are all now entertained by brilliant films on TV and in cinemas that contain amazing footage of wild animals in their natural habitat. Most zoos are made to look rather boring in comparison with what David Attenborough shows us. Thanks to many animal welfare associations, we are also much better educated about world wildlife and how it should be treated. For those who really want to see wildlife close up, let us not forget the modern tourist industry. People can save up their pennies and take themselves off on a safari or a trip to the rainforest. These are the ways in which we can see wild animals at their best, and there really is no excuse or need for wild animals in circuses.

The more we know and understand these magnificent animals, the more we recognise that a circus tent is no place for them. Some of them might have been whipped, goaded or herded into their rather pathetic performances. I can still remember from my visits to the circus that when the lions and other big animals came in, extra security was immediately put on and a man with a whip, if not a chair, would appear. That tells us everything that we need to know. Of course these animals are not safe in the circus environment; they have to be controlled. Of course they cannot be relied on to relax and enjoy themselves; they are in an unnatural environment, surrounded on all sides by human beings, of whom they are instinctively frightened. Frankly, these animals’ continued presence in the circus ring, even if there are only about 39 of them, diminishes us all.

I know that some will argue that some animals are not, in fact, wild because they were born in captivity. We heard that this afternoon, but I do not see what difference that makes. A lion or an elephant still has natural instincts; it still needs proper space to move around in, and being driven around the country for much of the year in the back of a van is no place for these animals.

Does my hon. Friend agree that introducing a firm ban with a firm date means that no new animals will be brought into circuses and that the circus owners will be put on notice that those currently operating in circuses will need to be retired to appropriate circumstances that suit their needs?

I certainly agree that we need a ban, although I am just a little worried about whether the time frame is practical; I will come back to that issue later, if I may.

I want to put it on record that I am not in favour of banning all animals from circuses. I think that some of the more domesticated animals—dogs and ponies spring to mind—thoroughly enjoy themselves. I recall going to a charming little circus in France where a farmer, his wife, their two children, a goat and a dog held us all spellbound for about an hour. I can say that that dog and goat had a good time, getting a treat every time they did something brilliant. We know that there is room for some animals; it is the big wild animals that are the problem.

In conclusion, I want a ban on wild animals in circuses. I recognise, however, that there might be certain legal obstacles to getting that straight away. A time frame of one year is perhaps a little impractical. I am not an expert on EU law, but I know that before a ban of this sort could be introduced, there would have to be consultation and a way would have to found to re-home these 39 animals. That is why I intend to abstain this evening. However, I also put the Government on notice that I want to see a ban and want them to do whatever they must to introduce a ban as practicably as they can.

As the third signatory to this motion, I would like to congratulate my colleagues, the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on their positive speeches. I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for his bravery in the lion’s den, as the only Member thus far to speak against the motion. That takes courage, and I congratulate him on that.

I detect the fingerprints of No. 10 Downing street on this. I have tabled a parliamentary question and I await the written answer with great interest. Opposing live animal acts in circuses is something that I first got involved with on 15 May 1971, when, as a borough councillor of 48 hours, I was contacted by Mr Murphy of Barrack street who urged me to get circuses banned from Colchester. I put that to the council, but I was a lone voice and nothing happened. A few years later, however, Colchester became one of the first local authorities in the country to ban circuses from its land and buildings. Unfortunately, we need a nationwide Government ban, because we still have a landowner in the town who I regret to say allows his land to be used for circuses. Circuses are barbaric; they have no place in a civilised society of the 21st century.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and briefly congratulate him on his long-standing work on this and other animal protection issues. I would also like to say that many of our councils led the way, but do not have quite enough power, as my hon. Friend said. I think we should therefore move on this issue as soon as possible.

I am grateful for those comments.

To follow up the issue of what happens to the remaining 39 circus animals, I am pretty confident that this country’s zoos will be ready and available to accommodate them. Colchester zoo took in three elephants from a circus, and Rolf Harris was there to open the spirit of Africa enclosure . The bull elephant was particularly pleased because he was then put with four cows, which he had to look after. He was very happy.

