House of Commons Library

Wild Animals In Circuses

Published Tuesday, March 6, 2018

This policy briefing provides information on the licensing scheme for wild animals in circuses, and proposals to legislate to ban the use of wild animals in circuses in England. The paper also outlines policy developments in the Devolved Administrations.

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Following on from debate during the passage of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 through Parliament, the Labour Government carried out a public consultation on how best to safeguard the welfare of wild animals in travelling circuses in England. 94.5% of respondents considered that a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses would be the best option to achieve better welfare standards.

The Coalition Government initially decided not to ban wild animals in circuses, but to introduce a licensing scheme instead. This note covers the policy developments following on from this decision.

Licensing Scheme for Wild Animals in Circuses

In May 2011 the Coalition Government announced its decision to introduce a licensing scheme for wild animals in circuses in England, using powers provided by the Animal Welfare Act 2006. It considered that a complete ban would require primary legislation, and indicated that there were potential legal impediments to legislating for a ban.

Following unsuccessful legal challenges to a ban on wild animals in circuses in Austria, the Coalition Government announced, on 1 March 2012, that it intended to bring forward primary legislation at the earliest opportunity to ban circuses from using wild animals. In the meantime, however, it would proceed with implementing the licensing scheme to ensure high standards of welfare for wild animals in circuses, until a ban could be introduced. The Government consulted on the proposed licensing scheme, and regulations to bring in the licensing scheme came into force in January 2013.

As of the end of the 2017 two touring circuses were licensed in England. The two licences covered19 wild animals: 6 Reindeer; 4 Zebra; 3 Camels; 3 Racoons; a Fox; a Macaw; and a Zebu.

Wild Animals in Circuses Bill

In April 2013 the Coalition Government published a draft Wild Animals in Circuses Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The draft Bill made it an offence for any circus operator to use a wild animal in performance or exhibition in a travelling circus in England.

In its scrutiny report the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee suggested a proscribed list of wild animals in circuses, rather than a complete ban, which the Government rejected. The Government also rejected the Committee’s recommendation that enforcement powers be extended to constables.

The current Government intention has been to introduce legislation to ban the use of wild animals in circuses when parliamentary time allowed. However, on publication of a review of the existing regulation it announced that it would enact a ban by 2020, and allow the licencing regulations to expire.

Policy in the Devolved Administrations

Animal welfare is a devolved matter, and the Devolved Administrations are adopting different approaches to the issue of wild animals in circuses. The Scottish Government passed legislation to ban wild animals in travelling circuses in December 2017. The Welsh Government has carried out independent review on the evidence of animal welfare of wild animals in travelling and non-travelling circuses. Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Executive has investigated the possibility of an all-island approach to the issue of wild animals in circuses through adoption of a Code of Practice.

Commons Briefing papers SN05992

Author: Elena Ares

Topics: Animal welfare, Animals

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