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Animal Testing

Volume 480: debated on Tuesday 14 October 2008

It is a pity that a Minister is not here at the moment, but I am sure that one will turn up.

I did not seek this debate because there is an immediate need to make decisions about the testing of cosmetics on animals. A set of decisions has already been made, and I am delighted that we are now moving away from the testing of cosmetics on animals. I raise this topic because I want to point out some of the conclusions that flow from that fact and to highlight some of the philosophical issues that need to be debated as we move forward over the coming years because they have been too little debated and discussed.

It is evident that there is no obvious set of dividing lines. In this area, we are dealing with things that are continuums of one kind or another. To illustrate, let me start with the supposed distinction between cosmetics and household goods. Clearly, a distinction can be drawn between life-saving drugs at one end of the spectrum and cosmetics at the other. I wonder whether one really can draw meaningful distinctions between cosmetics and household cleaning items. Moreover, it is not clear exactly where the distinctions come as we move along the spectrum. We know when we are at a point of dealing with a life-saving drug. We also know when we are at a point of dealing with something frivolous such as a cosmetic. As we move between the two, however, we encounter severe difficulties of definition and identification. That is not unusual. Philosophers call it the sorites paradox. For example, when is a pile a pile? One stone probably does not amount to a pile, but 50 certainly do. However, where does one hit the pile? Is it at two, three or four? That is a feature of one of the most difficult issues that we face as human beings.

It is not just the continuum between different kinds of things for which animals might be used in experimentation. It is also a question of the continuum of different kinds of animals. I do not mean to disrespect hon. Members or anyone else, but we are all animals. We are a particular kind of animal known as a human being. Partly because we care about our own species, partly because of the extraordinary effects that any other attitude would have on our society and our preference for democracy and liberalism and so on, and partly because of an internal revulsion, we would hugely object to anybody who sought to conduct an experiment on a human being—to experiment on an unwilling human being in a way that was painful—even if the purpose of the experiment was to produce a life-saving drug that might save millions of lives.

From time to time, some people are inclined to argue that the right position ethically is always one that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number. One of the reasons that I am not a supporter of that view about ethics is precisely that I am revolted by the idea of an in vivo experiment on a human being, even if someone could persuade me that the result would save millions of lives. On the assumption that we take that view—I think that we are entirely joined in taking that view—one has to start asking where the dividing lines are as one moves down the chain from human beings to ants and mosquitoes. I have ho hesitation about how we treat ants and mosquitoes—perhaps I should, but I do not—but there are people who are concerned about ants and mosquitoes. I am enormously concerned about human beings. Where do I start drawing lines?

At the moment, the line is drawn broadly between the great apes and the other primates. I know that lines have to be drawn, and that no lines are perfect. For the life of me, I cannot see how one can rationally defend the proposition that there is such a great difference between great apes and the other primates as to make sense of a law—the current law—which prohibits experimentation on the one and allows it on the other. I do not say that it is easy, or that as one concerns oneself with the consequences of recognising that degree of incoherence in the current law, one will suddenly come across the great truth about where the dividing lines should be. That is why I said at the beginning that I see this not as a debate leading to some immediate conclusion, but rather as the beginning of a very long process—or intervention in what is already a very long process—of debate and discussion, which I thinks needs to be much more general and much deeper.

Therefore, we face difficulties of definition, both in respect of the application of such controls across the range of things for which the experiments are intended and a debate about the dividing lines between those beings that may legitimately be used for such experiments and those that may not. In neither case do we have good and clear criteria for making robust and coherent distinctions. That is not because our Ministers, officials, political establishment as a whole, thinkers and scientists are collectively deficient, and if they were a little cleverer such things would be resolved. That is not the case. These are genuinely difficult matters. We will not come quickly to obvious and robust dividing lines.

