Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)
It is with great pride that I rise today to speak up for all those magnificent institutions, organisations and charities throughout the United Kingdom who work tirelessly in the cause of conservation, education and research, the protection of endangered species, and animal welfare. Indeed, our great British zoos, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries demonstrate the very best our nation has to offer to the world in looking after the amazing creatures of land, sea and air with whom we are so privileged to share this planet.
However, I do so with great sadness and fear—fear of what may be to come as our zoos, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries now face some of the most challenging times they have ever had to deal with. That is why I call upon all Members of this House, and especially the Prime Minister and Her Majesty’s Government, to take action this day to ensure that these magnificent institutions so dedicated to the survival and welfare of the animal kingdom do not face extinction themselves.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on zoos and aquariums, may I thank the Minister and the Government for the excellent co-operation they have shown in liaising with so many of our animal welfare organisations in recent weeks? The Prime Minister, as we all know, is someone who supports with gusto the fantastic conservation, education and research work being undertaken by zoos and aquariums across the country. It is with great pleasure that I invite the Minister here today, along with the Prime Minister, to visit London zoo with me, as soon as it is possible to do so, to see at first hand our British conservation sector at work here in the United Kingdom, and to learn about all their tremendous achievements in protecting endangered species across the globe. I am proud to support a Government who hold animal welfare in the highest regard, along with the conservation of the natural world.
I know my hon. Friend is aware, having just mentioned London, of the very great importance in the scheme of things of Twycross zoo, which is very well run by its chairman and chief executive but is facing significant problems of financing at the moment. What advice does he have for the Government on how an institution like Twycross could be helped?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I have visited Twycross zoo. It is an excellent zoo. I have met the chairman and chief executive, Geoff Hoon, a former Member of this House, on many occasions. It is an example of a great zoo that is in desperate need of additional support at this time. I hope the Minister will address that very point when she speaks at the end of this debate.
With British families looking for a safe day out from their homes, as they can now do, when we face a mass-extinction crisis that we have never seen before in our history, when the fate of our natural heritage is reliant on the work of zoos, safari parks, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries, and when the Government have rightly committed to improving the natural environment and supporting conservation, we must not fail to arm and equip this country’s arsenal of conservationists.
I thank my great friend for allowing me to intervene. I do so because my hon. Friend, our colleague, puts a heck of a lot of effort into conservation of species. For example, he raised one hell of a lot of money to look after blue iguanas in the Cayman Islands. I know because I went there with him and they had increased from 20 and 200, largely thanks to my hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend is too generous. The blue iguana was on the brink of extinction in the Cayman Islands, which is a British overseas territory. I am pleased to say that that risk of extinction has now passed, with the support of many hon. Members. I pay tribute to the Government of the Cayman Islands for their work in ensuring that the wonderful blue iguana species continues to survive and thrive there.
We must support our zoos to carry on their incredible work, which is so admired around the world and supported so strongly by the British people. We are a nation of animal lovers.
I am glad that, wonderfully, our zoos and safari parks can open again on Monday, but we must also think of our animal welfare charities and sanctuaries. They also need enormous support. Many—80%—are in the open air and they should be included in the opening, but they also need to be looked after financially because many are suffering, and the welfare of our animals in those sanctuaries that do such good work must be considered too.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely correct. The Government have allowed zoos and safari parks to open, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Huge numbers of animal charities and organisations that care for animals all year round need the opportunity to open up, with social distancing, because they are in desperate straits. This is not just about zoos; it is about all animal welfare institutions across the country. Many Members have them in their constituencies and they all need guidance as soon as possible so that they can open and get back to normal.
Despite the fantastic news for zoos, particularly Chester zoo, does my hon. Friend share my concern that there is a risk that the narrow drafting of the regulations on reopening means that the likes of Cotebrook Shire Horse Centre in my constituency will be forced to remain closed for what are, I have to say, spurious reasons: it is not a business whose main activity is keeping for exhibition animals not normally domesticated in England? If those horses were from Ireland, I suspect it would be all right, but the centre faces potential financial ruin. It can open the retail shop on Monday, but has to keep its open fields closed.
My hon. Friend makes exactly the point that I will make later and that many Members feel strongly about. The matter needs to be resolved for organisations such as the shire horse centre in my hon. Friend’s constituency. They need clear guidance. It is not acceptable that there has been permission only for safari parks and zoos to open, when other organisations are perfectly able to do that and are in dire financial straits at this time. They need the Government to be much faster in their reactions to allow things to reopen as soon as possible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. I join him in welcoming the Government’s decision to allow zoos and aquariums to reopen on Monday. Does he agree that, on the wider issue of regulations, we are now in the most terrible muddle? The Office for National Statistics dip-test survey of the population that was announced at the weekend mercifully revealed that only one in 1,000 people now has covid-19. That is massively to be welcomed, but in that case, should not we start lifting restrictions much more widely to allow other types of business to reopen to get the country back to work while there is still an economy left that is worth saving?
We probably cannot extend the debate to other types of business—I am sure you would stop us doing so, Mr Deputy Speaker. However, I sympathise strongly with my fellow Essex MP. We need to get Britain working again; we have been through a terrible trauma, but we now need to get our economy back on its feet. I am delighted that zoos and safari parks are allowed to get back to working again and to open their doors, but we need to widen things further and as fast as possible.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way—he is being exceptionally generous with his time. Like him, I welcome the fact that zoos are reopening, and Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens in my constituency will also be glad to hear that. However, I also have Crocodiles of the World, which is the UK’s only crocodile zoo and which does essential conservation work. It will probably also be able to put in place social distancing. Should we not also look to see how we can help institutions such as that?
My hon. Friend is completely right. I did not know that he had Crocodiles of the World in his constituency. That is certainly one animal organisation I would love to visit. I have been to Crocodylus Park in Australia, but I did not know that Witney had such a great collection of crocodiles. However, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. All these organisations are lacking guidance; they need clear leadership from the Government. All of them need the opportunity to open as fast as possible; otherwise, they will go bankrupt, and we will see animals euthanised. It would be a tragedy if that started to happen.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I, too, welcome the news that zoos and wildlife parks are allowed to open from Monday. One of the most popular attractions in my constituency is Shepreth Wildlife Park, which is popular with not just my family but families across my constituency—so much so that when it had to close because of the coronavirus crisis, it was largely kept going by regular visitors coming in and giving donations of money. It really has been touch and go, but the park will survive, and I am committed to making sure it does. Zoos can reopen from Monday—they cannot completely reopen, because bits such as the aquariums and the insect facilities cannot reopen—but it does not end there. My question to my hon. Friend and the Minister is, will the Government commit to giving support to zoos in the future to ensure that they are not so indebted that they cannot carry on?
I am sure the Minister will respond to that point at the end of the debate. Suffice it to say that I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said. There needs to be a much more widespread reopening of all these animal institutions. It is not fair to single out some but leave others. Some of them are in desperate straits, and the Government need to act as soon as possible.
This is a precarious time, but thanks to the timely work of the Government, and the tireless dedication of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, some zoos and safari parks, as has been mentioned, are now able to reopen from 15 June—and not before time. As members of BIAZA, our zoos and aquariums are world-leading in the care, conservation and research they carry out with their animals. They would normally be inspiring over 35 million visitors a year. That is clearly not going to happen this year, but now our zoos and aquariums will at last be allowed to welcome some people through their doors to inspire them with the wonders of the natural world, while supporting the protection and advancement of nature that we are all so passionate about it in this House.
