Environment ministers have been accused of backsliding on a commitment to end the use of wild animals in travelling circuses.
MPs of all parties are angry that the Government has failed to produce any detailed plans to implement the promised ban – eight months after it pledged to outlaw the practice.
Animal-rights activists said the urgent need for the move was underlined by the conviction last week of a circus owner, Bobby Roberts, for behaving cruelly towards Anne, an Asian elephant.
An undercover film shot by animal-welfare campaigners showed the animal being kicked and hit with a pitchfork by a groom at the circus. Her treatment was one of the factors behind a unanimous vote in the Commons last year in favour of a ban by the end of 2012.
More than 30,000 people signed a petition by The Independent calling for a ban, while a survey suggested that 95 per cent of the public supported the step. However, the Government warned of legal problems over the move and announced a "temporary" licensing system for lions, tigers, zebras, camels and other performing animals as a precursor to a total ban. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) last week published regulations for a licensing system which run to nearly 90 pages.
But, to the dismay of MPs, Defra is refusing to disclose a timetable for implementing a ban, and some warned the new licences would make it harder for the use of wild animals to be outlawed. About 40 wild animals are among the estimated 150 to 200 animals kept in British circuses.
The Conservative MP, Mark Pritchard, who last year disclosed attempts by Tory whips acting on Downing Street's orders to bully him into dropping demands for action on circus cruelty, said: "The need for a ban is underlined by the treatment of this elephant [Anne], which is one of many such incidents across the industry. Despite reassurances from the Government, it's clear the ban isn't going to be introduced, given that the licences last 10 years and no draft Bill for a ban has been drawn up.
"The Government is ignoring the unanimous opinion of Parliament and public opinion, and is acting like an elected dictatorship. The need for a ban to end cruelty is self-evident and overwhelming – a licensing regime would not end cruelty and would allow a new generation of wild animals to be brought into circuses – licensing has the opposite effect of a ban."
The Labour MP, Tom Harris, said: "There isn't any outstanding legal action against a full ban, there's no human rights problem, there is plenty of parliamentary time available. There is a fair wind behind it. You have to draw the conclusion that there is another reason the Government isn't telling us that they are very, very reluctant to introduce a full ban."
Caroline Allen, the Green Party spokeswoman on animal issues, said: "A licensing system is a step backwards. They are trying to muddy the waters and hope people forget."
Tim Phillips, the campaigns director of Animal Defenders International, said: "The Government's decision to try and implement an expensive, complex and ultimately doomed regulatory regime instead of moving forward with this seems bizarre.
"Inevitably we are asking what the agenda is here? More than £250,000 of public money has been spent preparing these regulations to take us not a single step closer to an actual ban than we were a year and a half ago when backbench MPs voted for it."
Defra said: "We have been very clear that we will be banning wild animals in circuses and we are currently drafting the Bill to bring in this ban. We recognise putting a ban into force takes time and has to go through the parliamentary process."