Monday 7 February 2022
[Mark Pritchard in the Chair]
Laboratory Animals: Animal Welfare Act
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 591775, relating to laboratory animals and the Animal Welfare Act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. This petition closed on 20 January and attracted more than 110,000 signatures, including 139 from my constituency. Leading this debate today fills me with a sense of déjà vu. Just over three months ago, I led a debate in which this House considered two petitions relating to animal testing. One called for all animal testing in the UK to be banned and the other for a phasing out of animal experiments. In that debate, I quoted an early scholar of jurisprudence, Jeremy Bentham, who said,
“Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”
Here I stand again, repeating the very same question that has been brought to the fore by this petition, which calls for legislation to include laboratory animals in the Animal Welfare Act 2006.
To give some background, I must point out that the Animal Welfare Act is 16 years old. Within it is an unnecessary suffering clause, which sets out the criteria for an offence to be committed. It includes the principle that any action—or indeed failure to take action—that results in animal suffering must be against a protected animal. The petition highlights that laboratory animals are not protected by the 2006 Act and are therefore victims of unnecessary suffering.
While I acknowledge that there remains a need for animal testing in some areas of medicine, current legislation negates any need to urgently move away from unnecessary procedures or experiments. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government need to apply greater pressure for alternative methods to be used?
I thank the hon. Member for making that point. The fact that we know that 90% of animal experiments do not bring any real benefit tells us that we need to move very quickly in the opposite direction. I would favour a full ban on animal experimentation, because we could be better using the alternatives.
It strikes me as unbelievable that, in this nation of professed animal lovers, laboratory animals are categorically excluded from the 2006 Act. We must not forget that that includes dogs and cats, who many of us take into our homes to love and care for and who enrich our lives. Therefore, by default, the 2006 Act endorses laboratory animals undergoing what can only be deemed as necessary suffering.
The Government response to the petition confirms that. It states:
“There is an explicit exclusion under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 (AWA), to provide for the legitimate conduct of procedures on ‘protected animals’ for scientific or educational purposes that may cause pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm.”
In other words, the 2006 Act legalises, for example, the daily force feeding of chemicals directly into the stomachs of factory farmed puppies without pain relief or anaesthetic. Will the Minister enlighten us about the scientific or educational purpose fulfilled by that particular procedure?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend’s points. Beagle puppies are no less sentient than any other animal. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is horrendous that, in this day and age, the beagles are also used for their blood and reportedly have plasma drained from them while still alive, causing unnecessary suffering?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s comments. I will come on to that shortly. It is an absolutely abhorrent practice.
More importantly, perhaps the Minister can give reasons to assist us all in understanding why this procedure, which is classified as mild suffering under Home Office licensing, cannot be replaced with human-based research.
At this point, I will say a few words about the man who started the petition, Peter Egan, who hoped to be here with us but had to tend to an animal care event at home; I am sure we all extend our best wishes for a positive outcome. Many will be familiar with Peter as an excellent actor who is well known for bringing characters to life on our television screens. What may be less well known is that Peter is also the patron of the science-based campaign, For Life On Earth.
I met Peter and the For Life On Earth founder and director, Louise Owen, ahead of the debate, and Peter informed me of the abject horror he and others experienced while visiting a foie gras farm in France. For the sake of clarity, foie gras is defined as the liver of a duck or goose, fattened by force-feeding. I certainly do not want to stand accused of speciesism, but I can only imagine the compounding horror that force-feeding puppies would generate. That is why we all need to know what reasons can justify such acts. How can such acts be acceptable to a Government who rightly acknowledge that animals can experience feelings and sensations, and are in fact currently legislating to recognise that in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill?
This is an appropriate juncture to raise early-day motion 175, on a public scientific hearing on animal experiments, tabled last June by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) and supported by 104 cross-party Members. It is relevant to note that the EDM was remarked on by myself and others during the October debate. It commends the introduction of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which will enshrine in law that animals can experience feelings and sensations. It also highlights that legislation’s connection with For Life On Earth’s revelation that intensive breeding of laboratory dogs was taking place in the UK, and noted
“that scientists in the wider scientific community, outside the animal-based research sector, openly acknowledge the failure of animal testing in the search for human treatments and cures”.
I thank the hon. Member for being so generous in giving way a second time. Gene-based medicine is a rapidly developing science that allows treatment to be completely personalised based on a patient’s DNA. That could not be replicated through animal experimentation. Does the hon. Member agree that this kind of medical science must be prioritised when it comes to research, to avoid unnecessary harm to animals?
I agree entirely. That form of medicine is better not only for animals but for humans as well.
Consequently, early-day motion 175 called on the Government to urgently
“mandate a rigorous public scientific hearing, judged by independent experts from the relevant science fields, to stop the funding of the now proven failed practice of animal experimentation and increase funding for state-of-the-art human-based research, such as human-on-a-chip and gene-based medicine, to prioritise treatments and cures for human patients and stop the suffering of laboratory dogs and other animals.”
I hope this is not viewed as a separate matter, because it is undoubtedly related. After all, the UK remains the top user of primates and dogs in experiments in Europe. The petition reminds us that a recent exposé showed harrowing footage of the factory farming of laboratory dogs in the UK. Statistics for 2020 reveal that 4,320 procedures were carried out on dogs, and of these, 4,270 procedures were carried out on beagles, the preferred breed for experiments due to their size, docility and submissive nature, meaning that they take less effort and expense to house and are easy to experiment on. In other words, they are easy prey.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being |extremely generous. Does he agree with me and those in the all-party parliamentary dog advisory welfare group that we really must find the time and place for this scientific hearing? There are alternatives, and those who engage in the experiments should not shy away from a scientific hearing, because we will hear from the experts who can take this issue forward. Surely the Government should also support an urgent scientific hearing as a way forward.