I commend my hon. Friend for this debate. Seeing so many Members in the House during an Adjournment debate is a reflection of the importance of this issue. My hon. Friend correctly pointed out that the number of visitors to zoos and aquariums is markedly lower than normal, but a lot of us have spent a lot more time during this global pandemic reaching out to nature. However, our children and schoolchildren are not yet able to benefit from going to zoos and aquariums. If anything, that makes it even more urgent for these establishments to be reopened.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Many children will not be returning to school, so this would be an ideal time to allow them and their parents to visit zoos and animal welfare organisations, given the educational benefits involved. That is another good reason why the Minister needs to hurry up and allow all these organisations to open as quickly as possible.
The limited reopening on 15 June will mean that visitors can once more hear the roar of the lions at Longleat, be inspired by the monkeys at Banham zoo and—my personal favourite—look up upon the astonishing beauty of the giraffes at such places as Twycross zoo, which was mentioned earlier. Of course, Twycross is one of Britain’s leading zoos, doing magnificent work, and is well represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans). He cannot be present, but I pay tribute to him. He has been a great champion in working with me to highlight the plight faced by theó zoo community.
In 2019, BIAZA members contributed more than £31 million directly to conservation, supported field conservation projects in 105 different countries around the world and protected many native species that would otherwise be on the precipice of extinction, including our own Scottish wildcat and pine hoverflies. I pay tribute to Edinburgh zoo, which I visited two years ago. The new director, David Field, used to be the director of London zoo. I pay tribute to the work that Edinburgh zoo is doing, particularly with the pandas. I do not know whether any Members have had the chance, but I recommend a visit to Edinburgh zoo to see the wonderful pandas. That is one import from China that we do not mind, isn’t it, Mr Deputy Speaker?
Zoos, aquariums and all animal welfare organisations will be essential if our Government are to meet their international obligations towards biodiversity, including the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, as well as the commitments that they made to the British people during the election in the 25-year environment plan. I am sure the Minister will refer to those in her closing remarks.
The reopening is something to be truly celebrated. However, we are not out of the woods by a long way. Many zoos, aquariums and tropical houses are still unable to open, as has been mentioned already. Being predominantly indoors, I freely accept that there is a higher risk from visiting those places, although I know that the Government have been listening to the sector very closely and so will understand that there is a pathway forward for those places that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.
The species survival commission of the world’s leading authority in conservation, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, recognises the burden to zoos and aquariums resulting from covid-19 closures. It is urging local and national authorities in the UK and devolved Administrations to reach out and prioritise those facilities for reopening and financial relief.
Jersey zoo is a splendid example of a British zoo that is not under the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom, being within a Crown dependency. This zoo does not have to obey UK Government guidelines, as Jersey has its own laws, and it has been a great example of a zoo that has opened much earlier than ours, and done so safely and with much success. Is it not wonderful that one of our Crown dependencies is leading the way? Perhaps we should follow that example.
In its letter to the Prime Minister, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria highlights the fact that 25% of its European endangered species breeding programmes are managed by UK zoos and aquariums. It is therefore vital that, as one of the leaders in the field, we ensure that things are moved forward much faster than at present. Such facilities include Hull’s fantastic The Deep aquarium, a linchpin of the local tourism economy, the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth, London’s own Sea Life aquarium and Somerset’s Tropiquaria zoo. Without visitors, their incomes have dropped to zero. That is despite the exceptionally high costs of continuing to provide excellent welfare to some of the world’s most endangered species.
As a closed building with staff furloughed, The Deep—one of the UK’s best aquariums—still has operating costs of £200,000 a month, and lockdown is expected to set back its business by £2.5 million by the end of this year. Sea Life London Aquarium has vet bills, utility bills, food bills and wages to pay, adding up to £100,000 per month to operate over the River Thames, just a few yards from this House. The National Marine Aquarium—the largest aquarium in the UK—which cares for creatures as diverse as barracudas, sharks and sea turtles, says that it costs £10,000 a day to run. The National Marine Aquarium and others need help now. They need help as soon as possible, Minister, or the real fear is that they will be lost.
All these organisations maintain very high standards of animal welfare and conduct vital conservation work. At the aquariums, the costly life-support systems are constantly running, and the operating costs are depleting any financial reserves that they had. Wildlife sanctuaries up and down the country are also caring for thousands of neglected animals. They need clarity and support, as organisations dedicated to animal conservation.
I am proud to be a member of the Wellgate Community Farm, which is located on the boundary of my constituency, in Collier Row, and promotes the care of farm animals in Romford and the surrounding area. I am also honoured to serve as a patron of the Remus Memorial Horse Sanctuary in Essex, which cares for many abandoned horses and farm animals. Those types of organisation need to be allowed to reopen too, and I hope that the Minister will feel able to clarify that point in her remarks.
Reopening is welcome, but it does not fully address the problem that our zoos, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries are facing. Lockdown has left zoos, safari parks and aquariums reeling from its financial impact. Normally, these institutions receive 80% of their visitor income between the spring and the end of the summer—so we are right in the middle of the season—and they have lost a considerable proportion of that, putting their future in a deeply precarious position. The chief executive of the Yorkshire Wildlife Park recently revealed that lockdown had led to a £5 million loss in revenue for it. Chester zoo has announced that it will likely see a staggering £24 million of debt by the end of the year. The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) will hopefully say a few words later, and I thank him for all his support as a vice-chairman of the all-party group for zoos and aquariums. We work so well together because we are passionate about this issue, as I know so many Members are.
While safety restrictions limiting the numbers of visitors are required to maintain public safety, for some zoos that further reduces their ability to recuperate from the financial blow of lockdown. Normally, Chester Zoo would be receiving 20,000 visitors through its gates per day at its peak, whereas it is now reopening with restricted entry to only 3,000 visitors.
Already, these organisations have undergone drastic changes in a bid to survive. The Zoological Society of East Anglia, a charity that looks after Banham Zoo and Africa Alive!, is undergoing enormous restructuring, which has included job cuts, as the pandemic has left it with a £1.5 million deficit. Weather conditions in the preceding winter have further rocked the financial starting point. It is fair to say that, in many ways, these fantastic conservation organisations now face back-to-back winters, with not much of a break in between.
I am grateful to the Government for the support they have offered thus far, such as the zoos support fund and the guidance on job retention. But I have to tell the Minister that, while I appreciate it, that support just will not be sufficient—a lot more needs to be done.The time is right for the Government to introduce new, expansive and comprehensive financial aid for the sector, which can then continue its fight for the nature that we all cherish and must not take for granted.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he share my concern that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs turned down the zoo-fund application by the Isle of Wight zoo in Sandown because it had more than six weeks of operating income? The qualifying period was far too short and has left many zoos under extreme financial pressure.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. There are a lot of anomalies in the whole system: some zoos seem to be getting support while others are not, for various reasons, technical or whatever. The reality is that some of these organisations will close permanently if the Government do not rethink the extra support that they need at this time. I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely valid point. I had a great time when I visited the Isle of Wight, including the donkey sanctuary there; I know that my hon. Friend wants me to visit the sanctuary again, which I would be pleased to do.
BIAZA has helpfully suggested a number of ways that the Government could support this essential sector. I know the Minister will carefully consider the proposals, and I am sure she would be willing to meet me and BIAZA to discuss them in greater detail as soon as possible. Grant-based solutions will be the most effective for the sector, but there are a number of other suggestions, too. First, loans with longer repayment periods and more favourable terms would be welcomed, as the repayment plans for coronavirus business interruption loans and other loans are currently unachievable at a time when zoos and aquariums cannot predict how many visitors they will be able to welcome over the coming months.
