Show stopping

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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The use of wild animals in travelling circuses has been increasingly recognised as outdated and exploitative form of entertainment.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

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