My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Why should we be frightened of a fact-based approach? As well as repeated forced feeding, they are forced to inhale substances for between 28 and 90 days to measure the effects of repeat exposure on the liver, kidneys, lungs, heart and nervous system.
Some animals are also bred to be bled, as has been mentioned previously, with a facility granted permission to drain them of their blood so that it can be sold to customers for the benefit of biomedical science. Guidelines state that blood in studies must be as fresh as possible—meaning that it is taken from a living donor. Despite having a tube down their throats to aid breathing, the pups are often given no sedation or anaesthetic while they are bled, as this provides the customers with advantageous drug-free blood.
In 2017, 1.81 million non-genetically altered animals that were bred for scientific procedures were killed or died without being used in procedures—shocking. I would share in the petitioner’s gratitude if the Minister will provide an update on the petition’s request for a rigorous, public, scientific hearing to take place.
The Government’s response to the petition goes on:
“The use of animals in scientific research remains a vital tool in improving our understanding of how biological systems work both in health and disease. Such use is crucial for the development of new medicines and cutting-edge medical technologies for both humans and animals, and for the protection of our environment.”
I disagree with that, as there is nigh on 20 years of scientific evidence demonstrating the medical failures of animal testing. It is evidence that comes from The BMJ, the National Cancer Institute and ScienceDirect, which is said to be the world-leading source for scientific, technical and medical research. Indeed, when ScienceDirect asked if it was time to rethink our current approach, over two years ago, it cited the questioning of animal models’ reliability in predicting human responses as far back as 1962. Yes—60 years ago. Are the Government just not listening? Perhaps the Minister will explain to us why that long-standing, peer reviewed and reputable scientific research is being ignored.
The Government response goes on to say:
“The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA) is the specific piece of legislation which provides protection for these animals… No animals may be used under ASPA if there is a validated non-animal alternative that would achieve the scientific outcomes sought.”
I feel a sense of déjà vu, again. ASPA is 36 years old, yet it is repeatedly referred to in Government responses relating to matters around animal testing. It seems that the Government are not actually listening, because so-called
“non-animal alternatives that would achieve the scientific outcomes sought”
have been brought to their attention many times before. As I have just mentioned, scientists have been challenging the reliability of animal testing predicting human responses for decades.
Here are just a few recent occurrences of non-animal alternatives being brought to this Government’s attention: they were highlighted in the animal testing debate that took place last October; they were featured in the animal testing debate that took place last December; and they were raised in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill debate that took place on 18 January this year. In last month’s debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) remarked that there are areas of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill that the SNP believes must be strengthened. Conspicuously, one of those areas is scientific procedures involving animals.
It is mind-boggling that despite clear acknowledgment from the UK Government that animals can experience feelings and sensations, despite them introducing “landmark legislation” that will recognise animals as sentient beings in UK law and despite them establishing an expert committee to ensure that animal sentience is considered as part of policy making, the UK Government still “others” laboratory animals as if they are unaware, unperceptive, and unconscious to harrowing experimentation. It is also mind-boggling that laboratory animals are not only excluded from the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill that is currently in Committee, but also by outdated legislation that ignores them. In fact, it sanctions the otherwise illegal act of experimenting on protected animals and causing them, as set out in the regulated procedures of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986,
“a level of pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm equivalent to, or higher than, that caused by the introduction of a needle in accordance with good veterinary practice”.
Of course, the reality of animal experimentation is far more severe than what is described in the regulated procedures of the 1986 Act. Take, for example, the hideous procedures I have already mentioned, or the legislation classifying the force-feeding of factory-farmed puppies as “mild suffering”. Indeed, in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill debate on 18 January, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith highlighted that, legally, laboratory animals can be:
“poisoned with toxic chemicals, shot, irradiated, gassed, blown up, drowned, stabbed, burned, starved, or restrained to the point at which they develop ulcers or heart failure. They can have their bones broken or their limbs amputated. They can be subject to inescapable electric shocks, driven to depression, deprived of sleep to the point of brain damage, or infected with diseases.”—[Official Report, 18 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 252.]
Section 24 of the 1986 Act makes it a criminal offence for information on what goes on behind closed doors at UK animal testing sites to be disclosed. As the law blocks access to information about the treatment of animals during experiments, it is currently shrouded in secrecy.
Related to these appalling occurrences, I was contacted by the Naturewatch Foundation ahead of today’s debate. On its behalf, I will take this opportunity to highlight that the Animals in Science Regulation Unit has not publicly published an annual report since 2018. Those reports are important sources of information about non-compliance, and often indicate where animal welfare issues have been detected. Will the Minister commit to releasing the 2019 and 2020 reports without delay, and to releasing the 2021 report within the first half of this year?
In these times of advanced medical knowledge and gene-based medicine, the Government believe the outdated 1986 Act provides specific protection for laboratory animals. Indeed, as well as the Government referring to it as such in their response to this petition, the Ministerial response to the October animal testing debate said of this legislation:
“protection of animals on the basis of their sentience is the very principle established in the legal framework.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 43WH.]
I am sure I will be corrected if I have misinterpreted, but I understand that the petitioners do not agree with that appraisal. They would instead argue that this legislation is the means to causing unnecessary suffering of animals because, in effect, it legalises experimentation on protected animals.
However, it is not just the animals that this archaic legislation framework is failing. The petition reminds us that
“Experiments on such dogs, and other animals, are today widely reported to be entirely failing the search for human treatments and cures.”
Currently, there is enough evidence showing that there are better, more accurate and humane methods than resorting to animal testing.