Secondly, flexibility in the furlough scheme would also allow zoos and aquariums to adapt the scheme to their needs. As it stands, 60% of staff are estimated to have been furloughed across BIAZA zoos and aquariums. That is significantly less than other sectors, as keeping staff are essential to the maintenance of high standards of animal welfare. I can understand the Chancellor’s reticence in not allowing furloughed staff to volunteer their time, but given that we cannot put a lion on furlough, and therefore neither can we furlough its keeper, I wonder if an exception might be made for those hard-working keepers to support critical animal welfare at this time. Why can they not come back as volunteers to help in the zoos and care for the animals that they are used to? The animals are familiar with their keepers. To say that they are furloughed and therefore banned from entering the zoo, even as volunteers, is absolutely wrong. The policy has been wrong right the way through and needs to be changed as a matter of urgency.
Charities are liable to pay 20% of the business rates chargeable, and local authorities have the ability to waive those rates. I ask that across the nation we see that discretion removed and charities given the lifeline of having the charges waved at this time of crisis. The system enabling the deferment of VAT has to be welcomed; however, zoos and aquariums are unlikely to be able to make the deferred payments on the current timetable. Extending the timetable would be most welcomed by conservation organisations. Allowing zoos and aquariums to claim gift aid on 2019 visitor levels would provide a substantial boost to the financial viability of the charities and trusts that run zoos, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries. There are more suggestions and I could go on for a lot longer, but I know the Minister will explore them all in depth, and I hope we will come back to the matter very soon.
Thanks to the Government’s decisive action and the fortitude of the great British people, we are today meeting the challenges of coronavirus. That means that we can carefully open garden centres, markets and gardens, and, now, some of our essential wildlife organisations. Zoos throughout the country have followed the most up-to-date guidance and shared best practice between themselves. I implore Members of this House to support their local zoos at this time and arrange a visit as soon as they can to see for themselves the amazing work happening, which deserves our enthusiastic support.
I am pleased to be able to extend BIAZA’s invitation not only to the Minister but to the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to visit one of its member zoos to see for themselves the transformative adaptions of these places to fight against coronavirus and the amazing conservation work they do, and to witness how visitors can enjoy acres of open outdoors without putting themselves or their loved ones at risk. I am sure you will be pleased to hear, Mr Deputy Speaker, that when visiting these zoos, different households will be maintaining a social distance of the length of roughly one average zebra, or the wingspan of a golden eagle, or two thirds of a common hippopotamus from one another. It is possible to visit, and I hope that Members will take that opportunity.
The Government have taken steps to address what was quickly becoming an emergency in our animal sanctuaries, but this is not the end of the story. Financial support must be forthcoming for all zoos and aquariums, because whether they care for big cats or coral reefs, whether they are a sanctuary for native wildlife or reintroducing endangered species, they are still in trouble, and they need our help. We must not let coronavirus make the United Kingdom’s proud record on conservation become endangered itself.
May I start by thanking the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for allowing me to speak in the debate? I pay tribute to his outstanding opening contribution, which set the tone. I go beyond that and thank and congratulate him on the leadership he has consistently shown on this issue over many years. It is inclusive leadership, which takes in the detail of the case so very often. As we saw from his contribution, the work that he does is detailed and well informed, which makes it so much easier for the rest of us, because he does the hard miles. He is a fantastic leader of the all-party parliamentary group on zoos and aquariums, and I for one am extremely grateful to him.
Growing up in Cheshire, a visit to the zoo, whether with my family or with the school, was always a highlight. A visit with my family to Chester zoo, which lies within my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), is always a great highlight, as it is for so many other families around my neck of the woods.
It has been a difficult couple of weeks for the zoo, for the reasons that my friend, the hon. Member for Romford, talked about. It ran a high-profile public campaign, which I must inform the House it did not want to run. For a couple of weeks beforehand, it was briefing me and other interested parties on the difficulty of the situation, for all the reasons outlined by the hon. Gentleman: its responsibilities to maintain animal welfare; its responsibilities to maintain the scientific basis for which it is renowned; and its inability to do so because money was, quite frankly, running out. It made the very difficult decision to go public just over a week ago, when the Government made it clear that zoos were not allowed to reopen.
If I have a criticism of the Government at that point, it is that no reason was given for why zoos could not reopen. We know, for example, that IKEA was allowed to reopen, and I am pleased for it. We know that Kew Gardens was allowed to reopen, and it is a beautiful place to visit. Chester zoo lies in 128 acres of parkland and gardens. The inconsistency was not easy to understand.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the leadership he has shown in the campaign and the excellent result we have got. Obviously, there are further things we need to do to secure the future of all the zoos in the country, but it is a good start. On the point of consistency, part of the zoo is in my constituency, as he has rightly pointed out, but also in my constituency is the Blue Planet aquarium. Unfortunately, as we have heard, it is not going to be able to reopen. Can he understand the confusion we have, where Cheshire Oaks, which has hundreds of shops with confined spaces, is basically next door to the aquarium and is able to reopen next week, but the Blue Planet aquarium will not?
My hon. Friend gives the perfect illustration of the confusion that the organisations feel and that members of the public will feel. I say to Ministers, to the Government and to Government Members who are speaking to Ministers that they should try to treat the public with a bit of respect. If there is a reason for the closures, they should explain it to us. They should tell us why some things can open and others cannot, but should not be inconsistent or illogical, for the very reason that my hon. Friend has talked about.
Chester zoo is a huge expanse of parkland and gardens. It is not like some small private animal collection somewhere. It is a big outdoor event, and it is not opening any of its indoor attractions. My personal favourite, the bat house, as well as the camel house and the chimpanzee viewing area—all will be closed. Only the outdoor viewing areas will be open. The zoo has put in place very careful visitor management procedures regulating the flows within the zoo, but limiting, as my good friend the hon. Member for Romford talked about, the number of visitors outside the zoo, including by managing the car parks correctly, so that all visitors will be covid-safe.
Those procedures have been given the seal of approval by safety officers from the local authority, so Chester zoo is akin to so many others in the work that it has done to ensure that it is safe for visitors. The Government, I hope, will take that into account when they are considering further regulations or the relaxation of further regulations right across the patch.
I rise as someone who has contributed to Chester zoo—two Barbary apes, Iggy and Flossie. They were married. Well, she was a rather reluctant bride, but they were married. We, the Cheshire Regiment, sent them all the way back from the middle east to Chester zoo. I do not suppose they will still be alive, but there was a little plaque there that stated, “Iggy and Flossie: a gift of the Cheshire Regiment.” The hon. Gentleman knows the story. I say no more.
Ah, yes, the story of Iggy and Flossie from the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham and the contribution of the Cheshire Regiment, as was then. His reputation is very sound in Chester, and it is well known in this House. Mr Deputy Speaker, would the House mind if I did not recount the story of Iggy and Flossie? It is perhaps best left for the bar when it reopens, knowing him, as we all do.
The work of the zoo is not simply as a visitor attraction. The hon. Member for Romford has talked about that. Chester zoo was founded by George Mottershead as a zoo without bars, but it has become a world conservation centre. In particular, I am always proud to talk about the work that it is doing on sustainable palm oil. Chester zoo is itself leading on the campaign to take palm oil produced in mass plantations in south-east Asia out of the food production chain and the consumer products production chain, and instead to use palm oil produced in plantations that do not completely destroy the rainforest in those areas, thereby conserving the habitats of many magnificent creatures, such as orangutans.
