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Wild Animals in Circuses

Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 3 September 2014

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the use of wild animals in circuses; and for connected purposes.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue once more. I am told that the matter was first raised by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) when he was chair of the all-party group on animal welfare in 1997. It was addressed by the last Labour Government when they passed the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which laid provisions to return to the issue, as we did in 2009 when we stated we were minded to introduce a ban but ran out of parliamentary time. As detailed by the former DEFRA Minister, the hon. Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), in a debate last year, in this Parliament, the issue had commanded 120 parliamentary questions, over 16,000 items of correspondence, five early-day motions and a Backbench Business Committee debate, ably led by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). That was based on last year’s summary of interests and statistics, and there has been continued interest this year.

I wish to place on record my thanks to Animal Defenders International, which has campaigned strongly on the issue in various countries, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Born Free Foundation and the British Veterinary Association, among others, for their encouragement to pursue the matter, which is unfinished business for many of us.

This is not a party political issue, as my list of sponsors and the early-day motion list of supporters show. Neither is it only a Back-Bench issue. I am grateful to the DEFRA Minister, Lord de Mauley, for meeting me yesterday to discuss it. He indicated that the Government would consider support for the Bill once seen. That should not be a surprise: as he will see when he reads it, it is his Bill, or DEFRA’s Bill. As the hon. Member for Newbury stated last year, he wanted to draft a Bill to survive “any challenge”. He wanted, he said,

“a coalition of the whole House”.—[Official Report, 18 January 2014; Vol. 556, c. 1214.]

I think that DEFRA officials, with Ministers, have succeeded in that regard, but to prove the point, we need to get the Bill into Committee.

Over the years, the measure has been blocked for various reasons: because of a lack of time, because it was considered to be too much about red tape, because it was subject to a legal challenge in Europe or because it was believed to be either unworkable or unnecessary. The Government thought that a licensing system might address the concerns raised in this place and in the country, but the solution is incomplete.

In answer to my parliamentary question of 4 November 2013, DEFRA reported that there were still 28 wild animals, including four tigers and two lions, performing for human entertainment in the UK. The animal welfare issues have been well documented, but for some they are not strong enough to warrant a ban. Most of us would say they are, but let us look at the ethics of performing animals and compare their conditions and treatment with what we expect for animals in our great zoos and wildlife parks. The contrast between their living conditions, the space they have and the environment they occupy could not be clearer.

Our zoos and parks engage not only in scientific research, but in preservation and conservation. It is well documented how much effort is applied by zoos and parks to recreate the natural habitat of the animals they keep so that they can display their normal and natural behaviour as much as possible. We should compare that experience with that of big cats, reindeer, zebra and other animals that have limited space, have to travel in lorries between sites and are afforded an existence that is in complete contrast to any natural or artificially recreated habitat.

Earlier this year, a written ministerial statement of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) introduced a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The foreword by the new Minister in charge, Lord de Mauley, says:

“For many years wild animals were an integral part of the circus experience: the only chance that most people would have to glimpse exotic beasts from distant lands. Today, by contrast, we are fortunate to enjoy world-class zoos, a wide-reaching education system and internationally renowned wildlife documentaries, which together give children and adults an appreciation and knowledge of wild animals and the environments they come from…This legislation will end the use of wild animals and travelling circuses in this country. It will also help ensure that our international reputation as a leading protector of animals continues into a new global era.”

The explanatory notes could not be more explicit about the arguments in favour of a ban. They state:

“The use of wild animals in travelling circuses reflects a traditional but outdated view of wild animals...Captive wild animals have much the same genetic makeup as counterparts in the wild and retain their wild nature and natural instinctive behaviours. Their wild nature and innate value should be recognised and respected. Using wild animals solely for circus performance is unbefitting to their wildness and potentially harmful.

There is little or no educational, conservational, research or economic benefit derived from wild animals in travelling circuses that might justify their use and the loss of their ability to behave naturally as a wild animal.”

The notes also state:

“the Government does not believe it is appropriate to continue to use wild animals in travelling circuses because:

It is not necessary to use wild animals in travelling circuses to experience the circus; wild animals are just that and are not naturally suited to travelling circuses and may suffer as a result of being unable to fulfil their instinctive natural behaviour; we should feel duty-bound to recognise that wild animals have intrinsic value, and respect their inherent wildness and its implications for their treatment; and the practice adds nothing to the understanding and conservation of wild animals and the natural environment.”

I believe that the case has been made for a ban. I find it disappointing that, as Minister of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I was unable to complete that work, but, given that the coalition has done so much more on the issue—even publishing an excellent draft Bill—it is disappointing that time has not been found for it in the Government’s programme for this last year of the current Parliament. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who is present and for whom I have a high regard, would be happy to lead the Bill into Committee himself.

The solution is for Parliament to have an opportunity to do what the last Labour Government and the coalition have so far failed to do, but we must get the Bill into Committee. Some Members may still be unconvinced, but I hope that a proper examination of the short clauses in the Bill and the explanatory notes will change that. I know that time is short and that important private Members’ Bills are on the Order Paper to be dealt with in the next three weeks, but I should like my Bill to move quickly into Committee, so I shall propose that it should receive a Second Reading this Friday. I know that it is unlikely to secure the House’s approval on 5 September. I should therefore appreciate it if Members who have other important priorities—the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), for instance, has a private Member’s Bill, which is due on 17 October—would allow the Bill to be passed on a subsequent Friday. That would still allow more than enough time for the measure to be scrutinised properly, and to pass into law by next April if the House so chooses.

This issue has been around for at least 20 years. A minority, including circus owners, may not accept the welfare issues, but they are there, and most people do accept them. The world has moved on, and it is time to bring circuses into the 21st century, because wild animals have no place in them. We need to use this Bill to achieve that objective, and to ban further use of wild animals in travelling circuses.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Jim Fitzpatrick, Jim Dowd, Sir Roger Gale, Mr Philip Hollobone, Dr Julian Huppert, Caroline Lucas, Naomi Long, Paul Flynn, Kerry McCarthy, Hugh Bayley, Mr Russell Brown and Thomas Docherty present the Bill.

Jim Fitzpatrick accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 September and to be printed (Bill 87).