For example, in 2020, in response to UK Government statistics showing no meaningful decline in UK animal experiments in a decade, despite a Government pledge, Humane Society International UK’s biomedical science advisor, Dr Lindsay Marshall, who managed a laboratory dedicated to animal-free research into respiratory diseases for 12 years, said:
“The UK cannot expect to have world-leading science innovation whilst we rely on failing animal-based research methods that are rooted in the past. In drug discovery, pharmaceutical safety, chemical testing, cancer research, the data shows that animal models are really bad at telling us what will happen in a human body. As well as sometimes being dangerously misleading, animal approaches typically take a really long time to produce results, sometimes years, are very expensive, and of course cause enormous animal suffering. As the UK leaves the EU and competes with countries like the USA that are taking bold strides towards animal-free science, we urge the government to radically update its 2010 research policy to focus on replacing animal procedures in science. Incentivising researchers to adopt new approaches is as easy as redirecting public research funding towards cutting-edge non-animal techniques based on human biology.”
I would wholeheartedly agree with those views.
The Government’s response to this petition concludes that they have
“no plans to amend the Animal Welfare Act (2006)”
even though, in this technological age, we have exceptionally accurate non-animal research methods, which can more effectively develop human therapies. That is simply wrong-headed.
Five years ago, the Dutch Government announced plans to phase out animal use for chemical safety testing by 2025, and they are well on track to achieve that goal. In September 2019, the United States Environmental Protection Agency pledged to “aggressively” reduce animal testing, including by removing requirements and funding for experiments on mammals by 2035. Belgium’s Brussels-Capital Region effectively banned animal testing on cats, dogs and primates from 2020. By January 2025, it will also ban animal use in education and safety testing unless it is deemed absolutely necessary.
However, Home Office data show that the total number of procedures involving specially protected species—dogs, cats, horses and primates—in Great Britain has increased over the last decade from 16,000 in 2011 to 18,000 in 2020. That is the case even though developments in evolutionary and developmental biology and genetics have significantly increased scientists’ understanding of why animals have no predictive value for the human response to drugs or the pathophysiology of human diseases.
I have asked this before and I will ask it again today. 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? They can do that by changing the law to include laboratory animals in the Animal Welfare Act. It is not too late to right this wrong. I urge the Government to seize this chance and avoid being judged by posterity to have missed a golden opportunity to end a failed practice. I hope the Minister will agree that, for a nation of animal lovers, denying laboratory animals their rights is wrong and immoral. I politely request and hope that I am not subjected to the same feeling of déjà vu in a few months’ time if no further progress has been made.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for his very powerful opening speech.
This is a very important debate on the welfare of animals subject to research. In preparing my comments for today’s debate, I looked into the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and its definition of unnecessary suffering and what the guidance is in relation to people who are taken to court for that, and into the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986—ASPA—and the way it regulates research on laboratory animals around the three R’s of replacement, reduction and refinement, and the cost-benefit analysis. I was going to prepare a speech looking at those two different frameworks, the pros and cons, and utilitarian-based ethics around necessary suffering and so on, but it strikes me that the core title of this petition is very much not about the specific frameworks by which research on animals takes place, but rather about whether there should, can or could be animal research full stop and the justification for animal research in its entirety, through whatever regulatory framework is put in place to minimise animal suffering. It is on those points and the more existential question, “Should we have animal research or not?”, that I will focus.
I wish—I think we all wish—that we did not need animal research. And of course, when it takes place, we want to avoid all animal suffering if at all possible. I do not think anyone in this room wants animals to suffer. But the sad truth is that we need animal research. There are situations in which it is essential and in which its likely benefit is clear. In terms of justifying it, I will focus on two areas, the first of which is research for human benefit. I do think there is evidence to show that animal research is very important, particularly in transgenic animals, in looking at disease models for diseases such as Alzheimer’s and in the development of new drugs.
I can give a topical example from a few weeks ago: I think we will all have seen the story about the person who got a transgenic heart from a pig. It would not be possible to develop transgenic animals for organs for human transplantation without research into animals. I cannot see the future of medicine, particularly the exciting stuff such as xenotransplantation to treat diseases, without the use of experiments on animals.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way that he has approached the debate. He clearly wants to look at the evidence base, which is incredibly powerful and important. Does he agree, however, that to get to the bottom of whether the alternatives are sufficient in today’s world, a scientific hearing of expert opinion is called for? That is something that we in this House should all support to move forward.
I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks. The issue is not the general principle but the specifics. As with the example of xenotransplantation that I just gave, one can produce lots of specific examples in which the cost-benefit analysis under the ASPA is probably justified. I am sure that there are lots of specific examples—including the harrowing examples I heard from the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk—where, at face value, I might wonder, “How on earth can that be justified?” The argument is more about how the ASPA operates as opposed to whether it should or should not exist. That system should be properly enforced and enable proper scrutiny of decisions based on the cost-benefit analysis for specific research programmes.
The need for animal research is not limited just to human disease. I will give an example that is close to my heart: the Animal and Plant Health Agency. Its headquarters are in my constituency and are known as the Weybridge research site even though, ironically, they are actually situated in New Haw. It is worth looking at what the APHA is doing. It published data on the animal research that it does. It has 32 badgers, which are used to look into the control of tuberculosis; 724 cattle, which are used for research into foot and mouth disease, among other things, to benefit global animal health; 439 domestic foul, the majority of which are used for avian influenza programmes; 69 ferrets to look into avian influenza and covid-19; 221 pigs, again to look at foot and mouth; and 65 sheep and goats to work on parasitology, to protect animal health.
