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The substance of yesterday's debate about banning wild animals from circuses

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:

Picture 13 "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.

He continued:

"I want to address the specifics of the Government’s proposal for licensing. It is well intentioned, but it will not improve animal welfare. It would be difficult to monitor, implement and enforce. The licensing regime would also be very costly; it could cost taxpayers more than £1 million. An unintended consequence of the regime could be inadvertently to legitimise the import of new animals and continue the use and, I believe, exploitation of wild animals in circuses. Are colleagues really prepared to vote for that today?

"Some of my colleagues have quite legitimately approached me to say, “I don’t really believe in banning things.” I take a similar approach, but I like to look at each case on its merits and take each issue case by case. If we followed the logic that we do not like to ban anything, the House would not have banned bear-baiting, badger-baiting or dog fighting. Perhaps we would also not have banned carrying knives in a public place, or even slavery."

Mark Pritchard Pritchard then tackled the Government's concern that introducing a ban now could be subject to a legal challenge:

"In his statement to the House last month, the Minister told Parliament, at column 497, that a court case “against the Austrian Government” would “commence shortly”, given that the Austrian Government wanted to introduce a ban. I understand that the papers have now finally been submitted to the court in Vienna, but there is no live case. Interestingly, despite outright bans in other EU countries—I have already listed some and I could add Greece and Luxembourg—a legal case has never been brought or won before. It is not uncommon to hear of Governments sheltering behind courts in Brussels or Strasbourg, but to hear from Ministers in my own Front-Bench team say that this Government are now sheltering behind a domestic court in Vienna is a completely new innovation.

"There are two further flaws in the Government’s so-called legal defence. Are the Government of this country suggesting that the threat of legal action or the possible outcome of court cases is enough to paralyse Government decision making? Fear is not usually a prerequisite to success. What is more, the Government are seeking to put Vienna before the courts in London. If the Government waited for the court case in Vienna— the papers have been submitted, as I said—the case went through and the European Circus Association lost, there would be an automatic appeal to the European Court. That would add more delay and procrastination, further getting the Government off the hook when it comes to introducing a ban in this country. Even if that case were spent, there could be another European court considering another case in another European capital.

"Notwithstanding my comments, the reality is that the Government’s Austrian defence is a red herring, given that the European Commission has clearly stated that a ban is a matter for member states alone. It is an issue that English courts decide. Surely that is something to celebrate in this age of judicial creep from Europe, and also something to exercise and implement. A ban can be introduced in an English court— without waiting for other European capitals to decide and without interference from Europe, which makes a refreshing change."

Several of the 2010 intake rose to back up Pritchard's case:

Offord Matthew Matthew Offord: "Case law from the European Court of Human Rights indicates that a ban would be within the “margin of appreciation” afforded to the United Kingdom. If a ban is proposed because it is considered cruel or ethically wrong in itself to make wild animals perform in circuses in the United Kingdom, as opposed to a ban being proposed because welfare standards cannot be guaranteed, then a ban is the only measure that will achieve that public interest aim and is therefore automatically proportionate.

"Accordingly, a ban will not breach the European convention on human rights, and as a ban is only a control on the use of wild animals in circuses and therefore does not deprive the owner of the animal itself or of their ability to use it for commercial purposes. There is a strong presumption against compensation being awarded to persons who suffer any loss as a result of the ban. If the Government decide to implement a ban, it will not be as revolutionary as we have heard, given the 200 local authorities and the other countries that have been mentioned. "

Zac Goldsmith: "It is particular confusing that whereas the Government have a stated ambition over the course of this Parliament to reduce red tape and bureaucracy, their alternative to a straightforward ban affecting 30 or perhaps 40 animals is to construct a new regulatory regime, with licensing and inspections and the various associated costs. That goes against the Government’s general thrust and direction—and all for 30 or 40 animals. That makes no sense at all."

Bray Angie Angie Bray: "The more we know and understand these magnificent animals, the more we recognise that a circus tent is no place for them. Some of them might have been whipped, goaded or herded into their rather pathetic performances. I can still remember from my visits to the circus that when the lions and other big animals came in, extra security was immediately put on and a man with a whip, if not a chair, would appear. That tells us everything that we need to know. Of course these animals are not safe in the circus environment; they have to be controlled. Of course they cannot be relied on to relax and enjoy themselves; they are in an unnatural environment, surrounded on all sides by human beings, of whom they are instinctively frightened. Frankly, these animals’ continued presence in the circus ring, even if there are only about 39 of them, diminishes us all."

