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Wild Animals in Circuses (Prohibition)

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2016

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.

We have heard mention of Andy Murray’s new baby. In the last few days, we have had a new delivery ourselves, and it would be remiss of me not to apologise to my wife for taking a pause in our paternity arrangements to present the Bill.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I am grateful for the opportunity to bring in the Bill, and I would like to pay tribute to those Members, particularly the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who worked hard on this matter in the last Parliament and pressed for a prohibition on the use of wild animals in circuses.

The Conservative manifesto, on which I was proud to stand at the 2015 general election, clearly stated:

“We will ban wild animals in circuses”.

It is a commitment mirrored on all sides of the House. The Labour party manifesto committed to

“ban wild animals in circuses”.

The Democratic Unionist party’s policy is now to support a ban on wild animals in circuses. The SNP’s Westminster manifesto promised to consult on the issue of wild animals in travelling circuses, with many SNP MPs and MSPs now calling for a complete ban. This is one of those rare moments where there appears be a degree of consensus among all parties.

In 2011, the House agreed a Backbench Business motion calling on the then Government to ban all wild animals in circuses. I believe that many Members consider this to be a piece of unfinished business from the last Parliament, and I appreciate the chance to promote this Bill to press for that vital reform.

Ahead of a ban being introduced, the coalition Government introduced, as an interim welfare measure, legislation to license those circuses that use wild animals. I believe it is time to introduce a ban to supersede those regulations.

According to the latest responses to written parliamentary questions, last year there were still 18 wild animals being used by travelling circuses in England. That is a small number of animals, but it is a practice that I, the majority of MPs and the vast majority of the public think should be brought to an end.

Why are wild animals in circuses no longer appropriate? First, there is the practical element. In the past two centuries, wild animals were an essential part of the circus experience. The definition of a wild animal is a member of a species that is not normally domesticated in Great Britain. For many people, particularly those who could not afford foreign holidays, circuses were the only opportunity they had to see wild and exotic animals. That is no longer the case. We are very fortunate in this country to have many world-class zoos, such as Colchester zoo, which has elephants, tigers, penguins, lions, bears and chimpanzees, among other animals. I should probably declare an interest, because I am a gold card member of the zoo and go there with my daughter on many occasions throughout the year. The zoo does fantastic work caring for the animals and providing them with different types of enrichment in order to occupy their time and promote natural behaviours. Crucially, it aims to ensure that the conditions in which wild animals are kept are as close as possible to their natural habitats, thus educating people about a species’ natural environment as well as better enabling them to promote important issues such as conservation.

Moreover, thanks to the huge growth in the opportunity for foreign travel, many more people can travel across the world to see these animals in their natural habitats. The extraordinary wildlife documentaries on television now mean that we can see these wild animals in high definition from the comfort of our homes, should we so wish.

The second objection is to do with our basic respect for wild animals. Wild animals that have been used and kept in travelling circuses have the same genetic make-up as their counterparts in zoos or in the wild. Their instinctive behaviours remain. Using such animals to perform tricks and stunts hardly encourages people to respect the animals’ innate wild nature and value. Neither is there any educational, conservational nor research benefit from using the animals solely or primarily for such entertainment and spectacle.

I understand that, in many cases, circus keepers do the best they can to care for the wild animals in question, and those circuses licensed under the interim licensing scheme of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs must adhere to welfare standards. However, the very nature of the circus business model means that attempting to recreate the natural habitat of a wild species or to aid in its conservation can never be achieved.

Respected animal health and welfare groups, such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the British Veterinary Association, have long supported and campaigned for a complete ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. Their views are based on the strongly held belief that travelling circuses cannot meet the welfare needs of wild animals. I have some sympathy with those views.

The 2007 Radford report concluded that there appeared to be

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

It is, therefore, clear that there are very strong views on both sides, but when seeking to introduce a ban it is vital to take an evidence-based approach and to recognise the grounds on which it would be sensible to introduce that prohibition.

First and foremost, I want to get this ban through and carry the support of Members on both sides of the House. I am aware that there are some, including in this House, who argue that these animals were born and bred in circuses and that it would be cruel to drag them away from the keepers and environments they know well. I understand that argument, but I am afraid that I respectfully disagree with it. We cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good. Opposing a ban on the basis that wild animals already in circuses might be disrupted from their regular patterns of life would prevent a ban from being implemented in perpetuity, which is not acceptable.

Of course, it is vital that there is provision to ensure that those wild animals in circuses in England are well cared for in retirement. DEFRA’s circus licensing scheme already requires that all licensed animals must have retirement plans in place. It is also important that we give those circuses affected appropriate time to prepare and adapt to any ban. However, like so many throughout the House, I really believe that this is a reform whose time has come and that we should follow countries such as Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands in prohibiting the use of wild animals in circuses.

Wild animals were once an integral part of the circus experience. That is no longer the case. The use of wild animals in travelling circuses can no longer be justified. The majority of MPs want a ban. The public supports a ban. I urge colleagues to support the Bill.

I had not intended to speak, but, having heard what my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) has said, I think it is important to put on the record that, if his proposal is indeed supported by the Government, it is they, rather than a private Member through a Bill, who should legislate on it. The reason I say that is that this is a controversial issue—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend conceded that it is a controversial issue. It is not surprising that, as a Conservative, I should regard it as controversial that this House should be considering a total prohibition on what is currently a perfectly lawful activity. If we are going to legislate, let the Government introduce a Bill of their own and let us have a proper debate about the detail.

I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester will listen to this response. He spoke of tricks being done by wild animals in circuses. If we look at a similar Bill promoted in the previous Parliament, we will see that it sought to impose a ban even on displaying wild animals.

The definition of a wild animal is also an issue. For example, does my hon. Friend think that a camel, which in most countries of the world is regarded as a domestic animal, should be banned from being able to participate in a circus?

Order. May I just explain that in these circumstances we do not take interventions? That does not happen. Mr Chope’s remarks must be heard.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester did not refer to the outcome of the licensing regime, which has, perfectly rightly, been brought into effect. The regime requires up to seven inspections a year of animals in travelling circuses. My hon. Friend will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that zoos, including Colchester zoo, are inspected only once a year. We are now about to embark on the fourth year of that licensing regime and nobody has criticised the welfare of the animals subject to it. On the basis that good Conservatives should argue for as little regulation and prohibition as is possible and reasonable, I think we have reached a compromise whereby we have a proper and tight welfare licensing regime without the need for a total ban or prohibition. That is why I say to my hon. Friend that it would be wrong of him to raise people’s expectations—I accept that many support the views he has expressed today—by suggesting that this legislation could be passed under the Private Member’s Bill procedure. I hope that his response will be that the Government should bring forward legislation, if indeed the Government have the will to implement this particular aspect of our manifesto.

It would be out of order, Mr Speaker, for me to talk about other aspects of the Conservative manifesto that have not yet been implemented and might not even be implemented at all. The onus for putting this matter right, if it needs to be put right, must be on the Government. This will be controversial and technical legislation, which is why I do not think it appropriate to be dealt with under the Private Member’s Bill procedure.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.


That Will Quince, Jim Dowd, Sir Roger Gale, Bob Blackman, Mark Pritchard, Mr Philip Hollobone, Nusrat Ghani, Mr Virendra Sharma, Simon Hoare and Louise Haigh present the Bill.

Will Quince accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 4 March, and to be printed (Bill 135).