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Covid-19: Zoos and Aquariums

Volume 689: debated on Monday 8 February 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

It is with great pride that I rise virtually today to speak up for the zoo and aquarium sector—a sector that every year makes a substantial contribution to our society and to the world at large. The members of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums contribute more than £31 million to conservation projects. Those projects protect, conserve and add to our understanding of precious species, from seahorses to elephants, many of which are now on the precipice of extinction as a result of human actions on this planet. Aquariums and zoos inspire more than 1.2 million schoolchildren every year through learning outside their usual classroom experiences. They employ more than 11,000 people and bring an economic benefit to this country of more than £650 million.

I would like to thank the members of the all-party parliamentary group for zoos and aquariums for all the work that they do on behalf of these fantastic organisations. Because I am unable to take interventions, I would like to mention the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who secured an Adjournment debate last summer to raise the issues that zoos and aquariums were then facing, after which the Government announced the zoo animals fund. I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), for that, and I thank the hon. Member for Romford for all the work he has done. However, the APPG has since expressed grave concerns about the lack of funding that has been released and the fact that the sector has not received the specific support it requires in this pandemic and is now in urgent need of help.

I am deeply motivated in this matter by the plight of one of Hull’s iconic landmarks and great success stories: The Deep aquarium. My first visit to The Deep was as a newly graduated teacher, shortly after it opened in 2002. The building, designed by Sir Terry Farrell, remains as striking today as it was then. The experience inside lived up to the promise outside. I was impressed that, while it clearly inspired and captivated its visitors with its astonishing deep-sea tanks and fantastic collection of creatures, it tackled difficult issues too, such as ocean acidification, species loss and the urgency of protecting our marine habitats, in the same innovative, engaging manner.

Since its opening, this educational and environmental charity has continued to engage and enchant visitors from all corners of the globe, and to inspire future generations. A lottery-funded millennium project, The Deep was conceived as a catalyst for regeneration in Hull—a continuation of the city’s historic relationship with the sea and a focus for reimagining the waterfront for the 21st century. It is, by some considerable margin, the most successful of the lottery-funded millennium projects, and this success is not an accident. From the very start, those involved knew how vital it was for the city that the project was sustainable. Intense effort went into every aspect of the planning, especially the finances. Visitor estimates were deliberately conservative and budgets were meticulously scrutinised. The Deep would wash its face from day one, and it did.

As it turned out, 850,000 people visited The Deep in its first year—well beyond the numbers planned. The Deep now contributes £14.8 million of economic benefit every year to the city of Hull. It employs 130 local people and is home to 345 species of animals, including rescue loggerhead turtles and its most recent addition, a breeding colony of penguins. 2019 saw over 33,000 children from the surrounding area visit as a part of their formal education. The Deep also operates a successful partnership with Hull University, supporting dissertation and master’s students each year, and housing its total environment simulator, a state-of-art research facility that is in constant use. The simulator supports 10 high-skilled jobs and has attracted £10 million of research funding into the university over the last three years.

The Deep is now an integral part of our identity as a city, and of both the monetary and learning economy of Hull. I share the pride of everyone in the city in being home to such a well-respected charity—one that contributes so much to the conservation and welfare of precious species. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to speak on behalf of The Deep, and the rest of the industry, in bringing the urgent issues facing zoos and aquariums to the attention of the Minister.

The pandemic has meant that, since March last year, The Deep, which relies on visitor income to operate and support its work, has so far been closed to the public for 32 weeks, with no firm reopening date in sight. It is highly likely that indoor attractions will be among the last to reopen, and with daily animal care costs of £5,500, this normally self-sufficient charity is facing an uncertain future. It has survived this far on its own reserves, on what was generated during the short restricted opening in the summer, from much welcome local public support, and with a loan. However, this money is fast running out.

The whole sector is of course grateful for the coronavirus job retention scheme, and I know that The Deep has furloughed 90% of its crew. But just as in other establishments, those caring for the animals cannot be furloughed—those scuba diving in the huge tanks to care for the needs of all the animals, feeding the penguins and providing ongoing rehabilitation for two loggerhead turtles are needed every day. As with many of the animals, there is no option of a return to the wild for these two turtles. Sensa and Mabouche have suffered lower jaw amputations from being caught on long lines and propeller blade damage to their shells, resulting in nerve damage. There is no prospect of them surviving in the outside world. They now have their forever home at The Deep, as one of the only aquariums in the UK with the facilities to care for them.