That leaves us with the practical question of what we do in the knowledge that the current construction of the law is not easy to defend on a coherent or rational basis, that there are potentially great advances to be made in things that matter desperately, such as advancing the cause of science to relieve disease, and that we do not have a clear intellectual apparatus for making robust and coherent decisions in this area. As a society, we ought to press forward and explore some practical steps while we continue—it may be a long time—to try to sort out such extraordinarily difficult issues and to arrive at more robust and coherent arrangements.

The first thing that is evident is that we will not be able to have a prolonged, careful and rational debate unless there is more transparency about such matters. I draw an analogy between this area and the efforts that many have made to investigate the efficiency with which the Ministry of Defence spends its money. I do not make that as a partisan point; the issue has been ongoing in British politics for as long as I can remember. Every time one asks a question of the Ministry of Defence, one is told that the answer cannot be given because it is a matter of national security. Some of the time, that is undoubtedly true. Some of the time, however, it is not entirely true. But it is a useful device for those sitting in a place that does some things brilliantly and others not so efficiently for avoiding transparency about the things that are not so efficient.

In a somewhat similar way, because of the activities of some entirely reprehensible individuals whose main motivation, I fear, is hatred of human beings rather than love of animals, and because those activities have involved violence, and because there are entirely innocent, law-abiding and in many cases talented and deeply devoted scientists at work whose lives, livelihoods and families are under threat—which prompts the analogy with national security—there has been a tendency to clam up about what is going on in the domain of animal testing. Some of that tendency is justified. Clearly, we must not enter terrain in which there is transparency about the names and addresses of individuals who do things that might lead them to be attacked. I do not recommend any such thing. Proper safeguards must be observed. On the other hand, as in my analogy involving the Ministry of Defence, such genuine anxiety should not be used as the basis for refusal to reveal the details of what is going on in a way that creates confidence that there is transparency about the nature of the actions being taken and their effects on the animals concerned.

I am listening to the right hon. Gentleman with great interest. On a point of clarification, he is expounding on the philosophical issues that should be discussed in terms of where we should draw the line, how many experiments should happen and to what extent they are necessary. Does he agree that we should not be considering what experiments on animals are necessary for cosmetics testing, because there is no need for any to be carried out?

I am sorry. I explained at the beginning—before the Minister arrived, and while it was rather noisy—that I did not seek this debate to discuss whether cosmetics testing should take place on animals, as it has already been decided, in my view rightly, that it should not. I chose the topic precisely because, as it happens, it has already been decided. I wanted to make the point that this debate is not—although most debates, quite rightly, are—about an immediate, practical policy issue. I am trying to raise a wider issue, so I chose a topic on which the decision has been made. I am reflecting on the consequences and reverberations of that decision. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady on that point, and, thank goodness, so will the law in due course. We are rightly heading towards the abolition of cosmetics testing.

Transparency is a vital component of a rational debate, but a second issue merits much more attention in light of the fact that we do not know exactly how to think about such matters or where to draw the line, yet we know that some experimentation is necessary. That issue is the question of alternatives. It is characteristically the truth that a good thing to do when we face an extraordinarily difficult issue that we do not know collectively how to resolve is to look for a way of not having to resolve it. It is not intellectually noble, but it might achieve the practical result that we all seek. I think that this is such an issue.

I am not a scientist, and I do not pretend to know what the alternatives will be or how fruitful they will prove, but I do know some important facts, which the Minister will know much better than I, about the quantities of money involved. I also know a general rule: scientists are incredibly clever, and if they are given a lot of money to do something, quite a lot of them will do it sooner or later, but if they are not given much money, it is jolly lucky if they come up with something.

A lot of money is being spent on animal experimentation at the moment, but not much is being spent on finding alternatives. It does not take a rocket scientist to guess that in those circumstances more experimentation will occur than if that balance were shifted. Given that we do not have a robust way to understand which kinds of experiment on which animals are ethically reasonable, it seems entirely fair to demand that a higher proportion of what is spent on testing should be spent instead on developing alternatives.

