01/03/2012 01:17 GMT | Updated 30/04/2012 06:12 BST

Circuses To Be Banned From Using Wild Animals, Says Government

Circuses will be banned from using wild animals in their shows, the government is expected to announce on Friday.

Ministers are to unveil plans in the commons that will outlaw the practice at the earliest opportunity.

But a tough new licensing regime will be brought in to improve conditions for performing animals while changes in the law are developed.

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) spokeswoman said: "We always said we were minded to ban wild animals performing in travelling circuses, the only issue being that we have to be sure that a ban cannot be overturned legally.

"Therefore in the meantime we are proposing a tough new licensing regime which can be introduced quickly, to ensure high welfare standards."

It comes after a push for action following revelations of the mistreatment of a circus elephant, Anne, last year.

MPs backed a blanket ban last June and though it was non-binding it was highly embarrassing for the Government, sparking Downing Street to later signal it would bow to pressure over the demands.

It warned, however, there were "unavoidable legal difficulties" that must be overcome before the practice can be outlawed, with fears the Government would be open to lawsuits from circus owners and workers.

That is a hurdle that is still likely to make progress of the ban slow.

Tory MP Mark Pritchard, who led last year's backbench call for a ban, claimed at the time he had been threatened by the Prime Minister's office unless he backed down.

He said tonight: "Any licensing scheme should also guarantee that no new new wild animals are imported into UK circuses.

"Quite frankly I don't believe the Government when they say they will move towards a ban.

"I don't trust Number 10 on the issue. I will believe it when I see it. But I am not holding my breath. Time will tell if I am right."

Jan Creamer, chief executive of Animal Defenders International, who last year exposed the abuse of Anne the elephant, accused the Government of "stalling".

She said "In the last government consultation, 95% of the public called for a ban on wild animal acts, we have had impact assessments and feasibility studies, but it seems to us that the Government will just keep changing the question until they get the answer they want.

"It is appalling that public and parliamentary wishes are cast aside in such a cavalier manner."