As I have said, I cannot take interventions, but I have been asked by the hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) to mention Marwell Zoo, on the edge of his constituency, and I am happy to do so. On its behalf, he would like to call on the Minister to consider a commitment to the earliest possible safe reopening. Marwell was able to open under tier 3 restrictions, as it was considered able to offer secure venues and open green spaces. It would like to impress on the Minister the current extreme financial pressures it is experiencing, which are jeopardising the future of the important conservation and educational work it does.

I wish also to mention the marine research work done on commercialising carbon-sequestering seagrass by the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, which is being championed by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard).

The loss of an aquarium or zoo such as Marwell, the National Marine Aquarium or my beloved The Deep would not only wipe out the conservation work these facilities undertake but devastate the local economy. It would result in the loss of much-needed jobs and reduce educational opportunities for 1.2 million children—particularly in science, technology, engineering and maths—as well as graduate and postgraduate learning and vital research projects.

I acknowledge and thank the Minister for recognising, although to a limited extent, the unique position of the industry through the creation of the zoo animals fund. Although the sector’s income was reduced to nil for the majority of the last year, it cannot compromise on its substantial animal care costs. They are fixed and non-negotiable. It is true that the zoo animals fund has had the deadline for applications extended until 28 February. However, I must bring to the Minister’s attention the fact that all parts of the sector have told me that that has no practical benefit. The fund remains incomparable with recovery funds put in place successfully for other sectors.

The zoo animals fund supports only animal costs, not the costs associated with supporting the organisations through this pandemic, and, crucially, these funds become accessible too late in the day for large zoos and aquariums. They simply cannot run with resources as low as eligibility for the fund requires. It is in effect a winding-up fund, available to support the costs of rehoming the animals or downsizing a collection should a facility fail; I do not want The Deep to fail. That is why, from the £100 million available, £94 million of the zoo animals fund remains and only 8% of the sector has managed to access the fund—that is, 33 facilities out of 400.

For the vast majority of zoos and aquariums, those funds are inaccessible at the point at which they would do any good. The fact that 94% of the fund lies untapped when zoos and aquariums are likely to continue to remain closed for some time to come should make it clear that the fund is not functioning to provide the support intended in a timely manner. There is therefore a clear need for the Government to commit to amend the scheme so that it becomes a true recovery fund, as we have seen implemented so proactively elsewhere in the cultural and heritage sector. Such a fund is needed to support the teams who have worked painstakingly throughout the pandemic to conserve the species in their care and to safeguard the many benefits to society, the economy and the environment that they provide. It seems only right and proper that we fight for the survival of a sector that takes such considerable time and effort to fight for conservation and the survival of the natural world.

If the Government genuinely believe, as they stated in their 2019 manifesto, that:

“Conservation is, and always has been, at the heart of Conservatism”,

they should have no hesitation in protecting the sector that is at the forefront of much of this work with money they have already ring-fenced but not actioned. I would like to remind the Minister that this is an industry that contributes over £650 million a year to the UK economy.

So, my ask. The British and Irish Association for Zoos and Aquariums is calling for the remaining funding allocated for the zoos and aquariums fund to be ring-fenced and made available to support zoo licence holders in the 2021-22 financial year in the form of a zoo recovery fund. This should not be an extension of the existing emergency zoo animals fund, which as I have explained is not meeting the needs of the sector, but a recovery fund similar to those made available to other visitor attraction sectors, such as the cultural recovery fund.

The recovery fund should focus on supporting zoos and aquariums as they transition back to a viable and sustainable operating model during the 2021-22 financial year, by covering the shortfall between operating costs and income until restrictions are lifted; support zoo and aquarium operations more fully, including in their key statutory mission work in conservation, education and research, to sustain these vital projects during the recovery period; and require organisations to demonstrate the financial impact of covid on their income, rather than needing to be close to running out of reserves to access support, which will enable the fund to support a wider proportion of the sector to recovery in a more timely manner.

