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Volume 300: debated on Thursday 13 November 1997

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what plans he has to update the British zoo licensing system; and if he will make a statement.[16049]

British zoos have a deservedly high reputation for their progressive approach; the way in which their animals are kept and cared for; and the contribution they make to the conservation of endangered species through scientific research and captive breeding programmes. They have also played an important part in increasing public awareness of, and interest in, species conservation issues. It is now more than 10 years since the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 came into operation, and we believe it is time to update the system to reflect the changes in the role management of zoos which have taken place during this time, and to ensure that consistently high standards are maintained in all British zoos.We have therefore undertaken a review of the Act. Having considered the views of a wide range of organisations concerned with zoos, we have concluded that the system is fundamentally sound and generally working well. However, we believe that there are some areas in which improvements can be made.We propose to make a number of changes to modernise the system. The main elements are:

a review of the Secretary of State's standards of modern zoo practice, with a view to encouraging greater efforts by zoos to promote conservation;
closer monitoring of local authorities' performance and strengthened advice from central government to local councils and zoo operators;
the establishment of a broadly-based Zoos Forum to oversee the zoo licensing system and advise Ministers. We propose that the Forum should comprise representatives of local authorities, voluntary bodies, and independent animal welfare and public safety experts;
more flexible zoo inspection teams (though we believe that the requirement for teams to include a veterinary expert and one other inspector appointed by the Secretary of State should remain, and there would be no change to the frequency of inspections);
tightening the inspection arrangements by encouraging local authorities to use their existing powers to undertake informal, unannounced inspections at least annually,
supporting measures to improve the zoo standards throughout the European Community.

This is balanced package which will improve the level and consistency of standards throughout British zoos, strengthen their role in wildlife conservation, and reduce unnecessary bureaucracy. They will enable us to make a system which is already good even better, and by promoting greater openness and wider consultation, should help to increase public confidence in the zoo licensing system as a whole.

We now want to seek the views of those directly involved with or interested in zoos before finalising our package of improvements, and we have today issued a consultation paper setting out our proposals in more detail.

I would hope that all those with a concern for standards in our zoos will feel able to contribute, and we will certainly consider carefully all comments and proposals which we receive.

Copies of the consultation paper have been placed in the House of Commons and House of Lords libraries.