HC Deb 29 March 2000 vol 347 cc344-6 3.33 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 so as to make it unlawful to operate a circus except with the authority of a licence.

A few weeks ago, a scurrilous article appeared that claimed that the House of Commons was full of animals. It said that the Conservative Benches are full of dinosaurs, the Labour Benches full of sheep and the Liberal Benches full of dead parrots. As we all know, that clearly is not the case. The only animals in the House of which I am aware are the delightful guide dog of the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, the springer spaniels that sniff round the place before our proceedings start and the mouse or rat that decided to make an appearance on the Floor of the Chamber a few weeks ago.

Like other hon. Members, I am an animal lover and I keep pets of all varieties. My animals, for various reasons, are able to do a number of tricks, which seem to involve giving them food. My dog will do anything if he is given food. I breed various birds and when I enter the aviaries I am a cross between the birdman of Alcatraz and St. Francis. All the birds fly to me and take food from my hand. My fish are also very keen to receive food. I also breed budgerigars. One called Perky Playle, which I gave to some friends, speaks about five languages. Its owners say that they have not spent any time teaching it to talk, but it seems to have a wide repertoire. None of the activities that I have described are cruel in any way; indeed, they demonstrate love for animals.

Some hon. Members may inadvertently have visited circuses featuring animals. It is bizarre to see whips being used on tigers and other animals to make them do all sorts of things that they do not seem to enjoy at all. A few years ago I went to a French circus, not realising that live animals would be involved. A goat was made to keep climbing on to tiny stools until it was high in the air—I do not know how high, but what was being done to it and to other animals was cruel beyond belief. I am presenting my Bill for those and other reasons.

Three events that have gained public attention are the publication of the Animal Defenders document "The Ugliest Show on Earth"—I am sure that hon. Members recall the campaign during which we received postcards; the unfortunate conviction of Mary Chipperfield for cruelty to her chimpanzee; and the report by the associate parliamentary group for animal welfare on the welfare of circus animals in England and Wales. Sadly, the group was unable to reach any conclusion on three options: a complete ban on the use of animals, specific legislation for animal welfare in circuses, and no change at all. My Bill addresses those three points. I think it unfortunate that nothing has been done so far.

The Bill would bring all circuses using performing wild animals—domestic animals would not be covered—within the purview of the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, by removing the circus exemption in the Act. The Act was passed two years before I became a Member of Parliament; I therefore accept no blame for the exemption, but I am advised that the definitions of domestic and circus animals were somewhat confused. Twenty years on, it seems sensible to remove the exemption.

Section 1(2) of the Act defines "zoo" as an establishment where wild animals (as defined by section 21) are kept for exhibition to the public otherwise than for the purpose of a circus. Section 21 defines wild animals as animals not normally domesticated in Great Britain.

Under the simple licensing regime that I propose, a circus owner would apply for a licence under the 1981 Act from his or her local authority. The circus would therefore require a registered address. I am told that bogus addresses are often used from a London base. The existing legislation does not require registered addresses. The licence would be issued on the basis of recommendations in reports made by zoo inspectors nominated for the purpose by the Secretary of State. A licence could be refused if the local authority were not satisfied that standards of accommodation, staffing or management were adequate, or if the applicant—either an individual or corporate body or its representative, or any person employed as a keeper—had been prosecuted under this or any other legislation involving the ill-treatment of animals.

Finally, the local authority would be able to attach any conditions that it considered necessary to the proper conduct of the circus: for instance, training, staff competence, veterinary standards and animal husbandry. I am grateful for the advice that I have received from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The Bill would require a registered address, which would allow a proper record to be kept of the number of circuses in the United Kingdom. That would help to establish information regarding the number of animals working in circuses and provide up-to-date records on the number of touring circuses.

It would also improve the welfare standards for wild animals while in winter quarters. Many hon. Members will be only too well aware of the little crowds that gather around some circus animals during winter. Doubts are expressed about the way in which they are looked after. Those quarters would be required to be licensed and would be inspected periodically. They would have to comply with the same standards as zoos. The standards would be devised by experts on the latest scientific and animal behavioral research.

The health and safety of the public would be addressed by standards relating to security of accommodation for those animals. Circus holding or training centres would be covered by the Act, improving the standards for animals while not touring as part of the circus.

The Act would specifically not outlaw performances by wild animals for the purpose of public entertainment. I am not saying that I would not want that but, as a politician, I believe that politics is the art of the possible. That is why I am advancing these measures.

The Bill would not prohibit circuses from performing with animals, or prevent touring and the use of beast wagons while touring. It would not prevent prosecutions under the Protection of Animals Act 1911. Individuals working in or owning zoos or circuses would still be prosecuted for cruelty under that Act—as Mary Chipperfield was. I hope that the House will welcome this short measure. I realise that, even if the House gives it a First Reading today, it will face many pitfalls on Friday afternoons, but it is an opportunity for the House to build on its splendid record on animal welfare and to make a difference for animals. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Amess, Mr. Norman Baker, Jackie Ballard, Mr. Tony Banks, Mr. Simon Burns, Mr. Ian Cawsey, Mr. Jim Fitzpatrick, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. Tim Loughton, Dr. Nick Palmer, Mr. Martin Salter and Mr. Tim Yeo.