There are circuses that we can support, however, such as the Chinese and Moscow state circuses, as well as small local circuses involving just a few people. The Netherlands national circus is currently performing in Ipswich, then next week in Lowestoft and the week after that in Colchester, and I intend to be there, subject to confirmation that it is, indeed, animal free as I am advised.

I support the motion as it is high time we banned animals in circuses. I have been worried about the stance that has been taken and I am glad the Government Whips have now given us a free vote on this, because animal welfare is a moral issue and Members on both sides of the House want a ban on wild animals in circuses.

The plank of the Government’s argument relating to Austria is fragile, and I fear that it might be sawn off at some stage. I would prefer us to take a much firmer stance by going for a ban and letting somebody challenge it if they want to, because I do not think that anybody will do so.

Given the position my hon. Friend has set out, why has he decided to be the lead signatory to the amendment to the motion? If my understanding is correct, the amendment would have prevented any ban from being introduced until some supposed EU legal issue was resolved.

I will deal with that later, but I have previously stated that we should challenge the court ruling in the Austria case.

There has been too much talk today about the process of government and who is to blame and who is not to blame, instead of getting to grips with the welfare issues of animals in circuses. If we do have to take note of the case in Austria—

My hon. Friend talks about process, but does he not agree that the best thing to do is vote in favour of the motion and get the ban put in place, job done?

Yes, but putting the ban in place will take a little while, so meanwhile we should consider certain animal welfare issues. The conditions endured by circus animals when being transported are totally wrong. The conditions need to be greatly improved. There must be much more comprehensive inspection of that, which would lead to much greater costs on such circuses. Therefore, a great deal of pressure can be applied in the meantime, before we introduce a ban.

I may disagree with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), but in a democracy he has the right to raise them. He talked about the fact that many of these animals have performed for many years. They will need to be rehabilitated and found homes, so let us use the time available to good effect in that regard.

We want the Government to listen to the arguments on a total ban. I do not know what the Minister is going to say, but I would like him to say that the Government have thought again and that they are minded to introduce a ban in the future. That is what we want. In this day and age, we cannot have wild animals in circuses. Many of us also know about the pain that can be caused by the amount of training those animals are put through and the way in which they are trained to perform in unnatural ways.

The hon. Gentleman has not yet answered the question put to him by the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) about how he reconciles his current stated position with his position as the leading signatory to the amendment.

Perhaps I am being criticised for taking a pragmatic view on this. I want a ban and the only reason for the amendment was that the requirement in the motion that a ban would have to be in place in 12 months might not have settled the legal situation. We do not want to give the Government an excuse not to move towards a ban.

To which legal cases is my hon. Friend referring? There are currently none in England, the United Kingdom or in European law. There is only one possible case in Austria. Is he, as a former Member of the European Parliament and allegedly a Eurosceptic, suggesting that we should wait for the decisions of domestic courts in other capitals, let alone in European courts, before making our own decisions in this country?

I covered that point at the beginning of my speech when I said that the case in Austria is not a good one on which to put the whole plank of the Government’s reasons for why we cannot ban the use of wild animals in circuses. As far as I am concerned, the only reason for the amendment was to give the Government time to come forward with a ban. Clearly, there is a move from all parts of the House to ban the use of wild animals in circuses. Now we want to hear from the Minister very clearly what the timetable for that will be, how we are going to deal with the court case and how we will move to a ban as quickly as possible.

I am not a fan of wild animals in circuses, I would not take my children to see them or go myself and I think that the quicker we can move to a situation in which they do not exist the better. I do not even like dancing dogs on Britain’s Got Talent very much—I think it is demeaning for the owner and the dog—so I strongly sympathise with many of the arguments that have been put forward this afternoon. However, what I like even less is taking a populist route because it seems to be the easy one against, sometimes, principle and evidence. We are charged, whether we like it or not, with taking a responsible approach to these things, which is sometimes difficult in the face of overwhelming and well-targeted pressure on us as MPs. It seems to me that we are making this more difficult for ourselves by confusing an argument about ethics and morality with one about legal enforceability. This has been complicated by the haunting image of possible challenges in the European Court.

