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Scientific Procedures on Animals (Statistics)

Volume 488: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2009

May I place on the record my appreciation to the Speaker for allowing this debate at rather short notice and for giving us a one-and-a-half-hour slot? That will give many of my colleagues the opportunity, should they so wish, to put forward their views.

I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend the Minister in her place, because in many ways she is more responsible for the debate than I am. On 4 February, when members of the all-party group on FRAME—fund for the replacement of animals in medical experiments—met her, she told us, to my surprise, how few parliamentary debates on animal welfare in scientific research there have been. She also pleaded for the debate to be held soon, because time was of the essence—it will not be long before she must go missing to deal with the new arrival. We have kept our side of the bargain, and she now has her opportunity.

I also pay tribute to Jenny Gowan, from the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, and to Stacey Friar and Barney Reed, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for giving me their thoughts. They spent a lot of time with me yesterday—the timing of this debate has not been ideal, because of the recess last week and because I was away in Strasbourg for three days, so I had to cram everything into yesterday in dealing with this matter.

It is nice to be speaking from this position. I think back to 1994, Mrs. Humble, when I was sitting in a similar position to you—behind that top table—while considering the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996, which was being dealt with by a Select Committee. However, unlike you, Mrs. Humble, I had another 11 months and three weeks to go before getting away—you will be away, no doubt, at the end of this sitting. I am sure that you will be quite pleased about that. Many changes have taken place since then, however, and I had been led to believe that this place was like a halfway house to the House of Lords—a little more genteel and refined than the House of Commons, but not quite as good as the House of Lords. However, what I saw in the last debate did not bear that out—but one lives in hope!

Since I and my colleagues from the all-party FRAME group met the Minister on 4 February and having done some reading and talked to people about this subject, I have changed my views. When we met her, the spectre of diminished UK legislation was looming before us, as a result of the dumbing-down that we feared necessary to fall in line with European Union legislation and recommendations. Although our system was by no means perfect, we did not want it to be made any worse. However, I have since considered the matter in detail, and now take a more positive and—I hope—constructive position.

I think that my colleagues in the all-party group will go along with my comments. There is nothing wrong with our seeking some much-needed improvements. The current situation is far from satisfactory. We hear about the three R’s—replacement, refinement and reduction—in animal experimentation and scientific development. Most groups would go along with those, although the anti-vivisection people take a stronger view. They want total elimination of animal experimentation, which is an admirable view. My heart tells me that it has much to commend itself, but my head tells me that it is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. I always recall what that great statesman, R.A.—later Lord—Butler said: politics is the art of the possible.

Furthermore, I would like to put on the record my views on certain extreme and criminal elements that have intimidated people, damaged people’s property and done neither themselves, nor the movement, any favours. All that they have done is take away the public’s attention from the real issue to the criminal aspects of the groups’ activities. They have probably set us back many years. Obviously, none of the groups to which I shall refer have any time for such people, although we believe that they have a point. We find how they make that point quite indefensible.

I am pleased to praise the Government, which is rare for me, for their endeavours and successes with the Bill involving stem cell research. There was a fair amount of opposition to it from various quarters, but it is the way forward, and I hope that it will help us to achieve some of our aims in reducing animal experimentation—all the potential seems to be there. One of the biggest problems facing the nation’s health relates to our ageing population and the terrible plight of the increasing number of people suffering from dementia. Given that it is a disease of old age, it is almost inevitable that more old people will result in more people with dementia. That is leading to many problems, not least that of resources. It seems that most of the advances made on the subject have come from stem cell research, which is very welcome. Dementia is probably the largest medical problem faced by mankind in Britain—there are many others, but it stands out on account of the large number of people involved.

We must first consider the statistics. I give praise to the excellent briefing paper prepared for this debate by the Commons Library. I am sure that I can quote from it, because all the figures in it come from Government sources. In these days of scientific enlightenment and advancement and of the greater accrual of knowledge, it is sobering to think that, over the past 12 years, animal experimentation has increased by no less than 21 per cent. In previous years, the figure had fallen from a level above what it is now to a fairly low level. This is not a party-political issue but a national issue. Some might say, “Oh well, the figures went down under our regime, and have risen under a different regime”, but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is to find out why that happened and to see what we can do to arrest the situation. We first need to ensure that this remorseless rise in animal experimentation is, at the very least, brought to a plateau. Only then can we begin to consider ways and means to reduce the problem.

I do not underestimate the complexity and difficulty of achieving such a reduction, but the 21 per cent. increase over 12 years is unacceptable by any standards. We can hear all the fine words in the world, but we need positive proof on the ground that the policies are working. Sadly, at the moment, they are not.

It is interesting to see the passion that the hon. Gentleman brings to this debate. Does he accept that the principal reasons for the rise in the number of animals used in medical research are the huge advances in medical science seen virtually on a daily basis? He mentioned stem cell research. Such huge developments in medical science are driving up the number of animals used in experimentation, rather than there being simply an inexorable move upwards in the use of animals.

The hon. Gentleman has put that in a very attractive way. He is expressing an opinion. One of the reasons for the rise is that we have failed to control the system in a proper manner. I will explain later why that has happened. It is probably not widely known, but the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not apply to this particular industry. I shall call animal experimentation an industry because that is what it is. In my experience, strong lobbying groups and powerful financial forces, such as the pharmaceutical industry, laboratories and universities, quite rightly and understandably look to protect their own jobs and interests, which we all accept is reasonable behaviour. None the less, I have never heard any Government Minister or MP say that they are in favour of expanding animal experimentation. It may be in Hansard somewhere, but I personally have never heard it said. Therefore, I take a different view to the hon. Gentleman. Basically, we have a flawed system, which is far too closeted. We do not have a comprehensive and effective database. I am not disparaging those who try to produce the best set of statistics that we can have on a general basis in Europe. However, if someone applies for a licence to do some experimentation, how can we ensure that such experimentation has not been done 30 years before, and has reached positive or negative conclusions? We do not know because such information is not in the public domain.

Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 has been misinterpreted. It is sobering to consider that this industry is de facto immune to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We all know that many of the general effects of that Act are positive. For example, it is positive that Members of Parliament have to declare their expenses, which are paid for out of general taxation. No one argues against that. It is also right and proper that there is total transparency in the granting of licences, but there is not. Such information is not in the public domain. The public do not get to know about the procedure.

The House of Lords Select Committee that dealt with the issue of scientific testing on animals in 2002 said that the public must be enabled to make informed judgments about the justification for animal research. Such a pledge has not been fulfilled. We are nowhere near a situation in which the public have the sort of information that enables them to reach conclusions and to lobby their MPs or others. Such information is closeted. A cosy relationship exists. I am not saying that it is corrupt; far from that. I have no doubt that the people concerned do their best, but nothing ever seems to get the breath of fresh air that comes from public scrutiny. This is an area that badly needs more public scrutiny.

Another astounding fact that I read in the Commons Library report is that no application for animal research has been refused. I find that incredible. Under any system, surely, somewhere along the line, there will be a reason to refuse an application. I cannot believe that every application does not in some way—no matter how small—duplicate something that has already been done. Many people are not prepared to face up to the reality that this industry is a self-propagating entity. Unfortunately, despite all the Government’s good intentions, the records show that the system is not working. Anyone can say that we intend to control something and hopefully reduce it by using scientific advances. For heaven’s sake, given the number of years that we have had animal experimentation, we should have a tremendous database now. We will never reach the stage when we have run out of opportunities to get more knowledge, but surely as we get an accrual of information, it must become less necessary to continue with similar types of experiment.

Finally, an issue that is not given enough recognition is the fact that many animal experiments, which reached conclusions and were then tried on humans, were found not to be analogous. It was found that the experimentation on animals did not give the sort of information that was helpful as far as humans were concerned; indeed, it often had the opposite effect.

I am pleased to see so many hon. Members present today and I hope that they will have their say. Let us have more debate on the matter, and more debates in Westminster Hall.

I apologise for missing my hon. Friend’s initial remarks, and he may have covered the matter that I want to raise. I support the Government’s three Rs approach—reduction, replacement and refinement. When I look at the statistics, it would help me to see what definitive evidence there is—I know that we have an organisation that is tasked to do that, but it is smoke and mirrors—that those three R’s have reduced the amount of animal experimentation that would otherwise have taken place. I have never seen such evidence, and that is a real weakness in the system. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a problem?

I agree with my hon. Friend, but all I can say is how long is a piece of string? Without the evidence, we do not know whether the 21 per cent. increase might have been a 60 per cent. or a 5 per cent. increase. We will only know that when we get the full information. We need to know why experiments are being carried out, what the results are and what conclusions are drawn from the results. We do not know such things. We have statistics on both numbers and occurrences. There are four categories of outcomes in animal research. The first one is a fairly minimal effect and the fourth one is death. The second and third category fall somewhere between the two. That is about as much as we know. We do not know much more because there are no details on why experiments are being carried out.

Some years ago, it became illegal to carry out animal experimentation for cosmetics. I would have hoped that such a ban would lead to a reduction in animal experimentation because that was a large and lucrative sector, but we did not see that. In answer to my hon. Friend, the fact that we see a 21 per cent. increase in animal experimentation means that we must question the veracity of the three Rs. We all agree with the three Rs, but they include the word “reduction”. We are not seeing any reduction. It would be a tremendous step forward if we could reach equilibrium. It is good to have my hon. Friend the Minister here to answer my questions, which I am sure she will do very capably. We need to have a step change here. We are not making progress. Politics is full of unintended consequences. Although people mean well, their actions do not always work out in the way in which they intend. If things do not work out in such a way, one should admit it and change it. That is what I am asking for, and what we need.

I hesitate to intervene on my hon. Friend because he is making an excellent speech. He mentioned the ban on cosmetics testing on animals, but does he agree that if we moved to ban the testing of other categories of products, such as household products, of which there are plenty that we can already use, and the testing of recreational drugs, we could at one fell swoop significantly reduce the number of animal experiments?

I agree with my hon. Friend but, sadly, that is not likely to happen. All Governments seem to be reluctant to interfere and instead follow the status quo. Whenever someone suggests something radical, there is always a massive move against it. For every one good reason to change something, 10 good reasons are given to keep things as they are. My hon. Friend makes an attractive proposal, but it is not likely to happen.

I have taken enough time—I did not intend to speak for quite this long—and I look forward to hearing what my colleagues say in the rest of the debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) on his excellent speech, which I agree with entirely. I have the honour of being the chairman of the all-party group on the fund for the replacement of animals in medical experiments, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. The group is grateful for the advice that we get from Professor Michael Balls and Gerard Duvé, who are respectively the chairman and secretary to the trustees of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments.

I was slightly concerned when the hon. Gentleman secured this debate that there would not be so much interest in it, but there is a lot, so I will cut my speech by half. FRAME is grateful to the Minister and her officials for the time that they gave to meet us and for the positive spirit in which she responded to our concerns. I am also grateful for the support today of my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill), who was also at the meeting.

My interest in animal welfare has been consistent throughout my time as a Member of Parliament. I hope that I am not bragging by saying that I am not in the extreme wing of animal welfare activism, but belong to the sensible group of people who are interested in animal welfare. My views were best summarised in a speech I made on the Second Reading of the Animal Welfare Bill, but the fact that I served on the Standing Committee that considered the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 shows how long I have been here. The Home Office Minister on that Committee was David Mellor.

I do not think that that had been in the spotlight to quite the degree that it was later.

I recall clearly that the Committee focused on extreme examples such as cosmetic testing. The 1986 Act achieved a great deal, but as the hon. Member for Sunderland, North said, time moves on, and FRAME feels strongly about some of the matters related to our closer integration with the European Community.

