The Government’s used a non-existent court challenge as an excuse for blocking a ban on wild animal in circuses, it was claimed today.
Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, and the Animal Welfare Minister James Paice both told MPs last week that they could not introduce the policy because of a legal challenge against a ban in Austria. However Austrian court officials confirmed that the only legal challenge against the Austrian ban was thrown out by the European Ombudsman a year ago.
Ms Spelman, who was forced by Downing Street to back down over the proposed sell-off of public forests, now faces having to apologise to MPs for misleading the Commons.
Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh accused Defra ministers of using “the non-existent Austrian court case as political cover for their failure to ban wild animals in circuses”.
She said: “Caroline Spelman should come to Parliament and apologise once more for misleading MPs.”
Defra officials briefed that a ban was imminent last month after pictures showed a circus trainer beating Anne the elephant. Downing Street then intervened to block the move, prompting Defra instead to propose a licensing system for the 20 tigers, zebras and other wild animals in the big top.
Suggesting “press reports” about a legal challenge to Austria’s ban were behind the U-turn, Mr Paice told Commons questions last Thursday: “Whether we like it or not, this court case is going on in Europe and therefore the British Government could not bring forward a proposal... that might well prove shortly to be unlawful.”
Asked to congratulate The Independent on its campaign for a ban, Ms Spelman told MPs: “It would be irresponsible of any Government... to recommend something that is under legal dispute.”
She referred again to the legal challenge in a Commons written answer the next day which confirmed there would be no ban.
Animal Defenders International, which this year shot the undercover footage of Anne the elephant, obtained confirmation there was no such challenge from Austria’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Justice. The Austrian embassy in London confirmed to The Independent that the case had been closed.
Defra declined to say whether its ministers had misled the Commons. It said: “We are looking into Animal Defenders International’s statement. We continue to believe that a tough new licensing scheme is the best way of protecting these animals.”
Jan Creamer, chief executive of ADI said: “We have proven that Government has got its facts woefully wrong and there is no current legal challenge in the Austrian courts. There is nothing to block Government enacting a ban, and they should now get on with what they had been quoted as being ‘minded’ to do.”
Harvey Locke, president of the British Veterinary Assocation, said the Government had acted “without first checking the full facts.” He added: “I cannot stress too strongly that the welfare needs of non-domesticated, wild animals cannot be met within the environment of a travelling circus, especially in terms of accommodation and the ability to express normal behaviour.”