Stanley Johnson is an environmentalist and author who is a former Conservative MEP and parliamentary candidate.
Over the next few days and weeks, the Government has a great opportunity to burnish its credentials as far as the environment and animal welfare is concerned. The Prime Minister’s letter last month to Animal Defenders International (ADI) confirming that it is the Government’s intention to bring in legislation to ban the use of wild animals in circuses was featured throughout the morning on Sky News this weekend.
Extracts from the letter were shown on screen. David Cameron wrote:
“While the recent Queen’s Speech did not contain the Government’s proposed Wild Animals in Circuses Bill, let me reassure you that it remains our position that the use of wild animal acts in travelling circuses is an outdated practice.”
The letter, however, went on to say that the Government “will introduce a ban as soon as Parliamentary time allows”.
Though this may sound satisfactory at first blush, the reference to the need to find ‘parliamentary time’ was actually quite disappointing. Some people might argue that the pressures of parliamentary business have been relatively light in recent months. And the government’s pledge is already two years old. Nor, to be strictly accurate, is it the first time that the Prime Minister has personally promised action.
In April, a group of MPs Jim Dowd, Caroline Lucas, John McDonnell and Adrian Sanders, joined Jan Creamer, ADI’s Chief Executive, in handing a letter to Cameron calling for progress to be made on bringing in legislation to ban wild animals in circuses. The signatories to the letter pointed out that though the Draft Wild Animals in Circuses Bill had been published in a year earlier, “little progress appears to have been made to bring this widely supported and long overdue restriction into law.”
The letter pointed out that the continued use of wild animals in circuses is widely opposed by vets, animal welfare experts, animal protection groups, politicians and a huge majority of the public. Indeed, Defra’s own public opinion survey found that 94.5 per cent support restrictive legislation on this issue. Introducing the ban in the Draft Bill, the Government noted, “There is little or no educational, conservational, research or economic benefit derived from wild animals in travelling circuses that might justify their use and the loss of their ability to behave naturally as a wild animal.”
As a former MEP with an interest in environmental and animal welfare matters (I was the Founder-Chairman of the European Parliament’s All Party Group on Animal Welfare), I was invited to join the delegation to Downing Street on April 8. Peter Tatchell and I were hovering by the security gates, waiting for our turn to enter, when we were greeted by Cameron himself, as witnessed by the attached photo (see above).
Though this was not an official meeting and there is, as far as I know, no agreed record of our brief conversation, I remember suggesting to the Prime Minister that it was time for the Government to deliver on its promise. As I recall, he replied: “We’re going to do it.”
This weekend’s Sky News broadcast pointed out that Jim Fitzpatrick, a former Labour DEFRA Minister, will be introducing a backbench bill on the floor of the House of Commons in September. Anushka Asthana, the Sky News reporter, commented that there was just a chance, given the degree of support for the measure in the House, that the backbench bill would make progress.
As it happened, I too was interviewed for that Sky News item. An intrepid Sky News Land Rover, with a high-tech satellite dish on the roof, found its way up the long and bumpy track to our Exmoor farm. With the river Exe running alongside, and the wild sweep of the moor behind, I found no difficulty in reiterating the need to end the use – and abuse – of wild animals in circuses as soon as possible. I said I was delighted by the Prime Minister’s personal interest and by his most recent letter restating the government’s commitment to legislate. But I was deeply disappointed at the long delay in giving effect to the Government’s promises.
Jim Fitzpatrick’s initiative offers a way forward and, if the Government for some reason is still unable to bring forward its own measure, then at the very least it should support enthusiastically this back-bench initiative.
In urging action now in this matter, I do not of course suggest that this is the only, or indeed necessarily the most important environmental and animal welfare priority. It is true that, at the present time, relatively few animals are involved. But, absent a ban, that may not always be the case. Given the EU’s free trade rules, it will be important to get our own legislation in place quickly. We need to be able to prevent, legally, the many travelling circuses which still operate in Europe from setting up their tents here.
And anyway the suffering of even small numbers of animals (elephants, tigers, lions, zebras etc), as some of the film-clips shown by Sky News showed, is important.
Years ago, when I was an official in Brussels with environmental responsibilities, I used existing UK legislation regarding the welfare of animals in zoos as the template for a draft EU directive on the protection of animals in zoos. That directive is now in force and by all accounts is highly regarded by the zoo ‘industry’. I regret now that we did not include travelling circuses in the scope of that particular instrument.
I know the Government is at the moment in a defensive mode as far as many EU matters are concerned but I can’t help thinking that an announcement by the Prime Minister that we will not only proceed forthwith with the long-promised ban on wild animals in circuses in the UK, but will also seek EU measures in this regard (as we do in other matters, e.g: international trade in endangered species) might be just what the doctor ordered.
The second volume of Stanley Johnson’s memoir “Stanley I Resume” will be published next month by Biteback/The Robson Press