David Cameron was last night accused of deploying "smoke and mirrors" to avoid imposing an immediate ban on wild animals in travelling circuses.
The Government announced plans for a licensing regime to monitor animals' well-being as a precursor to outlawing their use entirely.
But to the dismay of animal rights campaigners and MPs of all parties, it was unable to give a firm date for when a ban would be implemented.
MPs unanimously voted in favour of the move last year and surveys also suggest an overwhelming majority of the public wants the practice outlawed. More than 30,000 people signed The Independent's petition last year calling for a ban.
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) initially supported the move, but was overruled by David Cameron.
James Paice, the Agriculture Minister, said yesterday that the Government would consult on plans for a "tough new licensing regime which we can put in place swiftly".
He told MPs that ministers remained "minded" to outlaw circus animals, but would not commit himself on the timing of a ban. And the Government's impact assessment of its proposal for a licensing regime said: "The legal issues surrounding a ban mean that pursuing a ban is not an immediate possibility."
The Tory MP Mark Pritchard, who last year disclosed attempts by Tory whips acting on Downing Street's orders to bully him into dropping demands for a ban, dismissed the announcement as "disingenuous". He said: "Without a proper commitment to legislation in this Parliament, any claim to be listening to the will of Parliament is meaningless.
"This is a classic smoke-and-mirrors tactic by Number 10. Meantime animals continue to suffer."Reuse content