My full speech grabbed from Hansard is below. I also had the opportunity to ask Labour did they regret not doing anything on the issue in 13 years of government & especially in the four years after the Animal Welfare Act of 2006.
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): I am delighted to speak on this incredibly important motion, and I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. It is fair to say that I do not always agree with him, but I recognise his strong commitment to animal welfare, which I share.
Hon. Members had the opportunity to debate banning wild animals in circuses in a Westminster Hall debate secured by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on 8 June. I am delighted that we now have the opportunity to debate it on the Floor of the House and to vote on it. I make it clear that I will be voting for the motion. There have been suggestions that Conservative Back Benchers are being or have been whipped to vote against the motion. I state categorically that I have not been whipped by any Liberal Democrat Member to vote either way. All I say to Conservative colleagues who may be thinking of voting against the motion is that they should bear in mind the level of public support throughout the country and, more specifically, in their constituencies for a total ban on the use of wild animals in circuses.
My concern is that the Government’s proposal of introducing a licensing scheme may inadvertently legitimise the use of wild animals in circuses, resulting in an increase in their use and an increase in suffering.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): Another problem with licensing is that it does not deal with the issue of animal welfare, because the animals still travel and are still kept in unacceptable conditions.
Mr Leech: I thank the right hon. Gentleman; I was about to make that very point.
Over the past few years, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of wild animals in circuses. There are now only about 38 or 39 animals being used in three circuses. That is a welcome decline and I hope that the trend continues as more and more people support a complete ban. Recent surveys have suggested that at least 70% of people support a complete ban, and more than 94% of people who responded to the consultation did so as well.
Unfortunately, I understand from the Captive Animals Protection Society that the day after the Westminster Hall debate Malcolm Clay, secretary of the Association of Circus Proprietors of Great Britain, said that far from a licensing scheme discouraging circuses from using wild animals—which the Minister suggested might be the case—
“Once we have… regulation which reassures the public we may see some circuses return to using animals.”
Surely that is not the Minister’s intention.
There has been a public focus on the issue of wild animals in circuses in recent times, not least because of the spotlight on the poor treatment of Anne the elephant, but also owing to the number of people who have seen the film “Water for Elephants” in the cinema. I urge Members who have not seen the film to go and see it. Unfortunately, however, the plight of Anne the elephant has muddied the waters to some extent. I do not think anyone would deny that no one with a brain would condone the mistreatment of animals, and I have no doubt that this was only one of a very small number of instances of animal cruelty in circuses. I am sure that the vast majority of wild animals in circuses are looked after as well as they possibly can be. What concerns me is that the nature of a circus, which involves moving from place to place in cramped conditions, makes it impossible to provide a suitable living environment for wild animals.
The nature of a circus also makes it impossible to provide an inspection system that could adequately check that regulations were being adhered to at every location unless that system is ridiculously expensive. Although the Minister has said that the cost will fall on the circuses, I suspect that the result will probably be an inadequate inspection system and an insufficient number of inspections. An inspection system will not work, and may result in more wild animals in circuses and more suffering. It will not address the fact that the constant movement of animals in cramped conditions is not good for the welfare of the animals. The only way to ensure an end to animal suffering in circuses is a complete ban, and I urge Members in all parts of the House to vote for that ban.
Mr John Leech (Manchester, Withington) (LD): The hon. Gentleman was a good Minister, but does he regret that he did not introduce a ban in his time as a Minister?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I regret that we as a Labour Government did not introduce a ban, but the Animal Welfare Act was a major piece of legislation and we tried our best. Given the constraints and the time frame between when I was appointed Minister of State and the May 2010 election, there was not long enough to introduce that ban. However we gave a commitment to the animal welfare lobby, to parliamentary colleagues and to the public that we were minded to introduce a ban if we were re-elected, which sadly we were not. I am convinced that we would have gone ahead with that.
The biggest obstacle to progress that I can remember, as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for The Wrekin, was at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which contended that any such ban could harm our creative industries by outlawing the use of animals in film and TV productions at worst or by reducing the number of performing animals available at best. Either way, the contention was that the threat to film and TV production would move it abroad and cost us jobs and revenue. We had numerous discussions about this and we were eventually able to reassure DCMS that that would not be the case and that we could limit the ban to the use of wild animals in circuses, as the hon. Gentleman has outlined. DCMS dropped its objection and the Government had a united policy, which appeared in our manifesto in May last year.
All kinds of questions were raised about whether wild animals should perform at all and which should be allowed to. My main concern was and is about the conditions in which animals are kept in venues and on the road. We are mostly reassured that modern zoos create environments that try to reflect animals’ origins, natural habitat and behaviour patterns, and we have to ask how that can be done in the back of a cage attached to a lorry driving along the motorways of Britain? Even this morning on BBC “Breakfast”, the camera crew visiting a circus was not allowed to film the animals’ living quarters. I think that that speaks volumes. Why the reluctance? I think we all know.
The Government say they want to introduce a licensing system rather than a ban. The system would mean that any circuses wishing to have wild animals such as tigers, lions and elephants performing in them would need to demonstrate that they met high animal welfare standards for each animal before they could be granted a licence to keep them. Areas being considered as part of the licensing conditions include the rules on transporting animals, the type of quarters they could be kept in, including winter quarters, and their treatment by trainers and keepers.
I know from my time at DEFRA that it wants to improve the welfare of animals across the piece and to improve the situation. It has even been suggested by some that the licensing regime could introduce a ban by the back door, but we do not want a ban by the back door—we want a ban through the front door. We want honesty and transparency in the laws and regulations we debate and introduce. We want clarity, not confusion. The public have used their voice to articulate that they want a ban and Members of every party have said that they want a ban. I hope and appeal to hon. Members in all parts of the House when it comes to the vote at 6 o’clock tonight to support the motion in the names of the hon. Members for The Wrekin, for Colchester and myself.