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June 23, 2011 / V A Nichols

MPs defy ministers and back ban on wild circus animals

23 June 2011 Last updated at 13:09 ET

MPs defy ministers and back ban on wild circus animals

MPs have defied the government and voted to support a ban on wild animals performing in English circuses.

Tory MP Mark Pritchard’s motion, supporting the move, was approved in the Commons without a vote.

Mark Pritchard said he had been "threatened" by No 10 over the issue

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.

Ministers said they were “determined” to tackle cruelty but strengthening existing laws was better than a ban.

Thursday’s vote does not mean the ban will become law but will increase pressure on the government to act.

As Thursday’s debate opened, 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.

No kowtowing’

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.

He said he had then been contacted by No 10 directly on the eve of Thursday’s debate.

“I was offered incentive and reward on Monday and then it was ratcheted until last night when I was threatened.

“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.

“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.”

Mr Pritchard said the public wanted their MPs to show “a bit of spine not jelly”, adding that he would “not be bullied” over the matter.

Cruel

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Mr Pritchard said this was cruel and outdated – comparing it to outlawed practices such as dog-fighting and badger-baiting – and insisted that the UK should “lead not lag the world” in animal welfare.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

“Why is the government not listening to the will of this House and more importantly, the will of the people?”

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.

‘Barbaric’

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 the motion but allowed their MPs 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”.

Legal risk’

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

For Labour, shadow environment minister Gavin Shuker said a ban was needed “right now”.

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

Environmental Minister Jim Paice said the government was “determined to stamp out” cruelty in circuses.

But he said there was a “serious risk” of a legal challenge to any ban in the UK and the “quickest way to reduce and hopefully eliminate cruelty to wild animals would be a robust licensing system”.

The RSPCA said EU member states were free to legislate on the issue if they wish.

The organisation has accused the government of “dithering” over the issue, saying licensing cannot guarantee acceptable welfare conditions and a ban is the only way to stop the risk of suffering.

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