In our excellent Library briefing, we are told that Darwin understood the need for animal tests. The great naturalist loved all living creatures but defended vivisection, which sparked a debate that rages today. Animal welfare groups are concerned that current European Union statistics on animal experimentation are woefully inadequate. Although we should not generalise, the UK is by and large a nation of animal lovers, and some European Community member states do not have quite the same strength of feeling for animal welfare. There is widespread support for a new directive incorporating a far more meaningful system of reporting animal use that would include the level of pain and distress that they suffer.

Lord Davidson has proposed that the coverage of scientific procedures should be substantially reduced to annual Home Office statistics, but FRAME believes that the Home Office should continue to publish annual comprehensive statistical reports of the kind and depth that have been published for many years. The publication of the British statistics provides a valuable resource for those who seek an acceptable compromise between serving the legitimate interests of science, medicine and industry, and maintaining the highest possible standards of laboratory animal welfare.

To consider drastically reducing the scope of the statistics to a minimum standard would be seen as an unacceptable reduction in the long-held Government commitment to ensure transparency on what happens in British labs. For example, the statistical detail covering the breeding and use of genetically modified animals has long been understood as part of the commitment to transparency, even though it is not required for compliance with the EU directive or the Council of Europe convention ETS 123. Furthermore, because the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals scheme may require the use of an additional 50 million animals, the members of the all-party group believe that the case for maintaining comprehensive statistics is very strong.

Lord Davidson recommended a cost-benefit analysis on the collection of annual statistics, but FRAME firmly believes that the retention of the present provisions for animal statistics, rather than being an example of gold plating, better serves the interests of the British scientific and animal welfare communities, by ensuring the most considerate treatment of animals in British laboratories.

The Minister may not be able to respond today to all the points that I make, some of which I made at our earlier meeting but, if she has time, she could respond in writing in due course. She received a letter from the all-party group on 14 November 2008 in which we expressed our view that the current practice should continue without any drastic reduction in scope or content, despite Lord Davidson’s views. The group does not believe that the argument for a change in current arrangements has been proven.

Following several years of consultation, the Commission’s proposal for a directive to replace directive 86/609/EEC was published toward the end of 2008, and it is now being discussed within individual member states. I hope that whoever is handling the Minister’s brief when she takes leave to have her baby—we wish her well with that—is in a stronger position because British parliamentarians are genuinely interested in the issue. The Home Office is conducting a series of meetings with various groups of stakeholders, concerned, for example, with alternatives, animal welfare, scientific research and industry. FRAME is a part of the group with a special interest in alternative methods and will do all it can to assist the Home Office, if it so wishes, in developing a sound negotiating position for the UK. FRAME’s initial comments were first submitted to the Home Office early in 2009.

The principal reason for the proposed revision is the uneven application of the current directive to member states. The proposals’ intentions are encouraging. They include the enhanced promotion of alternative methods, stricter control of the use of non-human primates and a system for retrospective reporting to enable judgments to be made about whether the benefits of programmes of work were delivered and the likely suffering of the animals used was reliably predicted.

However, the intentions are not expressed with sufficient clarity or in terms of the definite requirements that would be expected in a law. The main purpose of the proposal could be served only if massive rewriting provided something more like a directive, or if formal and detailed guidance were provided on how the directive’s provisions should be interpreted and applied by member states.

For example, there are references to how the conduct of animal procedures might ultimately benefit humans or human health, but no clear indication of who would judge whether the predicted benefits were sufficiently reliable and realistic to justify the annual suffering caused by the procedures or how such evaluations would be performed, as the hon. Member for Sunderland, North mentioned in his speech.

The hon. Gentleman need not worry. I apologise to you, Mrs. Humble, and to hon. Members for the fact that I am a member of a Public Bill Committee and will have to go back for votes from time to time. I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. On his last point, does he not think that that is being carried out at the moment and that benefit-harm ratios and the likelihood of adequate benefit from the research are being judged by the fact that one must apply for ethical approval and authority both to do experiments and to be licensed as an investigator? We already have that in this country. It is therefore not lacking in our current regulation or the directive.

The hon. Gentleman is trying to tempt me down another road. I do not regard his point as relevant to this debate, which is on a response to Lord Davidson’s report and how we will proceed with our European partners.

Another example of superficial thinking relates to the use of green apes—sorry, great apes. [Laughter.] A Freudian slip. My TV needs tuning, I think. The use of great apes would not be banned, in case some human health emergency arose that might justify it. As it is expensive to maintain chimpanzees in captivity and would take several years to breed them and raise them to an age at which they could be used, where would the animals be found for use in such an emergency? In the jungles of Africa? I doubt it. Would a few hundred be kept in cages at enormous expense, just in case they might one day be needed? I just flag that up. Whether the apes are green or brown, FRAME would not want to see that happen.

One point of particular concern relates to the status and future of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods. Professor Balls was the first head of ECVAM, and Dr. Jon Richmond is the current British representative on its scientific advisory committee. We are proud of that. Article 46 of the proposal sets out a scheme for a national reference laboratory in each member state for the validation of methods that could replace, reduce or refine the use of animals. It is attractive at first sight, but it is fundamentally flawed, as it is based on a lack of experience among those who wrote it, especially with respect to validation. There is a danger that the validation process would be frustrated by a lack of experience and national or other sectoral bias of a kind that has occurred in the past. Such issues could be handled satisfactorily via ECVAM’s relatively independent status. There is no specific mention of the role of ECVAM, which increases concern that much of what has been achieved in the organisation’s development over nearly two decades will be abandoned in favour of some inappropriate theory about how Commission services should be run in relation to what happens in member states according to the principle of subsidiarity.

