My Lords, the Government remain committed to banning the use of wild animals in circuses, and primary legislation will be introduced when parliamentary time is available. In the meantime, ahead of a ban, to safeguard the welfare of any wild animals still used in circuses, Defra introduced a licensing scheme in 2013, which is currently in use for 16 wild animals in two travelling circuses.
I thank the Minister for his reply, and I take his point that only a few animals are subject to this, but however well-regulated, they still suffer physical and social deprivation. Given that more than a dozen Private Members’ Bills on this issue have been blocked in Parliament over the last few years, will the Minister give us a timetable for the Government’s delivering on their promise of a ban?
My Lords, I am not in a position to say precisely, but I would like to take one issue up. One of the reasons we introduced the licensing scheme was to ensure the welfare of the animals. I have seen the conditions of the welfare scheme associated with the licensing, which is rigorous and requires inspections by vets and inspectors at least four times a year. The welfare standards of these animals—six reindeer, three camels, three zebras, one fox, a macaw, a racoon and a zebu—are high. On ethical grounds, this situation should be prohibited.
I am afraid my noble friend is a bit too fast for me there. The truth is that this is important legislation that we wish to put forward, but I am confident that the welfare elements, which are so important, are well-provided for in the licensing scheme.
My Lords, there is of course legislation, and under the requirements of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act the primary focus is public safety, but clearly, the Animal Welfare Act 2006 absolutely applies. We are absolutely clear that it is not appropriate at all for primates to be kept as pets.
My Lords, I was going to ask about primates myself. Both the BVA and well-respected animal welfare organisations such as the RSPCA all agree that primates are totally unsuitable to be kept as pets; they are highly social, highly intelligent animals and many welfare problems arise when they are kept in captivity as pets. Will the Government consider taking stronger action to remedy this serious welfare issue?
My Lords, I will certainly take back what your Lordships have said, but it is absolutely clear that the Animal Welfare Act 2006 makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to an animal. This is backed up by a code of practice, and no one should keep a primate in solitary conditions, as the noble Lord has said, keep it in a small cage or feed it with an inappropriate diet. In other words, I repeat: primates should not be kept as pets.
My Lords, perhaps I may push the Minister further on the real reason for the delay in introducing the Bill. According to the latest Defra consultation, 95% of the population support a ban and the issue has cross-party support, so it cannot be because the Government fear a backlash. We are prepared to work with the Government to introduce what ought to be fairly simple legislation, and I really do not understand why there is continuing delay.
My Lords, I obviously understand what the noble Baroness is saying, and I too would like to make progress. However, I repeat that 16 wild animals are currently under a very rigorous licensing scheme. I deliberately mentioned their species so that your Lordships could understand which animals were involved. I emphasise that there are very regular inspections, and one reason why primary legislation is necessary is that there is a view that a legal challenge would be made because there would be insufficient grounds to secure a ban on a welfare basis.
My Lords, even if enforcement is rigorous in relation to animals in circuses, what about the position of the other animals that have been referred to—the primates which are inappropriately kept in people’s homes? Who is enforcing the laws relating to that?
My Lords, these are all matters that local authorities are required to ensure are enforced under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Clearly, if there were any issues, Defra would want to work with local authorities because it is absolutely essential that suitable animal welfare provisions are in place. I will take back what has been said about primates—I am very conscious of that—and if I have anything further to add, I will report back to your Lordships.
My Lords, a lot of the wild creatures kept in people’s homes as pets, whether birds or any other creature, have been smuggled into this country. Is the Minister confident that the National Wildlife Crime Unit has sufficient capacity to deal with the level of smuggling?
The noble Baroness raises a very important issue. The answer is that we believe that there are sufficient resources at the border, but clearly we need to be ever more rigorous. There are all sorts of schemes under many directives. From an animal welfare point of view, it is hugely inappropriate to smuggle in animals, whether they are domesticated or wild, and this is one area I will very much look at addressing.
My Lords, as the Minister is aware, there are very strict conditions on keeping animals in zoos. Has he seen the report in this morning’s papers about the zoo in the Furness district of Cumbria, where there has been an appalling number of deaths of wild animals—over 500, I think—in recent years?
My Lords, I have indeed. Of course, a zoo-keeper also died in that case. It is inappropriate for me to reply in detail because this matter is subject to the consideration of an application renewal by Barrow-in-Furness Borough Council, which will be happening very shortly. However, I am very conscious of what I think are far too many deaths among animals in that zoo.