Spelman’s DEFRA big top is spinning out of control

Even by DEFRA’s standards, (not) banning circus animals has been a farce, writes shadow environment minister Gavin Shuker.

Gavin Shuker MP is the shadow environment minister

Even by DEFRA’s standards, (not) banning circus animals has been a farce. Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell and I do not agree on everything, but it was telling that his description of DEFRA yesterday as “the Department for error, failure and rotten administration”, was made from the government benches.

This is a department and a front bench team that have lurched from one shambolic policy to another in the 12 months since the coalition formed.

We’ve already seen secretary of state, Caroline Spelman, make a grovelling U-turn over the government’s forests policy – this time she didn’t even bother to show up, dispensing the hapless Jim Paice to answer an urgent question on the decision not to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, brought by Labour shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh.

The issue should have been concluded a long time ago. A public consultation (pdf) launched by the Labour government found that 94.5 per cent of the public supported a ban. That concluded in March 2010, and led to our manifesto commitment to ban wild animals in circuses.

Since then, the government has dithered and delayed, suggesting in answers to MPs that they were carefully deliberating while in fact the minister had not taken any meetings on the issue since July. Finally we had the answer: Spelman leaked to a Sunday paper that a ban would be introduced. Case closed, the government had done the right thing – or so we thought.

Less than a month later, and troubling news emerges of Number 10 overruling DEFRA despite the public support, and preventing a ban. Surely it couldn’t be worry over increased regulation? We all know the Tories love to cut ‘red tape’, but surely even they wouldn’t consider the protection of animals to be unnecessary?

The answer came last Thursday when Defra ministers said that the reason why no ban would be introduced was due to an ongoing case where the Austrian government had been taken to court over a breach of the EU Services Directive. They repeated this in a Written Ministerial Statement the following day.

You know the funny thing? There is no court case. Both the Austrian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Justice has confirmed that none exist. The European Circus Association brought a case to the European Commission over five years ago but it was dismissed, a decision upheld by the European Ombudsman last year.

The government tried to avoid scrutiny by issuing a second Written Ministerial Statement yesterday, in an effort “to avoid misunderstanding”. No apology of course. The reason they give for their error? They’d read a press release from the circuses! A fine way to determine policy. Of course it should come as no surprise that the press release in question was released almost two years ago and doesn’t actually say anything about forthcoming court proceedings.

Fast forward a couple of hours to Jim Paice’s answers yesterday. Still no apology – just more gibberish. He claimed a ban would infringe human rights, but Defra’s own impact assessment states that it wouldn’t. He claimed you’d need primary legislation, but again the impact assessment disagrees. I know this because I’ve got a hard copy of the document, but you won’t find it on Defra’s website. It appears to have been taken down overnight.

Incompetence or deception? Either way, someone needs to get a grip and implement the ban.

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