In conclusion, it is clear that the emphasis is bureaucratic rather than scientific. Inevitably, that risks delaying the development, validation, acceptance and application of methods that are truly relevant and reliable in their stated purposes of leading to the greater protection of human health and steadily reducing the cost to laboratory animals. I think that the Home Office understands entirely what challenges it faces. I welcome the opportunity through this debate to strengthen its hand as it takes the negotiations forward.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) on presenting such a strong, passionate speech about the implications of experiments using animals. I recognise many of the things that he said, having practised some of those methods myself. As a young student, I was taught to inject rabbits and get antibodies from them. I had to fill in Home Office forms and so on, but there was a laxity even then about how seriously the issue was taken. Later in life, of course, during cancer research, one cured mice of cancer but was never sure whether it would work in human beings as well.

The great increase in using animals, particularly mice, is due not just to stem cell research but to the fact that people now want animal models for cystic fibrosis and other diseases, given that they can obtain genes, put them into what are called knockout mice or nude mice and see what happens in the process, thereby studying the progress of a particular illness. The increase in the use of mice is justified by scientists on the basis that it will help to give us some input into sorting out diseases, whether rare diseases or other sorts.

I am going to say something that opens up the whole field. As a hardened scientist, I never questioned what I did. They were just things that one did. However, I think that we have now learned quite a bit. I pay tribute to FRAME and Professor Michael Balls. He and I worked together, argued together and taught together. As a matter of fact, I got him his job. When he was at Berkeley, I brought him back to this country. Ever since then, we have conversed about alternatives to animal experiments, although not in the sense of doing away with animal experiments completely, because it is recognised that—in some cases, anyway—they can be useful. However, we should be working much harder to develop not just regulations but new technologies to replace some animal experiments.

I say that because I have a Bill, which is supported by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and the Safer Medicines Campaign, to evaluate tests carried out on animals against the alternative methods coming to the fore. I had not realised how fast such alternative technologies were emerging until I attended a conference a few months ago at the Royal Society run by the Safer Medicines Campaign. There is an opening up among scientists. More and more scientists are getting involved in considering alternatives. We should welcome that, particularly if the validation process that we are trying to pass in Parliament allows us to assess whether animal experiments are working, whether they tell us what we think we can see in a mouse, a rat or other animal, and how other technologies compare.

As my hon. Friend said, there have been some tragedies in the field in which animal experiments on mice or other animals have been carried out, yet when the drug is put into human trials, a Northwick Park situation arises. In those trials, drugs for certain types of leukaemia—I will not go into the details—had adverse effects on people; in fact, they nearly died. Much has been written about that. In other instances involving pharmaceutical companies, there have been side effects that were not seen in animals but were seen in humans when the drug entered human trials. I know that if a drug is used, it is best to see how it works physiologically on the whole organism—I have used that argument in the Chamber. However, in physiology and biochemistry there are differences between animals and between animals and humans. That must be taken into consideration.

I am a great believer in some of the tests that have been carried out. My colleague, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), always wants me to talk about Dundee university, where understanding how a basic scientific procedure called protein phosphorylation worked in normal organisms allowed the development of nine effective drugs to treat cancer. From a position of not understanding how something works, people can arrive at a point where it does work. As far as I know, there have been no adverse effects in that arena and it has to go through the legal process.

We all get letters from the public—I received letters about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 because people did not like some of the things that were being done. Professor Michael Balls and I had a terrible fallout over some issues—he was watching what I was saying and we fell out and disagreed. That has been published. I have seen him since and there is no problem. We have argued out the matter.

Animal tests must be validated in some way, but they never have been. I have mentioned some cases where there have been problems. I want to talk not only about the number of animals involved, as my hon. Friend did, but about my concerns over the impact on patients of using animals as surrogate humans to develop and test new medicines. We rely on animals as a final safety screen before clinical trials on people. According to the US Food and Drug Administration, 92 per cent. of potential new drugs do not work in human trials. Sarah Boseley, a reporter from The Guardian, who I think is one of the best reporters in the country, digs deep and wins lots of prizes for what she unearths. She does not need the Freedom of Information Act 2000; she goes to countries such as Malawi in Africa and sees how drugs are being used in that community. She said:

“A million Britons are hospitalised by prescription medicines every year, costing the NHS £2 billion.”

It is admitted that drugs often have side effects, which can differ between different people. Drugs are metabolised and mobilised in different ways depending on our individual genetic make-up.

There have been lots of reports from the United States and a vision has developed there focused on trying to limit animal tests and replace them with new technologies. I will not describe all those new technologies, as they have been mentioned before. People are critical of some, but not of others. Using human tissue is a more favourable practice in laboratories because we can have banks of such tissues. They can be studied and we can understand how a new compound will work. There are DNA chips, where the effect of a drug on a particular gene is looked at on a slide. There are different computer models, and microdosing is new technology where small amounts of a drug can be given to a human to see what reaction it produces. At the conference that I attended, I found it stimulating to see the good sciences being used to try and work out alternative procedures. That is why I hope that the Bill manages to get somewhere as we look for validation of those technologies.

There have been many inquiries into animal testing. The Lords Select Committee, the Animal Procedures Committee, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Weatherall report all called for research into the validity of animal tests. None of those inquiries assess the effect of that on predicting drug safety, and that is a huge gap. The Committee on Safety of Medicine’s evaluation was the first, I think, to require a scientific comparison of the ability of animal tests to predict the risks of drugs in humans with the ability of a set of human biology-based tests. That is worth taking forward, and I compliment not only the Safer Medicines Campaign but also FRAME; they have continuously made us think about other ways of doing things.

Perhaps we can make savings by using these technologies. This is an expensive business involving animal housing, ensuring that welfare is properly provided, arranging Home Office visits and spending time in collecting data from different laboratories. Enabling animal houses to be smaller would save a lot of money for a starving higher education process. I remember once in Portcullis House that I saved a university £1 million by ensuring that humans could not enter its animal building. It was thought that allowing access would leave it open to the kind of people who have recently been imprisoned for their violent behaviour because of their beliefs about animals. There is a huge change in the way that people think about animal experiments, the need for them and the possible alternatives. I welcome that. This scientific field might turn out some very exciting results.

Following on from the last three speakers is quite difficult; nearly everything I was going to say has been said. However, I would like to join my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) in thanking the Minister for the courtesy that she showed when we met her a few weeks ago.

