A Conservative MP has questioned the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) decision to allocate £14m of its £750m charity support package to zoos.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown is a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which was taking evidence from Sarah Healey, permanent secretary at DCMS, yesterday.
He asked: “How does your decision to allocate the funding to DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] in the department support grants fit in with the objectives you set to support the vulnerable during the pandemic?”
Healey said it was mix of funding to support food distribution networks and to support zoos.
“We were extremely concerned about the welfare of animals in zoos and what was going to happen as result of them being closed during this period,” she explained.
However, Clifton-Brown described zoos as “essentially businesses” and suggested that they should have been supported from other funding pots.
“Was this charitable money, allocated by your department, the proper mechanism to support what was essentially a business sector?” he said.
He later added: “Given that this money was inevitably being taken away from other really vulnerable causes, was this the correct avenue?”
Healey said many zoos are charities and that she had no concerns about the process that saw DEFRA receive funding for zoos.
Clifton-Brown then suggested that the National Audit Office may wish to look into this further.
Zoos reopened but still face challenges
Many zoos were able to reopen this week as lockdown restrictions lifted.
However, the British and Irish Association for Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) warned the government that the sector would continue to need support. Its recent research shows that, on average, zoos lost £2m due to being forced to close.
For several months the zoo sector has been criticising DEFRA’s second round of funding to support organisations, which did not come from the £750m fund allocated by DCMS.
Last week, Jo Judge, CEO of BIAZA said: “Like many organisations, zoos and aquariums have been devastated by the pandemic. But unlike other organisations zoos and aquariums have not been able to rely on government assistance and by far the majority have fallen through the cracks in government support, despite their importance to wildlife conservation, education and research.”
BIAZA claims that the current scheme to support zoos and aquariums has largely failed to support the sector. So far less than 10% of the government’s Zoo Animals Fund has been spent. The representative body says this is because it requires zoos to be down to “unacceptably low levels of reserves before they can access the fund meaning it has been impossible for the majority of zoos to access much-needed help”.
Judge added: “Zoos and aquariums have no access to government support as cultural institutions, no access to support as tourist destinations and only very limited support as conservation organisations.
“After a year of closures and financial blows they face a precarious future. We are hugely grateful for the continued support of the public, and are pleased to finally be welcoming back our visitors. With their support we look forward to being able to get back to conserving and sharing the wonders of nature.”