Animal Welfare Bill

House of Commons

Peter Luff: I half expected the Minister to have caught your eye by now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as he might have things to say about new clause 10 that will help the House considerably.

I shall speak mainly to new clause 10, and I share the reservations expressed by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) about the use of wild animals in circuses, but emphatically not domestic animals. He struck the right balance and correctly identified the centre of gravity. I have taken an interest in circuses for some time, largely because I was at school with Billy Smart's grandson. I remember the great days of the big animal circuses such as Bertram Mills at Olympia. During the interval, a cage was erected and the lions and tigers were brought in. That has all gone. There is only one circus left in the UK with a significant number of wild animals—the Great British Circus—and two more circuses have one or two animals, whose life expectancy is limited. The measure is therefore a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Circus people are not properly understood, which is a tragedy. We belong to the nation that invented the circus, which was created across the road, on the site of St. Thomas' hospital, yet every other nation celebrates it much more than we do. It is a glorious unsubsidised art form that brings the performing arts to societies and communities that would not otherwise see them. It introduces hundreds of thousands of children every year to the glories of performance. The circus is already under threat from the Licensing Act 2003, but I have received helpful signals from the Government that they may look at ways of reducing the burdens of bureaucracy, cost and inflexibility that it has imposed. If new clause 10 were accepted, resulting in the loss of both domestic and wild animals from the performing routine of the circus, it would be a devastating blow to the appeal of circuses to the UK market.

Mark Pritchard: Would my hon. Friend clarify the point that he is making and say whether there are any circumstances in which circus animals should not be kept?

Peter Luff: I do not want to get into a big debate about the evidence for and against the welfare benefits for animals of appearing in circuses. There is a great deal of academic research that shows that many animals benefit from the learning experience in the circus. As long as their transport and housing conditions are good, there is no problem at all.

Mark Pritchard indicated dissent.

Peter Luff: My hon. Friend may shake his head in disbelief, but that is the scientific evidence.

I want to put on record my concern about the nature of the campaign fought by Animal Defenders International. They produced opinion poll research which appeared to show very large majorities against the use of animals in circuses. In fact, MORI has now admitted to the circus industry that the poll should never have been published, because of the prejudicial way in which the questions were ordered and the nature of those questions. A new poll conducted by MORI for the circus industry shows that over 60 per cent. of people have no objection specifically to the use of horses in circuses. Public opinion, honestly sought, does not want a ban.

I know that much has been said about the inimical conditions of circuses for animals when they are being toured. I do not agree. Last summer I made it my business to go and see two circuses which tour horses—Gifford's circus and Zippo's circus—and I saw for myself the excellent conditions in which they are kept. It is worth quoting a description of the transportation conditions for a typical circus in the UK. Martin Burton states in a letter to the Minister:

"Since many of the discussions focused on transporting animals I would like to address this specifically. The practice at my circus is that after their last performance the 7 horses and ponies are loaded into their horse transporter and driven to the next venue. Since my circus travels mainly within the M25 these journeys are between 5 miles and 25 miles long and it is rare for journey times to be longer than one hour. The stables are then immediately erected at the new venue, in an area which has already been marked out for them. Erecting the stables takes less than an hour. The horses are then unloaded and stabled on clean bedding with fresh water and best quality hay. So the average journey time takes one hour, and the time the horses wait in the horse transporter while the stables are built up is less than one hour. The whole process is over in less than 2 hours. These moves happen once a week, or sometimes once a fortnight.

The stalls themselves are large loose boxes"—

I have seen them and I can confirm that—

"which were designed in consultation with Born Free. Each horse has an individual loose box which is EXACTLY the same as found in many riding schools and racing stables. The stable is a purpose built tent which is warm and dry. In cold weather the horses are rugged up for extra warmth but since the circus does not operate in the winter extreme cold is not an issue."

So circuses have pretty humane conditions for the domestic animals that they tour.

The circus industry has no problem with regulation and welcomes the constructive discussions that it has been having with the Minister's Department about a new regulation. Circuses have concerns about the inadequacy of the current regulatory regime that they face, which is little more than a rubber-stamping exercise. The circuses are developing codes of conduct. Circus bodies such as PAWSI—Performing Animals Welfare Standards International—are in discussion with the Department. New regulations on animal husbandry in circuses are being developed by a DEFRA working group, which includes representatives from the Born Free Foundation, the RSPCA, the Animal Consultants and Trainers Association, the Kennel Club, the Arts Council, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Dogs Trust, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and so on.

The news is extremely good. The approach that the Minister will set out to the House will, I think, commend itself to the House and to circuses. There have been some ludicrous situations in the past. In my home city, Worcester, a few years ago, when the city was under different political control, a circus applied to erect its tent, with only horses, in the middle of a race course. The local authority would not permit that because it considered that the circus was cruel to the animals. On that racecourse many horses will die every year. The bizarre hypocrisy of not allowing a circus, which relies on well trained and much loved horses, to set up in Pitchcroft in the middle of Worcester, while every year horses die on the race course around it, was extraordinary.

I believe passionately that circus needs to be protected, defended articulately and supported, not demonised as it often is, or neglected. I quote from a marvellous article written in The Guardian by a journalist called Dea Birkett about seven years ago. She wrote:

"The circus people I met were not elephant-beating barbarians. They were a small, disenfranchised people, struggling to survive against odds that would have defeated almost anyone else. Animal-rights groups—including the RSPCA—should negotiate with people who travel, live and work with their animals. Instead of shouting outside the circus gates, instead of leaning on councils, they should sit down and talk. They should argue for better conditions in circuses. They should treat circus people as they treat all other people who keep animals—not as freaks, but with respect. Our last travelling players should be cherished."

I hope that what the Minister says to us in a few minutes will show that he is prepared to cherish those travelling players.

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