The Coalition’s claim that it can not ban wild animals in circuses because of a potential legal challenge under human rights legislation contradicts previous official advice given to ministers, The Independent can reveal today.
Animal welfare minister Jim Paice provoked laughter among MPs last week by suggesting lions, tigers and other animals would have to stay performing tricks in the big top because circuses could mount a case under the 1998 Human Rights Act.
A risk assessment by civil servants for the previous Labour administration in December 2009 explicitly gave a ban a clear run under the Act. The document - which has been removed from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) - stated: “There are no human rights issues raised by these proposals.”
Meanwhile the European Commission has intervened to cast doubt on a second piece of legislation cited by Defra as the vehicle for a possible court challenge.
In a blog on its website, the European Commission in London wrote: “Comments made by UK officials “that a total ban on wild animals in circuses might well be seen as disproportionate under the EU Services Directive ……” are interesting.
“The EU rules ensure services can be easily provided across borders. But there are of course valid reasons for exceptions to the rules and restrictions are allowed.”
The statement - headed “What a circus...” - added that Commission officials were “standing ready to discuss the matter with the UK government.”
The disclosures are a fresh embarrassment to Defra ministers, who have been accused of incompetence and misinformation over their U-turn on their previously supported plan for a ban on wild animals in circuses.
For months this year they said they were “minded” to introduce a ban before abruptly changing tack earlier this month, after Downing Street apparently intervened to veto the plan.
The Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman and Mr Paice told the Commons three times they could not proceed with a ban because of an ongoing court case against a ban in place in Austria.
An animal welfare group and The Independent quickly established there was no case in Austria and legal challenges to the Austrian ban introduced in 2005 were thrown out by the European Commission in 2006 and the European Ombudsman in 2010. The European Commission has made clear that banning wild animals from circuses is a matter for individual member states.
In an emergency statement to the Commons last week, Mr Paice admitted that Defra had misled the Commons but insisted that a court challenge was imminent.
He told the chamber: “The very strong legal advice that we have received, which is consistent with the case being prepared against Austria, is that a total ban on wild animals in circuses might well be seen as disproportionate action under the European Union Services Directive and under our own Human Rights Act 1998 [laughter from MPs]”
Mary Creagh, shadow environment secretary, said last night that the Government’s legal case against a ban had been “demolished”.
She said: “As I said in the Commons on Thursday, a ban can be brought in using Labour’s Animal Welfare Act and there are no implications for human rights. Defra Ministers are just making it up as they go along.”
MPs have demanded Defra publish its “very strong legal advice.”
Animal welfare organisations are hoping to emulate the row Defra’s proposed forests sell-off, which was abandoned earlier this year.
More than 23,000 people - supported by the RSPCA and the British Veterinary Association - have signed The Independent’s online petition calling for a ban. The target is being raised to 30,000 signatures.
To sign, visit independent.co.uk/circusanimals