I ask the Minister to consider these steps as a necessary response to the shifting context of the pandemic. Further, this action is consistent with the Government’s stated desires to support the sector through covid-19, and in particular to avoid animal welfare concerns and ensure that otherwise successful zoos and aquariums are match-fit and ready to thrive post covid. By contrast, allowing support to cease at the end of this financial year would not align with the Government’s arguments put forward throughout 2020, nor would it be consistent with the support provided to other sectors in the visitor economy.

I have spoken already of the fantastic work that The Deep charity does and the wonderful animals that call it home. I will finish by mentioning my favourite creature from The Deep, the great diving beetle. That fantastic insect carries its own air supply with it from the surface, in the form of a bubble attached to its rear. It forages at the bottom of ponds, lakes and streams, returning to the surface to replenish its supply of air when needed. The sector’s air supply is running out, and the very necessary covid-19 restrictions are preventing its return to the surface. A realignment of the zoo animals fund into a zoo recovery fund to support those important organisations over the coming months would provide the air they need and help to ensure their survival.

I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) for securing this important debate. She is right to be proud of The Deep. It is the largest aquarium in the UK and an international player in marine conservation. It was lovely to hear more about some of the animals and other creatures for which it cares so well, and to hear the passion with which the hon. Lady spoke about them.

I also thank hon. Members from across the House for their extensive engagement with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on zoos and aquariums since the outbreak of the pandemic. The hon. Lady will remember—as may you, Mr Deputy Speaker —that the last Adjournment debate on this subject went on for some three hours. I do not know that this one will, but I single out two hon. Members who would like to be with us: my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), already referred to, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group; and my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who has the honour to represent Whipsnade and has made a lot of the running in this area.

I thank the zoos, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries that have worked so hard to ensure the welfare of the animals in their care. Zoos, as we have heard, contribute to conservation and education, helping both to sustain endangered species and to teach us all about animals’ natural habitats. We know, too, how hard zoos have worked to provide well managed covid-secure spaces, when they have been permitted to open. We ensured that the outdoor areas of zoos could open after the first lockdown, and we allowed those areas to remain open in tier 4 before Christmas.

We will continue to press the case for zoos to be allowed to open as it is safe to do so. A great deal of work on the procedure for reopening is under way, and our officials are working very closely with the sector on safe guidance for that. We understand the particular issues of indoor areas, to which the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle referred.

I reassure the House that Government support schemes remain in place and available for zoos to access. Zoos can apply, and are applying heavily, for furlough, VAT deferral, business rates relief, the business interruption loan schemes, the option to reclaim the costs of statutory sick pay, and ordinary hospitality and leisure grant funding.

In addition, as we heard, we set up the zoo animals fund to help zoos at immediate risk and to prevent the unnecessary euthanasia of animals. The priority of the fund is to ensure that animal welfare is maintained. This fund, together with its predecessor, the zoo support fund, has supported a wide variety of zoos, both large and small. We are continually keeping the fund under review, and it is fair to say that we have already made significant changes to it. We now allow claims not just for feeding livestock but for maintenance and repair, for example, and we have extended the fund to run until the end of the month to allow for the impacts of the latest lockdown. We now also allow zoos to claim when they have reached their last 12 weeks of reserves, and they can start the application at any point in the run-up to that period. I would strongly encourage zoos to apply to the fund .

I am aware that The Deep is in conversation with my officials, and I know that it has furloughed staff and tried hard to reduce its running costs. I am also aware that it has received a substantial loan from the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. I have talked to Lord Goldsmith, who leads on this policy area, about this again today, and we will continue to monitor the effectiveness of the fund with a view to ensuring that it is meeting its aims. We have already made changes to the zoos fund in order to move flexibly and adapt to the changing circumstances of the pandemic. I know that Lord Goldsmith will be following this debate with interest, and he has asked me to reassure the hon. Lady and the House that the fund is very much being kept under active review. I can assure the House that the Government fully appreciate the value of well-managed zoos to society, and I am very much looking forward to the day when they are able to open again and we can all visit them.

House adjourned.