I have been involved with animal welfare for a long time. I am the longest serving trustee of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals. I was one of the founder members of FRAME, and we have been lucky to have Professor Michael Balls guiding us through the process ever since it started. I was attracted to FRAME because it was the sensible person’s approach to animal welfare and experimentation and not extreme in any way. Nearly all scientists engaged in this field are not wicked, extremist people who love torturing animals, as they are sometimes portrayed by the extreme animal rights wing. They are, for the most part, conscientious and careful. I know that from first-hand experience: for the past 40 years, my wife has been a fundraiser for Action Medical Research; she is now the south-east regional chairperson. The brunt of what Action Medical Research does—the cutting-edge research—largely involves stem cells rather than animals. I have met many of the scientists whom it employs and they are fine people who are conscious of the need to minimise the effect on animals of any research that they do.

However, there are some defects in the law as it stands. There is a lack of openness and transparency that must be addressed. One understands that much research might be commercially confidential. What drugs companies and others do is often expensive and their research must be protected to a degree. Nevertheless, particularly as a result of some EU legislation, there is a good deal of unnecessary duplication of research. We must be satisfied that efficacy is involved and that it is not duplication. We must be more demanding in what we ask of those who request consent to carry out these sorts of experiments. If we do that, I think that the public will be with us. How we present our case is extremely important. We are not trying to shut down experimentation, but we can take a lot of satisfaction from advances in research that mean that things that used to be indispensable are now not wholly necessary. Perhaps by being a little tougher, we will drive people into research which, although it might be more expensive and difficult, will reduce, rather than increase, the level of animal experimentation. We should therefore tighten up procedures.

Let me congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) on securing the debate. He is right that the House should constantly debate this issue. I had little difficulty with much of his speech, although I respectfully disagree with him on several issues, which I shall raise. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) on putting the case for the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments so clearly. FRAME has brought respectability to this area of opposition, rather than simply adopting a black-and-white approach to animal testing, and I do not criticise its work.

Even if I wanted to, I could find no Member of the House and no scientist who uses animals for experiments who would not like to find an alternative way of doing those experiments. I do not believe that there is a demand, other than from people who are particularly perverse, for inflicting pain on animals. I acknowledge people’s genuine concerns about this issue, but I have real difficulty with the title and central thrust of today’s debate, which is really about the production of statistics and the idea that producing more statistics will somehow improve the lot of animals and reduce the number being used in experiments. Neither FRAME nor anyone else has produced evidence that having better statistics will drive down the number of animals being used.

May I give the hon. Gentleman an example that might help to answer his question? On the testing of household products, I gather that more than 100 chemicals are used in disinfectants and that more than 250 have been tested and are available for use. Surely, if statistics were available on the multitude of experiments being carried out to create ever more household products, there would be consumer demand not to license more experiments. Would not that be useful?

The duplication of experiments is nonsense—I do not think anyone could argue with that—and we are delighted that the UK no longer experiments on animals for household products or cosmetics. As I am sure the hon. Lady knows, however, the problem is that the new REACH—registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemical substances—regulation will revisit many of the compounds that are used in everyday chemicals because of the need to test the toxicity of each one. That will cause a real problem. A driver of that regulation is the need to control information more centrally.

We do not want just a simple debate on statistics and numbers; we want a debate on why we are using animals in science. More than 3.2 million procedures were started in 2007—a rise of 6 per cent. on the previous year. There have been significant rises, year on year, in the number of animals used in science, and it is absolutely right that we put those statistics on the table. Since 2000, the number of scientific procedures performed on animals has risen, and we have to ask why. This is where I disagree with the hon. Member for Sunderland, North, because, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has mentioned, the rise in the number of animals is due largely to the increasing use of genetically altered animals—mostly mice, not primates, cats or dogs. Genetically altered mice are engineered to have particular diseases, and drugs or chemicals are created to knock out that disease. There has been a move to improve medical science by using genetically altered animals.

I have heard strong condemnation of the work on the three Rs, which was an incredibly positive development set up by Lord Sainsbury when he was Minister for Science and Innovation. Rather than being a barometer of the lack of progress for the three Rs, statistics have provided an indicator of current trends in research. An increase in numbers can reflect an increase in the overall amount of research done, and therefore of the benefits to patients.

The central driver for the vast majority of research using animals is the laudable objective of improving human health. As the UK is particularly successful in biomedical research—we are second only to the United States, so we are leaders in that key area—it is not unreasonable to think that there will be an increase in the number of animals used in the UK for such research. One particular statistic is worth noting because it has been produced by the Home Office and the Department of Health—the proportion of animals used, despite increases in biomedical science, is going down.

Let me return to the point that the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) made about the European directive. There have been slight misunderstandings regarding FRAME’s position and the way in which the new scientific directive, directive 86/609/EEC, is being considered and discussed. We in the UK are proud of our high standards in the treatment of animals in science. Covance—a private, US-based company—has laboratories in my constituency where a significant amount of testing on animals is done. I have visited those laboratories many times, and I have been astounded by the efforts that are made to maintain and look after the animals, with the best of husbandry. Recent efforts being made in England include bringing in animals in colonies, rather than in individual breeding pairs, to replicate their home conditions. In this area, we lead Europe, and it is important that the directive is used to ensure that the standards of animal care throughout the EU come up to ours, rather than go down.

I agree with the hon. Member for Southend, West that the directive is badly worded. It needs considerable revision before it becomes law. There is misunderstanding about the fact that any European directive has to be framed in the image of each particular nation, and it is up to the UK Government to frame the directive in British law according to how we want it. The hon. Gentleman’s party has accused the Government of gold-plating EU directives, but this one does not need gold-plating. Indeed, we should maintain the high standards of openness and transparency on which Labour Governments of the past 12 years have a decent record.

