David Cameron was accused tonight 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 for 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 an Independent 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, today said 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.”
Caroline Lucas, the Green Party leader, said: “What is the Government waiting for? It is astonishing the taxpayer is being asked to foot the bill for a new ‘regulatory regime’ to keep this cruel and outdated practice alive. The simple fact is that circuses are no place for wild animals.”
Fiona O’Donnell, the shadow Environment minister, said the Government was out of touch with the public on the issue and said it had hidden behind “spurious threats of legal challenges” as an excuse for not acting.
The Liberal Democrat MP, Sir Bob Russell, said: “My fear is that the licensing system could become the de facto permanent arrangement.”
Jan Creamer, the chief executive of the pressure group Animal Defenders International, said: “This may be the most cynical animal welfare announcement ever made by a Government. I believe MPs and members of the public will be disgusted. Animal circuses appear to be setting Defra’s agenda.”
Pressed by MPs on the timing of the ban, Mr Paice said: “It's impossible to put an exact date on it but I would be extremely surprised and disappointed if it's not implemented before the next election.”Reuse content