Monday 25 October 2021
[Esther McVey in the Chair]
University Tuition Fees
Before we begin, I encourage hon. Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. Please give one another and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 550344, relating to university tuition fees.
It is a pleasure, Ms McVey, to serve under your chairship for the first time. I thank the petitioner for putting together a petition on this important issue, and the 581,287 people—a very large number—who signed the petition, particularly the 764 from Ipswich. That number does not surprise me, because I have been contacted by many constituents over the past 22 months with concerns about how university education has been impacted by the pandemic and about having to pay full tuition fees, even though, so often, their education and university lifestyle have been disrupted.
The petition first calls for a reduction in tuition fees from £9,250 a year to £3,000. Secondly, it calls for live debates to be held frequently between Members of Parliament and students. Though in principle that sounds like quite a good idea, practically I am unsure how it would be arranged. If we were to have those sorts of debates between MPs and students, where would it stop? Would we have such debates for every interest group on every issue across the land? It is important to remember that we are a representative democracy and that, as Members of Parliament, we engage frequently with higher education students.
It is also worth saying for the benefit of those watching the debate that there is the opportunity to visit Parliament and see debates take place. As the hon. Gentleman says, debates between MPs and students may be a little more difficult to organise, although not impossible, but it would be great to see student organisations come and meet MPs and see what goes on in Parliament and how they can influence it.
I could not agree more. I have the University of Suffolk in in my constituency, whose students have visited Parliament, and I was very happy to receive them. It provides a good opportunity for university students to engage with their elected representatives and understand how Parliament operates.
The £9,250 fee means that those leaving university have an average debt of £45,000. It is not a particularly pernicious form of debt, but it still has interest applied to it. That debt has to be paid over a number of years, often decades. In fact, it is thought that only 25% pay it back in full—the interest and the amount borrowed—while 75% do not. The concern about the level of fees is that it could put off young people from the most disadvantaged backgrounds from attending university. The Education Committee published a report not long ago on white working-class kids, and found that they were the least likely of any group to be represented in higher education, with only 12% of white boys eligible for free school meals ending up in university. I think the percentage was slightly higher for girls, at around 15% or 16%. That is a point that the Government need to consider.
Repayment does not kick in until someone is earning £28,000, but that can still be difficult for people who are trying to get by. As I saw when I was trying to get a mortgage, it is taken into account by mortgage providers. It does not impact a person’s credit rating, but it does impact their likely success in getting a mortgage. I have sat there and looked at my monthly outgoings and ingoings, and clearly, if a certain amount is going out over a long period, that does not make it any easier to get a mortgage.
There are two slightly separate issues here. There is the question whether, in the medium to long term, tuition fees should be decreased, but there is also the impact of the pandemic and the question whether or not there should be a partial or full reduction for young people who have been impacted by the pandemic over the last 22 months. It is important that we bear in mind how young people and their mental health have been impacted.
We know that university is not just about the academic side of things. It is also about the social side of things. For many young people, the experience of going to university is transformative in terms of their outlook, personal development and access to university societies and everything else. I was fortunate when I went to university. The first year enabled me to get used to living in a large city, away from my family. Of course, the first year is when students make friends, and they are often the people they live with in their second and third years. I feel great sympathy for young people who have had that opportunity taken away from them.
I have also on occasion been quite critical of some universities, lecturers and university unions that in my view have not always done everything they can to get back to proper, in-person teaching. My understanding is that, at the start of this term, only four out of the top 27 universities had actually gone back fully to in-person teaching. I question whether that is appropriate, and I also question whether now is the time to be talking about strikes, when university students have already had their education impacted so much. I appreciate that often it is a hybrid approach, whereby seminars and tuition are done in person while lectures are done online, but I also talk to many university students who would really appreciate in-person lectures because the virtual ones are no substitute for accessing lectures given by experienced academics. It is not quite the same level of tuition as they were getting before the pandemic. In fact, a Times survey of students who started university before the pandemic showed that 60% thought that their education had been either severely or moderately impacted during the pandemic. I think that many students share that view. I understand that some universities have made arrangements for partial reductions, but I am not sure how significant that is and, of course, the majority of universities have not done that.
I have some concerns about whether decreasing tuition fees from £9,250 to £3,000 would be the right thing to do in the long term. As I said earlier in my speech, 75% end up not paying back their debts in full. Currently the Government lend £17 billion in loans. In March 2021, I believe that the outstanding amount was £141 billion, which is a significant amount of money. If we decrease the £9,250 to £3,000, who would fund that? Would it be the taxpayer? Ultimately, I think that is what we would be looking at: more taxpayer subsidy for university education.
Interim results of a Muslim Census survey show that almost 10,000 Muslim students are foregoing university or are being forced to self-pay. In 2013, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, committed to looking into options for alternative student finance for those who want to access higher education but not pay interest. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is high time that the Government pick up that work from 2013 and look at and present the options for the many students affected across the country?
I do think it is important that the Government look at access to university education and ways of making it more affordable, but I also believe that the taxpayer is a key stakeholder. I will come on to that very shortly. There is a fundamental question whether we think it is the right thing for 50% of people to go university. That was the aspiration of the last Labour Government and I am glad that the current Government abandoned that 50% target. I do not think that that was the right thing to do. Many of those 50% going to university will benefit from it, get skills and qualifications, and make a very positive contribution. However, the reality is that, because the education system has not in the past created multiple pathways for young people, including technical education or an apprenticeship, young people kind of meander aimlessly into university, under pressure from their school and their parents, when university is perhaps not right for them. There is no God-given right to go to university for three years, perhaps to study a course that is not of great benefit to the country, so I question whether that is the right approach.
It is critical for levelling up that we invest in apprenticeships and skills. For those growing up, there should be an academic pathway, and those convinced that that is the route for them should be encouraged to go down that route, but people should not end up in university simply because there is no alternative, which often happens. If we are arguing for greater taxpayer subsidy of university education, surely it is reasonable for the taxpayer and the Government to have a far greater say in who goes to university, what they study and how that benefits UK plc, because at the moment there is not always a sense that that is the case.
I think there is great sympathy from all Members for what university students have had to go through over the last 22 months, and there is a reasonable case for their not having to pay full tuition fees for what has been a disrupted educational experience, with almost none of the same advantages, in terms of societies and socialisation. However, in the long term, the Government are right to focus on the further education White Paper and on getting rid of the 50% target, and realising that it is not all about university. It is not unreasonable to consider the taxpayer. Often, those on reasonably low incomes, who work hard, actually subsidise the university education of people from more privileged backgrounds, who may or may not be undertaking a course that is beneficial to UK plc. That is not reasonable.
I do not support the petition with the higher education system as it is currently is. If we had a much smaller pool of university students, perhaps we could consider it at that time, but I do not believe that it is in the taxpayers’ interest to back this petition.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. The petition calls for debates between MPs and university students, as the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) highlighted, on reducing university fees to £3,000 a year. Considering that more than 1,800 of my constituents called for this, we might struggle to facilitate that particular demand in Slough—which, by the way, is the youth capital of Britain: the town or city with the lowest average age.
The petition points to a particular issue with higher education today: that students—our constituents—do not feel listened to. For years, the Government and universities have skyrocketed fees at will, without listening to students, robbing them of a voice on a matter that will impact them for the rest of their lives. They simply do not feel heard. I will focus my speech on ensuring that their voices are at the forefront, and I encourage the Minister and her Department to listen carefully to that voice.
When fees were introduced in 1998, they stood at £1,000, but they have now risen to an eye-watering £9,250, with university fees last at £3,000 in 2005. The Government anticipated that their grand plan to triple fees in 2012 would create a market in fees, but in reality almost all universities began charging the maximum amount, in part due to Government-backed loans and a lack of incentive to offer anything lower. Early fears of a reduction in applications were allayed; but, nearly a decade after these new fees were introduced, it is quite clear that they have created another crisis—for recent graduates. Unsurprisingly, students’ expectations of what a university course provides during their studies and once they graduate have risen alongside their fees. If we consider that the decision to go to university, often taken at 17, is one that will have a financial impact for decades to come, I do not blame them.
The perceived benefits seem to be waning. One third of working-age graduates are not in high-skilled employment. Almost half of parents would prefer their child to take up a vocational qualification ahead of university. In 2020, for the second consecutive year, the rate of graduate employment fell—a problem that has been compounded for graduates entering an extremely difficult job market over the past two years.
Many of the conversations around fees were reignited by the pandemic, as students questioned the value for money of online classes. Between September and December 2020, half of students reported that moving fully to online learning would have a negative impact on their academic experience, and one third have indicated that their courses are, and were, poor or very poor value for money. Astronomical fees and subsequent debts have forced students to evaluate whether a graduation gift of an average debt of £45,900 is worth it. That is without considering the cost pressures of accommodation; those who for religious reasons are unable to take an interest loan, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) has just noted; and the mental health pressures of university studies. After all that, the Government’s own calculations indicate that only 25% of current full-time undergraduates expect to pay off their debt in full.
On the set thresholds and time limits on debt repayments, I am sure the Minister will say how everyone is treated equally under the system, but I am afraid that is simply not true. Not only have the Government already moved the goalposts on repayment agreements, but they are set to do it again. In fact, most recent reports indicate that Ministers plan on reducing the salary threshold for loan repayments to below £25,000. That, alongside a rise in national insurance, is an unforgivable squeeze on lower and middle earners, while leaving wealthier students largely unaffected. It is no wonder that current students and graduates are concerned about the impact that their studies will have on their future. Will the Minister guarantee that students will be listened to and their concerns about loans, repayments and debt taken seriously? Education has the potential to change people’s lives and provide a better future. It should not limit people’s prospects before their adult lives have even begun.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey.
I know from speaking to students that many face extreme financial hardship as a result of the covid-19 crisis. In fact, the National Union of Students criticised the Government for ignoring the needs of students throughout the pandemic, but this goes back further, because successive Conservative Governments have failed our young people, who have been disproportionately hit by austerity. Under the Tories, young people have struggled, even when they are in work, to get a decent start in their adult lives. The Tories have run down our aspirations and standards and shattered our local communities, so that people increasingly believe that young people’s lives will be worse than their own generation’s.
This is not just about education maintenance cuts, enormous hikes in tuition fees and the burden of soaring debts. The whole current university system compounds inequality. In particular, a 2017 report found that students from poorer backgrounds are deterred from applying to university due to the fear of student loan debt. Meanwhile, in recent decades universities have been treated as private businesses, left at the mercy of market forces while top salaries soar, so it is no coincidence that the University and College Union is currently balloting staff at over 150 universities across the UK on cuts to pensions, pay and the attack on working conditions. As Jo Grady, the UCU general secretary, said:
“If the government pushes through regressive student loan changes,”
it would be
“a tax on education and aspiration.”
Any move to lower the salary threshold at which students repay their loans would be regressive and would further risk less-privileged students being put off entering higher education. At a time when the economy is crying out for a skilled and educated workforce, it makes no sense for the Government to deny young people access to the education that they need.
I agree that tuition fees of £9,250 a year are just too high—I oppose tuition fees altogether. The lesson from the Government’s tuition fee fiasco is simple: use progressive taxation, by taxing wealthy working adults, to invest properly in public universities. That way, every student can access free higher education. We all benefit from an educated society. Education fosters and nurtures people’s talents, and overcomes injustice and inequalities.
I agree that a number of different options should be, and are, available for students across the country, but a significant number of young people who would like to go into higher education do not feel that that option is open to them.
Education fosters and nurtures people’s talents, overcomes injustice and inequalities, and helps us to understand each other and form social connections. I am proud that Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifestoes committed to ending the failed obsession with the free market in higher education, to abolishing tuition fees, and to bringing back maintenance grants at the required level. Education must be a universal right, not a costly privilege. A thriving higher education sector is critical to our economy, our culture and, ultimately, our future.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms McVey.
Governments invest in what they value. I am so grateful to the 2,474 people in York who signed the petition, and in particular to the University of York and York St John University, which worked so hard throughout the pandemic to ensure that students were well supported and cared for, and that their financial needs were met.
We have to face facts: we are experiencing a crisis in higher education funding right now. Although the UCU is right to highlight particular concerns about staffing and the fact that staff are consistently being given casualised contracts—which does not represent good investment in a quality university workforce—we also have to acknowledge that pay for our academic and support staff has fallen by 20% over the last decade, pensions have been cut, and inequalities relating to gender and disabilities, and for black, Asian and minority ethnic staff, have grown.
