Skip to main content

Medical Research

Volume 736: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2012


Asked by

Lord Taverne to ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the refusal of some ferry companies and airlines to carry live animals for medical research, what steps they are taking to protect such research.

My Lords, the Government have been actively working with the life sciences community and the transportation sector to broker a commercial solution to provide a sustainable and resilient supply chain. A cross-Whitehall group has been working since January, under the guidance of the Cabinet Office, driving this work forward and exploring shorter term contingency measures which the life sciences sector would be able to initiate itself if necessary.

The Government understand the position of the transportation sector and will continue working to secure a way forward that ensures the highest standards in animal transportation and the continuing success of scientific research in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, it is obvious that the Government and the companies face a very difficult problem. It is a very serious matter because it is not only a threat to very important research but it is a threat to democracy. If a tiny minority—in defiance of the overwhelming agreement of the public that properly regulated animal research is acceptable—forces major companies to yield to its threats, then it is a triumph for terrorism. Will the Government stress, in their negotiations with the companies, that they too have a social responsibility to play a role in protecting us from terrorism?

My noble friend is absolutely right. The Government are working closely with the sector as a whole, as well as with individual operators. We fully understand the need to have a sector-wide solution which provides resilience and diversity.

Will my noble friend give assurances about the checks that are made when live animals are exported to be killed abroad or for research? Do they have adequate ventilation? Are they being given water? How long are the maximum journeys? How is this being monitored?

My Lords, my noble friend asks a very important question. Inspectors from the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency inspect all transport operators and vehicles wishing to transport animals for commercial purposes. Once they are content, they issue an authorisation to the relevant company. This is in accordance with the transport of animals regulations. Home Office inspectors visit UK-based establishments that use, breed or supply the animals. Any welfare problems experienced by animals during transit are recorded by the receiving establishment and would be followed up, as necessary, by Home Office inspectors.

My Lords, does the Minister agree on two points? First that, as he said earlier, a sector-specific solution to this problem is essential, so that these companies cannot be picked off by militant animal rights organisations? Does he also agree that, unless we find a solution to this problem, our own excellent medical research and pharmaceutical companies will suffer from anti-competitive practices because they will not be able to flourish in the way that our competitors on the other side of the channel do?

My Lords, I am very happy to say that I strongly agree with the noble Baroness on both points. The use of animals in research remains essential to developing new treatments and drugs, improving our understanding of disease and proving the safety and effectiveness of drugs and chemicals before they go forward for human trials.

My Lords, I know, from my time as chair of Cancer Research UK, of the importance of animal research for human and animal health in the future and of the high standards that exist in this country—but not all over the world—in the use of those animals. Will the Government continue to give a lead, concertedly, across the board, to companies and to researchers, so that we will not be intimidated from doing work that is of huge value to this country and its citizens?

I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for making that point. I absolutely agree with her. The Government’s strategy for UK life sciences sets out our ambition for the UK to become the global hub for life sciences, bringing together business, researchers, clinicians and patients to translate discovery into real benefits for us all.

My Lords, in relation to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, would my noble friend also recognise that there are great problems across Europe in relation to the export of live horses for slaughter under the most appalling conditions? Will he pursue that matter as far as possible in the European context?

My Lords, may I ask the Minister about NC3Rs? It was set up by the previous Government to engage in research that reduces the number of animals in research, and replaces them. It works very closely with, and funds, academic institutions and the scientific community, and also collaborates closely with industry. It does great work. Will the Minister ensure that the funding that comes from the Government for it will continue, and if not continue, increase?

My Lords, I echo the noble Lord’s compliments to the organisation. I am certainly not aware that there is any plan to change its funding. If there is, I will let him know.