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Maggie Jones on working with the government to consign the use of wild animals in circuses to the history books

The House of Lords will today debate the Wild Animals in Circuses (No. 2) Bill – legislation that will introduce a ban on performances in travelling circuses in England from January 2020, when the existing interim licensing regulations come to an end. 

The Bill has been a long time coming, with a ban first promised under Labour back in 2006. The Coalition government published draft legislation in 2013 but did not make time for it to become law. And despite a 2015 manifesto commitment to implement a ban, the Conservatives also failed to introduce the necessary law in the last Parliament. Meanwhile, repeated efforts by backbench MPs to bring in a ban through Private Member's Bills have been thwarted by a handful of their colleagues.

Over the same period, more than 30 countries have legislated to ban such performances. It is high-time that we did the same.

The use of wild animals in travelling circuses has been increasingly recognised as outdated and exploitative form of entertainment. A 2009 public consultation under the last Labour government concluded that around 95% of respondents supported a complete ban.

Using non-domesticated, wild animals within a circus creates serious ethical issues. The animals are trained to perform tricks, often through fear or punishment, in artificial and unnatural environments for human entertainment. These animals are not suited to the travelling life, where being frequently transported long distances denies them their most basic needs, such as the freedom to roam. A 2016 review by Professor Stephen Harris, commissioned by the Welsh Government, provides strong evidence that the animals suffer poor welfare and do not have a “life worth living”.

Although bears, lions and tigers are no longer on show, there remains 19 wild animals currently licensed for use in traveling circuses in England – six reindeers, four camels, four zebras, three foxes, one macaw and one zebu. But unless further action is taken, circus owners could seek a license to use more and different types of animals. It is imperative therefore that this legislation is in place before the current licensing regime ends and the restrictions are removed.

Labour is working constructively with the government to ensure a carefully drafted and robust Bill, so there are no unintended consequences or loopholes that could be exploited. We will press ministers to publish guidance on the definition of a ‘traveling circus’ to prevent any misinterpretation. And we will also call on them to bring forward a strategy for the immediate removal of any animal found to be performing in breach of the ban – and for the animal to taken to a place of safety.

With its swift passage, this Bill can finally consign the use of wild animals in circuses to where it belongs – in history books.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Defra Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 19th June 2019

Show stopping

Maggie Jones on working with the government to consign the use of wild animals in circuses to the history books

Mike Watson on peers attempts today to hold the government to account over the closure of the national adoption database

Today, the House of Lords will consider Children’s Homes, Inspection Fees, Childcare Fees, Adoption and Children Act Register (Amendment) regulations – something that is subject to a regret motion, due to the closure of the national adoption register. Tabled by crossbencher Lord Russell of Liverpool, the motion has the support of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats; and unless the government concedes, there will be a vote.

The Lords’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) drew the regulations to the special attention of peers. In short, because the accompanying explanatory material provides insufficient information to gain a clear understanding about the policy objectives and intended implementation. Concern was also expressed about the absence of public consultation.

When local authorities consider placing children for adoption, they look for matches with suitable families – more often than not locally. But for some children, they need to look further afield to families ‘recruited’ by another adoption agency.

To facilitate this process, the national adoption register was introduced in 2002. This database included details of children who had been approved for adoption but who were waiting to be matched, approved prospective adopters, and prescribed information about children for whom the adoption agency was considering adoption. It was used by social workers and approved prospective adopters to seek matches, until being closed down this March under the regulations before the Lords today.

Oral evidence was given to the SLSC by Nadhim Zahawi MP, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families. But they were left dissatisfied with his responses on the potential implications of the Department for Education having ceased provision of the register before a replacement system is ready, in particular with regard to the impact on hard-to-place children.

Commercial providers already existence and the government maintains this means the closure of the national register will not leave a gap. But the key issue is that it was used primarily to deal with that sub-group of children that the commercial adoption agencies found almost impossible to place locally. Matches that would probably have not happened.

Neither the minister nor the department have been able to offer convincing evidence that the commercial providers will be able – or interested – in placing children in categories that they proved unable to do in the past.

In its final year of operation, the register made 275 matches across England. Now, there is concern that more than 200 children annually could end up remaining in care rather than being adopted, with local authorities spending an estimated additional £7million each year on extra support. The register was operated by the children’s charity Coram, at an annual cost of £600,000.

Vulnerable children need access to all of the chances that could give them a better future and for some the database offered a final chance. Today in the Lords, peers will take the opportunity to show the government what they think about its claims to have acted responsibly in closing the register.

Lord Mike Watson of Invergowrie is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords 

Published 18th June 2019

Registering our opposition

Mike Watson on peers attempts today to hold the government to account over the closure of the national adoption database

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Toby Harris on the government’s reluctance to plan properly for border security, post-Brexit

While Brexit was supposed to be all about taking back control of our borders, the reality is that these are already too porous. Indeed, leaving the EU will place so much additional pressure on the UK Border Agency that the situation will only get worse.

Three years ago, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan asked me to review the capital’s preparedness to respond to a major terrorist attack. Concerned about the leakage of firearms into our country, I recommended an increase in the routine screening and searching of cars and freight entering the UK, along with an uplift in Border Force coverage.

Merseyside’s Chief Constable Andy Cooke has warned that police and border officials are struggling to stem the rise in illegal guns being smuggled into the country. The National Crime Agency meanwhile, highlights how most criminal firearms have not been used before – suggesting “a fluid supply” of guns crossing the border.

And it is not just guns. Large quantities of illegal drugs arrive in the UK undetected, without interception.  Likewise, tonnes of unsafe consumer goods that fail basic electrical tests enter our ports. Some are stopped and destroyed but many find their way into shops and markets, despite the valiant efforts of customs officers and trading standards officials.

Last October the National Audit Office published a review of the UK border’s preparedness for Brexit. A bleak assessment, it warned that it would be “very challenging” for the Border Force to recruit, clear and train the 2000 staff needed to manage our departure, estimating that it could take up to three years to put the infrastructure in place. At that point, only 452 offers of employment had been made – with just 149 posts filled.

The postponement of Brexit is of course, providing some extra time to prepare. Earlier this month however, the key government official heading up the Border Delivery Group, Karen Wheeler, quit her job and warned that there were no magic technological solutions to delivering frictionless border arrangements.

The government has instructed that the flow of goods should be prioritised. Nobody wants huge lorry tailbacks and queues at entry points, but in practice flow will be prioritised over security and compliance. So fewer checks against illegal or unsafe goods entering our country. And the clear risk that Brexit will bring chaos to our borders at a time when the authorities are barely able to cope. 

This issue has been raised repeatedly in the House of Lords, and I will do so again this week in the hope that Ministers will stop being complacent and understand that the risks are real and pressing.

Lord Toby Harris of Haringey is a Labour Peer and a member of the joint parliamentary committee on National Security Strategy. He tweets at @LordTobySays

Published 18th June 2019

Risk management

Toby Harris on the government’s reluctance to plan properly for border security, post-Brexit

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