The current higher education funding system is so broken that we have to find a different way of looking at it, and that comes down to the fundamental principle of where we invest for the future of our economy. If we value higher education—as we should—we should invest in it and in the students who want to obtain qualifications and contribute to and progress our economy, so that we can be world leaders not just economically but in research and in the other things of which we have been so proud in decades past.
The pandemic has been the most challenging time not only for academic staff, who had to learn overnight how to deliver courses online, but for students, who have been paying for tuition that they have perhaps never received and for practical experiences that they might never have. I have certainly spoken to many students in York, including archaeology students who were unable to go on digs and science students who were unable to get into the labs. They feel that they have missed out on major parts of their education and are therefore bitter about the fact that they have had to pay for an education that they have not received and that there is nothing on the horizon. I have said previously in this House that the Government should introduce a degree-plus programme whereby after graduating people can continue to access their university by way of catch-up—whether through seminars or through practical experiences—to give them the opportunity to catch up on the valuable education that they have missed.
We have heard about the societies and social activities in which students engage to formulate that holistic perspective on life, which is so valuable in our education system. I thank our student unions, which have made a massive contribution during the last 18 months. In York they have been leading on the support that students needed, putting in place facilities for them to continue their education and get vital wellbeing support, which I know so many people have valued. However, there is a bitter taste in their mouth. They have written to me to say that they want to be included not only in the debates about their future and their contribution to their courses, but in discussions about student financing.
Many students will not pay off their debts, although I know that the Government are tempted to lower the repayment threshold to an earlier point in their career after graduating. Many people who have degrees are very low earners, particularly if they work in the voluntary sector or in public services, whereas many who go straight from school to an apprenticeship or into employment can be incredibly high earners. Personally, I do not support a graduate tax as an alternative to university tuition fees. I believe that we should be investing in the education of young people and, indeed, mature students, and paying for it through our general taxation system. It is a simple formula and principle: the more someone earns, the more they pay and the more they invest in other people’s future. It is fair and proportionate and, I believe, very much the way forward. I would welcome the Government looking again at the whole issue of student finances and removing the penalty that students have to pay for their education, when it should be an investment in the future.
Students have also had to pay for homes they have not lived in over the last year, and lockdown also impeded their opportunity to work. They have faced the jeopardy of having to pay fees and other costs, which has had a terrific impact on students’ financial and personal wellbeing. That must be recognised. We know that young people today have more significant challenges concerning their wellbeing and mental health, and the fees just add to that. When people reach the loan repayment threshold, it is often at a time when they are starting to think about future housing or starting a family. The barrier of having to start paying back student loans pushes those opportunities even further away, and I know that, right now, young people feel that those opportunities are running away from them.
If we train someone to be a soldier, we as a state are proud to invest in that person, who will learn the necessary skills and then work in that field. Yet when we train nurses, they have to pay for that privilege, even though during the pandemic they contributed by finishing their degrees early and working in our hospitals. They had to pay for that education. The same goes for doctors and allied health professionals; they have given so much during the pandemic. My local student body reminded me today not only that students have been asking for financial support, but that they have heard the news that on graduating they will have to make national insurance contributions as well. Therefore, instead of receiving support they will have to pay out even more.
We have to recognise the barriers that fees represent. They are a barrier not just to people with lower socio-economic wealth, as my hon. Friends the Members for Slough (Mr Dhesi) and for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) have described. They are also a barrier to mature students, who are very much welcome in the health professions and other spheres. When people have gained experience of life, they then have to decide whether they can give up work in order to study. If the barrier of tuition fees is taken away, we could address the workforce challenges faced by the health sector and many other fields. Our economy is desperate for engineers, teachers and scientists, and for investment in infrastructure and the future of our country. The economy is struggling and we do not have the skills base that we desperately need. As we can see so readily, that is having an impact on our productivity. The barrier of tuition fees is yet another factor deterring us from being the successful country that we long to be.
As we look at wider Europe and, as always, to Germany, we see that, while students may pay a small administration fee at the start of each semester—€150 to €200—their education is free, and yet it has the strongest economy, a growing economy, an economy that we envy so much. If we are to learn from good practice elsewhere in the world, it is important that we look at investing in the right places. Nothing could be more valuable than investing in education, in science and research, and in opportunities for our future.
As we approach the economic events of the year—the Budget and the comprehensive spending review—there is a real opportunity to look at how higher education is valued by the Government, and the investments they want to make in it. Higher education leads into areas such as high-quality research, which has been so hampered over the last year. It is therefore important to get right not just the tuition side, but the research formulas for the future. In exiting the EU, we have lost many opportunities; we want to see those opportunities return so that we can be that place of excellence. That is what draws students from across the world to study here in the UK.
We must recognise the real cost of covid to students and to universities. Universities are constantly trying to balance the books. York has certainly invested in students during this pandemic, and it is now looking to the Government for investment. We know that tuition fees represent a broken system that creates barriers. It is therefore important to take a deep breath, look again and ensure that we have a funding system from Government for our higher education sector, no longer placing that burden on our students, who deserve so much more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I pay tribute to the petitioners, who have done so well in bringing this petition to the House for debate. I thank the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for leading it off.
I want to start by saying that in Scotland, of course, education remains free. That makes a massive difference when looking at graduate debt because the average debt on graduation in Scotland is around £12,000, compared with anything between £43,000 and £50,000 in England, depending on where the data comes from.
The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) asked an important question: what is education about? Is it for personal benefit or for the common good? That is ultimately what the debate should be concentrating on. In schools, we educate children not just for their own benefit but for societal benefit. Are we simply providing young people who embark on tertiary education—who will go on to contribute economically and societally to our nations—with a service for which they should pay, or is it about more than that? As legislators, we need to be clear.
Post Brexit, the UK’s economic success will rely on a well-educated population. We know that there are skills shortages in many areas, including science, engineering and healthcare, to name but a few. But it is not just at graduate level. It is also at technician level and at apprenticeship level—it is at many different levels. Therefore I do not think we do young people a great service—this has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members—by encouraging as many of them as possible into higher education when it might not be the best pathway for them.
I have mentioned already that in England the typical graduate will start with a debt of anything between £43,000 and £50,000—depending on what source is used—because of tuition fees and, of course, the student loans that they take out. For some, that will be impossible to repay, as has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Ipswich. That was also recognised by the Office for National Statistics, which said that student maintenance loans should be treated as a deficit in the Government’s accounts. That ONS announcement ended the fiscal illusion that kept student debt off the Government’s books. We already know that England has the highest tuition fees in the industrialised world, and the ONS has confirmed what many of us have been saying for a long time—this is not saving public money in the long run.
The Government remind us regularly of how economically astute they are, but we can see that, with student loans to pay for high levels of tuition fees, they are simply shifting fiscal responsibilities on to a Government 30 years in the future. But the real issue for our young people is that the short-term fiscal gains for this Government are won off the back of our young people. Continuing to charge fees of more than £9,000 a year in England is morally wrong. And we know that three quarters of student loans will be written off eventually. The Government need to start looking to Scotland’s lead and slash student fees or, better still, abolish them completely. Of course, with the student loans come spiralling interest rates. That has to be taken seriously as well. We have to look at what, realistically, we are asking young people to pay back.
The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) highlighted the difficulties for his young people—they make his the youngest constituency in the UK—in the graduate job market. Many of us and many young people will be asking, “Is the debt really worth it for graduate jobs that might be paying £18,000 or £19,000 a year?”
Often, we talk about apprenticeships and college places. The problem is that there is still not parity of esteem. We hear Ministers advocating college and apprenticeships for young people, but I wonder how many of them are advocating that for their own children, because many parents continue to see apprenticeships as second best. We need to change that; we need to look at countries such as Germany in that regard. When Ministers and parents all consider that university is the gold standard of post-school education, it is no surprise that young people see their place at university as a measure of success, but are we really doing young people any favours by providing unlimited access to courses that may not lead to great employment and will almost certainly lead to debt? In Germany, technical education is considered to be of equal value; for youngsters and their parents, there is no stigma about skills-based courses. That is what we need to get to.
Last week in the Select Committee on Science and Technology, in a session looking at science funding, the Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse said that
“we have rushed too much to send everybody to universities”.
We need to think carefully about how we change that.
Often in these debates, hon. Members cite the number of young people going to university as the measure of success, but the metric that we should be using is the number of young people going on to positive destinations. We in Scotland are leading the UK, with 93% of our young people in training, education or employment. The hon. Member for Ipswich mentioned different pathways for our young people, and we need to look at that more.
The hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) talked about encouraging those from disadvantaged backgrounds and how we can support them to enter the job market. There are lots of things we can do, but we should make university attainable for them by restoring the tradition of free higher education, as we have done in Scotland. We have done more than that: we have maintained education maintenance allowance for those in schools or further education, and bursaries for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in higher education. This package works: Scottish 18-year-olds from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are 67% more likely to apply to higher education institutions than they were 15 years ago. As others have said, Scottish students graduate with the lowest debt in the UK. We firmly believe that access to university should be based on the ability to learn, not the ability to pay.
We have a problem if we only educate graduates, because we need a full range of different skills. I quite often use the term “tertiary education” because the lines between further and higher education are far more blurred in Scotland, with many other further education colleges delivering degree courses. We also have movement between further education and higher education. For example, a youngster might do part of their training at an FE institution and then enter a third-year university course. We need to look at how we allow access to such courses.
Paying for education is a duty not only of Government, but of business and society, including the taxpayer. We need to ensure that we have a well educated population that can provide economic growth in different businesses and sectors. We have a duty to fund the education of our young people—whether that be further education, apprenticeship education, or higher education—to benefit society and fuel that growth.
The hon. Member for York Central mentioned the Budget and the spending review. That is important because when we are looking at university funding, budgets count and science funding counts, and this Government have pledged £22 billion for research funding. We want to see some movement on that over the next few weeks. It would be good to see a strong statement in the Budget on that funding. We also need clarity on participation in Horizon Europe, which we still do not have. Until we get this sorted, we are putting our research sector at a disadvantage.
Finally, I congratulate the petitioners on bringing the debate to the House. I know it is difficult just now, because we are living with covid, but in the coming few years, it would be good to see some university students observing these debates.
Welcome to the Chair, Ms McVey, and congratulations on your elevation.
I thank all Members who contributed to the debate, and the hon. Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for presenting it. I listened to him with interest. He is right when he talks about the very interrupted last 18 months that students have endured and the great challenges they have faced. Many Members across the Chamber highlighted the deep frustration among students in this country, which is quite understandable, and perhaps their rising anger about what they have been through. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) said when voicing concern about graduate employment, this is a really difficult time for many young people as they emerge from what should have been an amazingly formative part of their lives, only to find their prospects so reduced, despite the difficulty they have faced and the financial commitment they have made. That is the difficulty that some of us were in 30-odd or 40 years ago, emerging from university in the early ’80s when things were so difficult.
My hon. Friends the Members for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) and for York Central (Rachael Maskell) also spoke about the issues facing students in the past 18 months. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse specifically spoke about disadvantaged students and cited the survey about Muslim students and the difficulty they face in financing their higher education. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central talked about how we should fund this in the future and about progressive taxation. Back in my day, that is how a university education was funded. I do not think any of us back in those days saw education as transactional; it was not individualised in the way that it is today. We have to disconnect the current view of education—that it is all about the individual—and make it about what the individual can gain from it, how they can realise their potential and how that potential can benefit not only them but those around them: society, their communities and others. That is what higher education should do.
I accept that higher education should not be for all, but it should be an aspiration and an opportunity for those who have the ability to benefit from it, with society benefiting in turn. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central and the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) mentioned how higher education is viewed in Germany, which has a population 60% larger than the UK’s and where a great many go on to higher education, with nominal admission fees, because there education is seen as being for the greater good.
We also have to bear in mind that higher education is part of our global reputation. We should celebrate and build upon it, rather than seek to reduce it. I say that not only for the institutions themselves. With such a great resource on our doorstep, why would we not use it? We do not want only international students to come to the UK; we want all those in the UK who have the ability to benefit from it.
Almost 600,000 students across the country signing the petition is significant. I have to say to those students who did not sign the petition, why not? They should think about it next time. It is a really important demonstration of the frustration and of the demand for change. The last 18 months have instilled a culture of precarity, uncertainty and instability among students. They have been some of the toughest months that any student in any generation has faced.
I remember what was going on in my community during the Government’s mismanagement of the return to campus in September 2020, when we did not have testing facilities available in towns and cities across the country. The great migration was not anticipated. The uncertainty created by poor guidance affected not just students, but teachers and lecturers. Sadly, this led to regrettable scenes of students being locked up in student accommodation. Demands from the student body were woefully neglected in the road map out of the January lockdown, and we saw unjustified intervention by Ministers in what I regard as campus matters. Among student cohorts and the sector, there is an indelible impression that the Government have failed to support them.
