Wild Animals (Circuses)

Part of Backbench Business — [29th Allotted Day] – in the House of Commons at 5:30 pm on 23rd June 2011.

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Photo of Gavin Shuker Gavin Shuker Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:30 pm, 23rd June 2011

I congratulate the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Colchester (Bob Russell) and my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick on their work in securing the debate. It is right that it was secured by the Backbench Business Committee, given the depth of feeling on both sides of the House.

It is appropriate to mention some of the Members on the Government Benches who made brave speeches, specifically the hon. Members for Hendon (Mr Offord), for Manchester, Withington (Mr Leech), for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray), for Colchester and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). In many ways, they are lions led by donkeys. I am pleased that we as a party and as an Opposition stand firmly behind them. Indeed, almost every speaker supported a ban, with the exception of Andrew Rosindell who looks like the man who bet everything on red but it came up black.

Today, the Minister has the opportunity to offer some kind of leadership. Unfortunately for him, however, it seems that the position has changed since he took his seat in the Chamber today. That is a shame, because we want to hear a justification for his current position.

Let me be clear: there is a majority in the House in favour of a ban. The public consultation launched by Labour found massive support for a ban. I have no desire to overturn the cross-party consensus on the issue, but it raises serious questions about DEFRA’s decision making. A new Government come in, and what do we see? Yet more dither and delay, instead of a clear, consistent position from them. I direct Members to the Minister’s answer on 19 May, when, outrageously, he said:

“If people are really so opposed to the use of wild animals in circuses, I suggest that they do not go to the circus.”—[Hansard, 19 May 2011; Vol. 528, c. 499.]

What a pathetic response.

Indeed, the Department’s entire response has not been great—to say the least. First, there was a year of delay in which we saw shocking images of Anne the elephant being beaten. Who knows what else has gone unseen? Secondly, we saw DEFRA dithering from the top, because in April, the ban was on. The Secretary of State had made her decision, and she briefed the Sunday Express that a ban would be introduced, but within a few weeks, she had made her first U-turn. The Secretary of State’s favourite interviewer without coffee—the Prime Minister—had intervened in DEFRA affairs once again and now the ban was off.

Thirdly, we saw the incompetence of a Department that many have described as in special measures. New decision made, along came the policy-based evidence-making process. The Secretary of State provided a written ministerial statement outlining her reasoning. In it, she cited an Austrian court case that did not yet exist. A second statement tried to fix that. She owned up: the Government only thought the case was on after reading a press release. Dragged to the House for an urgent question, there was no apology for misleading Members, just the tired excuses we have come to expect—this time, amazingly, about the Human Rights Act. Talk about digging a hole.

The Government refuse to publish their legal advice, although, of course, they remain happy to hide behind it. The Government-backed amendment to the motion, quite rightly not selected, calls for a ban to be introduced as soon as legal impediments are resolved. That gives rise to some confusion. First, the Government say that there are no legal impediments, then that there are overwhelming legal impediments, and now that there are resolvable legal impediments. That is less a U-turn and more a giant arc, gobbling up and spitting out unprepared Ministers in its path. Now there is to be a free vote: U-turn complete.

Most depressing of all, the Government were right the first time; there is nothing wrong with banning the use of wild animals in circuses and that ban should be introduced right now. The Government argue that a ban may contravene the European services directive, but that is incorrect. Last month, the EU Commissioner for the Environment reiterated that the EU’s position had not changed, saying that

“the welfare of circus animals remains the responsibility of the Member States.”

The Government state that there is a lack of scientific evidence in support of a ban. Again, that is not correct. A global research study supported by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals concludes that

“species of non-domesticated animals commonly kept in circuses appear the least suited to a circus life”.

The Government argue that a ban requires primary legislation. Again, that is incorrect. DEFRA’s impact assessment makes it clear that powers under section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 are sufficient to introduce a ban.