Let us be clear: as soon as budgets start to dwindle—the hon. Member for Romford is right that Chester zoo is losing hundreds of thousands of pounds every month and will make a loss this year—those conservation programmes are the first to go. The work that is being led in the United Kingdom and is being undertaken to maintain habitats across the world will therefore be very badly damaged. It is absolutely essential, therefore, that zoos are able to continue to bring in the income, which is providing not just jobs and tourism revenue, but a real difference across the world in terms of ecology.
In paying tribute to the work of the zoo, I have to say that the zoo’s management team has been absolutely outstanding in ensuring that the zoo is ready to open, and that the public will be protected, and I thank it for that.
I was just about to turn to my hon. Friend and next door neighbour, so I will give way.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. One of the most important aspects of the zoo’s work is with the schools in my constituency, which is, no doubt, the case in his constituency. Does he agree that that kind of important ecological work needs to carry on, and that, given the difficulty we have with schools going back, we need to make sure that that work is given some extra focus in the months ahead?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I visited Chester zoo many times as a child, as I am sure he and other hon. Members did. That link with the natural world ties in with our responsibilities as a human race not to destroy the planet, but to leave it in a better condition than we found it in. That can be done in practical ways, as I have talked about with palm oil and as the hon. Member for Romford has also mentioned. Talking to our youngsters and giving them an appreciation of the wider world is important. Of course, it is about the animals, but it is also about the biodiversity and the habitats in which the animals live.
I want to thank the public for their massive support for Chester Zoo. I had so many hon. Members asking me, “What’s happening with the zoo?” That was because they had received so many emails. In one of numerous conversations that I have had with the zoo management last week, they said, “Chris, we are going to set up an email campaign so that people can email their MPs to tell them that they want to keep the zoo open.” I thanked them very much, but I did not mean it. Hon. Members from right across the House have been touched by this campaign. I will not be begrudging with the Minister at this stage. The hon. Member for Romford was right on that. I am pleased that the decision was reversed. Much more needs to be done, but I am grateful that Ministers did listen finally and took the decision. I thank the public for their support for Chester zoo and their support for the work that Chester zoo has undertaken and will continue to undertake, and I commend the hon. Gentleman for his leadership, which does have an effect in the United Kingdom and right across the globe.
As hon. Members can see, there is quite a bit of interest in this debate, so please be mindful of that when you are making contributions, particularly of the length of the contribution.
I congratulate both my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) on their fantastic speeches. It is a testament to how important this issue is that the Chamber is this full on a Thursday afternoon.
When people ask me where I am the Member of Parliament for, I normally say Whipsnade zoo, because it is by far the best known part of my constituency. It occupies 600 stunningly beautiful acres of the south Bedfordshire countryside and it is a part of the Zoological Society of London, which is joined with Whipsnade zoo, so London zoo and Whipsnade zoo are both part ZSL, the same organisation.
I wish to start with a big thank you to the Minister. I have said on a number of occasions that her Department, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has been—if I can put it this way—on the side of the angels in this debate. It has been standing up for zoos and doing the right thing, so I would like to pass on my thanks to her and the Department for what they have done. Monday will be a great day. At 10 o’clock on Monday morning, Whipsnade zoo will open. There is a morning session and an afternoon session. I urge people to please go on the website and book. If they are going in the morning, they should go early so that they can make the most of it—they should not turn up in the late morning as they will not get full enjoyment from the experience. They should go on the website and book because normally in the Easter and May bank holiday periods Whipsnade will take in just under £8 million of income, so that is £8 million of income that it has lost. It costs the zoo £2.3 million a month to run London and Whipsnade zoos and do all the vital global conservation research work. They are in a £25 million black hole.
As the hon. Member for City of Chester said absolutely rightly, it is the vital conservation work that will be first to go. Of course London and Whipsnade zoos will put the animals—their 20,000 animals—first, as they should, but no one here wants to see that vital conservation work go, because it is so important. The ZSL research provides the Living Planet Index, which tells us of our indescribably awful biodiversity loss. Members will know from the United Nations report last year that 1 million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many of those within decades. Since the 16th century, we have already lost 680 vertebrate species, and I do not want us to lose any more on our watch. It is too important: we must stick up for nature and the glorious animal kingdom.
Whipsnade does so much. It has reintroduced tigers to Nepal, Kenya and Indonesia, and rhinos to Nepal and Kenya. It has helped restore coral reefs in the Philippines, and it has helped get angel sharks back off the coast of Wales and even seals and eels in the Thames right next to this building. And these zoos mean so much. I spoke to a lady in my constituency last week who has given all her holiday money to the zoo; it meant that much to her. People really do care about this in this country.
However, the costs are huge and ongoing, and the income has been eliminated. That is why I say to the Minister that the first part—the reopening—is excellent and fantastic, and thank you so much, but we need a multimillion pound package so that we do not lose the vital global conservation work. The research by Whipsnade led to the Dasgupta review, which played quite a significant part in helping to bring COP26 to the United Kingdom.
Not to put too fine a point on it, it is a little irritating to Whipsnade and London zoos that they see institutions such as Kew and the Natural History Museum regularly getting significant amounts of Government money, whereas I do not think any of the zoos we have talked about today are in receipt of Government funding. These are institutions that are normally financially self-sustainable and do not come cap in hand to the Government, but they have had their income taken away and their costs have continued. That is why I have one more request, please Minister, for one more final shove: let us get this multimillion-pound package to help all our zoos survive and not lose that vital conservation work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) gets a result before he has even opened his mouth. That is certainly an example to other parliamentarians of how to do things, and I pay tribute to him for his great work in this field.
Just like my hon. Friend, I am an animal lover. In fact, we have been all over the world, and hon. Members can be reassured that whenever I travel with him there is always a visit to a zoo. We have been to Shanghai zoo to see the pandas and to Madagascar to see the lemurs, and all over the world we have seen these marvellous animals. Before I forget, my hon. Friend mentioned Edinburgh zoo and the pandas there—I have been there—and I think we should get our money back. These two pandas were leased from China on the basis that there would be the pitter-patter of tiny feet, and for a long while now the Scottish people have waited for something to happen but it is not happening. However, as my hon. Friend said, it is good that China is at least prepared to lease these animals.
My long-suffering mother had a small child who was animal mad. Every time I wanted to be taken out I wanted to go to a zoo, so we went to a zoo. I wanted to ride on an animal, and there I would be in the queue with the ice-cream—a 99—melting as we eventually got to the animal at the front. In those days, of course, we could ride on practically anything, although I do not think I ever rode on a lion or a tiger. However, I did see Guy the Gorilla.
My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke about Whipsnade, which is an absolutely fantastic place, and I love the giraffes there. Zoos are very controversial, but I will not have a word said against them.
Can my hon. Friend update me on the fate of Basildon zoo, a gem of my childhood? It was in a disadvantaged area, and we needed a zoo; it gave me a chance to go somewhere, and we did not have to pay a lot of money to get there. What is the fate of Basildon zoo?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think she was a small child at the time and lived around the corner from the zoo. When I was the Member for Basildon zoo, the zoo gave a great deal of pleasure to people and the animals were well looked after, but of course there was a campaign to close the zoo, and sadly it no longer exists.
