Doubt cast on Government's circus animal claims

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The European Commission has cast doubt on the Coalition’s claim that it cannot legally introduce a ban on wild animals in circuses because of EU legislation.

Proposing a licensing system, the Animal Welfare Minister Jim Paice told MPs a ban could be could be overturned by a circus under the Human Rights Act or EU cross-border selling regulations.

Since then it has emerged that a Whitehall official ruled out any human rights implications of a ban two years ago and, now, the EC has responded by stating that individual member states can make legitimate exemptions to the EU Services Directive on animal welfare grounds.

It is understood that the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did not contact the EC prior to making its claim and there is believed to be frustration within the Commission’s office in London that the Government is seeking to make Europe the scapegoat for its failure to introduce one.

As reported by The Independent last month, Downing Street is believed to have blocked Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman’s support for a ban, since when Mr Paice has sought to claim a legal impediment is the obstacle.

After meeting the Captive Animals Protection Society (Caps) earlier this month, Jonathan Scheele, Head of Representation at the EC in London, said that criticism by the EU Ombudsman of the EC’s position on a ban introduced in Austria – which still stands six years after its introduction – was misplaced.

In a letter to Caps dated June 13, Mr Scheele wrote: “As a principle, the freedom to provide services can only be subject to restrictions if they can be justified as being of public interest. Animal welfare and animal protection are examples of areas where restrictions can be justified if suitable to achieve their stated objective, judged in terms of their non-discriminatory nature - that is that nationality plays no part, their necessity and whether they are proportional to the objective sought to be achieved.”

He went on: “In the past, certainly, the European Commission has felt that the welfare of animals in circuses is a matter best left to the judgement of member states.”

The EC is thought to take issue with the Government’s claim that a ban would fail the tests of ‘proportionality’ and ‘necessity’, as Mr Paice claimed in a debate in Westminster Hall on June 8.

MPs will vote today on whether to back a backbench motion in favour of a ban.

More than 30,000 people have signed an online petition by The Independent calling for the Government to introduce one.

To sign the petition, visit independent.co.uk/circusanimals

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