However, let me curtail my contribution. Regulation can work. I simply do not buy the argument that it would somehow open up a Pandora’s box. If we are sensible about regulation, not only can we improve animal welfare standards and move to a situation in which animals in circuses are a thing of the past, but we can do it without putting the taxpayer at risk of having to fork out for a lengthy, time-consuming and very expensive EU challenge. We can do it in reasonably quick time and without the need for primary legislation. The Government were right about this 10 days ago when the Minister spoke in Westminster Hall and nothing has changed in the intervening 10 days. It seems to me that if he is genuine to his word, as I am sure he is, we can achieve everything that everybody in the House wants without all the nonsense, cost and threat to the taxpayer that we have been talking about. I shall be voting against the motion tonight and commending the Government’s approach.

Nothing short of a ban seems to be the answer to making this absolutely clear. The views of many organisations have been represented in the debate this afternoon, but I would like to pay particular tribute to Virginia McKenna and the Born Free Foundation, who are observing the debate from the Gallery this afternoon.

I want to make two quick points. First, the Government’s proposals for licensing and regulation are still going to be subject to a legal challenge and I do not see how that would be any different. I refer the Minister to an answer to a parliamentary question in the European Parliament that was answered by Commissioner Potocnik. The question was:

“What is the Commission doing to enforce animal welfare standards in European zoos and circuses?”

In his answer, Commissioner Potocnik dealt with the question of zoos and then said quite clearly:

“Circuses are specifically excluded from the scope of the Zoos Directive, and are not covered by any other EU legislation. Therefore, the welfare of circus animals remains the responsibility of the Member States.”

That was at the end of May.

My constituent, Gerry Cottle, ran away at the age of 15 to join the circus, and very successful he has been. I spoke to him yesterday. He said that the circus has moved on and times have changed, and that public opinion was against “the dinosaurs” who use wild animals in circuses. We do not need them. He runs a successful circus without animals, creating good old-fashioned theatre and entertainment.

There is no way that any circus owner could say that banning animals from circuses was a human rights issue because it caused loss of livelihood. Many circuses operate without animals, which is a testament to progress. I support the motion and I trust that the Minister will hear the clamour for a ban both in this place and outside.

I congratulate the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Colchester (Bob Russell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) on their work in securing the debate. It is right that it was secured by the Backbench Business Committee, given the depth of feeling on both sides of the House.

It is appropriate to mention some of the Members on the Government Benches who made brave speeches, specifically the hon. Members for Hendon (Mr Offord), for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech), for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), for Colchester and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). In many ways, they are lions led by donkeys. I am pleased that we as a party and as an Opposition stand firmly behind them. Indeed, almost every speaker supported a ban, with the exception of the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) who looks like the man who bet everything on red but it came up black.

Today, the Minister has the opportunity to offer some kind of leadership. Unfortunately for him, however, it seems that the position has changed since he took his seat in the Chamber today. That is a shame, because we want to hear a justification for his current position.

Let me be clear: there is a majority in the House in favour of a ban. The public consultation launched by Labour found massive support for a ban. I have no desire to overturn the cross-party consensus on the issue, but it raises serious questions about DEFRA’s decision making. A new Government come in, and what do we see? Yet more dither and delay, instead of a clear, consistent position from them. I direct Members to the Minister’s answer on 19 May, when, outrageously, he said:

“If people are really so opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses, I suggest that they do not go to the circus.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 499.]

What a pathetic response.

Indeed, the Department’s entire response has not been great—to say the least. First, there was a year of delay in which we saw shocking images of Anne the elephant being beaten. Who knows what else has gone unseen? Secondly, we saw DEFRA dithering from the top, because in April, the ban was on. The Secretary of State had made her decision, and she briefed the Sunday Express that a ban would be introduced, but within a few weeks, she had made her first U-turn. The Secretary of State’s favourite interviewer without coffee—the Prime Minister—had intervened in DEFRA affairs once again and now the ban was off.

Thirdly, we saw the incompetence of a Department that many have described as in special measures. New decision made, along came the policy-based evidence-making process. The Secretary of State provided a written ministerial statement outlining her reasoning. In it, she cited an Austrian court case that did not yet exist. A second statement tried to fix that. She owned up: the Government only thought the case was on after reading a press release. Dragged to the House for an urgent question, there was no apology for misleading Members, just the tired excuses we have come to expect—this time, amazingly, about the Human Rights Act. Talk about digging a hole.