It is obviously a delicate matter of balance, and there is much discussion to be had about how any such thing could be arranged. I certainly do not want to clutter my remarks with amateur attempts to design specifics—the Minister or our own Front Benchers will be able to consider that—but it is important that we start the endeavour in earnest. Until and unless that balance alters, I suspect that enough alternatives to make a difference will not be developed. Much more transparency and many more alternatives would allow the debate to proceed constructively despite the huge intellectual and ethical difficulties involved. I also suspect that in the meantime, fewer animals would be subjected to fewer experiments, because there would be more alternatives and more awareness of the facts of the case due to transparency.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on securing this debate on an issue whose importance is reflected in our postbags as constituency MPs. We are a country of animal lovers, and we are concerned about unnecessary testing on animals.

There is a clear distinction between legislation on cosmetics and legislation on other things such as medical devices or household cleaning products, and the Home Office licence is very clear about what tests may be carried out under which legislative regimes. The right hon. Gentleman raised an interesting issue about how we should take the debate onwards in respect of testing in general on animals.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I clarified the situation regarding the testing of cosmetics on animals. Under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, the Home Office is responsible for licensing test houses that carry out testing on animals for any purpose. The terms and conditions of licensing indicate that a licence will be issued only if there is no alternative to animal tests, if the generation of new data is justified, if the protocols proposed cannot be further refined and if the protocols will be likely to produce data meeting the specific objective.

In 1997, following discussions between the test houses and cosmetic product and ingredient manufacturers, it was agreed that existing licences would be withdrawn and no new licences would be issued for animal testing of finished cosmetic products, ingredients or combinations of ingredients. In effect, no testing of cosmetics on animals has taken place in the UK for the last 11 years.

The seventh amendment to the cosmetics directive, the requirements of which are contained in the Cosmetic Products (Safety) Regulations 2008, takes what the UK and some other member states had in place and extends it to the whole of the European Union. The seventh amendment has several elements. First, it imposes a ban on the testing of finished cosmetic products and cosmetic ingredients on animals from 11 March 2005. Secondly, it introduces a provisional ban on the marketing of cosmetic products that have been tested on animals or contain ingredients that have been tested on animals using a method other than an alternative method where such a method has been validated and adopted at Community level. In other words, if an approved alternative method exists, testing on animals is unlawful. Thirdly, the amendment introduces a longstop ban that will prohibit the marketing of cosmetic products tested on animals from 2009 for the vast majority of animal tests and from 2013 for the remaining three tests, toxicity, reproductive toxicity and toxicokinetics, for which development of alternatives, as the right hon. Gentleman highlighted, is much more complex. The longstop ban will come into force irrespective of whether alternative methods have been developed.

That means, in effect, that no animal testing of cosmetics can take place in the UK or other EU member states and that, in a phased transition starting next year and culminating in 2013, the marketing of cosmetic products tested on animals will be prohibited. The marketing ban will include not only products from within the EU but cosmetic products manufactured outside of the EU that have been subject to animal testing. That is of particular importance, because there are still countries, such as Japan and the United States, where animal testing of cosmetic products is an important part of product safety assessment.

It might be useful to mention briefly the progress being made in the development of alternatives to animal testing. For the deadline in 2009, alternatives already exist for tests for skin corrosion, acute phototoxicity, skin penetration and skin irritation and mutagenicity. Work on the replacement of the genotoxicity and eye irritation tests is progressing well—I am sure that we all have very clear images of the sort of animal welfare posters produced, at the time, of rabbits, in particular, involved in the latter tests.

Hopefully those replacement tests will be completed towards the latter half of 2009, and at present we have no reason to believe that the 2013 end points will not be met. It is worth pointing out that once those tests are validated and legally accepted, they are to be used as alternatives to animal testing in all areas, not just those related to cosmetic products—I think that that addresses the point that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned.

