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Animal Welfare Bill

Volume 686: debated on Wednesday 1 November 2006

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Animal Welfare Bill, has consented to place her interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

Bill read a third time.

After Clause 8, insert the following new clause-


(1) For the purposes of a circus, a person commits an offence if he uses or keeps an animal not of a kind designated under subsection (2).

(2) For the purposes of subsection (1), the Secretary of State may by regulations designate a kind of animal if he is satisfied, on the basis of scientific evidence, that the welfare needs of an animal of that kind are likely to be met if they are used or kept for the purposes of a circus.

(3) A person does not commit an offence under subsection (1) until two years after the commencement of this section.

(4) After the period specified in subsection (3), in the case of individual animals already working in a circus in contravention of subsection (1), no proceedings may be instituted before the end of a six month compliance period.

(5) In this section-

(a) “circus” means the keeping or introducing of animals wholly or mainly for the purpose of performing tricks or manoeuvres at more than one place during any period of one year, and (b) “scientific evidence” may include evidence of welfare during performance, training, travelling and any other circumstances pertaining to the circus.”

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am sorry to bring this amendment back at Third Reading. I am aware of the new procedures and I wish that I did not have to bring it back. On Report, noble Lords expressed great concern about this issue. The use of animals in circuses is a matter about which people feel strongly. I withdrew the amendment then so that the Government could make clear their intentions on the circus working group’s remit, as it will decide how the matter is to be tackled. This is the last chance to raise this issue.

I am afraid that, far from clarifying the issue, the Government have done the opposite. The remit of the circus working group was supposed to be based on a commitment that the Minister, Ben Bradshaw, made to investigate prohibiting the use of certain species in the circus. Since March, we have been told that the circus working group will work on banning some kinds of animals from working in circuses. Now, just as the Bill is completing its passage, all that changes.

Last week the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that,

“we have given a commitment to ban the use of certain non-domesticated species in travelling circuses”.—[Official Report, 23/10/06; col. 1002.]

However, between Report and Third Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, wrote to Peers saying that,

“it is not correct to say that the remit of the group is to examine which species should be banned from performing”.

Therefore, the Government’s intention with regard to the remit is no longer clear.

Last week the Minister told us clearly in response to my Amendment No. 7 that it was not appropriate to make sweeping welfare generalisations on the basis of domestication. It seems inconsistent, then, arbitrarily to exclude domesticated circus animals from the consideration of the working group.

The core of my amendment is still to place the burden of proof on those who would show that the welfare of different kinds of animals can be met in a circus environment. If the Government’s requirement for positive prohibition went ahead, the group might conclude that lions, tigers and pumas should be prohibited from use in a travelling circus. However, that would still allow circuses to use other species of the cat family, such as lynx, cheetahs and jaguars.

The regulations would not work well, because each species would have to be banned each time, whereas my amendment proposes that species would be opted in as being suitable. Therefore, I am saying to the Government that it is better to presume against using any animals than to look at the species already in use to see whether welfare standards can be met. All sides of the House agreed on that point on Report, and I am grateful to noble Lords who expressed that view then and continued to express it to me before Third Reading today.

In response to concerns expressed by the Bill team in discussions, I have added a time delay of two years to the amendment to allow the working group time to license the kinds of animals that can be kept and to give an extra six months’ grace to re-home animals that would be prohibited. My amendment also fills another lacuna, because it requires the circus working group to look at evidence of welfare in training, which the Government intend to leave to Performing Animals Welfare Standards International and to the industry to self-regulate. It would not be sensible for the circus working group to try to assess welfare in circuses without looking at training.

I hope that the Minister will clarify the remit of the working group, given the variations in the Government’s stance to date. I hope that he will add training to the provision and that he will accept that a remit based on positive proof and licensing is the best way to proceed. I beg to move.

My Lords, I support the amendment, as I indicated on previous occasions. The emphasis is correct in that there should be an opt-in; that seems to me to be a straightforward way of implementing this sort of regulation. Given that the second working group no longer exists, the Minister might be able to reassure the House about the remit on training. It will be industry-led, and the industry has a vested interest. Animals will be exploited for commercial purposes as they are in the greyhound racing industry—where anyway, as we have been saying recently, self-regulation does not seem to work very well. I would be interested if the Minister could confirm that the self-regulatory remit will enable a truly effective oversight of training methods and procedures. It is mainly, but not altogether, in the training of animals for circuses and other performing acts that a good deal of cruelty takes place.

My Lords, I do not think that the noble Baroness should have to apologise for bringing the matter back to the House, because that is her prerogative under our rules of self-regulation—even though I probably have not yet been able to satisfy her and that is why this issue is back. I am not sure whether I will be able to satisfy her at this late stage. This issue has been debated at every stage of this Bill before I went back to Defra. I welcome the opportunity to clarify the Government’s commitment to act on wild animals in circuses.

The amendment would ban all performing animals in circuses, unless a particular species was exempted under regulations, with a two-year period following commencement of the offence in which no offences would be committed. This is not a minor amendment—I do not think that the noble Baroness says that it is—it is a complete reversal of the burden of proof regarding the use of circus animals. We have always proposed to ban certain species of wild animals on the basis of scientific evidence. That is the way we are trying to go forward. This amendment, however, seeks to ban all animals, not just wild animals, and to allow exemptions.