Given that education is devolved and we have heard from the hon. Member for Glasgow North West, we do not have to look far to see how supportive and hands-on the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish Governments have been. No wonder the tenor of students has risen; it is more than understandable why such a large proportion of the student body want fees to be cut to the level that was introduced in 2006.
Although I empathise with these calls, I want us go further. As the hon. Member for Glasgow North West said, higher education should be about people’s ability to learn, not their ability to pay. In my opinion, reducing the maximum rate of student fees merely tinkers with the fees’ structure without offering root-and-branch reform. The trebling of student fees by successive Conservative Governments, including when in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, established a funding model that has contributed to the marketisation of the higher education sector, whilst at the same time increasing the casualisation of the workforce and risking the student experience. The fee system in its current guise is holding young people back—we have heard about a great many of them in Slough—and at the same time failing to provide the stable funding that our universities need. It is not even delivering what was promised for the taxpayer.
To those who say that reducing the maximum student loan rate is preferable to not reducing it, I reply that I am not prepared to advocate for a partially effective solution. On the basis of independent analysis by bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a policy of reducing fees to £3,000 would have disproportionate impacts on different sections of society. For example, the IFS’s student finance calculator reveals that if a cap of £3,000 is put in place, the top 10% of earners would see their repayments fall by around 40%, while lower earning graduates would see little or no change. Looking at this policy from a gender perspective, we see that for men repayments would reduce by an average of 30%, compared to a reduction of just 20% for women. I am sure you are also outraged by that, Ms McVey. We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse that this disproportionately impacts Muslim students. Although the maximum cap on tuition fees is not an inherently sexist or classist policy, in reality it affects many and it has the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities in our society. That is not something that I am prepared to put up with.
I am also not prepared to put up with a fee structure that aggravates precarious student living, does nothing to alleviate the mental health concerns of thousands of students, and alienates working-class young people from advancing to higher education. Faced with fees of £9,250 a year, how could anyone expect a working-class student on free school meals to be instilled with the confidence to go to university? The figures bear this out: last week, the Department for Education’s own figures demonstrated that the gap in progression rates between pupils who receive free school meals and those who do not has increased to 19.1%, up 0.3% since last year and the largest gap since 2005-2006. Again, although the policy of student fees is not necessarily a causal factor in this damning record, it certainly is a correlative factor. I repeat that the gap is the largest since the introduction of tuition fees in 2006.
The effects of the current fees system have also decimated the part-time study model so often relied on by working parents and mature students. Since 2008 the number of part-time entrants has plummeted by 50%.
The current vogue term is outcomes. I often ask, “What was the key outcome of Keith Richards going to art school?” I do not think he actually finished the course, so it was not a terrific outcome. Outcomes can be measured in all sorts of ways, but my fear is that the Government—I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman supports them—are looking to monetise that and equate it with some sort of financial value for what is being produced. However, as we have heard, we cannot equate that with a monetary figure. I know of many people who were on super-low incomes in their first couple of years post-university but who turned out to be fine entrepreneurs and set up their own businesses. How would we measure that?
I like the word outcomes; I think it is a good way of describing the position we get to. However, I do not distinguish between those from a disadvantaged background and those from a more privileged or affluent background. We will have parity of esteem when the same number of youngsters from different backgrounds are going to the same types of places—so, whatever percentage going to university from that lot, and whatever percentage going to college from this lot. The problem is that those from a more affluent background are more likely to go to university, even though it might not be the most appropriate place for them.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Going to university is seen as a rite of passage for quite a few people. It is seen as the obvious next stage of their education. That is fine, to an extent, but what we as a society should be doing is giving encouragement and opportunity to the many who do not aspire to or imagine that they could go to university. I felt that myself back in the day, wondering what was and was not possible for me. I never imagined that that was something I could consider. I am sure that a lot of young people must feel that too, and we have to change that. Other societies do, as we have heard.
We should be much more ambitious about the sort of education system we want. I look at nations such as South Korea, that have a higher proportion going into higher education than the UK. I believe that we can achieve that by changing how we approach our schooling and how we give that opportunity to students, both through civic universities and through programmes such as Uni Connect, which sadly has had its budget cut by a third, but which was doing a terrific job in reaching those hard-to-reach young people who did not think that university was necessarily for them. Those sorts of programmes, along with foundation courses and foundation years, could do so much to help students coming through further education and realising that, maybe, the next step should be higher education. We need to invest more in those sorts of things.
While I understand the many concerns of the thousands of students up and down the country, and sympathise with their calls for a higher education system that is suitably funded while delivering on students’ expectations, I believe that the answer lies in a multi-step approach. First, as I have alluded to, I am committed to abolishing the fee regime in its current guise. That means that debates regarding repayment rates, characterised by Martin Lewis as regressive and a “breach of natural justice”, would be consigned to history. Graduates would no longer be burdened with as much as £57,000 in graduate debt and would start their working lives free from the stress and financial pressures of repayment.
We have only to look at what is happening on campuses across the country and the immense mental health pressures faced by so many young people, due not only to the pandemic, but to the issue of graduate employment opportunity and having that debt hanging over them. Those of us who have ever been in serious debt at any stage of our lives know that it is an awful place to be. Those of us who have ever been in serious debt at any stage of our lives know that it is an awful place to be. The hon. Member for Ipswich described the prospect of having the debt hanging over him and the difficulty it posed when getting a mortgage or other loans. It can make life incredibly difficult, so it is far easier not to consider it. The Government need to rethink their approach to the availability of maintenance grants. That might finally tilt the balance in favour of the thousands of working-class men and women on free school meals, who have been denied the belief that they can progress to higher education due to a burdensome funding model.
I want a culture change to complement a fee system change, such as adequate student mental health provision and funding, and tackling those rogue student landlords in private student accommodation who give the sector a bad name. There is much to address to improve the lives of our students. I want more teachers and lecturers on full-time secure employment contracts, to reverse the drift towards casualisation that we have witnessed in the past decade.
Following the events of the past 18 months, it is critical that the Government work collaboratively with the sector to address the many issues it faces. Through the co-operation of the National Union of Students, individual student unions, the University and College Union and the institutions themselves, so much positive work has been done on our campuses to get through the worst difficulties of the pandemic. We have seen some interesting initiatives, such as the Welsh Government’s support for institutions to improve ventilation in lecture theatres. Those sorts of ways that the Government can help have the effect of shoring up the entire student experience.
I believe the petition is a great call for change. While replacing the student funding model will naturally bring about an improvement in the student experience, it can be fully revolutionised only through a plethora of other initiatives that directly seek to ease the burdens on students. If any generation deserved to have their call for change heard, it is this generation. No wonder almost 600,000 students signed the petition. I add my congratulations to the petitioners on achieving this debate, and I thank the House authorities for allowing it to proceed. I look forward to working with the sector, the students and all stakeholders in the coming months, to address some of the cries for change. I very much see this debate as the first step in that process.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) for opening the debate, which I am very pleased to participate in. The petition, as we have heard, considers a wide range of topics, from tuition fee levels, representation of students in Parliament and accommodation costs to the impact of covid-19 on the prospects of future graduate careers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich passionately spoke about the importance of the Government’s skills agenda and investment in alternative and vocational options, as well as higher education, which I will come back to. It has been a privilege to work so closely with the higher education sector; it has enabled me to see at first hand the extraordinary way in which students have dealt with the challenges they have faced over the last 20 months. Many Members spoke about those challenges, from the restrictions placed on face-to-face teaching to being in lockdown away from family. All that is on top of students’ fears and concerns for their own health and that of their family and friends, which will be familiar to us all.
I want to put on the record that the resilience that students displayed has been nothing short of extraordinary. Being their voice in Government during this difficult time has been a privilege. I want to sincerely thank staff across the higher education sector, who have faced unprecedented challenges and have shown that they are resilient, resourceful and innovative while maintaining the delivery of teaching and learning at the quality expected by the Government and the Office for Students. I have visited numerous universities and have spoken with many staff over the past 20 months, and I have heard incredible stories of how staff worked to move content online and adapt their teaching almost overnight. To staff and students, I say a heartfelt thank you.
However, I am not here just to thank the sector. Members will be aware that I pledged at the very start of the pandemic to prioritise getting students the support that they need, and students and staff have been given unprecedented financial support as a result. I thank all Members who supported those important interventions. We made an additional £85 million of student hardship funding available for higher education providers to distribute to students in the academic year 2020-21, in addition to the sizeable £256 million of student premium funding already available for providers to draw on to support students experiencing hardship, or to provide mental health support. We also worked with the Office for Students to create a new mental health support platform with £3 million of funding.
Last week, I announced that the maximum under-graduate loans for living costs will be increased by a forecasted inflation of 2.3% for loans issued in the 2022-23 academic year. The same increase will apply to the maximum disabled students’ allowance, to the grants for students with child and adult dependants who are also attending full-time undergraduate courses, and to the non-means-tested loans that the Government provide for students undertaking masters and doctoral degree courses. Such statistics are easy to overlook when they are fired off in debates, but those with students in their constituencies, as we all have, will know the very human and personal stories that make those financial interventions so important.
The first point raised in the petition is the important and complex issue that we have heard about regarding the rate of tuition fees. The petition asks for the maximum cap to be reduced drastically from £9,250 to £3,000. I understand the importance of, and the motivation behind, that view. Like those supporting the petition, the Government want a fair system that offers value for money; is sustainable; and provides enough funding to support high-quality teaching that leads to good outcomes, meets the skills needs of our country and maintains the world-class reputation of our higher education providers. Tuition fee levels play an important part in all those goals, but when we boil it down we cannot get around the fact that tuition fees must be at a sufficient level to achieve those aims. That leads me to the most obvious point: the funding implications of reducing tuition fees by so much.
Higher education providers in England gain, on average, approximately half their income from student fees. Therefore, reducing fees by more than two thirds to £3,000 for domestic students would create an estimated funding loss of a staggering £6.5 billion per year. Total funding for university courses would cover less than 40% of their cost of delivery in that scenario. Positive motivations aside, the consequences would therefore be disastrous for the higher education sector. We would force many providers out of the market overnight, and remaining courses would not have the funds required to deliver the high-quality tuition and experience that students deserve.
The only other option would be to force the taxpayer to pay the difference. To me, that prospect seems incredibly unfair, given that graduates will go on to earn, on average, £100,000 to £130,000 extra during their working lives than non-graduates—a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich made. That brings me to my next concern: many of those who would benefit would be the higher earners, and it is likely to make university harder to access and to excel at for the lowest earners. Rarely do I agree with the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), but I do on that point.
Our student loans system, on which the vast majority of students rely, is rightly based on the principle that those who gain the most will make the greatest contribution. That is why the size of an individual graduate’s loan repayments depends on their earnings—if they earn a lot, they pay more; if they earn less, they pay less. In many cases, people do not finish paying off the debt. A reduction in the amount that graduates need to pay back through a tuition fee cut would therefore benefit higher earners by thousands of pounds, while lower earners would see little to no change on their repayments. In fact, the very lowest earners would see no financial benefit from this at all.
Worse still, those thousands of pounds, now in the pockets of already high earners, would have come at the expense of universities, who would no longer be able to give such generous financial support and bursaries to students. People who know me well will know that I fought tooth and nail for better access and support for disadvantaged students, so the idea that we would do anything that would take away from their ability to go to university if they desire to do so is completely contrary to my views and those of the Government.
I also remind the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) that, actually, we have record numbers of disadvantaged students who have gone to university this year, and we had record numbers of disadvantaged students going to university last year. In fact, a disadvantaged student in 2020 was 80% more likely to go to university than they were 10 years ago. That staggering statistic shows that the impact of tuition fees is certainly not the one being painted by Opposition Members.
As I mentioned, I think we all have very similar motivations for being here today. My focus, when looking ahead, is on how we can get the best value for students and support the most disadvantaged while maintaining the highest quality and standards that we are internationally renowned for. Although a cut in tuition fees would not help, it is also clear that raising fees would be equally wrong, so last week I was pleased to confirm that tuition fees will be frozen for the fifth year in a row. Compared with a situation where tuition fees had risen in line with inflation each year, that freeze means that a student on a three-year degree course has saved over £3,400—a real-terms reduction that I am sure supporters of the petition would welcome.
We are considering the remaining recommendations made by the independent panel chaired by Philip Augar, including on fees, funding and student finance, and we plan to set out our full conclusion on that shortly. I urge colleagues not to refer constantly to media speculation, because we have not yet made an announcement, but it will be coming shortly.