Some of that research is directly beneficial to tackling disease in animals. It is worth remembering the impact that those diseases have on animals. I am sure that many people in this room remember when, in 2001—I was in my early 20s—6 million cows and sheep were culled to give protection from disease during the foot and mouth outbreak. More recently, 15 million mink were culled in Denmark in response to the covid pandemic. When that news came out a couple of years ago, I found it very upsetting. Anyone who knows animals from the Mustelidae family—weasels, otters and ferrets—knows that they are not stupid creatures. They are amazing, highly intelligent animals. Fifteen million are gone, just like that, because of the covid pandemic.
If we are going to take a utilitarian ethics argument, the research done into animal health, and the numbers of animals that research involves, are a drop in the ocean compared with the number of animals who are suffering, who have suffered, or who I worry will suffer, because of animal diseases. Without the ability to do animal research that is correctly regulated with strong welfare protections, we are doing animals a disservice in terms of their future health and the prevention of disease.
Although we all want to live in a world in which animal research is not needed, and we all want to improve animal welfare, the sad truth is that we need that research. I believe that the ASPA provides strong and robust animal protections, and I disagree that we should scrap it and move into a non-animal research world.
I said that there is one caveat. I was persuaded by some of the opening remarks, particularly when it comes to certain types of animals. I think stronger arguments can be made in the case of primates and great apes—chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. For a long time I have believed they should have protections above other animals, and I would support calls for a sliding-scale approach to animals. I would have stronger protections for primates and great apes in animal research, and also in general welfare.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, for what I think is the first time. I thank the Petitions Committee for tabling today’s petition debate. Indeed, 176 petitioners came from my constituency.
As we debate the petition, we must remember that the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill is currently working its way through the House of Commons, after having successfully made its way through the House of Lords, in recognition of the importance of animal sentience, including that of all vertebrates, cephalopod molluscs and decapod crustaceans. The Bill will mean that a committee will produce a report on the impact of Government policy, and the Government will in turn respond to said report, adding another layer of protection to safeguard the interests of animals. It will be interesting to hear from the Minister how that will intersect with the current protections around laboratory research.
We have heard shocking stories today about the welfare of animals. When researching for this debate, I, too, came across those stories. We recognise there is a loophole that we must address in the Animal Welfare Act when it comes to scientific research for medicine and veterinary care. We must ensure that there is a comprehensive framework.
Although significant work was undertaken through the three R’s strategy to replace, reduce and refine research, it is truly shocking that there were 3.4 million experiments in 2019. In 2020, it dropped to 2.8 million because of the pandemic, but there have been experiments on dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, ferrets, rats, monkeys, goats, sheep, mice, chickens and fish, and we have heard so much more. Of those experiments, 100,000 caused pain—50,000 caused severe pain—and that is something that we as parliamentarians must be mindful of in this debate.
We must also remember that 92% of experiments are unsuccessful. In addition, 1.8 million laboratory animals are bred and then killed each year without experimentation because they are deemed to be surplus. So 5.2 million animals are experimented on and killed. Plus there is the 10.7 million in the European Union and the massively underestimated 800,000 in the United States. In the global scientific community, we have to work closer together.
In parallel, the investment and focus on non-animal testing practices through the UK road map means that sophisticated science can steer us away from animal experimentation, so we do not have to continue on the path that we have journeyed on to date. We need to pivot to the new world of science that is developing at such a rapid pace.
Turning to the stats again, if 1.8 million animals are not used, and 92% of experiments fail to translate, of the 3.4 million, we already see a total of 4,928,000 animals adding nothing to research now, and just 272,000 offering some insight, but often experiments are repeated multiple times, so that, too, could be cut immediately.
Worse is the dependency of science on these dead ends, because it wastes valuable time and resources and does not find the cures that we are desperate to find. For the scientific benefit that it brings, it takes us down lost roads, which is why we need to pivot to the new scientific age of the technologies that are available to us—3D technology, cell-level technologies, advanced imaging, and the new scientific methodologies being developed for the new research techniques. Investing in those for the longer term will not only bring resource into vital areas of research but enable us to develop the science to find the cures that will make a difference to people’s lives and, no doubt, to animals’ lives as well.
I doubt that anyone present wants to see a slowing in the advancement of medicine. Everyone sees the importance of accelerating medical research. For that reason, I make this case today. It is especially vital in the light of the slowing of research during covid. We know that vital scientists have left the field and that the medical research charities did not have the support that they needed. Therefore, we have seen the slowing of the science of many rare conditions, cancers and so much more. We need to accelerate the pace of that science and, as we do so, investment should be made in the technologies of the future, ensuring that our labs are well equipped and that the technology is there.
We want to be the country to lead the global community of science. This is our opportunity to pivot to the new world. We should also see this as a major export opportunity, an opportunity to attract the best global sciences and to ensure that we are leading in taking down so many barriers and advancing opportunities. This is not just about science, but about trade and about the geopolitical barriers that we want to push, as well as the medical barriers. We must do that by ending animal experiment, not least because of the waste of those animals’ lives, as I have pointed out. Overbreeding and failed pathways must end immediately.
Invest to save is the way forward, especially investing in the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research, using that cost saving to invest even more into medical research. Only £10 million each year over the next decade is too little for that institution, so I ask that we look at the comprehensive spending review coming up to pivot into the new technologies for the future.
Public opinion has moved too. We must recognise that. The response to this petition and others, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) pointed out, has shown that public opinion of course wants to find the cures and pharmaceutical products to make a difference, but wants to do so in the most humane way. We know that the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 needs strengthening and that the pathways out of animal experimentation need to be accelerated.