The Government refuse to publish their legal advice, although, of course, they remain happy to hide behind it. The Government-backed amendment to the motion, quite rightly not selected, calls for a ban to be introduced as soon as legal impediments are resolved. That gives rise to some confusion. First, the Government say that there are no legal impediments, then that there are overwhelming legal impediments, and now that there are resolvable legal impediments. That is less a U-turn and more a giant arc, gobbling up and spitting out unprepared Ministers in its path. Now there is to be a free vote: U-turn complete.

Most depressing of all, the Government were right the first time; there is nothing wrong with banning the use of wild animals in circuses and that ban should be introduced right now. The Government argue that a ban may contravene the European services directive, but that is incorrect. Last month, the EU Commissioner for the Environment reiterated that the EU’s position had not changed, saying that

“the welfare of circus animals remains the responsibility of the Member States.”

The Government state that there is a lack of scientific evidence in support of a ban. Again, that is not correct. A global research study supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals concludes that

“species of non-domesticated animals commonly kept in circuses appear the least suited to a circus life”.

The Government argue that a ban requires primary legislation. Again, that is incorrect. DEFRA’s impact assessment makes it clear that powers under section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 are sufficient to introduce a ban.

Those are fine words, but will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House why the Labour party did not do something about the issue when it was in power?

I appreciate the opportunity to say what we did when in government. We banned animal testing for cosmetics. We banned the process of battery farm eggs. We created new powers to stop animal cruelty. We banned tail docking. We stopped the trade in seals. We ended fur farming, and we passed the hunt ban. I am proud to stand on that record as a Labour Member of Parliament. We introduced the 2006 Act that allows the Minister to ban the practice of wild animals performing in circuses, and that is exactly what we are calling for today.

The previous Government had a reasonable record on animal welfare, but they had four years from the 2006 Act until they lost the general election. Why was the ban not introduced in those four years?

I am delighted to say that we had a clear commitment to do that in this Parliament. As a Member of Parliament, I share the desire, expressed across the House, to implement the ban. We must be clear that the barrier to implementation is the Tory-led Government, who found the roadblocks in the first place. I hope that we will hear much more about that.

Has not the strength of the debate been the cross-party consensus? Notwithstanding the right of any Member to make points about this Government or previous Governments, that strength has been shown in all Members working together, reflecting the will of Parliament and the British people.

I am glad to associate myself with those sentiments. There are serious questions to be asked about the process—we will certainly ask them at a later date—but the most important thing about tonight’s vote is that we follow the Members who raised the issue in the first place through the Division Lobby and ensure that a ban is enacted.

One of my major concerns if we do not pass the motion is that circuses are saying that the Government’s licensing scheme could produce an increase in the number of performing animals in British circuses. Surely, that alone must give us pause for thought. The issue is straightforward, and the solution is pretty clear. The Government should introduce a ban under the previous Government’s Animal Welfare Act 2006.

Events have moved on in the House since we started the debate. It now seems clear that there will be a free vote. I am glad to hear that because I believe that, on such issues of conscience, we are strongest as a House when we stand together against practices that have no place in a modern society. Perhaps more importantly, I believe that the DEFRA ministerial team had the right position in the first place. They instinctively felt that a ban was the right way go on the issue. For that reason, I should like to encourage them to go through the Lobby with us tonight to make a clear and definite case about the kind of society that we seek to create, and in doing so, we will be much stronger as a House together.

Before I call the Minister, may I suggest that we have until five to 6 before I call the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard)?

I will forgo the obvious opportunity to use many of the numerous witticisms that I have heard during the past 48 hours about my appearance here, but I will start by simply trying to say that I will walk the tightrope over the next 10 or 15 minutes.

As several hon. Members have shown, this debate has demonstrated that, with one or two exceptions, there is passionate agreement across the Floor of the House that we should see an end to the use of wild animals in circuses. I assure the House that nothing divides us on that front. When we came to office a year ago, we had the advantage of receiving the results of the consultation to which the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) referred, and we had to examine all the options. A ban was one of those. We did not have the advantage of the advice that he received because that was confidential to the previous Government.

