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UK Politics

Zac Goldsmith attacks refusal to outlaw wild animals in circuses

The Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith today attacked his own party’s “extraordinary” refusal to outlaw wild animals in circuses.

In a Commons debate, Mr Goldsmith said he had received “a huge number of letters” supporting a ban on lions, tigers and elephants performing in the big top and described the Government’s decision not to introduce one as “totally illogical”.

As reported in the Independent, the Department for the Environment last month reversed its support for a ban after pressure from the Prime Minister David Cameron and said that one could be challenged legally. Instead it has proposed a licensing system in which conditions for the approximately 20 wild animals would be inspected.

Criticising that position, Mr Goldsmith said: “I am confused by the Government’s position. I do not see any real arguments against the ban, other than abstract ones. It seems to come down to an argument about the vague threat of a possible challenge by the European Union at some point in the future.”

He added: “I will not rehearse the arguments for a ban, partly because they have already been laid out clearly but also because they are blindingly obvious. I encourage the Government to rethink their position, which does not make any sense to MPs, our constituents or those involved in the campaign for a ban. It seems totally illogical.”

During the 90 minute adjournment debate in Westminster Hall, 10 MPs including the Green leader Caroline Lucas attacked the Government’s position, which is opposed by 26,000 people who have signed the Independent’s online petition calling for a ban.

Labour MP Rob Flello, who secured the debate, said: “I realise that after the forestry U-turn, Defra cannot see the wood for the trees, but are ministers really saying that the thousands of people who have signed the Independent’s online petition are wrong, that the 94.5 per cent who responded to the consultation are wrong, or... that the vast majority of the British public are wrong?”

MPs referred to independent legal advice, obtained by the animal welfare group Animal Defenders’ International, which states that circuses would be unlikely to overturn a ban under two laws cited by ministers, the Human Rights Act or the EU Services Directive.

Animal Welfare Minister Jim Paice said the Government was considering ADI’s legal advice.

But he stuck to his position that the Government’s own legal advice militated against a ban, which he said did not satisfy a legal requirement for “necessity” and “proportionality”.

He told the chamber: “I fully understand that the subject is highly emotive and that the public are seriously concerned about the welfare of animals, as well as about the ethics and morals.

“As I have tried to explain, however, that alone cannot provide a basis for legislation because we and Governments of all persuasions must accept the legal conditions in which we operate, whether under legislation previously passed by the house or to which we have become signatories as part of international law.

“We therefore remain of the view that the quickest, best and most effective way of dramatically improving the welfare of animals in travelling circuses is by the system of regulation.”

After the debate, Jan Creamer, ADI’s chief executive, described the minister’s defence as “underwhelming.”

She said: “He failed to once again address the key issues. He made specific reference to ADI legal advice and stated that Defra was currently considering it, but then attempted to suggest that our advice does not fully address the issue of proportionality. He is incorrect, and our lawyers have been very specific on this point.”

David Bowles, the RSPCA’s director of communications, said the RSPCA was “furious”. He said: “Hiding behind a challenge to the Austrian government ban and human rights laws is a complete red herring as the European commission have said they are happy with bans on use of wild animals in member states.”