09 June 2011

S4M-00102 Wild Animals in Circuses (Ban)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Elaine Smith): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-00102, in the name of Elaine Murray, on a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the decision by the UK Government not to introduce a ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses; notes that in the recent past a travelling circus visiting locations including Dumfries included an elephant as one of its attractions; believes that there is sufficient evidence to support the view that life in a travelling circus does not allow for acceptable standards of welfare and quality of life for wild animals; notes the work done by animal rights activists and third sector organisations to argue for such a ban, and considers that action in this area is needed to prevent suffering to animals.

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The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson):

I join other members in congratulating Elaine Murray on securing this debate.

It is clear that the views that have been expressed almost unanimously across the chamber are passionate and driven by a clear desire to improve the welfare of circus animals. I have no difficulty at the outset in accepting the basic proposition that is delineated in the motion.

There is a long history of animals in circuses. By coincidence, it appears that the practice started almost exactly at the point when children were no longer sent up chimneys to clean them and when slavery was abolished. Perhaps one form of slavery was replaced by another.

Kevin Stewart referred to the long-standing ban on circus animals in Aberdeen. The continuing ability of circuses to visit Aberdeen in the face of that ban demonstrates that the practical effect of a wider ban would not necessarily be too great. He also referred to objective evidence of stress in travelled animals. My briefing pack did not draw my attention to that point, which will inform us all in considering the issue, as it is objective evidence. With only 39 animals remaining in circuses in the UK, one issue is that there is a limited evidence base to drive the argument.

Hugh Henry and others made the point that the issue is not simply about objective evidence. The evidence, such as it is, has been considered for a long time, but the issue is also our duty to animals that are in our care and, beyond that, to those that remain in the wild. It is correct that Richard Lochhead has supported efforts on the issue.

I turn to Alex Fergusson’s speech. I can never quite remember whether it was St Thomas Aquinas or someone else who said, “Oh Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.” I think that we might have had Alex Fergusson’s second maiden speech, which is probably relatively unique, although would that he had waited for another occasion, if I may say so. Claudia Beamish made a good point in her intervention that many animals might be “performing”—I use that word in quotes—through fear. Mr Fergusson’s support for the eventual elimination of animals from circuses, qualified as it was by his suggestion that we wait until the natural lifespan of existing animals has expired, is at least a recognition that the practice should end, so I welcome that. However, it is inconsistent to be against something in principle but to allow it to continue in practice, which is what was said.

Alison Johnstone said that we should press the UK Government for a ban. I am going to make a rod for my own back by saying that we have the powers to do it ourselves. The proposal that is currently before the UK Government is in fact an England-only provision—the devolved Administrations can make their own arrangements. Yesterday, there was a debate on the subject in Westminster Hall. Unexpectedly, a Conservative member, Penny Mordaunt, topped any of my contributions by revealing that one of her previous jobs was as a magician’s assistant. Perhaps Mr Fergusson should consult her to find the magic way out of what is a rather awkward place to be.

The general public and animal welfare organisations are unambiguously clear and have been since 2004 in Scotland. Last year, 95 per cent of respondents to a DEFRA consultation were against the practice. We have heard the numbers quoted, and I do not debate any of them.

Elaine Murray highlighted the case of Anne the elephant. Virtually nobody could fail to be moved by the plight of that poor animal, and we wish her a long and happy retirement at Longleat, but there is not huge evidence that that was anything other than an isolated example of systematic abuse. However, the debate is not about systematic abuse, although it occurs; instead, it is about the restriction of liberty and normal behaviours. Many organisations, including the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the British Veterinary Association, have made that point.

The UK coalition Government is seeking to regulate animals in circuses through licensing and inspection. Some people believe that that could lead to an increase in the number of wild animals in circuses. It is worth referring to the definition of wild animal that the Radford report used:

“a species whose collective behaviour, life cycle or physiology remains unaltered from the wild type despite their breeding and living conditions being under human control for multiple generations.”

It does not simply cover animals caught from the wild and put in circuses; it includes wild species that have been domestically bred.

In 2007, the circus working group stated:

“our present state of knowledge about the welfare of non-domesticated animals used in circuses is such that we cannot look to scientific evidence”.

That is why Elaine Murray and others are correct to look at the issue from a different perspective. The Radford report also stated:

“The status quo is not a tenable option”

and concluded that a ban should be proceeded with.

The question is an ethical and legal one. The dilemma for ministers is how a ban could be introduced. There have been legal challenges, in Austria in particular, on human rights grounds, although they appear now to have been disposed of. We will certainly continue to look at the issue. As a result of this debate and other inputs that we have had, and the information that continues to come from Westminster, we have been watching the matter with considerable interest and engagement.

Elaine Murray asks me to state that it is unacceptable for animals to be used for entertainment, and I am absolutely happy to do so. I will continue to work with the member to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

Meeting closed at 17:36.

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