We had a new set of advice from our lawyers and we had to use that in coming to our view. It clearly indicated that there were serious risks of a legal challenge should we opt for an outright ban, despite our being minded to do so. I will return to the detail of those legalities because that has occupied much of the afternoon’s debate, but it is for that reason and in the interest of avoiding a long judicial process that we concluded that the quickest way to reduce and, we hoped, eliminate cruelty to wild animals in our circuses would be a robust licensing system, which might well result in circuses deciding to stop keeping such animals.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who moved the motion, has shown diligence in pursuit of his cause. However, I am afraid his dedication has allowed him to misrepresent a number of issues, and some of that has been repeated by other hon. Members. The first is the Commission’s view about whether this is entirely a matter for member states. I remind the House that the view of a Commissioner is simply that. I have seen the letter sent by the Commission to the Captive Animals Protection Society, and I understand that that is the view of the Commission, but as I said in the House last time we debated the subject, it is ultimately the courts that interpret legislation, and our lawyers have to advise us not about what the Commission’s view is, but how they believe a court might interpret the legislation.

Had there been time for me to be called, I would have made the point that cruelty, in the sense of physical cruelty to animals, is not the only issue. People’s experience of wild animals is much richer through the internet, television and, indeed, the Cheltenham science festival, making it unnecessary for animals to be kept in captivity. There is increasing scientific evidence that there are complex emotions and intelligence in animals, especially intelligent animals such as elephants, which make any kind of systematic confinement inherently cruel, even if physical cruelty is not present.

I fully understand my hon. Friend’s comments and I shall pick up one or two of them in a moment.

I shall make a few more points before I give way. My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin listed, as did other hon. Members, a range of other countries that have allegedly banned the use of wild animals in circuses. Many of those references were incorrect. A number of countries have selectively banned certain species. A number have rightly banned wild caught wild animals, which is a different issue. My hon. Friend and others speculated that licensing might mean more animals in circuses. I find that difficult to believe. I note the comments from the circuses that were mentioned, but we are not talking just about issuing a licence. We are talking about very tough licensing conditions for keeping such animals.

I am sure the whole House would like to hear what those tough licensing conditions would be. If they incorporate travelling for weeks on end up and down motorways chained in a cage and going from place to place, many people would conclude that they are not worth the paper they are written on.

That may well be the judgment that the hon. Gentleman and many others—and probably even I—would come to, but as we have clearly stated, we would go out to consultation in order to form a view of what those standards should be.

Let me conclude my comments on the introductory speech of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin. He never made any attempt to justify using section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. I shall refer to that in a little more detail. The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse also referred to that. I respect him immensely. We shared a mutual respect when I shadowed him, and I think that remains the case, but I must correct his memory on the previous European case, without going through all the detail. He remarked earlier that the circus lost against the ombudsman, but that is not the case; the ombudsman made a damning criticism of maladministration against the Commission, based on the view that it had abdicated its responsibility to maintain the treaties by not interfering in the rights of member states, so there is a distinction.

The hon. Gentleman reminded us of the 2006 Act. I served on the Bill Committee, as did the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith)—I remember her efforts at that time to introduce a ban, which she described today. It was resisted by the Minister at the time, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), and by Lord Rooker in the other place. While the Bill was on Report on 8 March 2006, the right hon. Member for Exeter stated:

“I intend to use a regulation under clause 10 of the Animal Welfare Bill to ban the use in travelling circuses of certain non-domesticated species”.—[Official Report, 8 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 61WS.]

That was in March 2006, over four years before the general election. Whatever the good intent of the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse, the fact is that his Government did nothing, despite that declared intent.

Let us go to the root cause of the problem between the Minister and everyone else. He seems to be pinning his case on the idea that someone might take legal action and might win a court case. On that basis, the House could not pass any legislation.

I am coming to that exact point.

If the House were to approve the motion, the Government would have to respect that, but as a Minister I am duty bound to lay before it the possible consequences—I stress the word “possible”—of that decision not only for the Government, but for the House, taxpayers and possibly the animals that we are concerned about.

No I will not; the hon. Gentleman was not here for much of the debate.