The Animal Welfare Act is now an ageing piece of legislation. We need to ensure that it is brought into the modern age, so that we are not talking behind the curtain about animal experimentation in cages, but bringing into the light what is happening, ensuring that we have animal welfare at heart while reducing the unnecessary cull of and cruelty to animals. The animals clearly suffer in such experimentation.
I therefore echo the calls to gather a scientific council to accelerate the pace of work on the new sciences, to open the eyes of Government and others to showcase what can be done without animals being part of the experimental pathway. This is a great opportunity not only to advance science, but to end the cruel practice of animal experimentation.
I had not intended to speak in this debate; I came to listen. In the light of some of the comments, however, I basically want to ask a question and to put down a caveat.
In the early 1980s, the splendid Bill Annett, who was the driving force behind the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments, prevailed on me to become the founding chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for FRAME. It was supported by Professor Michael Balls, an eminent professor at Nottingham University, whose work in the validation of alternatives is probably second to none. Michael went on to become the director of the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods.
The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 was taken through the House by, from memory, my right hon. Friend David Mellor, who paid a considerable personal price for his work on that piece of legislation. The Act, when it hit the statute book, was regarded as a benchmark for animals legislation. Well, rather a few years have gone by since then, Mr Pritchard. We thought we were on a roll, but it saddens me to say that far too little progress to validate alternative methods has been made since.
We all want to see zero use of animals in medicine, but for the foreseeable future it is clear that that is not going to happen, for a variety of reasons, including, as my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) said, because animals are used in experimentation during the creation of medicines for animals. Clearly, that is necessary for the foreseeable future.
I stand to be corrected, but I believe it is also still the case that the licensing of new medical products around the world depends upon the use of animals. Whether that is necessary or not is immaterial, in this context, as it is a fact. If someone wants a licence for a new pharmaceutical entity for use in Japan, the United States or Europe, it is a requirement that it has been tested on animals. Personally, I happen to believe that the science has by far overtaken that necessity. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) referred to work with genomics. It is infinitely more possible now to do in vitro rather than in vivo testing of pharmaceutical products, and we should be moving faster in that direction.
My caveat to those who say, “Ban it now,” is that if we do that, those tests will still have to take place internationally and we would be in danger—I do not think this is a spurious argument—of simply transferring the problem from A to B, and patting ourselves on the back, while finding that the animals are still being used in testing in other countries, under far worse conditions than they are treated in the United Kingdom. Whether we like it or not, the veterinary profession takes a clear view of the work of the named vets in pharmaceutical companies, and I have no reason to suppose that they are anything other than humane and responsible.
My question for the Minister is, how can we use the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, or other animal welfare legislation going through the House, to bring the process up to date, to advance progress towards the abolition of the use of animals in medical experiments and to do that in such a way that we can carry the international community with us? While a ban in the United Kingdom might make us feel good, it is not going to solve the problem. There has to be a global and, most certainly, a European solution, as well as a national one.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the many petitioners who have ensured that we are debating this important topic here in Westminster Hall. Like all those who speak in today’s debate or listen to it, I worry about the state of animal welfare. I hope this debate will help to advance scientific research without the needless suffering of sentient beings.
I have been contacted by a large number of constituents in Bath who are animal lovers. So often, people see themselves through the eyes of their pets. They see a friend, capable of affection, happiness and pain. It is upsetting for all those who love animals to learn that, in laboratories around the country, man’s best friends are subject to torturous experiments under the guise of public good. As we have already heard, beagles are tested because they are forgiving, rabbits because they are docile and mice because they are cost effective.
It is not the first time that I have been asked to attend a debate on animal welfare. What was once a minority has become a visible and audible majority, as we have heard today, with over three quarters of the public wanting an end to animal testing. The “necessary evil” justification is no longer publicly acceptable. We should put an end to this unnecessary injustice. When we were members of the EU, animal sentience was recognised in law. As we work with the Government to transfer this essential insight into UK law, we have the chance to continue, or even better, those animal welfare standards by moving towards banning laboratory experiments as quickly as possible. As I have said, banning laboratory experiments on those creatures is ethically and publicly favourable and is supported by scientists.
The regulatory requirements that animals be used before human trials is now 75 years old. Reviewing this and removing the needless suffering of animals will finally bring scientific research into the 21st century. I recognise what the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) has said—that we might ban it here, but we are still dependent on other countries where this is necessary—but setting an example is always a good way to move forward and take the global community with us.
This issue matters for other reasons as well. I have supported the roll-out of the covid vaccination, as everyone in this Chamber probably has, and we have supported it 100%. However, many people have refused the vaccine on grounds of animal testing. I understand their moral objections. For successful vaccine roll-outs now and for the future—whenever the next public health threat comes—it is important that we get as many people on board as possible, including animal lovers.
Covid-19 was a huge scientific challenge. Animal testing was deemed a necessary compromise. However, there is now much evidence to suggest the contrary. Animal-tested drugs have a 90% failure rate in human trials. The polio vaccine was delayed by decades due to inadequate testing on monkeys, as was treatment for HIV, whereas, human trials on diabetes and breast cancer have led to major scientific breakthroughs. The scientific outcomes from human trials far outweigh those of animal trials. Animal testing normalises cruelty. Its outcomes are negligible, and the tide of public opinion has turned against it.
Since our exit from the EU, animal welfare has been threatened by the current inadequacy of UK law, but I recognise that we are making our way through it, and I hope that we will make the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill as strong as possible. The Government must not water down animal rights; they must build them up—not merely through limiting biomedical testing but by banning live exports, regulating farming standards and accepting animal sentience. The moral and scientific case for tighter regulation of laboratory testing is glaringly obvious. It is time that the Government listened to increasing numbers of scientists and voters.