Following on from that, as part of our consideration of the recommendations made by Augar, I and my ministerial colleagues are still in the process of building a post-18 education system that massively improves the value and quality of learning and equips learners with the skills they need to get those high-wage, high-skills job opportunities. The way we drive up quality in our higher education system is not by diverting money from universities to high earners, but by investing in a system that focuses on high-value skills. That is the way to promote genuine social mobility. We have already delivered on several of the recommendations made by Augar in our first response to that, including investment in the further education estate, increasing funding to 16 to 19-year-olds, a commitment to introduce a lifelong earning entitlement and the Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee.
This is not a difficult question, but I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). When the response to the Augar review is made—I think it is now two years, or two and a half years; I have lost track—will the Minister commit today to making that in the Chamber to us and not through the media?
I look forward to when we announce our response to Augar shortly, and I am confident that there will be several opportunities for hon. Members to question either me or the Secretary of State for Education in the Chamber. I will pledge to ensure that that happens.
Moving on to the next element of the petition, I am very pleased to see the issue of student representation raised here today and I agree with the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) on just how important that and listening to students really is. I know that Members present here today are no doubt excellent campaigners. I am sure we would all agree that no one holds us and higher education providers to account on these issues better than students. The view that has driven our work —from the National Union of Students, the Office for Students, Universities UK and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education—is to ensure that students know their rights with regard to higher education and can feel confident in exercising them.
For those less familiar with this, I recommend the excellent work done by the Office for Students’ student panel, which I have met several times since I have been in post. I am meeting it again next week. Over the past two years, the panel has made some really important points, pushing me and other Ministers, and it has certainly been a positive influence in the Office for Students. I am passionate about giving students more of a voice and more direct influence over student life than ever before, so seeing the panel directly inform the policies and decision making of the Office for Students is really inspiring. I know that the panel has played a fundamental role in informing the early development of the Office for Students’ next strategy—on which it will be shortly consulting—in shaping its statement of expectation on harassment and sexual misconduct, and in informing how student hardship funds can best be utilised.
I remind hon. Members that there is a process in place for students who feel that they have not had the expected quality or quantity of lessons, and they can complain to their university. If they are still not satisfied, they can go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which is helping students to reclaim thousands of pounds where the quality of learning has fallen below standards. In fact, the OIA has already made recommendations for financial compensation totalling £450,000—again, showing just how important it is that the student voice is not only heard, but listened to and acted on. I encourage any student with a particular issue or concern to speak up and engage with the process.
The petition also raises the important issue of accommodation costs for students, which was raised by hon. Members. Again, it is an important factor in our mission to achieve genuine social mobility in the wake of covid. Higher education providers and private accommodation providers are of course autonomous and responsible for setting their rent agreements, but that should not stop the Government being there to advocate for and, where necessary, directly support students, which is why I ensured that providers were able to use the additional £85 million of student hardship funding to support students who were struggling with accommodation costs last year. I have also worked hard to ensure that providers’ rental policies have students’ best interests at heart, and that providers are listening to those interests that are being advocated strongly. If students have concerns about any issues relating to university-provided accommodation, they can of course complain to their university and then go to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator.
On accommodation costs, the Minister will be aware that there are many campuses across the country where there is no accommodation owned by the university itself—it is all in private hands. Will she provide the data that show the rate of increase in cost and how that has tracked over the past five years, relative to inflation? My understanding is that it is exceeding inflation.
I will take that away and write to the hon. Member with the specific data that he has requested.
I will bring my speech to a close by picking up on the final point raised in the petition, which is particularly dear to my heart as a result of speaking to many hundreds of students about the uncertainty of their future careers. We have talked a lot today about universities, but job security and our economy also depend on the skills revolution going on in the whole of the further and higher education system. Apprenticeships, higher technical qualifications and T-levels are just some of the skills-focused offerings that will allow thousands of people to gain the skills and experience that they need to secure a high-wage, high-skilled job in future. New skills really are the fuel of social mobility, and universities are just one way to acquire those skills. I am proud to advocate for limitless ambition in what we can achieve through higher education, and I will continue to work to give students the best chance to succeed in the post-covid world.
I thank the Minister for her very detailed response to the debate, and I also thank the shadow Minister, the spokesperson for the Scottish National party and the other Back Benchers present. I feel confident that this issue has been debated thoroughly and that many different views have been shared. Clearly, this is a huge issue, and we await the Government’s response to the matter.
It seems to me that a key point here is that there are different views about the £9,250 level and whether it is too high or about right. The reality is that for many people who go to university, it is still a good investment, because students come out of university with a qualification that enables them to earn a good salary and have a very fulfilling career. Sadly, for some that is not case. Some people who go to university might have been pressured into it. I do not underestimate how transformative university can be in a positive way, but it is not for everyone. For many people, going to university might not have been the right decision.
The hon. Gentleman talks about an investment as a personal investment, which is the crux of the issue. It is not just the cost to the individual, because there is a cost to us as taxpayers. Should it be a socialised cost, which is a cost to all of society as an investment in our future generations who might pay our pensions, look after us or teach our children? Or should the cost be paid by the individual?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. In the first case, many taxpayers would want more of a view on the courses that people were studying at university. They would question some of the courses being studied and whether they offer value to the taxpayer. The system might look very different from what it does at the moment.
I agreed with a lot of what the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) said about technical education and parity of esteem. She is absolutely right. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who chairs the Education Committee, has talked about the dinner party test. He says that people might talk about how good apprenticeships are, but when it comes to their own kids they advise them to go to university. If someone at a dinner says, “Charlie has gone to Oxford University”, and someone else says, “Bella got an apprenticeship with Jaguar Land Rover”, most of the excitement will be about Charlie, not Bella. Ultimately, we need to change that perception.
Higher education is important, but it is just part of the story and part of the debate when it comes to the future of our young people. The FE White Paper and the skills improvement boards are a real step forward. Giving local business more of a role in shaping the FE curriculum is important. It is about an ecosystem approach and linking together schools, FE colleges and universities, if there is one in the area, and local business. I see it as trying to link up young people with opportunities in the country and specifically in their area, because we do see opportunities in different sectors and young people without the skills to take advantage of those opportunities.
A lot of people still look down on technical education. They do not see it having the same inherent value as an academic pathway. It is not about saying to people from lower income backgrounds, “The academic pathway is not for you, so here is the technical route.” It is absolutely about a whole-society approach, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North West said, and taking away snobbishness about technical education. And it is not about downgrading or devaluing a university education; it is just admitting that we must have multiple pathways. That is crucial for the levelling-up agenda that the Prime Minister has made clear time and again. Thank you, Ms McVey, for chairing today’s debate; you have done so superbly.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 550344, relating to university tuition fees.
[Julie Elliott in the Chair]
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please leave other Members and staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 581641 and 590216, relating to animal testing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. The first petition, which calls for all animal testing in the UK to be banned, has attracted 236,000 signatures. The second, which calls for a phasing-out of animal experiments, has attracted more than 83,000 signatures and remains open.
Before I begin my remarks, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my friend and colleague the late Sir David Amess. I am sure that everyone here will agree that it is particularly pertinent to remember him for, and praise his efforts in, fighting for animal rights. Indeed, on his last day in the Commons Chamber, he asked the Leader of the House to find time for a debate on World Animal Day. It is also relevant to note that he was a signatory to early-day motion 175, which, among other things, called on the Government to stop funding animal experimentation, which has been proven to be a failed practice, and to increase funding for state-of-the-art human-based research. I have no doubt that he would have been here to support the petitions, and it would be a fitting eulogy if the Government were to act on them.
The number of people who signed petition 581641 reflects how important the matter is to so many people. That is not surprising when we consider that every two minutes in the UK, a dog, cat, rabbit, rat, monkey, goat, sheep, mouse or fish is subject to animal testing, conducted on them against their sentience and welfare rights. Animal testing is a significant industry in the UK, where 3.4 million procedures took place in 2019. Let us not forget that animal tests have a 90% failure rate.
The UK Government responded to both petitions on 4 August, and, perhaps predictably, both responses used a very similar standard text. I hope that by opening the debate with a focus on the Government’s response to the first petition, I will also address some of the concerns raised in e-petition 590216. Before analysing the Government’s response, however, I will say a few words on how the petition came about.
Sarah Austin, who is here today, is a member of the collaborative partnership Merseyside Animal Rights. Sarah believes that the animal model for human medical research is outdated, and she is certainly not alone: her petition attracted signatures from the length and breadth of our countries, including 681 from my constituency of Linlithgow and East Falkirk. Indeed, there are a fair number of Scottish signatures, which is to be expected. Although animal welfare is a devolved area that the Scottish Government take seriously, animal cosmetics and scientific procedures are reserved to the UK Government.
Sarah’s work exemplifies how a single locally run voluntary group can influence like-minded people all around our nations. Without so many signatures, the debate would not be happening. It also shows how animal rights philosophy has advanced since the 18th century, when the English philosopher and legal theorist Jeremy Bentham wrote “An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation”, posing,
“the question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”
That is an early endorsement of the idea that the interests of animals are a moral and legal consideration.
Just last month, during the debate on real fur sales, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), set out how the UK Government have
“introduced landmark legislation in this Session that will recognise animals as sentient beings in UK law”
and that they are
“establishing an expert committee to ensure that animal sentience is considered as part of policy making.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 320WH.]
That is a clear acknowledgment from the Government that animals can experience feelings and sensations. That is progress, but will it take another 240 years to acknowledge that animals, as sentient beings, deserve the same consideration as humans, and have the right not to suffer at our hands? We can exhibit social evolution sooner rather than later by taking steps now to ban animal testing across Britain. Will we be judged to have missed an opportunity in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which is currently being scrutinised in the other place, or do the Government have the courage to step into the 21st century and urgently consider enshrining in law other viable options for scientific research that do not involve animal suffering?
We should be aware that it is not a new concept. In 2004 The BMJ published the article, “Where is the evidence that animal research benefits humans?” That called for urgent clarification on clinical relevance of animal experiments, yet here we are 17 years later debating the issue. Some 10 years on, the same journal published, “How predictive and productive is animal research?”, which argued that,
“our ability to predict human responses from animal models will be limited by interspecies differences in molecular and metabolic pathways.”
The BMJ is not alone in highlighting medical failures of animal testing. In 2004, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported:
“Change is needed. Thirty years of experience with subcutaneous xenografts, human tumours implanted under the skin of the mouse, have satisfied few because so many drugs that cure cancer in these mice fail to help humans.”
With these few examples in mind, allow me now to discuss the Government’s response in some detail. They state that scientific research using animals is vital in understanding how biological systems work in health and disease. I have already touched on how there is a long-standing and growing body of evidence showing that non-animal methods of scientific research are superior. I am aware that the charity People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—PETA—recently produced literature highlighting other available methods for research into brain diseases and disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. These include neuroimaging techniques, which can be done non-invasively in diverse groups of patients and healthy volunteers, and can be coupled with tissue and cell sampling, micro-dosing, epidemiological analysis and other human-centred research methods. It is simply logical that human-based studies provide human-relevant data as well as sparing animals from immeasurable suffering.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy response said that the Government were overseeing the development of the three Rs technique, referring to replacing, reducing and refining the use of animals in research and its delivery of robust regulation. I can think of many words to describe regulation that allows factory-farmed puppies to be daily force-fed chemicals directly into their stomachs for up to 90 days with no pain relief or anaesthetic, but robust certainly is not one of them. I have not seen any evidence that the use of animals in research is being replaced, reduced or refined. The Minister might cite the top line in the publication of the most recent Government statistics, which states that in 2020 there was a decrease of 15% in scientific procedures carried out on living animals from the previous year. In case we forget, the report reminds us that the national lockdowns affected activity at research establishments last year.
Alarmingly, there was also an increase in the number of regulatory practices involving cats, dogs and horses in 2020 compared with 2019. According to the BEIS response, the Government
“believes scientific research using animals plays a vital part in our understanding of how biological systems work in health and disease.”
The response further states:
“The use of animals in science supports the development of new medicines and cutting-edge medical technologies… Many products which would be unsafe or ineffective in humans are detected through animal testing thus avoiding harm to humans.”
Unfortunately, however, there is growing scientific criticism of those statements. Let me bring one quote from another peer-reviewed journal to the Minister’s attention, which was published two years ago. A ScienceDirect article asserts that:
“Human subjects have been harmed in the clinical testing of drugs that were deemed safe by animal studies.”
That is a very sobering thought. Given the evidence for viable options that are now available, the Government response is certainly ambiguous when it states that,
“animals must only be used where there is no alternative.”
They say that, in addition to “robust regulation”, the Government achieve this through
“support/funding for non-animal alternatives.”