The Government have made it clear that we are committed to banning certain non-domesticated species currently used in circuses, with a regulation coming into force in 2008. That commitment is crystal clear. It has been given many times in debate, and it was given in a Written Statement to the other place on 8 March 2006 by the Minister, Ben Bradshaw. Adding an amendment to the Bill to confirm a commitment that has already been given is not necessary.

The Government’s commitment to ban certain non-domesticated species will be based on scientific evidence. Following a commitment that I gave in Grand Committee, the circus working group is up and running, and it is sourcing available, relevant evidence on welfare standards of non-domesticated species. We are already delivering on our commitment. The noble Baroness wants to go beyond a ban on wild animal acts and to commit us to a ban on all species of animal, subject to exemptions. Some may argue that this is a minor amendment, but it is not, as I have said. There is no evidence—I have not seen any and I do not think that the Minister in the other place has either—of a welfare problem for domesticated species in circuses, and our intention is not to ban them. The time limit for producing scientific evidence for every possible type of animal that is currently involved in circuses, which would then be used to assess whether they are exempted from a ban, is two years. That is probably nowhere near long enough in any event.

The amendment could have unfortunate and unforeseen consequences. It defines circus animals and their use in performance in a way that is totally different from our understanding of what a traditional travelling circus is. It could be interpreted—and others will interpret the legislation if we are not precise—as meaning displays at events such as Crufts or the Horse of the Year Show. As we read the amendment, someone who trains their horse to do dressage would be required to show that there is an exemption from the ban for dressage displays. Such an exemption could be made only on the basis of scientific evidence. Where there is no scientific evidence in place, no exemption could be made. That will be the point, and people will go to court and argue that case.

The amendment envisages some sort of government panel to consider scientific evidence and exempt all animal species both where there was evidence available and where there was no evidence of a welfare problem. The time and consideration necessary would be much greater than the noble Baroness anticipates. We could be left with a law that would put a sudden stop to a lot of entertainment that most of the public would regard as innocent and which in no way compromises the welfare of an animal. The impact on the welfare and future for animals already in circuses has not been considered. A six-month grace period for existing animals in circuses that are deemed to be unsuitable following scientific research is certainly not adequate, and the likely implications for the welfare of those animals have to be considered.

The resource implications of carrying out the research that would be necessary must also be considered. I have spelt out, as have previous Ministers, that our resources are finite. We do not have the resources to do everything all at once. We have had to make priorities. The Government have changed our priorities for implementing the secondary legislation and codes under this Bill to take account of the views that have been expressed in Parliament. Commitments have been given to introduce codes or legislation on greyhounds, circuses and game birds earlier than was originally planned.

The amendment would require a huge amount of resource to be focused on a narrow issue. I will plead resources. There is no argument. Everyone knows that my department has considerable budgetary problems at present. We are at £200 million this year, and we hope that within a few weeks we will announce the consequences for the following year, 2007-08. We are under severe budgetary pressure, and we are looking for savings. If we were to go back and say that we needed to use some of that for this, frankly, we would not get approval in the department from the team of Ministers. The amendment would require huge resources to be focused on an important but narrow issue on which we have already given a commitment. We are not dismissing this matter out of hand and we have given commitments on circus animals. But we cannot interfere with other commitments that we have given or the timetables that we have planned. I would rightly be hauled back here week after week at Questions about commitments that we would have given and failed on, such as those that I have mentioned on greyhounds and game birds.

My honourable friend Ben Bradshaw, the Member for Exeter, and I have assured both Houses in debate and in a Statement to Parliament that the Government will act and produce a regulation by 2008. We cannot go beyond that. We have established a group of people to gather scientific evidence on which we want to base our decisions and regulations. I do not mean to be threatening, but I genuinely think that this late in the Session there is no opportunity to change the Bill, except by putting it at risk. Therefore, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press the amendment to a vote.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the detail of his reply. I appreciate that the House has a long day and so I shall not be detailed in my reply, except to say that we on these Benches are equally anxious that the Bill should reach the statute book. We will look forward to the regulations in 2008 and we will keep an eye on the work of the circus working group. Because we do not wish to mess around at this stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 67 [Extent]:

Page 36, line 33, leave out first “and”

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I shall be brief. The purpose of Amendments Nos. 2 to 6 is to correct a reference in the Bill as a result of the repeal of the Protection of Animals (Scotland) Act 1912 and its replacement with the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, which has recently entered into force. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Page 36, line 33, leave out “to” and insert “and”

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Schedule 3 [Minor and consequential amendments]:

Page 46, leave out lines 5 to 10 and insert-

““(b) in relation to England and Wales, the expression “animal” means a “protected animal” within the meaning of the Animal Welfare Act 2006.””

Page 48, line 30, leave out “in relation to England and Wales,”

Page 48, leave out lines 33 to 35.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Rooker.)

My Lords, I will not take up the attention of the House for more than a couple of minutes. At various stages in our deliberations on the Bill, we have had cause to complain that too much is being done by regulation and, still worse, by codes of practice on which Parliament cannot get a lever. Noble Lords will remember the case of the greyhound industry, which was mentioned earlier and which I highlighted as an example. I do not think that that industry should have been left to the mercy of the code of practice without parliamentary scrutiny, but, on advice, I was pressed not to table my amendment again for today—and I respect that. Codes of practice and regulations can change lives, cost millions and destroy livelihoods. I thank all noble Lords for allowing me to say that we are still very concerned that important legislation, which we support, has come to this House in such a skeletal fashion and leaves it still very open-ended. None the less, I thank the Minister and his team for the co-operation that we have received throughout the passage of the Bill.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.