MPs from all sides are to demand that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, drop his opposition to a ban on wild animals in circuses in what promises to be a highly charged debate in Parliament next week.
The Labour MP Rob Flello has secured a 90-minute adjournment hearing in Westminster Hall next Wednesday at which dozens of Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs are expected to join forces to put pressure on the Government to reverse its position.
Moves are also afoot to hold a longer debate with a vote in the main Commons chamber – which could cause substantial embarrassment to ministers, given that hundreds of backbenchers have expressed support for a ban.
The junior Environment minister Jim Paice was jeered and laughed at on 19 May when he admitted to MPs that the Government's reason for not acting – a supposed court case against a ban in Austria – did not exist.
However, he said he believed there soon would be a case and legal advice suggested a UK ban could be challenged under the Human Rights Act or the EU's Services Directive. It then emerged that civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs advised there were no human rights implications from a ban two years ago, and the European Commission cast doubt on whether the Services Directive could be used to block one.
The Coalition is thought to be split on the issue, with Mr Cameron's opposition to a ban at odds with the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg's position.
Around 20 wild animals, including five tigers, perform tricks at three travelling circuses in England. The circuses say their animals are well treated. The RSPCA, the overwhelming majority of MPs who have expressed an opinion and more than 70 per cent of the public want an end to tigers, lions and elephants performing tricks in the big top.
The Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick, Mr Paice's predecessor as animal welfare minister, said he was "baffled" by the Coalition's approach. He said: "It was clear to me when I was a minister there was an urgent need to tackle this issue, and this need was overwhelmingly supported by public opinion. We explored all the arguments for and against a ban, and came down firmly in favour of ending the use of wild animals in circuses".
The Tory MP Mark Pritchard, secretary of the 1922 Committee, is working with counterparts in other parties to secure a debate in the Commons chamber. He said: "Whilst the adjournment debate is welcome, it is only for 90 minutes, which will limit the number of MPs who can speak. What is needed is a parliamentary debate with a voteable motion so the will of the House can finally be heard and seen."
To step up pressure, 10 animal welfare groups have formed an informal alliance to fight Defra's decision. As well as the RSPCA and the British Veterinary Association, the groups are Animal Aid, Animal Defenders International, Born Free Foundation, Captive Animals Protection Society, Care for the Wild International, Four Paws, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and World Society for the Protection of Animals.
Will Travers, chief executive of the Born Free Foundation, said: "The Government's position on this issue is untenable, and its excuses are paper-thin. Let's be clear: the previous administration was committed to a ban; the public and many parliamentarians want a ban; Lib Dem policy is to ban; the present Environment Secretary has made it clear she is 'minded' to ban. It would seem the only possible reasons for the current inaction are either government apathy or civil service resistance."
More than 25,000 people have signed The Independent's online petition calling for a ban. To sign, visit independent.co.uk/circusanimalsReuse content