I and, I am sure, others here today would be most grateful if the Minister gave us the detail of how funding for “non-animal alternatives” has been increased and how that correlates to a decrease in animal experimentation. And when I say “detail”, I do not mean the headline figures that are mentioned in the Government response. I mean: tell us the minutiae of the funding that has been targeted towards human-based research.
My final question on the Government response is directed at where it says:
“Under UK law no animal testing may be conducted if there is a non-animal alternative available.”
As the limited examples that I have cited today show, non-animal alternatives are available, so my question is this: are animal testing establishments breaking the law? The elephant in the room is of course:
“In the UK, no animal testing may be conducted expect for a permissible purpose enshrined in law.”
In short, the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act needs to change. That is the nub of this petition, of the petition that is still open and of early-day motion 175, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) tabled.
If this Government really are
“committed to supporting, funding, and accelerating cutting edge technologies that allow animal use to be replaced or avoided”,
as they say in their response, let them put their money where their mouth is and enact that commitment. At the same time, they should remove animal experimentation as an “alternative” in scientific procedures, and simultaneously expedite effective cures and treatments for humans. I certainly hope the Government will take on board the petitioners’ request to ban all animal experimentation.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for introducing this important debate on behalf of all those people who have signed the petition and for giving such a persuasive speech, covering so many of the different areas that we need to talk about when debating this issue.
As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, more than 319,000 people have signed the petitions, which shows the huge strength of feeling on the issue across the UK. More than 200 people in my constituency of Putney have emailed me on animal welfare issues, ranging from testing, to warfare experiments, to sentencing. And nearly 300 of my constituents in Putney have signed this petition. I am sure that many more would have signed it if they had known about it. There is strong feeling about this issue, so I am glad to be debating it.
I have long believed that the UK should lead the world in high animal welfare standards. We are a nation of animal lovers, so this issue speaks very much to our British values. I became a vegetarian when I was 12, at school, because quite honestly the food was better on the vegetarians’ table and so I joined them. They were better company as well; we had a great time. Then I started looking into animal welfare issues. I am really grateful to organisations such as the Body Shop, Cruelty Free International and PETA for the information that they make available in order for us to understand what is quite a secret practice and the suffering of animals that goes on in animal testing. When I found out about that, I became a very committed animal rights activist, and have been ever since.
I am really glad and proud that the UK banned cosmetics testing on animals in 1997 and extended that to cosmetic ingredients in 1998. However, despite that—according to Cruelty Free International—in 2020 alone, 2.88 million experiments were carried out on animals in the UK. The UK reports conducting more animal tests than any other country in Europe. I think that that is not very well known by the public.
The Environment Bill, for which I was on the Bill Committee, was a perfect opportunity to make progress on this issue. I was really disappointed that the Government voted down a new clause that would have required the Secretary of State to set targets to reduce animal testing. The Government’s resistance to change in this area is very frustrating and, I think, the reason why so many people signed this petition—they want to see more action.
It is welcome that animal testing practices have improved and advanced greatly over recent years and that non-animal methods of research have also developed and improved over time, so it is time for a rethink. We should not let the scientific community just continue with this practice for lack of ever being questioned about it. I remain concerned at the lack of transparency around animal testing and project licence applications, as well as the continued permissibility of severe suffering, as defined in UK law.
Animal testing is not the answer to protecting people and the planet. In fact, there are major scientific problems with animal experiments. Significant differences in our genetic make-up mean that data from animal experiments cannot be reliably translated to people. The current reliance on animal experiments may well be holding back the progress that patients so urgently need. More than 92% of drugs that show promise in animal tests fail to reach the clinic and benefit patients, mostly for reasons of poor efficacy and safety that were not predicted by animal testing. If animal testing was 100% proven to really work, I do not think we would be having this debate. However, the fact that it causes suffering and does not work means that we absolutely need a rethink. Most animal tests have not been validated to modern standards, to prove that they do predict effects in humans, and there is a reluctance on the part of Government and regulators to do this.
As has been said, a growing range of cutting-edge techniques provide results that are directly relevant to people and can replace, or at the very least immediately significantly reduce, the use and the suffering of animals. These new-approach methodologies include the use of human cells and tissues, artificial intelligence, and organ-on-a-chip technology.
I echo the calls for the Minister in his response to give information about funding for these non-animal alternatives and about the route and deadlines by which we will move away from the suffering of animals in testing and to non-animal techniques. Put simply, there are better ways to make progress in public health and the environment while reducing and eliminating the suffering of animals in laboratories.
While we are speaking in this Chamber, a debate is taking place in the main Chamber on animal welfare. We must join these two things up. We cannot make progress on one side and, on another, continue this barbaric practice. If the UK is serious about its commitment to animal protection, the Government must stop the suffering. They must take decisive and ambitious action to phase out animal experiments and phase in the use of cutting-edge, human-relevant, non-animal techniques. Modernising medical research in this way will deliver major benefits, which the people of Britain want to see for people, animals and the economy.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Ms Elliot. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for securing this debate and for helping to maintain pressure on the Government to retain their historic commitment to banning the inhumane practice of animal testing. I also pay tribute to organisations such as Cruelty Free International and For Life On Earth for the vital campaigning they have done over many years on this issue.
This is a very timely debate, following the tragic death of Sir David Amess. As Members will know, Sir David was passionate about animals and had long been admired for the animal welfare campaigns he led throughout his time in Parliament. Most notably, he was responsible for introducing the Protection against Cruel Tethering Act 1988. His legacy on this issue will continue. Last week, I was proud to be asked to take over an early-day motion tabled by Sir David relating to the banning of trophy hunting imports. I encourage all MPs to support early-day motion 86 if possible.
My thanks also go to the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) for tabling the early-day motion in June on a public scientific hearing on animal experiments, which not only made clear the pain and suffering that animals are subjected to in the name of science, but gave shocking examples of the practices that continue to take place on our shores. I was proud to sign that EDM, which highlighted the consistent claims of scientists that animal testing has largely been a failure and urged the Government to mandate an independent and rigorous public scientific hearing to stop the funding of animal experimentation and instead increase investment in world-leading human-based research, such as state-of-the-art organ-on-a-chip and gene-based medicines, to end the unnecessary suffering of animals and prioritise treatments and cures for humans.
On the point around vegetarianism made by my good and hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), I am a life-long vegetarian too, and I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) is also a vegetarian, so there is high representation in this debate of people who do not eat meat. I thought it important to highlight that.
It is with deep sadness that I am compelled to speak in today’s debate, given our country’s historic stance against animal cruelty. The UK was the first country to establish a ban on animal testing for cosmetics and their ingredients when, almost a quarter of a century ago, we introduced the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. That was reinforced by the EU’s cosmetics directive in 2004, which established an EU-wide testing and marketing ban on finished cosmetic products tested on animals, and later prohibited testing ingredients on animals and introduced a full marketing ban, outlawing the sale or import into the EU of cosmetics tested on animals anywhere in the world.
Despite leaving the EU, the UK has retained what is now the cosmetics regulation; however, despite the ban, EU producers of substances used in cosmetics have been required by the European Chemicals Agency to carry out tests on vertebrate animals to comply with the requirements of the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—more commonly known as the REACH—regulation. That means that the European Chemicals Agency now routinely requires some widely used cosmetic ingredients to be used on hundreds of thousands of animals in order to comply with REACH in the EU.
Worryingly, since leaving the European Union our Government have introduced UK REACH, effectively replicating EU chemicals regulation in UK law. Furthermore, the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are now under no obligation to follow the recent landmark ruling in the Symrise appeal. As many Members will be aware, Symrise AG, a major German manufacturer of flavours and fragrances, successively appealed against a European Chemicals Agency directive to carry out animal testing. Symrise argued that under the EU cosmetics regulation its products could not be tested on animals because they would no longer be able to be sold or marketed in Europe.
It is no surprise, given the UK’s long and leading role in banning animal testing that there are such strong public sentiments against the process and that almost a quarter of a million people signed the e-petition calling for our Government to outlaw the practice. Indeed, in my constituency several hundred people registered their objection and urged the Government to do the humane thing by banning all animal testing in the UK, not just for the development of cosmetics but for all household products and medicines. The Government’s response has been disappointing, using the often used but unsubstantiated argument that
“scientific research using animals plays a vital part in understanding how biological systems work in health and disease.”
The reality is that, almost a quarter of a century after setting a global precedent on the issue, the UK is now on the verge of allowing those inhumane practices to take place once again. As I alluded to, many prominent campaigns in recent years have helped to raise awareness of the practice, which many believed had been consigned to history once and for all more than two decades ago. More recently, For Life On Earth publicised disturbing footage showing the factory farming of thousands of laboratory dogs here in the UK. The clip showed the savage procedure, in which the force-feeding of an animal takes place via a tube. The footage is horrific. There is further concern, given that UK-bred laboratory dogs and all other laboratory animals are excluded from the protection of the Animal Welfare Act 2006. My thanks to FLOE for exposing that barbaric practice alongside high-profile figures such as Ricky Gervais, Peter Egan and rescued laboratory dog Scarlett Beagle in their public campaign this year.
As colleagues on both sides of the House have said so eloquently, animal experiments must be banned immediately and funding should be redirected to progressive human-based research, which has a far better track record of success. I would be grateful for clarity from the Minister about the current regulatory guidance on animal cosmetic testing in the UK, as well as on what position the Government plan to take on the Symrise ruling. In addition, I urge them to reconsider their assessment of force-feeding, given that it is currently classified only as mild suffering under Home Office licensing.
The Government must acknowledge the concerns and evidence-based assessment of leading campaigners and scientists, including the British Medical Journal, the Food and Drug Administration, the US-based National Cancer Institute, and many scientists working in the pharmaceutical industry. They must heed the concerns raised in early-day motion 175, as well as the e-petitions that are the reason for today’s debate. They have repeatedly insisted that, despite leaving the EU, they would continue to uphold the highest standards of animal protection. For that to be the case, they must develop an animal-free approach to further protecting human health, and continue our legacy as the world leader in tackling animal rights abuses.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for opening the debate and congratulate the petitioners on bringing this important topic forward for consideration. Some 810 of my constituents signed e-petition 581641.
Before I begin, I too pay tribute to Sir David Amess, the Member for Southend West, a longstanding and vocal advocate for animal rights. I am sure that he would have been here to speak passionately on this issue if not for his tragic passing. His presence is sorely missed. I send my deepest condolences to his family and staff.
Animal welfare is an issue close to my heart, and one that constituents often contact me about. I am honoured to have the opportunity to represent them in this debate. Perhaps the best place to start is where public opinion stands on this matter. Earlier this year, YouGov conducted online polling in Scotland, in partnership with Cruelty Free International. The findings were clear: overwhelmingly, the public do not support animal testing. Some 79% of Scottish adults believe that it is unacceptable for experiments on animals to continue when other testing methods are available. Some 62% were in favour of the Government setting deadlines for the phasing out of animal testing. The majority of Scots consistently agreed that testing on cats, dogs and monkeys is unacceptable.
The Scottish Government have made many commitments to strengthen animal welfare legislation, but the issue of testing on animals for scientific research remains reserved to the UK Government. The Government’s response to the petition notes the global requirement for animal testing in medical research. The legislation is frankly outdated, as science has developed. We now know that 90% of drugs tested on animals eventually fail in human trials. That prompts the question: why, in 2020 alone, were 86,000 experiments allowed to go ahead, despite being found to have caused severe suffering to the animals involved?
That other nations continue to test on animals does not mean that the UK cannot seek to become a leader in alternative methodologies and tests. We banned the use of animal testing for cosmetics in 1998, ahead of other countries, such as China, which required animal testing until only very recently. If we look back to the YouGov polling, 76% of Scots believe that finding alternatives to animal testing should be a funding priority in the science and innovation space. In fact, Cruelty Free International is of the opinion that by not doing so, and continuing to rely on animal experimentation, we are stifling scientific development. Will the Minister commit Government funding to research into such alternatives?
The Government have argued that the current law is clear that animal experiments should be conducted only where there is no alternative. Will the Minister explain why no applications for animal testing were refused at all last year? It is hard to believe that they were all necessary. For example, hundreds of skin sensitisation tests were carried out on mice last year, despite alternative non-animal-reliant tests being available.
