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Cruelty To Animals

Volume 32: debated on Friday 19 November 1982

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. David Hunt.]

2.30 pm

It is a happy coincidence that I have obtained an Adjournment debate on the same day as we have debated the subject of farm animals and the way in which they are fed and housed. I know that many hon. Members are equally interested in the subject of cruelty to animals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) wishes, if possible, to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before we finish. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Drake (Miss Fookes), who has a great interest in these matters, having been closely connected with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has been called away and wishes me to express her apologies for not being present.

Whereas cruelty to farm animals is for the most part caused by ignorance and neglect and a belief in short-term commercial advantage, the cruelty to animals of which I wish to speak is the deliberate, cold and calculated infliction of pain and suffering on innocent and defenceless creatures, almost equalling the greatest crime of all, which is the infliction of cruelty on children.

The public have a remedy for much of the cruel treatment of hens and animals in cages. They should not buy the products of that system—battery eggs and veal. They should boycott zoos where animals are kept in cages.

No one who has had the pleasure, as I have, of living in a part of the world where wild animals roam freely, can feel anything but revulsion at the very idea of a zoo, and I hope that the Government will not provide any taxpayers' money to the Regents Park zoo so long as it keeps its animals in cages.

Experiments on animals are legalised. Only Parliament can provide a remedy for the abuse of its own legislation. I believe that this Parliament disregards at its peril public opinion on the subject. There have been many recent television programmes and press articles drawing our attention to the terrible suffering that is inflicted nowadays on animals in the cause of medical science. Such programmes and articles have caused a wave of revulsion among the public, and it would be unwise of Parliament or the Government to ignore it.

Early-day motion 21, which stands on the Order Paper in the names of about 70 hon. Members, calls for the appointment of a royal commission to examine the moral and scientific justification for experiments on animals. I am one of the signatories to that motion. I am satisfied about the moral argument, but there is a case to be made for the investigation of the scientific justification.

The problem is that this subject has been raised so many times that one becomes depressed about the level of Government reaction to it. Ministers of whatever Government are in power—this is not a party matter—flood the whole subject with words. Most of the practical recommendations of the Brambell report have not been implemented. Nor have the recommendations of the Littlewood committee on experiments been substantially implemented. There have been committees and reports galore. Earlier today we discussed the recommendations of the Agriculture Committee in its report on animal welfare.

We always seem to be met by the same bland attitude from the Government. Ministers give assurances that there are now fewer experiments than last year—that there are now nearly 4 million whereas previously there have been over 5 million. Ministers also say that the Government must await the report of the committee of the Council of Europe before proceeding on the matter. That is ridiculous. It is an excuse for delay. The record of some European countries is abysmal. No improvement is likely to emerge from the Council of Europe. Our own record is better. It is up to us to take the issue further.

My right hon. Friend may also suggest that the whole matter is under active consideration, that there is a great deal of medical and scientific opinion to be considered, and that the problem has been exaggerated. He may emphasise the need and justification to test products.

The Cruelty to Animals Act was passed over 100 years ago and it remains substantially unaltered. Yesterday my right hon. Friend said that
"the Act, which has been a great one, is still viable."—[Official Report, 18 November 1982; Vol. 32, c. 406.]
I suppose it is worth saying that about an Act that has lasted so long and that is still in use. It says nothing about the Act's effectiveness to prevent the mischief that it was meant to prevent. Did the framers of the Act in 1876 appreciate that in time there would be as many as 5 million experiments on living animals? Did they provide for the enforcement machinery to be increased in that proportion and for the examination of infringements and convictions under the Act? There were 16 infringements known to the Government last year, according to the Home Office annual report, "Statistics of experiments on living animals, Great Britain 1981", but none was prosecuted. The most notorious aspect is the insufficient inspectorate provided under the Act and the fact that there is no provision for adequate random searches and investigations which might have a great effect upon abuses of the Act.