In this modern day and age, in the zoos I have seen the keepers love the animals, which are very well looked after. We do not keep polar bears in zoos, and the big cats are not pacing up and down anymore, so I think, by and large that our animals in zoos are well looked after, alongside those in safari parks.
I am going to say something that will upset—
Well, it will not upset my hon. and gallant Friend.
It certainly will upset me.
I am grateful for the opportunity to intervene on my good friend the Member for Southend zoo. I think zoos have a hugely important task in saving animals, and I speak from personal experience. I found a European brown bear in a cage in no-man’s land. It had existed there with nothing for three weeks. My soldiers and I lifted the bear up—it was called MacKenzie and it was big, 7 feet—took it away and managed to get it into Amsterdam zoo, where it had a glorious rest of life, rather than being stuck in a cage in the middle of Bosnia with no food and no water. Zoos do a great job in preserving bears like MacKenzie.
My hon. Friend has a big heart, and has just very much proved that by what he has said; that was a wonderful thing to do.
I am going to say something slightly controversial, however: I am not a fan of safaris. In fact, I wish safaris were not advertised as much as they are now, because, frankly, on a number of these safari expeditions the animals which just happen to appear are not kept terribly well.
The hon. Gentleman mentions safaris. One of the things that strikes me about our zoos and wildlife parks in this country is that they afford the opportunity for families and children to become acquainted with animals, many of them endangered species, or the pandas that I have in the zoo in Edinburgh West—not just in my constituency but almost well within earshot of the lions. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that our zoos are a wonderful educational facility for people who will perhaps never have the opportunity to visit South Africa, or any other part of Africa, and take part in a safari?
I absolutely do agree with the hon. Lady, and I must say I think the Isle of Wight zoo is also a superb—I have visited it a number of times.
I am very keen on safari parks. I have been on a number of safaris: we get in all the gear, get in a boneshaker of a vehicle, get bitten by mosquitoes, and then we are told we are going to see all the wild animals, but half the time we cannot see them, but then I do not particularly want to see lions eating other animals.
To get back to zoos, a number of them have rescued animals from circuses. Those animals live a lot longer than they otherwise would, and are very well cared for indeed.
I want to say something to my parliamentary colleagues on this side of the House. This is the best attended Adjournment debate on an animal welfare measure since my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) had an Adjournment debate about 30 years ago, when the now noble Lord Waldegrave responded, about the little monkeys we used to see sitting on top of pianos and so forth. It is wonderful that so many colleagues on the Government side have become so enthusiastic about animal welfare again.
I want to praise Lorraine Platt, the founder of the Conservative animal welfare group. Given that I have been here a little while, I have observed my party on an interesting journey in animal welfare. I do not wish to upset some of my colleagues, but let me say that we are not going to bring back foxhunting, we are not going to have badger-baiting again and we are not going to be snaring animals. I am proud that my party’s record on animal welfare is first-class, and I congratulate the Minister on that.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Romford that this announcement is extremely good. I do not want to be churlish about it, but I just wish to point out the situation of the Sea Life Adventure aquarium in Southend; my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) has left now, but he is right to say that this is another reason why Southend should become a city. We will have a city status contest and it will be to coincide with the Duke of Edinburgh’s 100th birthday next year. The following year, Her Majesty will have been on the Throne for 75 years. This city contest will happen and Southend will become a city. This wonderful aquarium in Southend, which my hon. Friend the Member for Romford has been to, has celebrated its 27th year. It closed on 23 March and is in need of financial support to care for its 2,000 animals. They need a high level of maintenance; the cost is at least £30,000 a month, although this is relatively small in comparison with zoos mentioned by other colleagues. Frustratingly, the aquarium has not been given the green light to reopen, although it could practise social distancing, and when it applied for a grant it was turned down. I hope that she will send messages to her officials and give the aquarium good news.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford on his success in securing this Adjournment debate. Given the success he has had before even opening his mouth on the matter, I am sure he will continue to achieve so much more for animals. I say to him: well done.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this brilliant debate, to which I am delighted to contribute. I hope Members will not mind if I return to the theme of Chester zoo, because it is just down the M56 from my constituency. The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) mentioned the email campaign that the zoo launched. I can tell him that I was inundated with emails and telephone calls. I have even had some letters and Zoom calls. Constituents have used every method to contact me over the past few weeks to tell me about the desperate plight of Chester zoo, and I am pleased to be here today to speak on behalf of those constituents who have raised the issue with me. Many constituents work at the zoo and the situation has been a great concern to them. The past few weeks have shown to me, as a proud Cheshire MP, how deeply people rightly care about the conservation work undertaken by Chester zoo. That support extends not just through Cheshire and the north-west of England, but right across the UK, because of the fantastic television programme that regularly airs, showing the detailed work the zoo does to preserve animals and the environmental work it undertakes.
I was therefore pleased to speak last weekend to Lord Goldsmith, who gave us some reassurances on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Government that they would commit to any measures necessary to ensure that our zoos would be preserved. I say to the Minister today, following a very positive and reassuring message from the Prime Minister, that it is not just about opening zoos; it is about ensuring that our zoos are resourced properly for the future. I am keen to share with her some more detail about Chester zoo, because it has been particularly badly hit over the past few weeks.
Aside from its environmental work, Chester zoo’s contribution to the economy of the north-west of England is of great importance. It really is an integral part of our visitor economy. If we had lost it, it would have had such a wide economic impact. The zoo alone contributes £47 million to the regional economy. It supports 1,700 jobs, protects wildlife in more than 30 countries around the world, and engages, as the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) said, 150,000 young people every year on the future of our planet. I have to say that one of the highlights of every year for my family is to go to Chester zoo and see what it has done differently each year. It really is a treat to go there. Two million visitors regularly go to Chester zoo. This year it is likely to be half that and that will have a detrimental effect on its ability to work.
I am not sure whether I need to declare an interest as the adoptive stepfather of a number of the animals at Dudley zoo and even, apparently, a step grandfather now. Does my hon. Friend agree that whether it is Chester zoo, Whipsnade zoo or Dudley zoo, reopening is a fantastic first step, but it is not enough? For zoos to survive and thrive, they will all need the support of their local communities visiting and supporting them to keep them going and helping them to rebuild.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is vital that members of the community get behind our zoos, visit when they can and join the charitable foundations that underpin so many of them around the country.
I am confident, from having conversations with the executive team at Chester zoo, that when it does reopen on Monday that can take place very safely. I urge my constituents to go online to book and visit in the coming weeks, so that people in Cheshire can really be a part of that.
My hon. Friend will know that Chester zoo has, I think, about 125,000 members, but of course in order to get as much revenue as quickly as possible through visitors, it would be helpful if it allowed others who are not members to go there first, despite the fact that the members are probably champing at the bit to do so. Is that a message that he would also like to send, so that it can get money in as quickly as possible?
Absolutely. I thank my hon. Friend for that important contribution. Chester zoo already has a programme in place to welcome members in the evening, but it wants non-members to go in the daytime. That is really important. The revenue that comes from welcoming non-members to Chester zoo for the first time is really important to ensure the viability of the zoo.
The zoo has developed some of the most detailed covid-secure plans of any in the sector: carefully regulated numbers, ticketing, and enforcement of social distancing. I was really interested to hear about its programme to make sure children stay in the right place. It has markings on the ground with crocodiles—I am sure they are not real crocodiles—to make sure children know that if they cross the line the consequences will not be good.