[David Taylor in the Chair]

I am also concerned about the hon. Gentleman’s comment on the use of great apes—or green apes, as the case may be—and where we would find them in a dire emergency. At the moment there are 1,400 great apes in breeding programmes in the United States. It is not the case that there would not be sufficient great apes available in an emergency, if needed. There are another 600 great apes in active research programmes in the US.

The hon. Gentleman’s point about the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods is right. Particularly over the past five to six years, that organisation has established a terrific reputation throughout Europe. It would be sad if this directive moved us in the opposite direction.

I have four cats and two dogs and a great number of mice despite them. On speaking to my wife this morning and telling her that I was filling in as Liberal Democrat spokesman on this subject this morning, she said, “I hope you are going to support a total ban on all animal experiments.” I replied, “I’m sorry dear, we’ll have to continue to disagree on that.”

There is a need for greater transparency about the benefits of using animals in medical science. Looking at the huge breakthroughs in medical science and the number of diseases for which cures have been found as a result of testing on animals puts these matters into perspective. The hon. Member for Norwich, North, who leads much of the work on cancer research in the House, would accept that the huge advances in cancer treatment have come about not just as a result of animal testing, although it has been part and parcel of them. The same applies to antibiotics and vaccines. Animals have been used to develop cures for everything from smallpox to polio, insulin, tetanus, rubella and anthrax. If we go down the road of saying, “At this moment in time, we can suddenly find cures without using animals”, we do so at our peril.

Order. I have to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I should like to call the other Front-Bench spokesman at an early point and call the Minister at 12.15 pm.

Mr. Taylor, thank you for calling me to speak on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition. This has been an excellent debate. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this subject. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) on his contribution and thank other hon. Members who have spoken. There is consensus on most issues among hon. Members in this Chamber today and among the Government and the Opposition, and there is little that we have to disagree on. A lot of progress has been made and much more must be made in years to come.

Today’s debate has been useful. I particularly commend the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) about the work of the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments, and I commend the excellent work that he does with my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) in the all-party group on FRAME. We look forward to making progress on this matter in the years to come.

The Minister will be taking a sabbatical quite soon and we all wish her well. I know that she feels as passionately about this matter as we all do. We look forward with hope to using the cross-party consensus to move this agenda forward.

May I emphasise my satisfaction with the fact that, following the recent European Committee sitting on the revision of European directive 86/609 relating to the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, this subject is once again being debated in the House and getting the attention that it rightly deserves? As the spectrum of animal welfare issues—particularly animal experimentation—continues to expand both in volume and in terms of public interest in it, Her Majesty’s Opposition are wholly committed to reflecting this in parliamentary business. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North for choosing this subject for debate today.

My colleagues and I are satisfied with the general direction in which the animal testing debate has been heading in recent years. It is safe to say that everybody across all sectors would like to see the same eventual outcome: the replacement of animals used in scientific procedures, however long that may take. Indeed, it may take many years, but ultimately we all want to reach that goal. The Government, Opposition parties, welfare organisations and, perhaps most significant, industry have all made clear their dedication to continuing to develop and utilise alternative methods of testing that will help work towards eliminating the use of animals in scientific procedures.

As is made evident by the current revision of EU directive 86/609 on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, many of the regulations on animal testing are being determined at European level in order that our European neighbours adhere to the standards that we already apply here in the United Kingdom. Although my party has reservations about the top-down approach taken by Europe in some areas of legislation, it is a pleasure to see an international approach to animal testing. I envisage that in just a few short years we will be debating this matter from a much more unified European perspective and adjusting our focus to more inclusive consideration of data gathered from our European neighbours. That can only be a good thing.

As shadow Home Affairs Minster with responsibility for animal welfare, I am continually reminded by members of the public and organisations that the overall number of scientific procedures involving animals has been rising steadily since 2000, as several hon. Members have mentioned. This rise follows continuous reductions throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, the most recent figures available show that we have now completely reversed the reductions achieved over the previous decade, to return to numbers not seen since 1990. Specifically, in 2007, we saw a rise of 6 per cent. in the number of procedures, which is a significant figure given previous annual rises of around only 2 per cent. The number of procedures undertaken annually is now 21 per cent. higher than when Labour came to power in 1997. Such data, of course, raise immediate concern about scientific progress, particularly in respect of the three R’s programme, which we all support.

The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research has, since being established several years ago, been widely accepted within the research community, yet we continue to see an increase in overall animal use. This is somewhat alarming when considering the long-term approach to developing alternative methods. Continuous rises in both the number of procedures undertaken and the number of animals used do not encourage a healthy mentality among the industry or the concerned general public.

Despite these reservations, it should be noted that a major factor in these rises is the use of genetically altered and mutant lines of animals, which can produce more relevant models for research purposes. The proportion of procedures involving so-called genetically normal animals has fallen significantly over the past decade. That is an especially welcome fact, considering that such procedures include animals taken from their natural habitats. The proportion of procedures involving normal animals rose by 5 per cent. in 2007, but that can mainly be attributed to studies using mice and fish that, traditionally, have not been controversial.

Additionally, it is worth considering the overall long-term financial commitments made by the scientific community. Over the past decade, the increase in procedures involving animals has been relatively marginal, compared with what went on before, but spending on bioscience and medical research and development has surged significantly. Therefore, animal-based research has become a smaller proportion of the overall spending in those key industries. That, too, is extremely encouraging. It highlights the investment being poured into other areas that will, I hope, lead to the eventual demise of animal-based procedures.

To summarise, I emphasise that the Government should be working harder to curb the overall trend in rising figures, but that we should also acknowledge some of the valuable work being undertaken by the scientific community in helping to minimise animal suffering. The animal testing debate comprises what can be classified as various sub-debates that focus specifically on different species of animal used in procedures, and different products or ingredients being tested. It is through those lower-level, more specific debates that we can work towards an eventual eradication of animal testing.