Over half the experiments in 1981 were carried out for commercial firms. The animals were burnt, scalded, poisoned to death in acute toxicity tests, had substances applied to their eyes, were exposed to radiation and were used to test weedkillers, household products, drugs, tobacco, cosmetics and food additives. Despite the provisions in the Act against the deliberate infliction of pain, over 3 million experiments were conducted without the use of anaesthetics. Despite the intention of the Act to provide against it, 1,914 animals were used in schools apparently for the demonstration of known facts and, by definition, caused the very type of injury to the animals which was quite unnecessary.

Unfortunately, all Governments are the captives of the medical and scientific research lobby, and they appear to lack the political will to act effectively against this outrage to the public conscience.

The only argument that is worth consideration is that experiments on animals help to save human life. But it must be said that many on behalf of the cosmetic and tobacco industries also promote unnecessary suffering. There is an overwhelming case for an urgent review of the working of the 1876 Act to bring it closer to its original objective of preventing unnecessary pain and to tighten its enforcement.

In the centenary year of the Act, 1976, I attempted to introduce a measure to reform it. It was a modest attempt to tighten the conditions for the licensing of experiments. Rt. hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House supported it, but the medical and scientific research lobby descended on me like a ton of bricks. I had letters from learned societies. A distinguished academic came to see me and tried to convince me that I was wrong even to attempt to tighten the restrictions. There were letters in my local press suggesting that I was wasting Parliament's time. I secured a First Reading for the Bill, but it was blocked on Second Reading by the then Labour Government. I do not criticise the record of the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) on these matters, but it fell to her as the Minister responsible in 1976 to tell me that I could not gain Government support for my modest measure.

To their credit, some firms do not encourage experiments for the purposes of testing their products. Some even contribute to FRAME in its search for alternative methods of research not involving animals. But wanton cruelty continues under the cloak of legislation. It is highly reprehensible, but it is no wonder that some people take the law into their own hands. The British people are outraged by the accounts of deliberate cruelty inflicted on animals for non-medical reasons. They see no excuse for any injury to animals for the purpose of teaching in schools and colleges when films can be used for the purpose. Many of the remedies do not just involve legislation and are available administratively with adequate resources.

The present Government were elected on the basis of a manifesto which promised:
"We shall update … the legislation on experiments on live animals."
I shall be interested to hear from my right hon. Friend when we are likely to have news of that. He is responsible for undoing what we had done to implement our manifesto in another area. It will be interesting to know whether the Government intend to honour this commitment in the manifesto.

If the Government are sincere in their statements about cruelty to and experiments on animals, the least that they can do in this Parliament is to appoint a royal commission to establish the facts and to marshall the arguments. Thus, they would at least clear the way for a future Administration with the political will to end this outrage to the human conscience.

2.45 pm

I associate myself with what my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) said in calling for a royal commission to consider cruelty to animals and to see what can be done. I hope, too, that the 1876 Act will be brought up to date in a humane way as soon as possible.

In the brief time that is at my disposal, may I say a quick word about horse markets, some of which are a total disgrace. One of them is at Southall, near my constituency. It is a matter of great public distress and concern that horses and ponies sold at Southall are getting a very raw deal. Of the animals sold there, 50 per cent. go to slaughter, and they are treated like third-class, fourth-class, fifth-class or sixth-class citizens. I must add that they are often handled well, and some of the animals are given fair treatment and get a fair deal.

However, too often horses are handled roughly. Often they are not trotted up with halters, having only a piece of string round their ears. They are pulled around. There is no proper ring where they can be trotted. They are trotted along the road, where they slip around, and they are roughly handled when they slip. Being second-class citizens going to slaughter, they are often left for hours or days before they are collected. Although there are water pipes there, it does not mean that they are taken to water. Indeed, I am told that they are often not fed. It is a serious situation. I draw the Government's attention to the matter as one of urgency. When the animals are loaded into vehicles to be taken away, they are often thrown into one vehicle without being properly haltered up to the side of the vehicle or penned together for support when the vehicle moves off. Local people tell me that there are appalling kicking matches inside the vehicles. Stallions may be thrown in with pregnant mares.

Something should be done about this. I shall understand if my right hon. Friend says that the Home Office cannot help, because it is not that Department's direct responsibility, but if he will make representations to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and press him, the humane world will be grateful, and horses and ponies will be spared suffering.