No corners have been cut at Chester zoo during the closedown: it has continued to feed the animals and it has not stopped doing its incredible work to prevent animal extinction. What has stopped is the money rolling in and that is where we really need to put our efforts now. Will the Minister look carefully at how her Department can offer continued support to the sector? I am aware of the incredible public fundraising that has gone on for Chester zoo, with in excess of £1 million raised by membership donations. May I ask the Minister to have a discussion with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to allow the local authority to use some of its unused business support grant to matchfund that £1 million? That would really give the support that Chester zoo needs to continue to be a jewel in the Cheshire crown.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing the debate and on making one of the best Adjournment speeches I have heard here. I thought it was thoroughly excellent. Indeed, there were also very feisty and passionate speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) and the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). I did not realise that Chester zoo had so many friends. I wonder what I am missing out on.
The Isle of Wight is fortunate to have several zoos, animal sanctuaries and animal collections. We have the Isle of Wight zoo, Amazon World, Monkey Haven and the donkey sanctuary, which I know my hon. Friend the Member for Romford has visited. Also, my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) says that he has visited Isle of Wight zoo. Prior to covid, it was going from strength to strength. We are a nation of animal lovers, but on the Island, we are an island of animal lovers as well.
I am glad that the Government have responded, and I congratulate the Minister because I know that she is on side and does her job well and diligently. To open non-essential retail but not zoos or animal sanctuaries would rightly be seen to be contrary and wrong. It is also true to say that this is a complex picture. Some of those animal collections that I mentioned are keen to open as soon as possible, but some cannot do so because they are largely indoors. Some are wary of opening because of the potential lack of visitors, which I will come to in a second. However, where they can reopen, they should be given the freedom to act responsibly. Indeed, that is an important motif for going forward in general. It is also important for the Minister to understand that Isle of Wight zoo, the donkey sanctuary and Monkey Haven are not just visitor attractions, important though that is to our economy; they are also last-refuge sanctuaries for endangered animals and animals such as the tigers in the Isle of Wight zoo, which have been poorly treated and faced cruelty in the past. They now have a happy home where they are.
Zoos and animal sanctuaries cannot restrict their outgoings in the way that other sectors, such as non-essential retail, can do. In looking after its animal collection, the Isle of Wight zoo incurs running costs of approximately £50,000 a month in order to do what is morally right, and also to stay within the terms of the Zoo Licensing Act 1981 and the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which I am sure the Minister is very knowledgeable of. I am concerned that, like other zoos, Isle of Wight zoo was turned down for the DEFRA funding package because of its financial responsibility in having more than six weeks of operating income at the time of applying. I will come on to that in a minute. Clearly, the permanent closure of zoos and animal attractions is a significant issue for our communities and our visitor economies, but it is also a moral issue, because the animals could face being put down. The zoo and the other animal attractions have told me that they have tried and tested safety measures in place, should they be allowed to reopen.
I know that others want to speak, so I shall be brief and wrap up now, but may I suggest some measures that may possibly have wider support from here and also from our communities? On the DEFRA support package, can we please look beyond a six-week financial qualifying period in order to work out how we can enable our animal collections and zoos to survive effectively three winters: this winter; the financial winter they are having at the moment, even if they can reopen from next week onwards; and next winter? We need to look at keeping as many of them as possible as viable entities through to next year, when they can start to pick up again.
I want to turn to the proposal for a 1-metre rule. Clearly, for the crocodiles mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts), one would need significantly more social distancing than even 2 metres, but apart from that, I believe that the 2-metre rule is going to have a significant impact on so much that is happening in this country. I would much rather we all agreed to wear masks and had a 1-metre rule, so that we could start to get back to some kind of normality. My zoos and animal attractions would very much welcome a review of the 2-metre rule and the adoption of a 1-metre rule.
Most importantly, zoos and animal attractions not only need the animals and the keepers who look after them; they also need people to visit them, in order to regain an income and to have a purpose. We need to look at the wider visitor economy, in order to extend the payback period for the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme—CBILS—and to establish a regeneration fund for zoos and other visitor attractions to help make them more robust so that they can survive financial traumas like this in future. We need more flexibility for council support, so that my council can step in with some of the leftover funds from the grants, which it is not currently allowed to do. We need to look at reducing VAT on tourism for the next year or two, so that people will want to go to places where there are likely to be zoos and visitor attractions. We also need, as has rightly been said, to look at gift aid.
My destination marketing organisation—my tourism board—has effectively led the country, along with Cornwall, in developing best practice to get visitors back, so that we can again get kids and grannies and people of all ages back to enjoy the zoos and the animal attractions. They include Isle of Wight zoo, which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West would be welcome to come back to, and the wonderful donkey sanctuary, which my hon. Friend the Member for Romford would be welcome to revisit, as well as Monkey Haven and Amazon World.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for the opportunity to speak in this very important debate. I want to talk about a place that could be far, far away: a tropical rainforest where people can mingle with a meerkat, tickle a tarantula, sit with a snake or mix with a marmoset, while seeing butterflies of all shapes, sorts, varieties and colours. This tropical rainforest is not the Amazon, but up north, on the banks of the Tees. Butterfly World is a beyond-unique place; an independent, family-owned business, which has educated and entertained families from across the north-east for years—and it enjoys a solid 4.5 on Tripadvisor.
I am sure that all will appreciate and agree—even Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin—the important role that our zoos and aquariums play, from helping with the conservation of some of our most endangered species to educating children on breeds and behaviours. I welcome the measures that the Government have put in place to support zoos and aquariums, as well as the decision to reopen outdoor zoos on 15 June.
However sunny Stockton might get, it would be a stretch for me to describe it as tropical, so unfortunately, this amazing venue is indoors. Despite the greenhouse-like building maintaining its own ecosystem, it is understood to fall in the indoor zoo category, so it will not be able to open. Like many zoos, Butterfly World is reliant on seasonal income and it is open only eight months of the year, so such a long period of closure threatens the future of this regional treasure. While to us this pandemic seems like it has gone on for ever, to some breeds of butterfly, it has gone on a lifetime.
The owners of Butterfly World remain ready with a comprehensive plan to open safely under a series of social distancing measures. The public are ready to visit, and such is the appetite and feeling of support that they have donated to a fund to try to secure the future of this regional gem. Other non-essential venues will open their doors to the public on 15 June. I ask the Minister, my honourable butterfly brooch-wearing friend, whether she might consider the case of Butterfly World—and, should she visit the north-east when things change a little, I would be delighted to welcome her and her brooch to Butterfly World to meet Barry the blue-tongued skink.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) not only for securing the debate, but for such a wonderful, detailed and passionate contribution. We have heard so much about Chester zoo in particular today, but there are, of course, many other zoos in the country. If people have already been to Chester zoo and would like to visit a different one that has a castle on its grounds, a living museum within a stone’s throw, a nature reserve and a site of special scientific interest, come to Dudley. I was going to be delivering a slightly different speech, so I cannot overstate just how pleased I am that the Government have given the go-ahead for zoos to reopen on Monday.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my disappointment, and, I assume, the disappointment of many hon. Members from Scotland, that the Scottish Government have not extended the same opportunity to zoos and wildlife parks in Scotland, which are not reopening on Monday? Edinburgh zoo in my constituency, in particular, has spoken about how it will not last the summer if it does not get the same sort of support as English facilities have had from the UK Government.
Indeed I do, and I was not aware of that—perhaps that is a question for the Minister though.