"I want to put it on record that I am not in favour of banning all animals from circuses. I think that some of the more domesticated animals—dogs and ponies spring to mind—thoroughly enjoy themselves. I recall going to a charming little circus in France where a farmer, his wife, their two children, a goat and a dog held us all spellbound for about an hour. I can say that that dog and goat had a good time, getting a treat every time they did something brilliant. We know that there is room for some animals; it is the big wild animals that are the problem."

But there were two contributions from the Conservative backbenches which opposed an outright ban:

ROSINDELL ANDREW Andrew Rosindell: "Animal welfare matters to the British people, but we in the House have a duty and responsibility to make decisions on issues relating to animal welfare based on facts, knowledge and science. If we make decisions based purely on opinion polls and emotions, we shall get ourselves into great difficulty. I heard nothing in the speech of the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) about the actual welfare of animals... We have to base our decisions on cool hard facts and knowledge of the situation. The speeches I have heard today do not show that; they have avoided the real animal welfare issues and are pandering to the emotions of animal rights activists who care more about their political agenda than about the real welfare of animals."

"I condemn utterly and totally cruelty to animals of any kind. I was the shadow Minister for animal welfare for three years before the last election, and I had the same instincts as many people in the Chamber today and many of the people who respond to opinion polls, when they say, “Isn’t it dreadful. It should be banned. How awful this is.” Instead of basing my views purely on what the newspapers or the opinion polls say, I looked into the matter. The truth is that in this country only a small number of animals are in circuses: 39 in total. They are not captured from the jungle and dragged to the circus; many have been born and bred in circuses for generations.  For those animals, their entire rhythm of life is based on what they have known since they were born."

"On the face of it, I agree that it looks to many people as though it is all very cruel, but in reality many of those animals have been so domesticated over so many years that to wrench them from the life they are used to would be crueller than allowing them to continue it. The Government have to implement welfare and we already have the Animal Welfare Act 2006. If there is real cruelty to animals, we can use existing legislation or, as the Government propose, licensing to deal with it... I am fed up with animals being used as a political football. If Members want to campaign for animal welfare, they should look at the facts, examine the reality and not use it to promote a political agenda."

"I am a champion for animal welfare, but I shall not just follow the crowd. I shall look at the facts. What is being proposed is worse than those poor animals are used to; their entire life has been in the environment they were brought up in. Wrenching them away from the people who have looked after them, loved them and cared for them would obliterate their rhythm of life and would be crueller than allowing it to continue."

"I looked at this for three years. I visited circuses. I spoke to people who deal with training the animals, and I know that they are loved and cared for. This is like a pack hunting a tiny bit of tradition that still exists in this country, where animal welfare standards are greatly considered and animals are loved and cared for. I am afraid to say that, if we rush to make a decision based on pure emotion and opinion polls, I really think that it will be an irresponsible decision. We should look at the facts. We should understand the long-term interests of animal welfare and use existing legislation to deal with this issue.

Simon Hart Simon Hart: "I am not a fan of wild animals in circuses, I would not take my children to see them or go myself and I think that the quicker we can move to a situation in which they do not exist the better. I do not even like dancing dogs on Britain’s Got Talent very much—I think it is demeaning for the owner and the dog—so I strongly sympathise with many of the arguments that have been put forward this afternoon. However, what I like even less is taking a populist route because it seems to be the easy one against, sometimes, principle and evidence."

"Regulation can work. I simply do not buy the argument that it would somehow open up a Pandora’s box. If we are sensible about regulation, not only can we improve animal welfare standards and move to a situation in which animals in circuses are a thing of the past, but we can do it without putting the taxpayer at risk of having to fork out for a lengthy, time-consuming and very expensive EU challenge... I shall be voting against the motion tonight and commending the Government’s approach."

In the event, there was not even a division: the Government did not force one, aware that it would most likely have been heavily defeated, thus Pritchard's motion was adopted.


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