2.47 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) has raised an issue which, as all right hon. and hon. Members realise, arouses strong feelings in this country. I shall try to answer a number of the matters that he raised.

However, I shall start with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway). I understand the force of his argument about horse markets, but, as I think he realises, it is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and I shall certainly draw his attention to it. I should also point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington that zoos are a matter for the Department of the Environment, but again I shall be happy to pass on his remarks.

I am in a little difficulty in replying to this debate. My understanding is that the custom in the House is that subjects that would entail legislation are not normally treated as questions on a motion for the Adjournment. I accept that everything that my hon. Friend said is in order, but I am precluded from embarking on an account of our legislative intentions in this connection because I should be out of order in doing so. Therefore, unless I am corrected, I shall discuss the important matters that my hon. Friend raised, but not in the context of our legislative intentions. I assure my hon. Friend that what he said in our manifesto remains our objective.

The law provides a considerable battery of measures which are aimed at preventing the infliction of unnecessary suffering on animals. So far as the responsibilities of the Home Office are concerned, these measures range from the controls over experiments on living animals to the laws providing general protection for domestic and captive animals against unnecessary suffering, to those cntrols which are designed to protect certain animals in particular situations. I intend to concentrate my remarks on use of animals for experiments.

As the House knows, experiments on living animals which are likely to cause pain are controlled in Britain by the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876. The Act authorises the Home Secretary to license suitably qualified persons to perform experiments, subject to various safeguards and restrictions. For example, the Act prohibits the performance of any experiment for the purpose of attaining manual skill and also imposes restrictions on the infliction of pain. Under section 8 of the Act the Home Secretary uses his powers of licensing to impose several conditions, including a condition designed to ensure that no animal under experiment is allowed to suffer severe pain that is likely to endure.

In the past 50 years the biological sciences have developed more rapidly and on a wider front than ever before. This led to the appointment in the 1960s of the Littlewood committee, whose report in 1965 was, and remains, a comprehensive account of the workings of the 1876 Act—its strengths and weaknesses.

Would a royal commission or major inquiry serve the purpose that my hon. Friend has in mind? The Littlewood committee and the exhaustive work of the Select Committee of another place have provided a great deal of material on which to work. There has also been parallel work in Europe. I cannot see that there is a case for setting up a royal commission. The general view of royal commissions is that they are devices to delay rather than to accelerate action. That may not necessarily be so, but I am a little surprised that my hon. Friend should have made that recommendation. However, he did.

If the Government know all the facts, why do they not get on with it?

Again, I am back with the problem of legislative intentions. I shall in a moment try to set out some of the matters that have been going on, which, perhaps somewhat obliquely, will help to answer the question.

The Littlewood committee concluded that the Act had been generally effective in preventing objectionable activities and encouraging humane practices but that in recent years its provisions had not reached modern scientific and technological requirements, and that administration had not kept pace with scientific advances. Several of its recommendations were implemented by administrative action.

However, steps were not taken at that time to improve and modernise the Act itself. This is an aim to which the Government are now committed. It has been suggested that the 1876 Act has fulfilled a difficult role in a rapidly changing situation. Indeed, the House of Lords Select Committee on Lord Halsbury's Bill reported in 1980:
"There is no doubt that the Act has, by and large, been successfully applied by the Home Office Inspectorate to meet modern needs: a remarkable achievement, for modern biology has overtaken the terms of the Act as dramatically as the motor car has outdated the traffic laws of the 1870s".

However, the Select Committee reported that all its witnesses—and this included officials of the Home Office—considered the Act to be in some ways unsatisfactory, as we do.

I made it clear yesterday in the exchange to which my hon. Friend has referred that I do not think that the present position can continue unchanged. I merely say that the Act has a great history and we should respect that.

As my hon. Friend referred to the inspectorate, may I also say, first, that I have every confidence in the way in which the inspectorate does its job and, secondly, and more specifically, that when visits are made to the laboratories where experiments are taking place the normal practice is that they are unannounced. It is not fair to say that the people who are carrying out the experiments always know when the inspectors will come. That is far from being the case.