As I indicated at the beginning of my remarks, the Home Office, via its Animal (Scientific Procedures) Inspectorate, is responsible for ensuring that test houses do not carry out testing on animals for cosmetic purposes. Day-to-day enforcement of the Cosmetic Products (Safety) Regulations 2008 is the responsibility of local authority trading standards departments, which have access to the safety assessment dossiers, which companies must retain for all the cosmetic products that they supply. Those dossiers will contain information on any animal testing that has been carried out in the past. If hon. Members are contacted by constituents with concerns about such matters, they can refer them to their local trading standards department.

My Department has received a number of letters from members of the public concerned that the regime that I described earlier will change because of pressure from the cosmetics industry. I can reassure Members of the House that the cosmetics industry has made no such approach to my Department and that, even if it did, we would not change the existing legal framework. My officials have also confirmed that no approach has been made by the cosmetics industry to the European Commission seeking changes to the European directive on cosmetics in respect of animal testing.

All animal testing must be conducted under the REACH—Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals—regime, which was initially an EU regulation, but is now incorporated into UK law. Its overall objective is to establish a rapid, efficient system for collecting the necessary information on chemicals and for tackling those of most concern, while minimising animal testing and maintaining the competitiveness of the chemical industry. The UK Government continue to be strongly supportive of the principles and objectives of this new EU chemicals strategy.

Although it is important for the industry to demonstrate that its chemicals are safe to the environment and to human health, via the environment, the animal testing required under REACH to achieve these ends must be minimised and undertaken only where it is needed, and not just for the sake of filling data gaps.

There has been a significant increase in animal experiments over recent years. Is one of the problems not the lack of data sharing between companies? Sometimes that is because of commercial confidentiality, but could the Minister tell us a bit more about what is being done to encourage companies to share test results, so that they are not all carrying out the same tests unnecessarily?

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. It is important that the industry recognises the Government’s and the EU’s intentions in ensuring that we reduce the amount of animal testing. It is in everybody’s benefit, therefore, that companies share that basic data. That is very important.

It is important to note that the legislation focuses on “information” rather than “data”. There is flexibility to use all available information, not just data from tests, to satisfy particular registration requirements. To avoid duplication, the REACH regulations specifically exclude the need to consider the risks to human health for uses in cosmetic products within the scope of the cosmetics directive. However, the need to reduce animal testing is a key issue for the UK Government who will continue to emphasise the importance of requiring information where this is necessary for risk management.

Does the Minister agree with my right hon. Friend that transparency needs to be encouraged and supported far more than it has been. Without transparency, we will not gradually find further ways in which we can reduce animal testing, not only for cosmetics but a whole range of other things. Will she undertake to make this a priority for the Government to ensure that there is much greater transparency throughout the whole area of research?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue about transparency and information data sharing between companies to ensure that we minimise the effect of increasing animal testing.

Testing can be minimised by ensuring that data on chemicals is shared between companies and countries—a significant benefit of the European Union—as well as ensuring that test packages for the new REACH scheme are proportionate.

On transparency, there is another issue is there not? Consumers often do not realise that what they are buying has been tested on animals, because labelling is not clear. The average person on the street does not want to buy products that have been tested on animals, but that information simply is not available. Will the Minister convey to the Department the need for more transparency in the information that is given to consumers when they buy household products?

My hon. Friend raises another important point. I am sure that the Minister who has full-time responsibility for this issue will study the Hansard report of this debate with great interest, and that my hon. Friend’s points will be taken on board.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make it clear that this issue is also about the public demanding changes. There has been a huge change in the public’s state of mind in the past few years, initially as a result of people such as Anita Roddick and organisations such as the Body Shop making changes to the way in which they marketed and sold their products, and others seeing the value of those changes. In time, we will move on to the changes that the right hon. Member for West Dorset suggests. He sees this as a much bigger issue involving the use of animals for testing not only cosmetics, but household, medical and many other items.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman again for raising this important issue, which will no doubt be aired again, perhaps taking on the points that he has made and developing the debate. I trust that he feels that the UK Government and the European Union have made significant progress in changing animal testing regimes and taking this issue forward, so that there might be a time at which we can significantly reduce the amount of animal testing.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Two o’clock.