It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for leading such an important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee.
Many colleagues have already noted that Great Britain is avowedly a nation of animal lovers. It pains me that we are here once again to ask the very basics from our Government: to offer the same level of protection to laboratory animals as will be offered to all other animals in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill. As the Bill makes its way through Parliament, I welcome some of the changes it proposes: ensuring that we recognise animals as sentient beings and replacing the protections lost through the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
Perhaps we on the Opposition Benches should be flattered, as many of the promises made by the Government on animal welfare come directly from Labour’s animal welfare manifesto. However, the Government’s continued failures, and their delaying on animal rights, do not fill me with confidence that such measures will be implemented sufficiently. The matter raised by this petition is one such concern. In reply to the 110,000-signature-strong petition, the Minister’s Department outlined:
“The Government believes animal use for research remains important and The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA) provides specific protection for these animals.”
I would be grateful if the Minister explained the position, because if the Government are not willing to include measures to protect animals in laboratories in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, do they have any intention of reviewing the current rules on animal testing?
Sadly, the cruel treatment of animals within laboratories continues under the falsehood that ASPA provides adequate protection to animals. Under current legislation, the force-feeding of chemicals to dogs for up to 90 days without pain relief is considered “mild suffering”, and it accounts for 67% of all procedures on dogs. It seems completely hypocritical for Government policy to allow that high level of suffering to animals, while the Secretary of State claims:
“There is no place in this country for animal suffering”.
It is clear that we must set out an achievable and long-term timeframe for ceasing to permit severe animal suffering, as defined in UK legislation, with a long-term objective to phase out animal testing entirely, particularly when so many other methods to achieve the same or better results already exist, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and others highlighted very ably. Groundbreaking new methodologies include artificial intelligence, advanced human cells, tissue cultures, organ-on-a-chip and stem cell technologies.
In some trials, the use of human cells has been integral to the findings, due to the genetic differences of animals complicating our understanding of human disease. As activists such as Louise Owen, the founder of For Life on Earth and the Scarlett Beagle campaign, Ricky Gervais, Peter Egan and accomplished scientists worldwide have rightly highlighted, penicillin’s use for humans was delayed by a staggering 10 years because it had no effect on rabbits. The polio vaccine, as the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) highlighted, was delayed by even longer—for 40 years—because of erroneous, misleading experiments on monkeys.
The long, lamentable list continues; yet currently there simply needs to be no alternative in order for animal testing to be approved, rather than its needing to be the most effective or successful method of testing. Given the lack of sufficient Government funding for innovative trials without the use of animals, we are in a Catch-22 situation. Setting out a timeline for change would allow the transition to such innovative research and away from the cruelty that so often accompanies animal testing. That seems like a sensible approach, with humanity, kindness and modernity at its heart. I hope that the Minister has more than mere warm words, and has a clear plan for this much needed change.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I, too, thank my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for securing the debate. I also thank the 163 constituents of mine in Ochil and South Perthshire who signed the e-petition. The monitoring and regulation of animal testing has increased in recent years. Although that should be welcomed, it shines a light on the huge extent of the testing to which animals in the UK are subjected. Those animals, the vast majority of which are bred in labs, often suffer hellishly. The numbers are huge; the UK was responsible for 20% of animal testing across the EU, according to 2018 figures.
Let us talk about what we mean by suffering, as the severity of harm caused to the animal must be recorded by law. Shockingly, it can include
“a major departure from the animal’s usual state of health”,
normally including long-term disease processes. In 2020, roughly 57,000 animals were put through “severe experimental procedures”—that is torture, to you and me. It is utterly unacceptable that these animals are outwith protection from harm. It would be unthinkable to allow these callous practices under any other circumstances on any other animals. It is exceptionally difficult for us to know the true extent of these animals’ suffering as the law blocks access to information about treatment during experiments. The vast majority of testing is done on mice, rats and fish, but as we have heard there are increases in testing on dogs, including puppies—a 3% rise since last year—and there has been a 29% rise in testing on horses in the last decade, to name just two species.
Millions of animals live their whole lives interned in laboratories, without love or affection. Tens of thousands endure treatment that is deemed severe. Were any of us here today to carry out these practices on an animal in our care, we would be arrested. Yet laboratory animals’ pain is not less than other animals’ pain; their lives are worth no less than any other animal’s life. I believe that we should recognise that and inscribe their rights into animal welfare legislation.
It is a pleasure to follow the pithy but powerful remarks from the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson). I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for his introduction to the debate and the 187 people from Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport who signed the petition.
I would like animal testing to be consigned to the history books; I think all of us in the Chamber do. The question is about the journey that we take between now and when that glorious day happens. What is that journey? What is the road map between now and then? What steps must we take to make what we achieve real and fair: something that does not simply export pain abroad, but makes us a force for good—a leader in the world when it comes to defining the new moral standards that there should be between humanity and animals in the future?
Every animal matters, and because of that we should not accept that some animals have to spend their entire lives as laboratory inmates, being tested on with cruel consequences. That is why we need to invest in non-animal technologies as an alternative to animal testing. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) clearly set out the powerful opportunities given by those alternatives. These testing technologies are becoming more sophisticated each and every year, so there is no excuse for them not to play a bigger role in the strategy each and every year.
I would like non-animal technologies to play a bigger role not just in terms of R&D funding and the objective, but in how the Government talk about this issue. The journey must be about not only science, process and reporting, but ambition and language. Frankly, for the last four and a bit years that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) have been Members of Parliament, we have heard roughly the same language from the Government. I do not doubt that there are animal lovers in the Government, but I would like the language to evolve and our commitment to the issue to be strengthened. I would like the language that we choose to describe our ambition to end animal testing to be further improved each and every year.