Dudley zoo in my constituency will be gladly throwing open its doors to ticketed visitors once more. If the number of emails and social media messages that I have received are anything to go by, I have no doubt that my constituents are as excited as I am that they will be able to visit this treasured attraction again next week. I would really like to pay tribute to the zoo’s staff, who have admirably gone above and beyond their remit to ensure that the animals have continued to be cared for despite the uncertainty and anxiety caused by lockdown.
I agree with my hon. Friend on the role that staff play in these institutions. I am another Member of the House who must speak up warmly for Chester zoo—a great inspiration to me as a child—and the staff who took the extra time to support me and many of the people who have written in from South Ribble to advocate for the cause, saying how delighted we all are to see that they can start to welcome visitors again.
Other Members have made the point about the importance of inspiring the next generation and the role that the staff play in that. I am not sure how many Members are aware of this, but I am a qualified field guide—a safari ranger—out in Africa. [Interruption.] Yes, I have been charged by a rhino, and yes, politics can be more scary. The staff at Dudley zoo, and certainly at Chester zoo, in the ’80s helped to kindle that spirit and allowed me to understand the importance of the environment, the importance of viewing this as a whole, and the importance of zoos as part of the conservation effort. I very much look forward to them continuing in that work from Monday.
I thank my hon. Friend for that.
Places like Dudley zoo, as we have heard, are more than just visitor attractions. They carry out vital conservation work, ensuring that future generations can enjoy our natural world and the incredible species that live within it. But this is made possible only by paying visitors and vital donations. Some visitor attractions have been able to close their doors and retain business viability because the generous furlough scheme and other financial help has covered most of their overheads while operational costs have effectively reduced to zero, but zoos have still needed to retain many operational functions to keep their animals alive. My own zoo in Dudley has already lost £1.2 million since the start of lockdown and was unable to apply for funding packages for zoos because it, like others, had to retain, through prudence but through necessity as well, more than six weeks’ reserves.
Being able to reopen to paying visitors again will, of course, bring comfort to our zoos, but this is a crucial time for them, as the summer months would normally generate surpluses and build up sufficient reserves to survive through the winter and spring when takings are much lower and costs often higher. However, we all know that this summer’s income will be seriously curtailed, with reserves already depleted. This means that several zoos such as mine in Dudley may face very real difficulties in pulling through the winter months to come. So while I am of course deeply grateful for the £14 million support scheme, my plea to Ministers, on behalf of my constituency zoo and other zoos, as I have heard today from across the country, is to revisit the support package and the eligibility criteria, as many jobs could be lost and animals destroyed if the current six-week model is retained.
I start by paying special thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who is such a champion for zoos in chairing the all-party parliamentary group, as he was in his inspirational speech. He set the scene so well and provided the framework within which we are all now talking.
I want to speak for a few minutes about Africa Alive! in Kessingland, just south of Lowestoft in my constituency, which is run by the Zoological Society of East Anglia, which also has Banham zoo in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss). This organisation does great work in so many aspects, as I shall explain.
The best part of my job—this tremendous job we all have—is that each summer, I spend half a day at Africa Alive! It is a wonderful experience and probably the thing I look forward to most. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) referred to zoos being controversial. I sense that, in many ways, we have moved on from that; we have moved on from the cages. Zoos used to be very inward-looking, and they are not now. Africa Alive! is outward-looking, and that is what so special about it and why it is a linchpin of the local community and the local economy. I want to highlight five points about it.
Africa Alive! does great conservation work, looking after and supporting species from that wonderful continent of Africa. I have never been on a safari, and I do not think I ever will, but Africa is there on the doorstep of places like Lowestoft, Beccles and Bungay for people who will never have the opportunity to go and see those animals.
Africa Alive! also provides employment opportunities, with highly specialist jobs as keepers. For so many people in the area I represent, it is their first rung on the employment ladder—that first job that can lead on to others. So many people I have met say, “I did my first job at Africa Alive!” There is also the education and outreach work. Schools come to it, but it also goes to the schools. The Zoological Society of East Anglia gets out across East Anglia into 1,000 schools.
It is a tremendous tourism attraction. Tourism is very important on the Suffolk and the Norfolk coast, reaching out into the Norfolk and Suffolk broads. As part of someone’s week in our area, they want things to do, and they go to Africa Alive!, which is one of the biggest tourist attractions in East Anglia.
I will make one final point about what Africa Alive! does. I got a number of emails over the last week. One of them was from someone I had not heard from or seen for over 40 years and who is now working in Thailand, saying, “Come on! Pull your finger out! We need to save this wonderful treasure.” The email that struck me most was one that said, “Me and my mother have had tremendous mental health anguish. Going to Africa Alive! and walking round that 70-acre wildlife park gives us the comfort, the rest and the assurance that we need to get away from some very difficult challenges for us.”
The announcement this week was extremely welcome, and it is very good news. I think Africa Alive! would say that it gives it a fighting chance of survival, and that is wonderful. But as my hon. Friend the Member for Romford said, more needs to be done. Animals are not like rides—you cannot turn them off, and flexible furloughing is therefore very important. The zoos support fund is welcome, but as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely), there is an issue with the conditions of it. A lot of zoos are charities, and they have requirements for the amount of money they have in the bank, which automatically precludes them from being able to access that fund. We need to look at that again, and I urge the Minister to do that. As I said, the best part of my job is going to Africa Alive! every summer. I want to be able to do that for the next few summers as well.
I thank the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for allowing me to speak in this debate. Like many of my colleagues across the House, this issue is particularly important to me, as the Yorkshire wildlife park is located in my constituency. Since March this year, the gates of the Yorkshire wildlife park and many other zoos have been closed, and the park has had to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds a month while generating no income.
I fully understand the reason for lockdown, and I thank the good people of Don Valley for playing their part in saving lives and protecting the NHS. That said, as we are now coming out of lockdown I am delighted that the Government are finally allowing zoos and wildlife parks to reopen.
The park will open on Monday 15 June, and with the help of its wonderful staff it has managed to get everything in place for a safe opening. It has also been able to invite environmental health officers to carry out an inspection. They attended the site on Tuesday and confirmed that the park has everything in place. I am grateful that the Government have recognised the steps that wildlife parks and zoos across the country have taken, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that such venues are fully prepared to operate in a way that keeps the public safe.
As my hon. Friend is all too aware, children have spent a huge amount of time away from the classroom as a result of the pandemic. They are our future scientists, teachers and zoologists. It is therefore only right that educational institutions such as Yorkshire wildlife park are reopened. After all, such zoos and parks allow children to learn and develop, as well as to appreciate the importance of nature. The reopening of wildlife parks will therefore offer a great opportunity for children to catch up on the learning that they have missed, and to improve their wellbeing simply by being in a wonderful, safe outdoor environment.
As we come out of lockdown, the Government must begin to take urgent action to save businesses. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that, as it was essential that we locked down to save lives, it is now essential that the Government act quickly so that people have jobs and recreational sites to go back to at the end of this. I therefore welcome the recent announcements and I am less anxious about the loss of jobs and educational sites in my constituency.
That said, I will conclude by asking the Minister the following questions. First, can she assure the owners of zoos and wildlife parks that any additional measures introduced for the safe reopening of those facilities will be reasonable and will not overburden such businesses? Secondly, will the Government continue to engage in dialogue with zoos and wildlife parks, and provide them with the extra financial support that they will need beyond the immediate crisis? It will no doubt be in the forthcoming winter months that zoos and wildlife parks will be at their most vulnerable.
