Zoos, Aquariums and Wildlife Sanctuaries: Reopening

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:24 pm on 11th June 2020.

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Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight 4:24 pm, 11th June 2020

I congratulate my hon. Friend 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 Andy Carter and 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 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 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.