For example, it is a widely held view that testing on animals for the safety of cosmetic products is unacceptable and unjustifiable. That is reflected in the fact that, for the past 10 years, the granting of licences for the testing of finished cosmetic products and ingredients to be used in cosmetic products has been prohibited in the UK.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree, however, that many people are under the impression that animal testing for cosmetic purposes has already been phased out? In particular, many people do not realise that a product that uses the words “natural”, “herbal” or some mutation of the word “organic” in its name may have been tested on animals. Does he think that we could do more to promote the fact that there are cruelty-free alternatives?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady. It is true that testing of cosmetic products on animals has been eliminated, and that many people do not realise that. They believe that it is still done, so we need to do more to promote such information. We also need to move on to eliminating completely testing of household products on animals. We can make progress on public perception, but, of course, such things take a long time to permeate through to the general public.

May I clarify what I said? Although the tests are being phased out, there are still many products on the market that have been tested on animals. There are also alternatives that have not been tested on animals. I was urging people to buy the alternatives rather than products produced by the like of Procter and Gamble, which does a significant amount of testing, or products that are imported from places where testing is still allowed.

That is another point. Many countries have much lower standards than the UK for animal testing, so anything that comes from the UK will be of a much higher standard than anything that comes from certain other countries. It is important to get the message across that we have one of the highest standards for animal testing in the world and that we are working hard gradually to reduce such testing. We have consensus on all those points, and it is important to get those messages out.

I am conscious of the time. There is much more that I wanted to say in this debate, but I know that the Minister wants to respond to many of the points that have already been made. I conclude by saying that all of us in the Chamber are committed to animal welfare. We are all committed to the gradual replacement, reduction and, ultimately, the elimination, one hopes—however many years that may take—of the use of animals in testing. We should be proud of the progress that has been made in this country. We have one of the best, if not the best, standards of animal welfare in testing in the world. The last thing that we want to do is to drive testing abroad, to countries with far lower standards, by making it impossible here.

We should salute those in the industry who have worked so hard with animals to ensure that cures and medical treatments are found for many human ailments and diseases. That is something that we should all support. I believe that nobody today takes the extreme view that we should abolish such tests. We need to have that resource, but, ultimately, perhaps long after we have all left Parliament—it may take that long; who can tell?—we may look forward to the development of alternatives such that the use of animals will no longer be required. I hope that there will be cross-party consensus on working towards that eventual aim.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Bill Etherington) on securing this debate, and I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). I agree completely that we need greater transparency, and I welcome the debate for that reason.

I became the Home Office Minister responsible for this area of inspection in July 2007. This is the second time that I have had the chance to debate it in the past couple of weeks, but we do not discuss it enough. Also, we do not discuss the benefits of testing, as well as the important work that the Home Office does to hold the ring and regulate the work that is done to ensure that scientists work humanely and constructively.

I also welcome the constructive support of Her Majesty’s Opposition. The hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) rightly highlighted the importance of the European approach to the matter. I will not go into that, as we debated it recently, on 3 February, but it is important that we are having this debate in the UK Parliament today. It sends out a signal to others in Europe that, although there are differences of view, there is cross-party consensus in the UK Parliament that we need to maintain high standards in this area and that we do not want them to be watered down by a European directive.

I shall try to rattle through many of the detailed points that have been made, but it is worth stressing where the Government stand on the issue. In essence, our position is straightforward. We believe that animal experiments continue to be necessary for the time being if improvements in health care are to be developed with the minimum of delay and if humankind and the environment are to be protected from other hazards. I shall not go into great detail about some of the medical benefits—we do not have time in this debate—but it is true that almost every form of conventional medical treatment has relied in part on the study of animals. Asthma treatments, medicines for peptic ulcers, schizophrenia and depression, the polio vaccine and kidney dialysis and transplants are just a few examples of how such work has led to benefits for humankind.

It is clear from the tone of today’s debate that, although we all accept that animal experimentation is both effective and necessary, we do not relish it. We believe that it should be used only if the benefits have been carefully weighed against the costs to the animals; if there is no other way to achieve the desired results—I shall say a bit about alternatives later; if the procedures will cause the least suffering and will use the minimum number of animals to achieve the outcome; and if high standards of animal welfare are applied. We believe that that approach reflects closely what the public want. I shall touch on many of the points that were raised by hon. Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North spoke about the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. It is a vital contributor to the work done to reduce the need for animal research. I welcome the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who also spoke about it.

Hon. Members raised the issue of transparency, and this is where I may have to disagree a bit with my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North. The Government are keen that there should be as much transparency as possible about the use of animals under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, and I believe that we are making progress. I welcome the cross-party support for the Government’s aim of being as transparent as possible.

Since 2005, we have published abstracts of project licences granted under the Act. The scheme is voluntary, but at present more than 80 per cent. of project applications provide an abstract, and 1,700 are posted on the Home Office website. That is important: the information is on a website, and anybody can look it up in their local library or wherever. It is not difficult to find.

The annual report of the national centre for the three R’s, which has just been published, provides details of all its work, including grants given for research. If hon. Members are interested in following this up, the report is one way of finding out about money from the Government and the centre that has gone into research on alternatives. A great deal has been done to ensure that work is not duplicated, and I shall touch on that in a moment.

The animals (scientific procedures) inspectorate is also going to publish its annual report, which explains the inspectorate’s role. The Home Office is in the middle regarding the animal welfare issues raised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and by scientists. With the interests of animal welfare firmly at heart, we have to strike a balance between a number of interested groups without stymieing UK science plc and the important work that scientists do in helping to cure the diseases and resolve the scourges of this world. The inspectorate’s report also contains features on topics of special interest. This year, for example, we intend it to include the work of our policy and licensing teams, and I commend it to Members present as good reading.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North focused on statistics today, and, importantly, I stress my belief that our statistics are robust; I must differ with him on that point. We publish comprehensive statistics annually, and they have been collected and published for many years. In fact, I am told that our handwritten records go back to 1876, when the Cruelty to Animals Act was introduced, so Members could take on a lot of reading if they wished to research the subject. Our statistical analysis has improved somewhat since then, and we have not hidden any facts.