The decision of the Council of Europe to draw up a convention introduced a new dimension into the issue. Drafting has been going on since 1978 and it would be the Government's intention to use the agreed convention as the general foundation for practice in Britain.

My hon. Friend has criticised us for waiting for the Council of Europe. He urged us to get on with the work irrespective of what is happening at Strasbourg in the ad hoc committee of experts for the protection of animals. I believe that that criticism is misplaced. It fails to take full account of the importance attached to the convention in countries of the Council of Europe; the impact that the convention will have on the welfare of laboratory animals throughout those countries; and the valuable role that the United Kingdom delegation has played in the ad hoc committee's deliberations through our unique experience of over a century of careful and successful regulation of the use of animals for experimental purposes.

I genuinely believe that our participation and collaboration with Europe in dealing with the problem will be to the benefit of the welfare of animals in this country and to the benefit of the welfare of animals in other countries. That must be right, whatever one thinks about our associations with Europe.

Earlier this year the ad hoc committee reached agreement on the text of the convention, with the exception of the "final articles" dealing with such matters as reservations. Those matters are to be considered al the ad hoc committee's meeting next week from 23 to 26 November. The meeting will also consider two important ancillary documents: the appendix on the guidelines for the care and accommodation of animals covered by the convention, and the text of the explanatory report to the convention itself. As a result of that meeting, and given the good will and resolution of all the delegations, the complete convention should then be ready for submission to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. It is for the Committee of Ministers to approve the text of the convention and to open it for signature. That process could be completed fairly early in 1983.

The general principles and policies in respect of improved controls in the United Kingdom should be no less rigorous than those which are given effect in the present controls. The convention allows countries to adopt stricter measures in their own legislation, where that is considered appropriate. Our aim will be to provide a system of regulation that provides, on the one hand, for the legitimate interests of science, industry and agriculture to continue but, on the other hand, gives animals used, or intended for use, in any experimental or other scientific procedures adequate protection against avoidable suffering.

While awaiting the outcome of the work in the Council of Europe, there has been very full debate. The debate has been constructive, and is to be welcomed. The views of those involved have been made known. As soon as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary had reconstituted the advisory committee on animal experiments in 1980, with wider terms of reference, he asked it to make a comprehensive study of the framework of legislation to replace the 1876 Act. The advisory committee presented its report towards the end of 1981 and that is an important factor in the Government's deliberations.

My hon. Friend referred to the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 (Amendment) Bill, which he and others introduced to the House in December 1975. Although the Bill made no progress and had a limited objective it nevertheless raised an important question of principle on which I should like to comment. The Bill had the objective of seeking to make experiments unlawful when there was a satisfactory alternative, thereby reducing the number of animals used. That was to be effected by amendment of section 8 of the Act to specify that the Secretary of State should have the discretion to attach to any licence a condition that no experiment should be performed if the licensee knew or believed that the purpose could be achieved by alternative means.

I do not intend to go into all the ramifications of the proposal, to which my hon. Friend referred, and the difficulties. I shall deal with the alternatives, and in doing so I shall outline some of the problems that stem from any proposal along the lines of my hon. Friend's proposal in 1975.

At the outset I wish to make it quite clear that the Government have a good deal of sympathy with the motives that lie behind any constructive approach to the question of the use of alternatives. We fully support the view that alternatives to living animals should be used wherever practicable. The Home Office regularly brings to the attention of all those carrying out experiments under the 1876 Act the Government's view of the importance of taking every reasonable step to confirm before using live animals that their investigations cannot be effectively carried out by any alternative means. To this end it is reasonable to expect licensees to consult the available scientific literature and authorities, and to seek the advice of colleagues who may be able to assist. Furthermore, all licensees are urged to give thought to the possibilities of developing new alternatives to the use of living animals and to publishing information about successful new methods so that other licensees may be encouraged.

That is an important question. In time, the House will wish to return to it. I stress that we believe that the development of alternatives to the use of live animals is important. That important factor has led to the continuing decline in the number of experiments. The number of experiments in 1981 was the lowest since 1963. There is no sign of the decline slowing down.

The Question having been proposed at half-past Two o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Three o'clock.