I hope that when he gets to his feet, the Minister will be able to use more powerful language in this respect than we have had in the past. That direction of travel is important.
In my opinion, a key issue is a lack of accountability and oversight at the Home Office. Applications are not reviewed by experts in the field and there are concerns that the application-for-licence process is used as a tick-box exercise. Does the hon. Member agree that the Home Office must take animal testing seriously and treat applications with due regard?
The hon. Member’s intervention raises an interesting question. In Labour circles, animal testing is often viewed as a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs competency—indeed, I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel), from the shadow environment team, is responding for us. But in Government circles, animal testing is a Home Office competency. If the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) had been Home Secretary, rather than the Members who were, would the Home Office have the same language and ambition around animal testing as in the right hon. Member’s changes on animal welfare when he was Environment Secretary? That is a good example of how different personalities within Government have been able to move on debates about animal welfare quite considerably, but it does not mean that every part of Government has moved on with the same focus.
Animal welfare responsibilities exist across the Government. I made the point in the animal sentience debate that not only do we need strong animal sentience laws and a committee that covers the full breadth right across Government, but we need DEFRA and that committee to have the power to go into every Department to compel co-operation and collaboration with the committee. If there is a knock at the door and people say, “Who’s that? Oh, it’s DEFRA. Oh well,” that is not a good enough answer when it comes to animal welfare. I also hope that we can move forward on animal testing.
I will briefly make a number of points that were raised with me ahead of the debate by people in Plymouth. One is about animal testing and Brexit. A large number of media articles suggest that our departure from the European Union has in some way moved our animal testing regime away from what we had when we were EU members. I will be grateful if the Minister can set out clearly the consequences of the decision to align the UK to the European Chemicals Agency’s board of appeal structure. In theory, that is welcome, but the ECA states that certain ingredients must be tested on animals before being tested on humans. Although it rules out large parts of animal testing, there is concern that that ban deals with ingredients rather than finished products.
As a country, we have made large steps forward on banning animal testing for cosmetics, but there is concern—I will be grateful if the Minister can rule this out categorically—that that new decision means that certain cosmetics, including finished products and ingredients, will still be required to be dual tested in the European Union and the United Kingdom. It is one of those areas that generates concern, and I think hearing that from the Minister would satisfy many people who are worried about that.
The importance placed on replacement and reduction is good. The three R’s of our animal testing framework—replacement, reduction and refinement of welfare provisions when testing animals—are welcome, but we need a fourth R: restriction. That framework needs to provide not regulation of where we are currently but a road map to where we should be. That is the evolution that I think Members call for when they look at enhancing the Animal Welfare Act 2006. We should all be proud of that flagship piece of Labour animal welfare legislation, but that was a very long time ago, and an update to the framework to include a road map out of animal testing would be very welcome.
There are some very good technologies available to us at the moment. There are too many to list, but complex cell models are a really good example. In the scientific community, there is real optimism about the potential for CCMs to help predict a drug’s effectiveness in clinical trials, reducing the need for animal testing. I would like the Government to invest in research into such non-animal technologies. There is a real opportunity to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central raised the opportunity to grant further funding to this area in the spending review. I encourage the Minister to work with his colleagues in DEFRA to look at whether non-animal testing technologies could be explicitly developed as a priority area within the shared competency between the Home Office and DEFRA in relation to spending review submissions to the Treasury.
Animal testing is bad not only for animals but for our economy, especially given the erroneous and negative results we have heard about during the debate. One area that has not been discussed so far is the impact on the Ministry of Defence. I am mindful of the importance of national security. One concern raised with me, as a representative of a military city, is how many animals the MOD uses in animal testing. I think all of us in the House support a strong national defence. We recognise that, in an ever-changing world where there are more and more pressures and threats against us, it is right that we have an understanding of the new biological, chemical and radiological agents that could be used against the United Kingdom and our allies, from both a military and a civilian point of view.
However, the large number of animals tested on, in particular by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, is a concern. I recognise that that number has reduced, which is welcome—according to the latest answers to parliamentary questions, it was 1,500 in 2019 and 1,194 in 2020—but there is potential for a road map to decrease that further. We can apply further pressure to reduce testing on animals by the military establishment and move to more non-animal testing.
If we are to experiment on animals—I concede that, in a small number of circumstances, the technologies are not yet there to replace those procedures—then ensuring that they do not suffer seems to be the minimum standard that we should be providing. I entirely get the hon. Gentleman’s point.
According to the Government’s own figures, the MOD conducted 58,867 experimental procedures on animals in the decade leading up to 2018. According to Cruelty Free International, those included infecting macaque monkeys with tuberculosis, mice with Ebola and marmosets with pneumonic plague and haemorrhagic fever. We all recognise that there are real threats to us, especially from those diseases. However, the road map must take us out of that place, and one of my questions for the Minister about his responsibilities and drive in this area is whether that can go beyond just the Home Office. Can we make sure that it reaches into every part of Government, including our friends at DEFRA and the MOD?
A final point that was raised with me relates to animal welfare and animal testing in trade deals. As a nation outside the European Union, we are embarking on a new journey, making new trade deals with other countries. We have already seen real concerns about the trade deal signed with Australia; we are at risk of undercutting our famers with food produced abroad to lower standards, particularly with respect to animal welfare and the level of certain pharmaceuticals.
There is also a concern about animal testing with respect to some of the products that we could be importing into the United Kingdom—both finished products and ingredients within products. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out where the Government’s view on higher and higher restrictions on animal testing sits in relation to trade deals. Not only do I not want to see our farmers undercut by food produced to lower standards abroad, but I do not want to see us as a country become more reliant on ingredients and chemicals that have been tested on animals abroad.