The legal advice we have received on section 12 of the 2006 Act is that although it could be used as the basis for a total ban, it is highly likely that we would be challenged on the basis that an outright ban was a disproportionate measure for improving welfare in circuses. That is exactly the same advice as the previous Government received in the Radford report, which they commissioned after the discussions in 2006. The report makes it absolutely clear that there was insufficient evidence to ensure that the animals’ welfare could be improved only by a ban and not by other means. That was the Radford report’s advice, and it remains the legal advice.

No. I will finish with the legal matters before giving way again.

Obviously I cannot tell the House that there would be a challenge, or what the result would be, but we do have to note the advice. The Radford review concluded in 2007 that no scientific evidence existed to show that circuses by their nature compromised the welfare of wild animals. It was on that basis that it concluded that a ban on the grounds of welfare would be disproportionate in the absence of evidence that welfare was compromised.

There are two further risks from that action: the cost to the taxpayer and the risk that a court might agree to suspend the ban until legal proceedings had concluded. In other words, although the law itself might have been passed, nothing would have changed for the animals themselves.

I am well aware of who wishes to intervene.

I turn now to the European aspects of the legislation. The European legislation would apply whether we use primary or secondary legislation to implement a ban. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in her statement on 19 May, informed the House of the error in referring to an action currently before the Courts in the European Union, and I repeat our regret over that error. Nevertheless, I can inform the House, as has already been stated, that as I predicted on the same day, a case has been laid by Circus Krone against the Austrian Government in the Austrian constitutional court. We know not the outcome, but the fact that that case has been laid supports the legal advice that we have previously reported to the House, namely that a wholesale ban may well be counter to section 16 of the EU services directive, and that any subsequent legal challenge would have the same consequences that I have described.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way, and it is well known in the House that I do not often give free legal advice. He refers to the advice that he has received, and I have no doubt that that is the advice he has received, but I have to tell him that in my opinion that advice is wrong, and that, having seen the quality of some of the advice that the Government receive from the European Scrutiny Committee, it is about time that outside legal advice was taken.

No doubt we could lay every lawyer in the House end to end and not reach a definite conclusion. I note my hon. and learned Friend’s comments, and obviously I respect them.

May I turn to the nub of the issue? When hon. Members decide in a few minutes’ time how to react to the motion before us, I hope that they will pay heed to what I have said about the risks attached to it. It is of course a matter for the House to decide, but I hope that hon. Members will not focus on whether we ban or, indeed, wish to end cruelty, because I hope that there is no doubt about our desire on the latter point, but focus on how we go about achieving the end to cruelty in circuses, on which we are I believe united.

Although a complete ban, as advocated in the motion, might well achieve that end in time, there are, as I have tried to describe, significant risks in taking it forward with the deadline and using the legal mechanism to which my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin has referred. That is why the Government have come forward with a proposal that might achieve the same end with more certainty. Nevertheless, as I say, the House has a right to decide otherwise.

I understand and fully respect the very high emotions involved, including on the issue of the ethics of animals performing for human entertainment.

I am sorry, but I am rapidly coming to the end of my time.

I share the views of hon. Members who are concerned about the use of performing animals, but I also have to react to and respect the legislation that we have enacted in this House in the past, and the reality is that section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 does not allow ethical considerations to justify a ban, so I hope that in considering how to vote hon. Members will consider those points.

The Government are determined to stamp out cruelty to and the bad welfare of animals in circuses. We have put forward our proposals, and it is of course for the House to decide that we should perhaps reconsider them, but I ask the House to consider the legislative background against which it might ask us to do so.

I pay tribute to and thank the Minister, who has been very brave and courageous today and deserves a parliamentary medal for a valiant attempt to defend the indefensible, given his personal position, which he stated clearly on the Floor of the House on 19 May. I thank also all Members from all parts of the House for a very vibrant debate that has informed the House on a range of issues relating to what I and, more importantly, 92% of the public believe is an important issue.

This nation once led the world in animal welfare. There is no reason we cannot drag ourselves into the 21st century and regain and reclaim those global animal welfare credentials. That is why I hope that Members will support my motion.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House directs the Government to use its powers under section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to introduce a regulation banning the use of all wild animals in circuses to take effect by 1 July 2012.