What a tremendous afternoon! It takes me back to what I think was the most exciting debate in the Chamber since I have been here, which was about hedgehogs. The House was full, wasn’t it, Madam Deputy Speaker? It shows what a nation of animal lovers we are. This is what gets us out. Our constituents are great animal lovers too, and they galvanise us into action. I think it shows that things can work through Government and we are listening.
I thank everybody for taking part, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) for raising the matter. As chair of the zoos and aquariums all-party parliamentary group, which I was a member of as a Back Bencher, he has long promoted the cause of well-run zoos, and I know that he has been actively promoting their cause during the pandemic when they have had to close. I thank him for his passion and determination.
What a wonderful story that was about the blue iguana. I do not know if you were in the Chair for it, Madam Deputy Speaker, but what a great tale that was, and congratulations. I thank all Members from across the House who have taken part and mentioned so many zoos, wildlife sanctuaries and aquariums. Just out of interest, there are 269 licensed zoos in England and 338 if exemptions are included, so it is a lot of enterprises.
I will touch first on some of my own experience. Chester zoo has been mentioned so much in the debate. I was fortunate to go there when I was the Tourism Minister briefly. Although it was a brilliant huge open space, with so much education, the thing that I was so impressed with was the conservation work and how, like many of our zoos, it plays such an important role on the global stage. The zoo does incredible work on black rhinos and the greater one-horned rhinos, on Andean bears and, as mentioned by the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), on sustainable palm oil. It is about not just the animals but food products, too. That is so important.
I want to thank the other Members who mentioned Chester zoo: my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) and for Warrington South (Andy Carter), as well as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), who is no longer in the Chamber. I also thank all the other Members who mentioned other zoos: my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) mentioned Twycross zoo; my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made such a strong case for Whipsnade zoo; we heard about Yorkshire Wildlife Park from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher); and my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) mentioned Shepreth Wildlife Park.
The contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) was more of a waxing lyrical about all animals, but we finally got to the aquarium. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) mentioned the enterprises on the Isle of Wight; my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) mentioned Butterfly World, which does sound rather captivating; the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) mentioned Edinburgh zoo; and my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi) mentioned Dudley zoo. So many places were mentioned.
I wish to voice the Government’s appreciation of zoos—among which I include aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries if they are licensed as a zoo under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981—and all the work that they do. The Government recognise that as well as providing such high welfare standards for animals—which my hon. Friend the Member for Romford voiced so well—many zoos in the UK contribute to so many other things: the conservation work that is so important on the global stage, with so many species under threat because of the pressures on the environment; the education work; and, of course, getting people out into open spaces and engaging with nature, which has a big health and wellbeing impact. On that note, the Government recognise that zoos are excellent for engaging people with nature—a zoo often might be somebody’s first engagement with wider nature, so plays such a vital role.
I am delighted to support the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday that safari parks and the outdoor parts of zoos will be allowed to reopen from 15 June. It has been necessary, for public health reasons, for the Government to proceed with caution, but we have listened to the many arguments about the benefits of zoos and the access to controlled outdoor spaces that they can provide, which is why we believe now is the appropriate time to allow safari parks and the outdoor parts of zoos to reopen. For the moment, indoor attractions—such as reptile houses and aquariums—at zoos will remain closed for public health reasons. The Government are aware of the work that zoos and aquariums have been doing to prepare for reopening while adhering to the strict social guidance. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working with the main industry body, BIAZA, on the reopening guidance.
I wish briefly to set out the Government’s rationale for requiring zoos to close from 1 June, as set out in the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2020, because colleagues did talk about this. Previously, zoos were not required to close, but given the fact that visiting a zoo was not a reasonable excuse to leave home, zoos took the inevitable decision to shut their doors. Most zoos closed at the end of March, as a result of lockdown. Rather than adding to the number of reasons that people had to leave home, from 1 June the Government switched the focus of the regulations to allow people to leave their homes unless there was a specific reason why they could not. The Government’s primary concern was that we should not open up too many activities at the same time, because the cumulative effect of opening everything up at once would see the number of cases of coronavirus start to increase again. While each zoo can be made safer, it was vital that we did not move too quickly in reopening to ensure that public health is protected. I am sure that all hon. Members understand that step-by-step process. As a result of progress, the announcement on zoos and safari parks was made yesterday. I hope that that reassures the House.
The Government recognise that visitor numbers may not bounce back to the levels zoos would have expected for this time of year. I therefore reassure hon. Members that Government support schemes, which zoos can continue to access, remain in place. Zoos are eligible to apply for VAT deferral, business rates relief, the business interruption loan schemes, the option to reclaim the costs of statutory sick pay, and hospitality and leisure grant funding of up to £25,000. In addition, on 4 May, the Government introduced the £14 million zoo support fund for licensed zoos in England, specifically for zoos in severe financial distress. The fund is open for another five weeks and DEFRA has already awarded grants to many zoos and aquariums.
Some hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Romford, mentioned the rules for the zoo support fund. It has been suggested that they need to be changed so that zoos can access the fund before being at the point of closure. The fund was specifically set up to avoid unnecessary additional euthanasia of zoo animals and capped payments at £100,000. It can be accessed only when a zoo is in severe financial difficulties. However, we are monitoring its operation. Clearly, we are listening to the comments that have been made today. We are keeping the scheme under review in relation to how soon we can provide support when a zoo is running out of funds.
The Minister is talking about the DEFRA fund. It is not necessarily needed now, but it may be needed in a few months, when zoos and charitable entities start to run into worse financial problems.
I hear what my hon. Friend says and that has been noted. I also get the message loud and clear that there are calls for a wide range of other wildlife enterprises, including farm parks, and places such as the Cotebrook Shire Horse Centre and Crocodiles of the World near Witney, to open.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s commitment to looking at the matter again. I double underline the urgency for the Green Dragon rare breeds farm in my constituency, where the animals are now getting fed only as a result of the local community’s generosity in making food donations. If the animals do not get that food urgently, I fear that they will be put down.
That is noted. The exact scope of easing restrictions is being discussed as we speak. We will consider whether other outdoor animal attractions can open safely in future and at the same time. Clearly, many larger zoos face real long-term issues. Discussion about that is also ongoing.
I thank all the zoos and aquariums that played such a key role in the discussions with DEFRA, particularly in highlighting the crucial animal welfare implications. Thanks must go to BIAZA and our hard-working DEFRA team. I also thank my colleague Lord Goldsmith for all his work. He has kept me fully informed of what is happening.
I want to assure colleagues that weekly meetings will continue with the chief executive officers of the largest charitable zoos and aquariums, so that we are fully aware of the situation. I am also happy to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Romford to discuss his further thoughts and ideas, which he has clearly been thinking on very much.
In closing, I want to reiterate—
Order. Let me just say to the Minister that, although I will have to put the Adjournment again at five o’clock, she can go on speaking after that. It is all right.
Oh, I am terribly sorry. I was informed that I had to stop at five. Anyway, I have almost finished, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I just want to end by thanking absolutely everybody involved and to recognise the role that zoos, wildlife sanctuaries and aquariums play in this nation—the huge conservation role, the animal welfare, the getting people out into green spaces, the health and wellbeing impacts, the jobs, the impact on the economy and all of that. I assure Members that we will continue to assess the situation. I would like once again to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford for his terrific work. We will all be the better for it.
Question put and agreed to.