I pay tribute to the Members who tabled this important motion.
We need a ban on keeping wild animals in circuses because it is cruel, but we also need a ban because the welfare of those animals is emblematic of the way in which we treat all animals, and is symbolic of the kind of society in which we live. The Government are wrong to suggest that the European Union is somehow preventing us from dealing with the issue. In response to the insistence of Ministers during the last debate on this subject that a legal threat in Europe had been a major factor in the prevention of an outright ban, leading animal protection organisations called a meeting with the European Commission’s Head of Representation, at which it was confirmed once again that the issue of wild animals in circuses was a matter best left to the judgment of member states.
When I was a Member of the European Parliament, we did a great deal of work trying to make progress with animal welfare issues in the Parliament. Often, the advice was to go back to member states in the first instance and to rouse them to act. I have therefore urged Ministers to consider, for example, the action that was taken first on dog and cat fur and then on seal fur. On both occasions, leadership by member states prompted the EU to ban imports of those types of fur. It is significant that the legal advice that was used in an attempt to stop those bans was that there were so-called “outstanding legal impediments”. Exactly the same excuse is being used today. Governments were given the legal advice that it would be impossible to ban imports of cat and dog fur, and the same was said of seal fur, but when individual Governments challenged that dubious advice, they were able to make the bans happen.
It is when a number of forward-thinking member states call strongly for action on something that we see progress on the EU position. There are clear precedents, not least in animal welfare policy, in which action by individual states has been the means by which animal welfare protection has been secured across the EU.
In an attempt to find out whether the Government were genuinely looking for a legal way to make a ban on wild animals in circuses happen, I tabled a written question asking whether the Secretary of State had received any legal advice on
“instances where a single EU member state has taken unilateral action on animal welfare matters which has led subsequently to a change of EU policy in line with that action”.—[Hansard, 9 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 408W.]
The extraordinarily complacent response was that the Secretary of State had “no recollection” of any such advice. Why is she not going out and asking for that advice? Why is she not looking for the legal means to go ahead with a ban, in line with the wishes of the vast majority of people in this country? Instead, she and her Ministers have been looking for legal cases to cower behind as a cover for not acting.
It is worth reminding ourselves that it is not just because of public opinion that we need a ban, important thought that is. Members have spoken about the importance of science, and I have cited the evidence of the British Veterinary Association, which has stated that
“the welfare needs of non-domesticated, wild animals cannot be met within the environment of a travelling circus; especially in terms of accommodation and the ability to express normal behaviour. A licensing scheme will not address these issues”.
We are not criticising individual circus owners; we are saying that the very nature of being in a circus means that animals’ welfare needs cannot be addressed.
At first, my feeling was that the Government’s position was extraordinarily cowardly. As the debates continue, I am sadly coming to the conclusion that they do not want to act because they do not like to be seen to be banning things, and are therefore looking for excuses. It is interesting to reflect on the fact that successive UK Governments have been in breach of their obligations under the bathing water directive since 1975. Although it is nice to see DEFRA suddenly discovering the idea of complying in full with what it perceives to be its EU obligations, perhaps it is not too cynical to suggest on this occasion that they simply do not want to act.
If the Government wanted to stop this cruel practice, they would be acting. In their defence we would have another euro-sausage type story, with headlines about the UK having every right to act and comments like “How dare the EU interfere?”, as we saw with the “Defend the British banger” story. Yet in this instance, the EU is not telling us what to do. Instead, we are inventing barriers where none exists.