Ending animal experiments can only be a positive change. In today’s society, there is no excuse for allowing them to continue. The Government have introduced animal sentience legislation, for which I am sure we are all grateful, but to allow animal testing to continue is in direct contrast to that legislation’s aims. I hope the Government’s commitment to animal welfare extends to all animals, and that they will seek to outlaw the unnecessary suffering caused by testing. To do so would bring Government policy much more in line with public opinion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliot. I congratulate the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) on opening the debate and on the forceful and cogent argument he put forward to make the case for the petitioners. I also thank good and hon. Members across the House who have spoken so forcefully on this issue. I support petitions 581641 and 590216, signed by more than 320,000 petitioners, quite a number of whom were from my constituency.
I wish to declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human-relevant science. It would be remiss of me not to take the opportunity to pay tribute briefly to the late vice-chair of the group, Sir David Amess. He was an unwavering voice for animals in laboratories and a champion for human-relevant science. He will be remembered as a tireless and principled campaigner for animal welfare. I hope that Members from the Government side, who are absent from tonight’s debate, will step up and take on Sir David’s mantle.
The APPG on human-relevant science is a discussion forum in which politicians, the human-relevant life sciences sector, the third sector, scientists and stakeholders can promote new-approach methodologies that provide unique insights into human biology, transform our ability to understand human disease, and develop new and effective medicines more quickly, without the use of animals.
I certainly take on board the point made earlier that the stats seem to show a slight reduction in the number of animals used in testing in 2020. However, that might be a consequence of the pandemic. In the 10 years up to 2019 the average annual decrease in animal testing was only about 1% a year. On that trajectory, animal testing looks like it is set to continue for another 90 years.
The case for transition to human-relevant science is absolutely compelling. A growing range of cutting-edge techniques provide results that are directly relevant to people and that can replace, or at the very least significantly reduce, the use of animals. Such new-approach method-ologies include the use of human cells, tissues, tissue cultures, artificial intelligence and organ-on-a-chip technology.
Significant differences in the human race’s genetic make-up mean that data from animal experiments cannot be reliably translated into humans. In fact, the current reliance on animal experiments may well be holding back the progress that many patients so urgently need. More than 92% of drugs that show promise in animal tests fail to reach the clinic and do not benefit patients, mostly for reasons of poor efficacy and safety that were not predicted by animal testing. In disease research, the picture is similar. Decades of efforts towards understanding neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and towards finding effective therapies for them, have been huge failures due to the majority of animal experiments lacking human relevance.
The APPG on human-relevant science has held several meetings by Zoom over the past year, examining two main areas: funding barriers and regulatory barriers. As it stands, the funding made available for research via the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research—the NC3Rs that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk referred to—is not sufficient to support the transition to human-relevant research. Indeed, the NC3Rs’s annual budget amounts to only around £10 million. By comparison, the Association of Medical Research Charities estimates that the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research provided a combined total of £1.8 billion in funding for UK medical research in 2019, while medical research charities provided £1.9 billion.
The economic potential of animal-free methods is huge. By providing results that are directly relevant to people, new-approach methodologies can accelerate the development of effective treatments that will transform patients’ lives and reduce the economic cost of ill health. I hope the Minister will respond to the important point raised earlier that over 450 skin sensation tests were carried out on mice in 2020, even though validated non-animal tests were and are available. In 2020, not a single application for licences to conduct experiments on animals were refused permission.
There is major public support for replacing animal testing with human-relevant techniques, and the petitions that formed the basis for today’s debate attest to that. A YouGov poll also shows enormous public support. The Government must take decisive and ambitious action to phase out animal experiments and phase in the use of cutting-edge, human-relevant techniques. Modernising medical research in this way will deliver major benefits for people, animals and the UK economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I am grateful to speak in such an important debate; official parliamentary petitions on the banning of animal testing have gained hundreds of thousands of signatures from people across our country. As Members here today will know, this was not the intended day for this debate. Sadly, remembrance proceedings following the shocking death of one of our colleagues meant that this debate was rightly postponed. I send my heartfelt condolences to the wife and family of my hon. Friend, Sir David Amess. We have lost a parliamentarian of enormous experience, intellect and warmth. He was someone with an infectious smile, and used that cheeky smile without being reprimanded by Mr Speaker when he somehow squeezed into virtually every single debate the need to make Southend-on-Sea a city. Sir David also did a great deal of work on animal rights. As the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) mentioned, I am very sure that he would have spoken in today’s debate. He was responsible for introducing the Protection against Cruel Tethering Act 1988; he campaigned against puppy mills and wildlife trafficking; and, this year, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) noted, he tabled an early-day motion to end animal experiments.
We need to adopt modern methods that do not require the suffering of animals. That is why we are all here today; it is in the spirit of kindness, co-operation and humanity that this issue should be considered. In 1998, animal testing on ingredients exclusively used in cosmetics was banned in our country. That same year, we saw a modern-day low point of 2.7 million procedures involving animals, even though the overwhelming majority of that testing was unsuccessful, as my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris) and for Putney (Fleur Anderson) noted. That testing proved to be of absolutely no use for human advancement. It peaked in 2015 to 4.1 million procedures, and while the number of experiments had been falling, last year there was a 6% rise since 1997. Previous statistics have indicated that we have topped the grim leader board for the most animal experiments per person in the European Union. Our three Rs policy to replace, reduce and refine, limiting the number of animals used in science and pushing licence applicants to consider alternatives is clearly not having the desired effect. That is why I feel the Government need to change their policy.
We are a nation of animal lovers. My inbox is often overflowing with concerns about animal rights and legislation impacting on animals. Survey after survey indicates that public acceptance of animal testing is dependent on there being no viable alternative. How can we allow such barbarity within our science when modern-day alternatives exist? Innovations such as complex cell models—CCMs—offer the potential to use human tissue to provide data that is far more relevant to patients than animals tests, and could even replace animal procedures in their entirety. There are a plethora of approaches; some areas of research are even being held back by animal testing. A recent report on Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s research noted that an
“important obstacle to progress in the field of neurodegenerative diseases is the heavy reliance on animal models which are failing to capture key features of human biology and disease.”
This shows that, in part, moving forward and modernising our scientific trials and testing can benefit both humans and animals, making scientific methods more relevant to human health.
As a vegetarian—and as noted by other speakers—I feel that we should be a world leader in scientific innovation. Have we not moved on from such brutal acts on sentient beings who have no say? Sadly, the Government’s record on protecting animals is not promising. As usual, they focus on grandiose language and gestures rather than implementing policy that will effect change. They delay animal welfare legislation on the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill and on increasing sentences for animal cruelty, and instead choose to legislate on trophy hunting rather than the simpler and more effective measure of the Home Secretary simply no longer issuing licences.
Recent media reports suggest that the Home Office could pave the way for a return to animal testing for cosmetics, so I ask the Minister today for the Government’s plan. We need a review of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. We need to commit to properly ending animal testing for good, ensuring that we eliminate avoidable procedures on animals, and banning the export and import of animals for research unless with specific Home Office consent; and we need to commit to proper investment in non-animal-based research methods and technologies to encourage further innovation and work in this field.
We need to use this opportunity to press forward and invest in our future with the scope and opportunities for change. If the Government fail to grasp this challenge, I fear that this outdated practice will simply proliferate.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for his comprehensive exposition of the issue we are debating today. I want to echo the tributes paid to David Amess. We very much feel his presence in this debate, despite his absence, as a great champion of animal welfare. I am sure his colleagues in the main Chamber, who are currently debating the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, have David Amess at the forefront of their minds as well.
I know how interested my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran are in this issue, as I suspect citizens across the UK are, as evidenced by the tens of thousands of signatures to the petitions we are debating. That can be said with some confidence because of a survey carried out by the UK charity, FRAME, which undertakes research into alternatives to animal testing. In a survey conducted last year, it found that 84% of respondents would not buy cosmetics if they knew that any of their ingredients had been tested on animals. Based on my experience as an MP in this House since 2015, I can say without hesitation or equivocation that I receive more emails about animal welfare-related issues than about any other issue currently facing politicians or this Parliament today. I can see some nods of agreement. I am sure we are all in the same boat in that regard. People care about animal welfare issues profoundly and deeply. It is something that I think every constituent shares with every other constituent. There is no disagreement on it and we have to take note of it.
The sad fact is that, despite widespread public abhorrence of animal testing, it is a significant industry in the UK. Home Office statistics show that 3.4 million procedures involving animals took place across the UK in 2019. Unfortunately, there is growing consensus that not enough is being done truly to represent a significant and consistent decrease in animal experiments. We have heard much about that today.
Evidence shows that people in Scotland and Wales believe that more should be done to prioritise humane and human-relevant science. I suspect that the good people of England feel exactly the same. It is clear that the overwhelming majority of people believe that where alternative non-animal research methods are available, experimenting on animals becomes even more unacceptable. It is worrying to learn that animal tests have been undertaken in Europe and the UK for which there are accepted, validated alternatives. What my North Ayrshire and Arran constituents and I what to know is: why is testing in such circumstances permitted? Why is it, for example, that tests are carried out where a substance is dropped into the eyes of a live rabbit that causes damage and blindness or where a lethal dose of botulinum is injected into mice that causes paralysis and suffocation within days, as documented in the short briefing from Cruelty Free International? Why are these tests carried out when non-animal viable alternatives are available?
When asked about specific species in research, the overwhelming view of the public is that testing on animals such as dogs, cats and monkeys is unacceptable and that alternatives to animal testing should be a funding priority for science and innovation, yet the UK remains one of the top users of primates and dogs in experiments in all of Europe. We know that recent developments in evolutionary and developmental biology and genetics have significantly increased our understanding of why animals have no predictive value for the human response to drugs or the pathophysiology of human diseases.
What is needed—what my constituents want to see—is the UK Government to mandate a rigorous public scientific hearing to reduce the unnecessary harm involved in animal experiments and ban this immoral practice, pursuing alternatives instead. We need greater transparency in the animal research industry and a commitment by the UK Government to understand the sentience of animals and their welfare in relation to the outdated methods of animal testing.
I am sure that my constituents and those of every Member in this Chamber would be shocked to learn that although the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill enshrines in law the ability of animals to experience joy and feel suffering and pain, the UK Government do not recognise animals undergoing scientific experiments as having sentient rights, as they are excluded from the protection of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and its “unnecessary suffering” clause. That is an unacceptable state of affairs, especially in view of the fact that in a previous debate in which I participated, on the testing of cosmetics in animals, the then Minister, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), said that testing on animals is carried out
“only where there are no practical alternatives”.—[Official Report, 1 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 111WH.]
Clearly, that is not the case—perhaps the Minister can comment on that and provide clarification—as has been pointed out in some detail by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk. There is an apparent contradiction, so I hope that the Minister can clear it up today.
New approach methodologies do not use animals and instead use advanced in vitro and in silico technologies to model diseases, test treatments and investigate biological processes in humans. With the new medicines manufacturing innovation centre to be based in Renfrewshire, we in Scotland are well placed to spearhead a paradigm shift to next-generation human-relevant medicine. That is the kind of shift that we need to see and which our constituents want to see, as the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) indicated.
In the debate on 1 May 2018, I remember the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth saying that the Government would continue to tighten regulations on animal testing. Will the Minister tell us today what tightening of regulations has taken place over the past three and a half years since the previous Minister gave that commitment? It is also the case that, in that debate, the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth said that an independent trade policy would provide “opportunities” to look at this issue. Will this Minister tell us what exactly has been looked and what actions that looking has brought about, as I am sure we are all keen to know? I hope it is not the case that we have had three and a half years of drift and delay on this matter, because that would be most disappointing.
We have been told repeatedly that Brexit offers the opportunity to raise the bar on the quality of the products that we import, as well as on animal welfare issues. My inbox—I am sure many other Members would echo this—is filled with messages from constituents who fear that standards will fall, not rise. Nevertheless, if Brexit really does offer that opportunity, as we have been told, to go further on issues such as animal testing than we did before, can the Minister update us on what advantages have been taken so far of these much-lauded opportunities, which were so loudly proclaimed at the time? Again, I am sure that we are all keen to know.
Like many in this Chamber, I represent tens of thousands of constituents who are very exercised about these matters, so I hope that the Minister can reassure us on these points and the other questions raised today. We are keen to hear progress on this issue since anything that is, or is perceived to be, unnecessary cruelty to animals is anathema to the overwhelming majority of people, and has no place in our society.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak for Labour today, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I am, however, a stand-in. I apologise on behalf of the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who is unable to be here because he is in the Chamber for the Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill.
I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for opening and leading this important and timely debate. We are considering e-petition 581641, which received 235,000 signatures from across the UK, including 657 in my own constituency of Newport West. The petition called on the Government to ban all animal testing in the UK, including for
“the development of cosmetics, household products and medicines.”
We are also considering e-petition 590216, which received over 83,000 signatures from across the UK, including 106 people from Newport West. The petition requires Ministers to
“recognise the urgent need to use animal-free science and publish a clear and ambitious action plan with timetables and milestones”.
