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.