By Jonathan Isaby
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Paul has already covered the row yesterday afternoon between Tory MP and 1922 Committee Secretary, Mark Pritchard, and the Government Whips' Office and their attempt to persuade him to withdraw his motion proposing an outright ban on wild animals from circuses.
So what was the substance of the debate?
Pritchard's motion proposed directing "the Government to use its powers under section 12 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 to introduce a regulation banning the use of all wild animals in circuses to take effect by 1 July 2012." but the Government was not at all happy about that, as Defra Minister, James Paice, was forced to explain:
"We had a new set of advice from our lawyers and we had to use that in coming to our view. It clearly indicated that there were serious risks of a legal challenge should we opt for an outright ban, despite our being minded to do so. I will return to the detail of those legalities because that has occupied much of the afternoon’s debate, but it is for that reason and in the interest of avoiding a long judicial process that we concluded that the quickest way to reduce and, we hoped, eliminate cruelty to wild animals in our circuses would be a robust licensing system, which might well result in circuses deciding to stop keeping such animals."
"If the House were to approve the motion, the Government would have to respect that, but as a Minister I am duty bound to lay before it the possible consequences—I stress the word “possible”—of that decision not only for the Government, but for the House, taxpayers and possibly the animals that we are concerned about... The legal advice we have received on section 12 of the 2006 Act is that although it could be used as the basis for a total ban, it is highly likely that we would be challenged on the basis that an outright ban was a disproportionate measure for improving welfare in circuses.
But Mark Pritchard was indefatigable in his defence of his proposal:
"Today, this country has three travelling circuses with a total of 39 wild animals, including zebras, tigers, lions and camels. Until the recent exposure of the brutality with which Annie the elephant was treated, there were also elephants, but there are now no elephants in circuses in England... The trouble with the Government’s proposed licensing scheme is that it would create a new generation of animals that could be imported. It would give a green light to new imports. We might not have any elephants left in our circuses now, but we would certainly have some if the new licensing regime came into effect. My concern is shared by 92% of the public, and there are very few public policy areas that attract that support. I am concerned about the cruel and cramped conditions in the housing and transportation of these wild animals. Countries including Singapore, Bolivia, Israel and Hungary have banned the use of wild animals in circuses. Many of those circuses are commercially successful.
By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday morning saw Caroline Spelman and her team of ministers getting their four-weekly hour-long questioning by MPs.
Here's a small selection of the issues raised by Conservative MPs.
Peter Bone: The Prime Minister is keen on smaller and more efficient government. If the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills were to take back responsibility for energy, would the Secretary of State think it appropriate for her Department to take back the rest of the climate change responsibilities, because then we could get rid of a whole Department?
Caroline Spelman: If we are talking about efficiency, I can tell my hon. Friend that in my experience, reorganisation—including the attempted reorganisation of local government by the last Administration—is not always the most efficient thing to do.
The MP for the distinctly unrural Fulham and Chelsea, Greg Hands, asked about the extermination of urban foxes, to which the minister, James Paice, replied that "While the extermination of urban foxes, or indeed rural ones, is neither desirable nor possible, problem foxes do need to be controlled. In urban areas, that is the responsibility of the owner or occupier of the property, who can use legal methods to cull or remove foxes."
Their supplementary exchange went as follows:
Greg Hands: Last summer, a number of my constituents were attacked in their own homes by urban foxes, including Annie Bradwell, who lost part of her ear, and Natasha David, who was bitten twice as she slept in her bed. Will the Minister liaise with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to see whether we can change the law so that urban foxes can be treated as vermin in the same way that rats and mice are?
James Paice: I am very happy to talk to the Communities Secretary about that, but I do not think that a change in the law is necessary to enable local authorities to take action. They are not required to do so, but it is perfectly within their remit to take action if they have the kind of problem with the fox population to which my hon. Friend refers.
Claire Perry: Does he agree that if we are to do what we say as a Government and help British farmers, we should put our money where our mouth is and encourage the public sector to buy British?
James Paice: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, which is why the Government will publish Government buying standards very shortly. They will require all of central Government to purchase food produced to British standards wherever that can be done without extra cost, which should not really come into it.
Sadiq Khan is Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Communities and Local Government. During oral questions yesterday, he made an unfair attack on James Paice, Shadow Minister for Agriculture.
"Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): Does the Minister agree that the rules and laws of this country should apply to everybody equally? If so, does he understand how my constituents in the villages of Wilburton and Haddenham feel at the prospect of another 14 Traveller pitches being granted permission? That permission is being granted not because those sites are wanted there and not because the district council wants them, but because the council is being forced to grant permission on land for which it would not otherwise do so, because of pressure from the Government and from the regional planning policy. One of the two sites has already been rejected for use in building conventional housing. The other is a greenfield site. If anybody else applied to carry out normal development, they would not have a prayer.
Mr. Khan: Gypsies and Travellers are bound by the same planning laws and human rights legislation as everyone else, which means that they should apply for planning permission before moving on to or developing land that they own. In the same way as everyone else, they are subject to enforcement action if the proper planning processes are not complied with. Local authorities, rather than the Government, should decide what happens in local communities."
Mr Paice's question did not betray a prejudice against Gypsy and Traveller sites. He did not indicate a blanket opposition to them, but was talking about the prospect of an additional fourteen pitches. He did assert that planning permission was being granted in unique circumstances, but he backed up his assertion with evidence - i.e. that one of the two sites has been rejected for conventional use.
The minister was entitled to rebut that claim, and to question Mr Paice's assertion that this is an unpopular decision. But accusing him of being prejudiced against Gypsy and Traveller sites was inelegant and unfair. The Speaker was right to rule the minister's remarks in order - but they were bang out of order in a non-Parliamentary sense.
The Opposition and individual MPs (Mr Paice was raising this matter on behalf of his constituents) must be able to raise difficult matters without the Government resorting to insupportable accusations of bigotry. Not being prejudiced against Gypsies or Travellers does not necessitate supporting every planning application for a site. It is also perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the number of sites in a given area.
Nor is it implausible that certain interest groups might be given an unfair advantage on certain occasions. Mr Khan was entitled to dispute Mr Paice's assertion that this has happened in Cambridgeshire. The minister was quite wrong to respond as he did.
He owes Mr Paice an apology. Seeing as the offence took place in the chamber, that is where he should make amends.
Parliament isn't just a place to score political points. Written questions are supposed to serve as a way for MPs to glean important information. The following question from James Paice, Shadow Minister for Agriculture, has received an interesting answer:
Mr. Paice: To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how much (a) wheat, (b) barley, (c) fresh vegetables, (d) potatoes, (e) fresh fruit, (f) beef and veal, (g) pork, (h) bacon and ham, (i) mutton and lamb, (j) poultry meat, (k) eggs and (l) liquid milk was produced by volume in England in each year since 1997. 
|Volume of UK production|
Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2007, DEFRA
Of course there are lots of political implications here, not least in relation to the fact that yields have fallen in several areas. And we might ask why the Government's answer showed UK-wide statistics, when Mr Paice asked about production in England alone.
But it's also interesting - and sort of cool - to know that British hens laid 9,900,000,000 eggs last year. Isn't it?!
UPDATE: The Scottish Conservatives have recently conducted a task force on food security, and published a report. It was edited by John Scott MSP, Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs & the Environment, and can be found here.