These two important petitions have received support from more than 300,000 people. I thank all those who signed the petitions for ensuring that this matter was brought to the House today.
There have been important steps forward since the introduction of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. As my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) pointed out, it was a Labour Government who banned the use of animal testing for cosmetic products in 1998, and I proudly acknowledge that. I also welcome the fact that the Conservative Government banned animal testing for household products in 2015. For many years, the UK has been a leader in instituting protections against unnecessary animal testing. That is good and how it should be, and Labour encourages Ministers to do more, go further and keep the faith. We should continue to lead on this issue and to find alternative research methods, as has been eloquently outlined by fellow Members.
We should all work together to completely eliminate animal testing. That is the place that Members across the House and thousands of people across the country want us to reach. Our responsibilities as Members require us to do our best by our constituents, but we also have a responsibility to our natural world, wildlife and animals. To honour that responsibility, we must be ever vigilant, and that is why this debate is so important. It provides us with another opportunity to look at animal welfare, our approach to animal testing and what we can do to keep our animals safe.
The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act admittedly contains strong language, stating that animal testing must be a last resort and, importantly, that stringent requirements for licensing are necessary. However, the Opposition are deeply concerned that Ministers in this Government may fail to prioritise the safety and wellbeing of animals. When the Minister winds up the debate, I would be grateful if we received a guarantee that every effort is being made to reduce the suffering of animals in research.
The latest Home Office report let the cat out of the bag when it confirmed that 2.88 million procedures were carried out on living animals in 2021. While this number is a 15% decrease on the previous year, the most obvious reason for the reduction was the pandemic rather than any reduction inspired by a change in Government policy. That was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris). Of those 2.88 million procedures, 1.44 million were carried out for the creation and breeding of genetic alterations, but the other 1.44 million were for experimental procedures on live animals. It is easy when we talk on such scales for these animals to become just another statistic and to forget the very real pain that they were experiencing.
Some 18,000 procedures conducted were carried out on specially protected species, including horses, cats, dogs, monkeys and primates. In 2020, there were tests on 1,700 for experimental procedures. It is important to understand those figures and digest the scale of the challenge ahead of us. I ask the House to think, for just a moment, about the pain and suffering those animals were put through in the last year alone. Many were brought over in small shipping containers from Africa and Asia before being subjected to all manner of experimentation and testing. However, the suffering extends far beyond protected species. Of the 1.44 million experimental procedures, 100,000 caused mild or moderate pain to the animals; more worrying is the fact that more than 50,000 animals experienced severe pain during those procedures. That is serious, and it has to stop.
Some will argue that the research is a necessary evil and a key component of scientific discovery, but I have to disagree. As times change, views change, and so too must our behaviour. Indeed, as we have heard, there is still no consensus on the efficacy of animal testing. How a compound interacts with mice might prove to be the opposite for humans at the clinical stage, as cited by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk.
An article by Pandora Pound and Michael Bracken published in The BMJ in 2014 states:
“The current situation is unethical. Poorly designed studies and lack of methodological rigour in preclinical research may result in expensive but ultimately fruitless clinical trials that needlessly expose humans to potentially harmful drugs or may result in other potentially beneficial therapies being withheld.”
Only £10 million is invested in the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research each year, compared with the billions of pounds invested in basic research, as my hon. Friends the Members for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Easington pointed out. If we do not properly invest in alternatives, how can we ever hope to solve the problem? I would like the Minister to outline the steps that will be taken to ensure that alternatives to animal testing receive the funding and focus they need and deserve.
There must also be greater accountability on the part of researchers to publish the results of their studies. When research can cause suffering to animals, for it to be worthy of investment—particularly of public money—we need to see what researchers are up to and why. Can the Minister indicate when the Government will announce the review to identify and eliminate avoidable testing?
Another simple question for the Minister is whether the Government will commit to eliminating any and every unnecessary test, and will they do that now? Finally, how will the Brexit arrangements affect the previous agreement with the EU under the chemical REACH regulations? There is a danger that new post-Brexit arrangements will lead to a duplication of animal testing, rather than a decrease. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) for highlighting that in his speech, and I look forward to the Minister’s response on that point in particular.
I want to see greater transparency in the issuing of licences so that the public can see when and why animal testing takes place. Can the Minister outline which steps the Government will take to create a more transparent method for licensing applications?
This debate is not difficult. More than 300,000 people signed the two petitions before the House, so we know there is clearly widespread interest in seeing action and progress on the issue. Indeed—I suspect the Minister will already know this—a 2016 study by Ipsos MORI found that 74% of people felt that more work was needed to find alternatives to animal research. While the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 made a difference and moved us forward, there is more to do. It is clear that efforts to invest in research that is effective and does not harm animals must be redoubled.
This issue is not political. As others have said, I think very much of the late Sir David Amess, who showed huge commitment to animal welfare over his many years in the House, and I wish his dog Vivienne well in the Westminster Dog of the Year competition. This has been an interesting debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity to reiterate Labour’s calls for action to do away with harmful and unnecessary animal testing once and for all.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in my fifth week in office, Ms Elliott. I am hugely grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) and other colleagues for raising these important issues today, not least in the week in which the comprehensive spending review will be settled. I will then have a chance to look at the overall allocation of funding within the ecosystem for which I am responsible as Minister for Science, Research and Innovation.
I reassure colleagues, and those in the Public Gallery and elsewhere, that I take this issue very seriously, and I will explain my background in the sector.
I echo the comments made by a number of Opposition colleagues: if we are to provide a legacy for Sir David Amess, we ought to come together on this issue. I welcome the tone of everybody’s contributions, in particular that of the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones), which highlights the lack of partisan politics in this matter and the need to seek cross-party consensus. I welcome her reference to this Government’s 2015 ban on cosmetics tested on animals and the 1997 Labour Government’s ban. This country has taken and will continue to take the matter seriously, and we should be proud of that.
I was asked about 36 questions, which I will try to cover, but I want to flag in particular the important opening points made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, who spoke about the moral and legal considerations at the heart of the issue—he is right: this is not just a utilitarian argument, but a moral and legal issue about the values that we hold as a country—and about the importance of recognising that sentience confers an additional responsibility, which is enshrined in legislation but merits saying. Our obligations to mammals, for example, are much greater than our obligations to insects. That might be controversial in some places in this country, but I think that in this Chamber, people will understand the difference. I think that was an important and well-made point.
The number of signatories to the petitions indicates the strength of the public view on the matter. I sincerely thank all hon. Members for the quality of their contributions. I suspect the reason that there are not more colleagues on the Government Benches is that the main Chamber is currently debating the Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, and while hon. Members have been speaking in this debate, I have been watching Conservative Members speaking in that one. It is fair to say that there is strong cross-party support for getting the framework for animal research right.
I thank and pay particular tribute to those who have spoken, including the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who raised the issue of values and the important role of companies such as the Body Shop and campaigns such as PETA—I echo those considerations. Transparency for consumers when purchasing goods is quite an important factor in driving the culture change that we need to see, and I support her on that point. She, like other Members, mentioned the importance of technology and the human-on-a-chip and organ-on-a-chip technologies that may hold the opportunity for us to completely liberate ourselves from reliance on animals.
The hon. Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) raised the important issue of force-feeding and factory farming. I think the whole House would like to move away from any reliance on factory farming, but while there is such a reliance, it is important that that activity is carried out to the highest standards and that public trust is supported by sufficient accountability.
The hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) raised an interesting point about why no applications are turned down, which I will come to. The hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) mentioned the importance of complex cell models and highlighted the need for us to review the workings of the legislation. The hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) highlighted quite powerfully the big difference between the amount of money—around £3 billion—spent on broader life science and medical-related research compared with the £100 million, or £10 million a year, spent on this issue. He made an important point about ensuring that the matter gets enough attention.
The Minister is being very thorough on some of those points. We are not, as he alluded to in his opening remarks and again just now, arguing for the outcome of the comprehensive spending review to be huge additional resource. It is about skewing the huge sums of money that are available towards this particular area. That would be more efficacious and beneficial for everyone concerned.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I was about to say that the National Institute for Health Research—for which I was responsible in my previous ministerial role but one, as Minister for life sciences—puts about £1 billion a year into research on the practice of health. I will happily raise the issue with the relevant Minister at the Department for Health and Social Care, because quite important part of the NIHR’s remit is to build confidence in health research.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) raised the important issue of accountability on the rate of progress, and the opportunities arising from the UK’s departure from the EU. I will try to come to all those issues in due course, and if for any reason I miss any, I will happily write to Members with the answer that I would have given had I had time.
I am personally passionate about this agenda for a whole raft of reasons, not just because I have a much beloved cat and dog as pets. Like everyone in the Chamber, and I think most people in this House, I feel very strongly that we have a duty of care as human beings to the animals around us. Also, having had a career in medical research before coming to Parliament in 2010, I have seen for myself the importance both of using every piece of technology to try to remove dependence on animals in the development of medicines and of carrying public trust in the research process with us.
As hon. Members have set out, in the life science sector a quiet revolution is going on, in which the traditional model of drug discovery—which typically takes 15 years and $2 billion, and has an 80% failure rate—is being quietly transformed by revolutions in genomics and informatics, allowing us to move from a paradigm in which the industry would typically try to develop one drug that suits all through a long and complex cycle of theoretical drug discovery targeting, in silico chemistry, then through into in vitro models, animal trials, human trials, and marketing and National Institute for Health and Care Excellence approval.
The revolution in genomics and informatics allows us to begin to target patient groups, develop drugs around particular blood types, genotypes and phenotypes, and cut out a lot of the long, traditional drug discovery process. It is a revolution that I am passionate about, not just because it will in due course reduce, and possibly even eradicate, the need for us to rely on often unreliable animal models. Members will have heard me talk in other places about the need to move away from necessary but imperfect models of human disease.
The Minister is being generous with his time. I take on board his points about the quiet revolution in genomics and medical science more generally, but while that is taking place, millions of animals are being terrorised and killed. It is not benefiting us or them, so when will we set some deadlines and targets for the elimination of animal testing?
I understand the hon. Member’s point and I will come to it. I could not quite agree that our reliance at the moment on animal testing is of no use at all; it is of important use in defining certain elements of toxicity and safety. It is not perfect, but to say that it has no use is not fair. I will come to his point about how quickly we need to make progress.
Part of my passion for this is that I tried to found a company developing toxicology artificial intelligence—predictive software that would predict the toxicology of compounds so that we do not have to rely on animal models. I care sufficiently about it that I took the trouble to do that. Let me share with colleagues one thing that I discovered in that process, which speaks to the delicacy sometimes around transparency. Passions in this sector understandably run very high. I know that colleagues will be shocked to discover that, in the course of putting together a company to develop toxicology software, one needs to be able to understand the experiments that are currently being done in order to model them better using software. That meant that on the board of the company we had somebody from Huntingdon Life Sciences so that we could understand the processes that we were having to replace.
The presence of that person on the board was alone sufficient to attract huge and violent attacks from Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty. Of course, who on the board did they pick on? Was it any of the eight men, of whom I was one? No. They picked on the company secretary—the member of the board least responsible for the company. She lived alone in a cottage in the fens, and woke in the middle of the night to find 20 people in balaclavas daubing her house with red paint, calling her a bunny killer. I flag that story because it speaks to the passions and the need for a balanced approach, in the way that colleagues have raised the issue today.
If we are to be transparent and accountable, we need to ensure that that transparency and accountability can be shared, and that we are not putting particular people at risk. However, I share the point that we need to do everything we can to ensure that the quiet revolution accelerates, and that we reduce the reliance on animals for research as fast as we possibly can and to as great an extent as we can.
Allow me to describe briefly the framework that we have in place. Why is the use of animals in scientific research justified at all? It is justified because, at the moment, it is vital for identifying benefits to humans, animals and the environment. We have to try to balance that dependence with our commitment to the highest animal welfare standards. That is the basis on which the current law is drafted. The balance between those two elements is reflected in the fact that we have a dedicated Act to make sure that animal welfare and animal research are properly integrated. The responsibility for managing that Act lies with the Home Office and the Home Secretary, not with me, but I will raise the issues mentioned today with the Home Office.
The Act specifies that animals can be used in science only for specific limited purposes where there are no alternatives—a crucial point—and provides protection for those animals through the requirement for application of the three Rs: replacement, reduction and refinement. Today’s debate raised three related but separate issues that contribute to the Government's overall strategic direction and policy: first, the benefits derived from the use of animals in science where there are, as yet, no alternatives; secondly, the regulatory regime that facilitates such use; and thirdly, our support and commitment to the funding of the three Rs in order to accelerate progress away from reliance.
