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Health: Animal Testing

Volume 730: debated on Tuesday 4 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to enable the appropriate use of animals in health-related research.

My Lords, the coalition Government are committed to work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research through a science-led programme led by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. Stringent safeguards are in place to ensure that animals are used only where there is no other way of achieving the desired results.

I thank the Minister for that helpful reply and in so doing declare an interest as the chairman of the Association of Medical Research Charities, whose members contribute over £1 billion a year to UK medical research. I wonder whether my noble friend agrees that if the UK wishes to remain a world leader in health and medical research, it requires its scientists to have access to good animal models that are well regulated and well cared for. If he agrees, what steps will he or the Government take on campaigns such as those led by Animal Aid, which tend to persuade the public that you can go straight to human trials rather than trial new devices and products through using animals? That is quite wrong and could be incredibly dangerous to the health of our research base.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his underlining of the fact that there have been some misleading claims put out by organisations such as those he referred to. We obviously want to avoid using animals wherever possible but I think we all accept that if we want the National Health Service and modern medicine as a whole to function effectively, it is essential that we can test on animals and that we make sure that the availability of medicines and treatments has been developed or validated through research, with the appropriate use of animals where it is right to do so. Again, I am grateful to my noble friend for what he has had to say.

In the light of inevitable budgetary constraints, can the Minister tell the House what steps his department and the Government generally are taking to ensure that there will be adequate levels of inspection and regulation for animals used in scientific procedures? In answering that question, can he confirm whether his department is already planning an overall reduction in staffing to that end?

Again, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that question. I am new to the department but in terms of the briefing I have received, I am satisfied that there is appropriate testing and licensing of the place where animal testing goes on, the people who do it and the projects involved. It is important that all three—place, person and project—are tested, examined and licensed appropriately to make sure that there is proper and appropriate use of animals in that case.

Does my noble friend consider that the present scope for medical research being undertaken by a single body, as seems to be proposed—I hope that it will ultimately come forward as a proposition—is a suitable occasion for reconsidering the arrangements for embryology involving animal and human embryos?

My Lords, I would not want to be drawn down into the whole discussion about embryo research at this stage but I note what my noble and learned friend has to say. At the moment, the Home Office licenses research into animals in these matters and it does that job very well. As I made clear in earlier answers, the important thing is that we check up and license the persons, the places and the projects involved.

My Lords, following the direction of questioning from my noble friend Lord Willis, what encouragement are the Government giving to public bodies in receipt of public funds for medical research to engage in educating the public on these matters? That is very important.

The noble Lord’s question says it in itself: the important thing is to get the message over to the public that it is very necessary that we do animal research where it is appropriate and that we make the proper leaps forward as are necessary. The Government will do their bit but we hope that everyone in the world of academe, the universities and elsewhere, will do their bit to make it clear that we will do what is necessary and that necessary research is being done.

The new EU directive controlling animal experimentation sets standards for laboratory animals which are significantly lower than those that we have presently in the UK. Can the Minister confirm that when it is implemented in the UK our high standards for laboratory animals will not be dropped, given the impact that that would have on animal welfare, on science and on public confidence in scientific experimentation?

I can give an absolute and categorical assurance that we will not be dropping our standards in any way whatever.

My Lords, is it not clear that if we want to maintain the very highest levels of medical and scientific research in the United Kingdom—levels which are endorsed by the World Health Organisation, among others—we must continue with properly regulated but available animal research? I compliment the noble Lord, Lord Willis, for raising this question. If the National Institute for Medical Research, Cancer Research UK and others are to maintain the very highest level of research to the benefit of everyone, not just in the United Kingdom but internationally, this work must continue.

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord speaks for the entire House. I endorse what he and my noble friend Lord Willis have said, along with others. We must continue to maintain the highest standards, both in terms of the licensing we do here and in making sure that we continue with research at the level that we do.

I am sure the Minister is aware that the Academy of Medical Sciences produced a report on research on animals containing human material, which is an important part of research, and asked the Government to consider setting up a national body to regulate research on animals containing human material. Would he like to comment?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for those remarks. That is something that we will be looking at in due course. I cannot comment at this stage.

My Lords, the committee set up by this House some years ago on the use of animals in scientific procedures observed, among other things, that the most bureaucratic controls are not necessarily the best controls of animal procedures, and there was some suggestion that there was too much bureaucratic control. Can the Government assure us that steps have been taken by the Home Office to make their procedures less bureaucratic?

My Lords, I hope that they are not over-bureaucratic. As I have said, it is important that we look at and license three aspects: one, the place; two, the person; and three, the project. We will continue to do that as is appropriate. Obviously we will make sure that we are not imposing excessive burdens on any project as and when it should happen. We also want to make sure that the proper research continues in the appropriate manner.