The statistics are produced under the provisions of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. They are also part of the national statistics framework and under the management of the Home Office’s independent chief statistician, who is accountable to the national statistician. The statistics are also subject to the UK Statistics Authority’s new code of practice for official statistics, and those governance arrangements demonstrate that we are not trying to hide anything. We are also required to consult on substantive changes to the context and coverage of the figures, and we have many debates with different interested groups—mostly practitioners, but those with an animal welfare focus, too—about how we collect them. We ensure that we listen to those views and take them on board where we can. I reassure colleagues that we have no plans to reduce the scope of the current figures. We want to give a full and accurate account of scientific procedures under the 1986 Act, and it is important to be clear that we are not trying to hide anything.

On the statistics, in 2007, the main increases in testing, compared with the same period in 2006, were on mice, which went up 7 per cent., on fish, up 20 per cent., and on chickens, up 16 per cent. That was mainly fundamental research, including the breeding of transgenic mice and fish. Hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, raised the issue of transgenic breeding. I must tell him that I visited Covance and saw some of the work there, so I recognise the characterisation given by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir John Butterfill) of scientists being not big, bad people trying to do horrible things to animals but people who are keen on and enthusiastic about animals. Certainly, those whom I met are, and that includes the veterinary scientists who work there, too.

The overall number of procedures has increased, but the use of animals in safety testing for regulatory purposes has declined steadily. In the United Kingdom in 1995, there were 677,000 instances of such work, but in 2007, the figure had gone down to 416,000. New opportunities, especially in molecular genetics, cancer research and immunology, have led to new uses and an increase in numbers, but it would be difficult to say to the public, “We are so obsessed with the statistics that we want a reduction, even if it is at the cost of cancer research.” We have to strike a balance, but the Home Office is clear that no licence is granted willy-nilly; it must be clear that there is no alternative and that there is a real scientific purpose to the work.

There has been some criticism of the fact that licences are not refused, but the inspectorate, which is locally based, goes out regularly to the labs for which it is responsible and holds discussions with the licensees while an application is being prepared. If it were not up to scratch, it would not get as far as submission; it would have to be modified or withdrawn. We obviate the need for unnecessary paperwork, where people submit pointless and bad licence applications, and we give them guidance in the same way as a good local authority planning officer would. Planning officers do not receive bad applications if they have such dialogue, so it is important that we do so, too.

The point was made about genetically altered animals, so I shall explain the process. The creation of such animals involves a number of surgical and non-surgical procedures, which generate a founder’s stock. The process is currently counted as a procedure under European legislation, so simple breeding counts as a procedure. Maintaining colonies involves breeding from the founder’s stock and, in most cases, the tissue sampling of an offspring to determine their genetic status—again, a procedure that is counted. Breeding per se is not a procedure, but producing genetically altered animals is, so whatever one’s view about genetic modification and alteration, the process alone does not lead to suffering, although, in some cases, offspring will develop the disease involved, so suffering will take place there. In many cases, however, offspring are overtly normal. Although breeding alone counts for just over one third of the UK’s use of animals, many will be subsequently used, albeit only for analysis after their humane killing.

Hon. Members asked whether the national centre for the three R’s has achieved any results, and I refer them to its annual report. On replacement, we now require that monoclonal antibodies be produced in cell cultures. That is a step forward; it is not done with animals but in cell cultures. The majority of tests for toxins in shellfish no longer use mice, so that is another replacement. On reduction, the use of in-vitro screening tests to reduce the number of animals needed to identify potential skin irritants has also been successful. And, on refinement, there is a mouse-based test using pre-disease end points—rather than a guinea pig test involving skin sores—to determine whether the test materials might cause contact dermatitis. They are just some examples that I can provide quickly in this debate, but I recommend that anyone with an interest in this important subject look at the national centre’s own work and report. I know that the all-party FRAME group keeps a close eye on it, and I thank the group for its work, because it is important that we have a reasoned debate. The group provides a good forum for such debate on a cross-party basis, and I am delighted that it has helped to secure today’s debate under the sponsorship of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North.

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 also applies, and we have replied to more than 50 freedom of information requests. Unfortunately, we have had extremists in this country, but, happily, they are now generally in prison or have been dealt with appropriately. It has been difficult to be as transparent as we would have liked, because even publishing the address of a laboratory has caused problems, but we are not trying to hide information. We have to strike a balance between ensuring the safety and security of legitimate scientists doing legitimate and safe work, and ensuring that we provide as much information as we can. On the refusal of applications, inspectors recognise poor applications early in the process and discourage applicants from applying.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) raised the issue of household product testing, and it is clearly a concern. In terms of my ministerial mailbag, it is the biggest issue, other than immigration, that I deal with. There is little animal testing of household products in the UK. One animal—a rabbit—was used for the purpose in 2007 and none was used in 2006. Although the numbers are small, the case for ending such testing is not clear cut. Many household products have significant benefits, such as killing bacteria and germs, and national and international regulatory bodies require that products, ingredients and chemicals are tested to ensure that they are not a danger to children, adults, households pets and the environment. Until reliables are developed, procedures have to be performed using animals, but there is not a great number, if that is any reassurance. Furthermore, there was no cosmetic testing on animals in 2007.

I turn to some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). Again, I thank the all-party group, under his chairmanship, for its work, and on non-human primates, I refer Members to Hansard of 3 February, when I went into the issue in more detail. It is important to stress that, although the directive’s provisions appear weaker than our current position, we support the European Commission’s proposal in principle, because the exemptions would be invoked only in truly exceptional circumstances. In practice, the provision amounts to an effective ban on the use of great apes, and that is consistent with our policy. We must ensure that we reserve our fire for other concerns about the directive. The European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods to animal testing is important. The directive proposes a national reference lab, but we believe that the national centre for the three R’s could be a virtual lab.

It is a shame that we have so little time to discuss this important subject. Animal experimentation comes under an area of Government policy that must recognise a wide range of opinions, and I am delighted that we have been able to air some of them today.