Let me take each in turn. At the moment, animal testing research plays a vital role in understanding how biological systems work in health and disease. It is crucial to our understanding of new medicines and cutting-edge medical technologies for both humans and animal health, and it supports the safety and sustainability of our environment by helping to reduce dependency on chemicals. Animal research has helped us to make life-changing discoveries for new vaccines and medicines, transplant procedures, anaesthetics and blood transfusions —not least the development of the covid-19 vaccine, which was made possible because of animal research.
While I accept that we need to try to move away as quickly as possible, one must remember that we are using animals only because it is the way we have evolved towards minimising exposure of human beings to dangerous drugs. I assure hon. Members that if we were to completely remove all animal use from medicines research, we would expose our own kith and kin to much higher risks. That would quickly be seen as irresponsible.
We need to find a way of substituting those pre-human tests as quickly as possible. Although much research can be done into non-animal models, there are still purposes for which, sadly, it is essential to use live animals, as the complexity of whole biological mammalian systems cannot always be replicated using validated non-animal methodologies. That is especially the case where human medicines are developed.
The Minister is being generous, and he will want to make progress. An example of a drug that went through extensive animal testing through the established processes is thalidomide. Animal testing is not infallible. We have discovered subsequently that some drugs that have been through established animal testing can be repurposed. We have now discovered that it is an extremely effective drug against leprosy and other conditions. There is rightfully scepticism about statements that animal testing will ensure that drugs are completely safe, because that is not the case.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am not suggesting that the current system is 100% perfect at all. In fact, I made it clear in my earlier comments that, often, animal models are not perfect predictors—he is right to say that. But it is equally the case that, without the animal models, an awful lot of drugs would be taken forward into humans with hugely damaging side effects and no benefits. The point is not that once something has been through animal testing it is a perfect drug. Going through animal testing prevents exposing humans to potential drugs that are simply unsafe. It is not perfect, but that is the situation. He is right to point out that animal testing itself is not a guarantor of efficacy.
The truth, sadly, is that without testing of medicines using animals at the moment, we would not know whether medicines are safe or effective for use in humans or animals, and that would limit the availability of medicines to treat disease and of chemicals that could be used for a wide range of purposes in many industries. There is a human health and safety part to this. In order to protect workers in the chemical and agricultural industries, we need to ensure that we understand any toxicity of those chemicals before they are used. Without the testing of chemicals on animals, where no alternative methodologies are available, we would not know what hazards they present. Many products that are not safe in humans or the environment are detected through animal testing, thus avoiding harm downstream.
I thank the Minister for giving way. None of us would disagree that we want to keep humans safe, but a lot of people have concerns about the repetition of unnecessary tests, and about Constant, ongoing testing for chemicals, cosmetics and such. It would be great if the Minister could address that issue.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point, which I will come on to. Animal testing is required by all global medicines regulators. I want to be clear that this is not a UK phenomenon, but it does include the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, which is widely held to be setting the global benchmark, not least in vaccine discovery. Animal testing of chemicals is sometimes required under UK law, often relating to the quantity manufactured to protect the safety of workers exposed to those materials in large amounts and the environment when chemicals may find their way into the waterways, soil or atmosphere. All testing of chemicals on animals under REACH, the EU regulation on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, is subject to the “last resort” principle, which means the manufacturer must always—it is a legal duty—consider alternative approaches first and, in some cases, secure the agreement of the regulator before proceeding.
In order to obtain these benefits that accrue, it is necessary to exempt such animals from the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and put in place specific protections for them in a dedicated Act. A number of colleagues raised the question of why this is not covered by the 2006 Act. It is actually the other way round. We have specifically put the use of animals in research into their own legal framework under the dedicated Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, known as ASPA, which, as I say, is the responsibility of the Home Office. The underpinning principle of ASPA is to protect animals which are sentient, in terms of their capacity to experience pain, suffering and distress. Therefore, protection of animals on the basis of their sentience is the very principle established in the legal framework.
ASPA protects animals in a number of ways. It requires a three-tier system of licensing for individuals conducting procedures on animals, the programme of work that will use animals and the place where animals will be used. Licence holders are required to undergo training and a competency assessment, and to have legal responsibilities to have systems in place to protect animals, in compliance with ASPA. Licences are granted only if the scientific purpose is permissible under the law and the research is conducted in line with the three Rs. That means work can be conducted in animals only if there are no alternatives, the minimum number of animals are to be used to meet the scientific objectives, and the level of harm caused must be limited to the minimum needed to achieve the approved scientific outcome. Thus, it is illegal in the UK to use an animal in science if the scientific objective can be practicably met using a validated non-animal alternative.
ASPA requires that all animals need to be housed and cared for in accordance with the code of practice published for this purpose. The regulator enforcing the Act operates a system to assure compliance of licence holders with the Act and the conditions of their licence, including inspection, audit, review of reports and managing cases of potential non-compliance. Under ASPA any testing required by another UK regulator is permissible. The requirement for such testing is set by the relevant expert regulator, such as the MHRA or the Health and Safety Executive.
With regard to testing of cosmetics, animal testing has been banned in the UK since 1998, and it is illegal to test cosmetic products or their ingredients on animals to meet the requirements of the 2009 regulations for cosmetics. However, ingredients used in cosmetics may require animal testing under other legislation, including REACH, for example to assess the safety of workers in manufacturing plants. Such testing can be lawful in the UK and is not in conflict with the bans under the cosmetics regulations. Under UK regulations to protect the environment and workers from the risks of chemicals, animal testing can be permitted under REACH where required by UK regulators. Again, however, such testing can be conducted only where there are no non-animal alternatives.
That brings me to the importance of the development of those alternatives, which, as the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, I am also committed to, because it is a huge sector for this country to lead in. In the report on post-Brexit opportunities that I wrote for the Prime Minister earlier this year, I argued that the UK should use our freedoms from the EU regulatory bloc to reach for the top and to regulate in these emerging areas of technology in order to build consumer and investor confidence. This is one of the areas where we could set the gold standard—we could set the benchmark for international groups to follow. That is why the Government actively support and fund the development and dissemination of the three Rs—replacement, reduction and refinement—programme. This is achieved primarily through funding for the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research—NC3Rs—which works nationally and internationally to drive the uptake of technologies and to ensure that advances are reflected in policy, practice and regulations on animal research.
It is fair to say that the NC3Rs is viewed as being world-leading. Since its launch in 2004, we have committed £100 million through its research, innovation and early career awards in order to provide new three-R approaches for scientists in academia and industry. I am delighted to say that the relevant research council has increased funding by another 8% in the last year. That includes almost £28 million in contracts through its CRACK IT Challenges innovation scheme to UK and EU-based institutions, mainly focusing on new approaches for the safety assessment of pharmaceuticals and chemicals.
I checked earlier today, and it is not fair to say that nothing has come of that work. There is a whole raft of very important incremental improvements, including the development of in silico models of cardiotoxicity with Professor Rodriguez and in vivo models of liver tox and kidney tox, as well as the development of virtual dog modelling as part of the £2.5 million programme for the digital dog, to substantially reduce dependence on dogs in research.
The NC3Rs and the MHRA work to bring together stakeholders in academia, industry, Government and animal welfare organisations in order to facilitate the exchange of information and ideas and the translation of research for the benefit of both animals and science. That has led to changes in international regulations, and the NC3Rs has just recently launched a new £2.6 million call for the development of the virtual dog, to draw together technologies across the country. Building on the work of the NC3Rs, UK Research and Innovation is also funding a portfolio of research involving humans, animal models and non-animal technologies.
As hon. Members have highlighted, breakthroughs in stem cell research, cell culture systems, lab-on-a-chip, organ-on-a-chip, new computer modelling and imaging technologies, and the place of AI all provide a powerful nexus for technological approaches that will reduce, and in due course eliminate, the need for us to rely on animal models, but we have to move at a pace at which we can guarantee human safety in the development of new drugs. In 2015, the non-animal technologies road map for the UK was published by Innovate UK and the NC3Rs, in partnership with the research councils and the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. The NC3Rs and Innovate UK are currently reviewing the impacts of the investments that were made—a review in which I will be taking a keen and close interest.
In the time available, let me try to respond to some of the specific questions that were raised. The hon. Member for Easington raised the statistics on the number of experiments, but the number of experiments is not the same thing as the number of animals. One of the metrics that we are driving is to reduce the number of animals used—I just wanted to flag the difference between those two.
Animal sentience is already enshrined in law. It is a very important principle, which is precisely why we have a separate legal framework.
Various Members asked why we are not doing more to promote alternatives. I want to highlight that the existing law prevents the testing of animals, if there are alternatives. I am keen to make that very clear and to ensure that the whole industry understands that obligation.
The hon. Member for Easington raised the issue of the failure of medicines in humans, which I have tried to address. Nobody is suggesting that the use of animals is a guarantor of efficacy and safety in humans, but it is an important barrier to the unnecessary exposure of humans to unsafe medicines. I agree with him that we need to move as quickly as possible to find alternative ways to do that.
A number of colleagues mentioned the statistic that 90% of animal experiments fail. That is the same point, really. If “failing” means that those experiments do not perfectly predict efficacy and safety in humans, that is true, but the point is the other way around: those experiments are done to make sure that those things we know will not work in humans are prevented from going near humans. They are not the definitive and final test. The hon. Member for Putney mentioned that work is being done to improve the predictive quality of animal tests, which is a really important point, and we need to continue to manage that work. International bodies such as the OECD and the International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use are working on that issue, but following this debate I will be asking for reports on what progress has been made. I will be happy to share that information with colleagues who are here today.
Colleagues asked whether the funding for human-based research has been increased. The £100 million figure is over 10 years. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has increased that figure by 8% for this year, and I assure Members that, following the comprehensive spending review, I will be looking to make sure that number is not reduced and, if possible, is increased. That is important, primarily for animal welfare and trust in research, but also because moving away from unnecessary and avoidable animal experiments and towards more accurate models as quickly as possible is good for UK life science, research and drug discovery. The hon. Member for Putney raised the issue of the balance between animal and non-animal testing, and I reiterate that using animals is allowed only where there are no non-animal alternatives.
Colleagues raised the issue of animal testing establishments breaking the law. There is a very robust system of licensing and inspection of such establishments, and any non-compliance is appropriately dealt with through a range of remedies, which start with advice, letters of reprimand and retraining, but ultimately lead to fines and prosecutions. I reassure Members that, from my point of view, any evidence of malpractice needs to be treated with the very highest degree of urgency, because public trust in this system is absolutely key.
The hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran raised the issue of botulinum. To reassure the public, that was only the case for botulinum as a registered medicine being tested before it goes into humans. The issue of force feeding—which is a controversial term—was raised. I have checked the reason for that, and it is about making sure that the correct dose is administered, but again, the point is well made: we need to make sure that is being done in the most humane and sentient-friendly way. The hon. Lady also raised a question about the tightening of regulations. Those regulations are always being reviewed. This year the Home Office commenced a regulatory reform programme to ensure that leading regulatory practice is followed, and again, following this debate, I will be asking for an update about what improvements have been made. Finally, the hon. Lady raised the issue of tightening of regulations for cosmetics post-EU exit. We are now in the same position as the EU: testing on animals for cosmetic marketing is allowed only if no non-animal alternatives exist. The controversial case of Symrise is currently with the European Court of Justice.
In conclusion, some excellent points have been raised today. I will not repeat them all; I think I have set them out. I will be raising them with the Home Secretary and the Home Office, and while I do not believe we are yet at the point where we can completely move away from reliance on animals, I make it very clear that we need to move faster. We need to reiterate to the public that that is our intent, and that we have a duty of care and a commitment to better drug discovery. I believe deeply that genomics, phenotypics and data are key to that, and I hope all Opposition Members will join me in making the case for better use of data in the NHS to support drug discovery, because that is a key argument that is often not made. I am very happy to accept the challenge of providing a personal guarantee to the hon. Member for Newport West that, as Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, I will make every effort to avoid all unnecessary suffering.
On behalf of the Petitions Committee, which scheduled today’s debate, I thank all Members for their attendance and their contributions. It has been a very well-informed debate and an extremely consensual one, and I am grateful for the tone in which the Minister responded. I am sure that I speak for the other Members present when I say that if there is anything we can do to assist him in accelerating the quiet revolution, we will be happy to do so, because with 3.4 million procedures taking place, that revolution needs to be turbo-charged. I remain of the view that animal testing should be banned, because it is cruel and ineffective.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petitions 581641 and 590216, relating to animal testing.