UK Politics

MPs defy ministers and back ban on wild circus animals

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Media captionMark Pritchard says No 10 'threatened' him over animal circus ban debate

MPs have defied the government and backed a ban on wild animals being used in circuses in England after a heated debate in Parliament.

Tory MP Mark Pritchard's motion was approved without a formal vote.

Earlier, he said he was "threatened" by No 10 and told the prime minister would look upon it "dimly" if he pressed ahead with the debate in the Commons.

Ministers said they would listen to MPs' views but that a ban was not "an immediate possibility".

The motion is not binding on the government but will increase pressure on ministers to act over the issue.

Downing Street said the government would "recognise the will of the House".

'Not kowtowed'

At the start of the debate, Mr Pritchard used the first few minutes of his speech to draw attention to what he said had been the government's "mysterious" behaviour over the issue.

He said he had initially been offered a "pretty trivial job" if he agreed either to drop the Commons motion calling for a ban, to amend it or not to press for a vote.

Then, on the eve of the debate, he said he had been contacted by No 10 directly.

"I was offered incentive and reward on Monday and then it was ratcheted up until last night when I was threatened," he said.

"I had a call from the prime minister's office directly. I was told unless I withdraw this motion that the prime minister himself would look upon it very dimly indeed."

Mr Pritchard said he had not "picked a fight" with the government over the issue but "had a message" for Mr Cameron and Conservative whips - who enforce party discipline in the Commons.

"I may just be a little council house lad from a very poor background but that background gives me a backbone, it gives me a thick skin," he said.

"And I am not going to be kowtowed by the whips or even the prime minister of my country on an issue that I feel passionately about, that I have conviction about."

The public wanted their MPs to show "a bit of spine" and he would "not be bullied", he added.

Celebrity letter

Only a handful of circuses in England keep wild animals which includes any non-domestic species, such as tigers, zebras and camels.

The RSPCA estimates 46 such animals are currently used in circus performance in the UK.

Mr Pritchard said this was cruel and outdated - comparing it to outlawed practices such as dog-fighting and badger-baiting - and insisted that the UK should "lead not lag the world" in animal welfare.

He argued there was overwhelming public support for a ban and more than 200 MPs supported the move.

Image caption The RSPCA says seven tigers are among wild animals currently used in travelling circuses

The government's preferred option is to introduce a licensing scheme and a tougher inspection regime for circus animals under the existing Animal Welfare Act.

Such an approach is currently the subject of consultation and has been welcomed by the circus industry which says cases of mistreatment are very rare.

But Lib Dem Bob Russell said circuses featuring wild animals were "barbaric and had no place in civilised society in the 21st Century".

The Conservatives had initially intended to "whip" their MPs to vote against Mr Pritchard's motion but ultimately allowed them a "free vote" on the issue.

Tory MP Zac Goldsmith welcomed the change of heart, saying a whipped vote would have "made a mockery of the relationship between Parliament and government".

Comedian Ricky Gervais and actor Brian Blessed are among celebrities who wrote an open letter recently to Mr Cameron calling on the government to bring in a ban.

The government has argued that it would be unworkable to do this until the outcome of a legal challenge to a similar ban in Austria was known.

'Legal issues'

Environment Minister Jim Paice said the government was "determined to stamp out" cruelty in circuses but there was a "serious risk" of a legal challenge to any UK ban an the "quickest way to reduce and hopefully eliminate cruelty to wild animals would be a robust licensing system".

Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said the government's handling of the issue had been "confused".

"It is extraordinary that David Cameron used such bully-boy tactics to threaten his own MPs and tried to impose a three-line whip on the vote," she said. "We look forward to a ban being implemented in the next 12 months."

A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: "The government will listen to the view of the House and is sympathetic to the motion for a ban.

"We will continue to look carefully at how this could be introduced, but there are unavoidable legal difficulties that we cannot ignore."

The RSPCA said the vote was a "massive step forward" for animal welfare and it "looked forward" to the ban becoming a reality.

"We hope that this vote is the start of a new era for the tigers, lions and other magnificent animals forced to endure circus life, whose welfare needs have been ignored for far too long," the charity's Dr Ros Clubb said.

Jan Creamer, chief executive of Animal Defenders International, said: "The public demands a ban, animal welfare groups demand a ban and now politicians have made it abundantly clear that they demand a ban."

Speaking on BBC One's Question Time, Transport Minister Norman Baker said: "It's not simply the performing humiliation of the animals, it's also the fact you can't keep animals of that nature sensibly when you're a travelling circus.

"I'm delighted it's got all-party support and hope we can go forward as soon as possible with legislation."

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