The Coalition was attacked by politicians from all three main parties in an emergency Commons debate yesterday over its failure to ban wild animals in circuses.
In a bruising 20-minute session, the Animal Welfare Minister Jim Paice admitted that he and Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, had misled MPs last week by suggesting there was a live legal challenge to a ban in Austria.
To jeers from backbenchers, Mr Paice, appearing in place of Ms Spelman, who was on an official visit, insisted the Government could not introduce a ban because there might soon be a court challenge to Austria’s ban.
The Speaker, John Bercow, ordered the urgent question debate after Mr Paice and Ms Spelman misled the Commons three times last week by stating circus owners were challenging the Austrian ban through the European courts. Checks by The Independent and Animal Defenders International, which filmed a circus groom beating of Anne the elephant earlier this year, revealed that there was no challenge.
Mr Paice told MPs that legal advice suggested circus owners could sue the Government if it proceeded with its previous intention to introduce a ban, using either the EU Services Directive or the Human Rights Act. “To have pursued a ban in the light of that legal advice would have been irresponsible,” he said.
Mary Creagh, the Shadow Environment Secretary, described Defra’s U-turn on a wild animal ban as “an all signing, all dancing disaster.”
Referring to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ backtracking on the sale of public forests, she added: “It’s about time for another Defra U-turn.”
Mr Paice - who erroneously referred to the beating of “Nellie the elephant” -said Defra’s proposed licensing system could ultimately lead to “few if any wild animals in circuses.”
Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative backbenchers demanded the Government over-rule the legal advice and press ahead with a ban. They pointed out that challenges to the Austrian ban had failed since its introduction in 2005. Bans or restrictions on wild animals in circuses are in place in Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Poland, Portugal and Sweden.
Geoffrey Robinson, the former Labour minister, told Mr Paice that “advisors advise and ministers decide” while Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party, described the Government’s behaviour as “cowardly.”
The Conservative backbencher Roger Gale criticised Labour for not introducing a ban during its 13 years in power, but said that was no excuse for the Coalition not acting now.
Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell criticised the “Department for Failure, Error and Rotten Administration.”
Mark Pritchard, secretary of the Conservative 1922 Committee, said the Government should reconsider why it had ruled out a ban on wild animals in circuses and “ruled in a costly and complex licensing regime.”
More than 22,000 people have signed The Independent’s online petition calling for a ban on lions, tigers and other animals in the big top. Opinion polls show that more than 70 per cent of the public supports a ban.
Animal Defenders International said: “We’re pleased that the Government has at least admitted that the initial comments made were incorrect. However, it is now being claimed that these court proceedings have been delayed, with a case in preparation. The fact is that there has been no movement whatsoever on the proposed court case in question since 2009, therefore they really are clutching at straws.
“The Government needs to stop pontificating and get on with implementing a ban.”
Animal welfare organisations are planning to increase pressure for a ban by launching a campaign featuring celebrities, in the hope of emulating the protests which led to Defra’s abandonment of the forests sell-off earlier this year.