THE GOVERNMENT has been accused of ‘going soft’ on one of the main animal welfare planks of its much-vaunted Animal Welfare Bill when it backtracked on a clause to outlaw the practice of giving goldfish away as fairground prizes. New Labour spin doctors and party officials fear that the party might be accused of running a nanny state leading to ridicule in the run-up to the General Election.
The Animal Welfare Bill, included in November’s Queen’s Speech, was to have spelled an end to the tradition amid concerns that most goldfish acquired by such means end up being flushed down the lavatory.
But ministers are poised to shelve plans for a ban, for fear of being accused of gratuitous meddling less than four months before an expected general election. The most likely outcome is a compromise that will still let children win their goldfish, but only if they are accompanied by someone over 16 years of age.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said officials were working on changes to the bill, which was announced in the Queen's speech in November. A compromise is expected which will allow goldfish - and such rural activities as bowling for a pig - to be won by adults or children accompanied by someone over 16.
"We have been widely consulting on the bill. We have had a number of recommendations and we are working on parts of the bill to take account of those consultations and recommendations," the spokeswoman said. "Obviously that is something ministers have been talking to each other about."
The scientific jury is still out on fish stress, with one study suggesting goldfish never get bored because their memories are too short to recall what it was they might have been bored about.
But the RSPCA condemned the move, saying: "We strongly support a ban because when an animal is received as a prize, the winner gets it through chance rather than a conscious decision and there is little likelihood that consideration has been given to caring for it."
It is understood that Paul Boateng, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is one of several ministers to have urged Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, to alter the bill.
The Government’s toning down of this part of the Bill is particularly ironic when only a few weeks previously, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee (EFRA) spent several hours and devoted many inches of page space in an official report into the classification of lobsters, crayfish, crabs and squids as sentient animals.
Giving goldfish away as fairground prizes was popularised in the 1920s by Billy Butlin, the holiday camp king.
Apart from making hoopla easier, so that customers won more often and kept coming back, Mr Butlin – later Sir Billy - found that goldfish were the key to the runaway success of his Skegness fairground stalls.
A long campaign against the practice has claimed that thousands of the fish are dumped in unsuitable ponds or even flushed down the lavatory.
Local council bans against the awarding of goldfish as prizes will remain in place in areas including Woking and Liverpool, where the former Liberal MP Lord Alton decided to quit the Commons in 1992 because his party supported abortion but passed a conference resolution against fairground goldfish prizes.
The leading fish hobbyist magazine Practical Fishkeeping reported in September 2003 that three Hampshire local authorities had banned the use of goldfish as prizes due to pressure from animal rights protesters, then shortly after reported the Liverpool council ban.
Practical Fishkeeping's Technical Editor, Matt Clarke, said: "The fishkeeping world will be very disappointed that this has been dropped from the proposed Animal Welfare Bill. The majority of goldfish won as prizes at fairs are kept in inappropriate conditions before they are won, and inevitably suffer when they finally reach home.
"Goldfish should never be kept in unfiltered aquariums or bowls, and must always be placed in properly de-chlorinated water. Hopefully, local authorities will take note and ban the giving of pets as prizes in their areas."
The magazine recently ran one of its ‘People’s Poll’ features on the issue of whether the Government was right to back down on banning goldfish as prizes at fairgrounds?
The vast majority of readers voted in the affirmative, the results being:
Yes. The Government was
wrong. 89 % (451)
No. They are only goldfish.
8 % (42)
Maybe 3 % (16)
Supporters of the ‘tradition’ that fairground goldfish are a hallowed part of childhood quote the pampered life of Tish, a roll-the-penny goldfish prize which lived for a world-record 43 years, despite trying to jump out of his bowl after the death of his companion Tosh at the age of 19
The wider implications of this volte face will be examined in a forthcoming issue