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Circuses (Wild Animals)

Volume 541: debated on Thursday 1 March 2012

Following considerable public debate and concern about wild animals in travelling circuses, the Government are today setting out their approach to the use of performing wild animals in travelling circuses in England. We are confirming the intention to pursue a ban on the use of such animals on ethical grounds. This will take time and we have today published a consultation in which we propose establishing a licensing scheme to protect the welfare of such animals in the meantime.

The 2007 Radford report on circus animals concluded that there was insufficient scientific evidence to demonstrate that travelling circuses are unable to meet the welfare needs of wild animals presently being used in the United Kingdom. That position has not changed. Consequently, we are now looking at the means by which a ban could be introduced on ethical grounds.

We have always made it clear that the Government are minded to ban performing wild animals in circuses. However, at the time this was last debated in the House there remained legal uncertainties which still required resolution as they would have a bearing on the position in the UK. In particular, a legal challenge to the Austrian ban was unresolved, including the possibility of a referral to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). It was prudent for the Government to hold back from making any commitments to a ban at that time. In December 2011, the judgment by the Austrian Constitutional Court did not result in a referral to the CJEU and on that basis we have the legal confidence to make our intentions clear.

As we develop the details and legislative framework for the ban, the welfare of those wild animals currently in circuses is paramount, and for this reason we are consulting on a tough new licensing regime that we can put in place promptly.

For the licensing scheme, we intend to use powers that are already available in the Animal Welfare Act 2006. This will allow us to make sure the welfare-based licensing scheme is considered by the House before it rises for the summer.

Under the proposed licensing scheme, we propose that anyone responsible for a travelling circus that uses wild animals in performance:

Must hold a valid licence before using their animals in performance or face prosecution;

Must meet strict welfare standards or face enforcement action;

Must prepare and follow care plans for every animal; and

Must prepare a retirement plan for every animal.

The proposed welfare standards cover all aspects of life for a wild animal in a travelling circus environment, including:

Accommodation and housing standards;

Arranging for full veterinary care;

Changing animals listed in collections;

Controlling carefully who may access animals;

Diet (including food storage, preparation and provision);

Environmental and behavioural enrichment;

Environment factors (such as noise and temperature);

Welfare during training and performance.

Draft guidance is included in the consultation package. It sets out the practical steps that circuses would be able to follow in order to comply with the law. It explains the welfare standards which are based around the “five needs” established by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (the need for suitable environment, diet, normal behaviour patterns, housing with or apart from other animals, and protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease) and applies them to the travelling circus environment.

Formal inspections would be undertaken by Government-appointed specialist vets before a licence may be issued or renewed. If a licence were issued, compliance checks would be carried out during the period of a licence, including a combination of announced and unannounced visits both to winter quarters and to tour sites.

I welcome views on the details of our proposed licensing regime. The consultation runs from 1 March to 25 April to help ensure regulations can be laid before Parliament in summer this year with a view to having systems in place to secure the welfare of wild animals in travelling circuses in time for the next touring season.

Once the consultation has closed, DEFRA will consider all responses and produce a summary response alongside setting out the next steps. The regulations will be laid before Parliament after consultation and be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. A copy of the consultation papers have been placed in the House Library.

Work to set out the ethical basis for a ban will proceed alongside the development of the licensing scheme.