We should be clear, as part of our mission as a nation to spread best practice, that we should use trade deals as a lever to improve animal welfare, rather than accepting the export of poor animal welfare to other parts of the world. There is a real opportunity to end animal testing. I would like us to set out a road map for how we will get to that point. I encourage the Minister to grasp that opportunity with both hands.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for his comprehensive exposition of the important matter before us today. The petition calls on the UK Government to change the law so that laboratory animals are included in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, an issue that is very important to my constituents in North Ayrshire and Arran.
As my hon. Friend said, we have debated the principles behind today’s debate, which is about the sentience of animals, on numerous occasions. He mentioned the debates on testing cosmetics on animals, on animal sentience and on a whole range of issues relating to the fundamental principle of animal sentience. The Minister and the Government have to understand that these issues are extremely important to our constituents right across the United Kingdom. We must be seen to be in tune with our constituents. We should not always be pulled along by public opinion, but we should try to put doing the right thing at the heart of everything that we do.
In previous debates on animal welfare, the Government have sought to reassure the House that they recognise animals as sentient beings. That is all very well, but by not including laboratory animals in the 2006 Act, they make those reassurances sound a little hollow to many of us here today and many of our constituents. Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to high-profile figures, such as Peter Egan and Ricky Gervais, who use their celebrity status to promote animal welfare. I am sure that all animal lovers are grateful to them for the work that they do.
It really is remarkable that a society that considers itself to be made up of animal lovers tolerates the fact that every two minutes, a dog, a cat, a rabbit or some other creature suffers from brutal animal testing. It is remarkable that animals in laboratories can be poisoned by toxic chemicals, shot, irradiated, gassed, blown up, drowned, burned, starved, mutilated or subjected to some other such horror.
Home Office data shows that in 2020 alone, 2.88 million procedures involving living sentient animals were carried out in the UK. However, exactly what goes on behind the closed doors of animal testing sites in the UK is shrouded in a great deal of secrecy, as the law blocks access to information about their treatment during experiments. Section 24 of the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 makes it a criminal offence for that information to be disclosed. I see that the Minister is shaking his head as though he is either unaware of that or disagrees with it. I am sure that he will wish to respond in due course.
What we need, and what my constituents want—what I believe most people across the UK want—is a public scientific hearing on animal experiments. We need a rigorous, public scientific hearing on claims that animals can predict the responses of humans, judged by a panel of truly independent experts from relevant fields of science. Surely, anyone who sincerely believes in scientific research and believes that animal testing is necessary would have no objection to such a public hearing.
While the UK remains the top user in Europe of primates and dogs in experiments, we know that there is enough evidence that there are better, more accurate and more humane methods than resorting to animal testing. Recent developments in evolutionary and developmental biology and genetics have significantly increased our understanding of why animals have no predictive value for human responses to drugs or the pathophysiology of human diseases. Indeed, the biomedical science adviser to the Humane Society International UK, Dr Lindsay Marshall, said:
“The UK cannot expect to have world-leading science innovation whilst we rely on failing animal-based research methods that are rooted in the past…the data shows that animal models are really bad at telling us what will happen in a human body”.
The reality is that it is a human instinct to recoil at the thought and deed of inflicting unnecessary suffering on a sentient creature. The Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill will enshrine in law the recognition that animals experience joy and are capable of feeling suffering and pain. If that recognition is to mean anything, it must also apply to those animals that happen to be in laboratories. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) made an important point about the Ministry of Defence using animals for experimentation. I do not think that is widely known, and I think our constituents would find it alarming.
The UK is supposed to be an enlightened society, but that must be reflected in more than our words; it must be reflected in how we treat other living creatures. The European Union has moved with the times, away from cruel experiments on animals and towards cutting-edge replacements, as we saw when the European Parliament voted in favour of developing an action plan to phase animals out of EU science and regulation. I know some people in the Government—perhaps none of them are here today—whose hackles will rise at the prospect of our following the example of the EU. However, this is about preventing the unnecessary suffering of our fellow creatures and moving into the 21st century, where the science is taking us—if we let it. As Dr Marshall said, using animals for research can be “dangerously misleading”.
Notwithstanding the important contribution by the right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), we have to follow the science and start to move away from research that can be dangerously misleading. We must recognise animals as the sentient beings that they are, wherever they are. Let us follow the example of European nations and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and develop a road map for moving away from experimenting on animals and towards better methods that offer us real hope for cures, which is what we all want to see.
I hope the Minister will see the wisdom of ensuring that lab animals are included in the Animal Welfare Act, even at this late stage. I hope that he is listening and that he will also lend his weight to the establishment of a public scientific hearing on animal experiments. Science is about searching for the truth, so let us test the long-held so-called truth about animal experimentation using truly independent experts and see where the science takes us. No one should be afraid of that, whichever side of the argument they happen to be on. Let the facts speak for themselves. Let us have a public scientific hearing on animal experiments. Let us put an end to the unnecessary suffering of our fellow creatures.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Pritchard. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak for the official Opposition today. As it stands, this issue is a Home Office responsibility, but I am a shadow DEFRA Minister. I think that reflects the Labour party’s commitment to animal welfare and where our hearts are. I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for leading this important and timely debate. He gave a rounded, Benthamite argument on behalf of the Petitions Committee and highlighted some of the extreme practices, such as the force-feeding of animals, in the world of animal testing.
We are considering e-petition 591775 relating to laboratory animals and the Animal Welfare Act. The petition received 110,000 signatures from across the UK, including 125 concerned citizens in my constituency of Leeds North West. I thank all those who signed the petition for bringing the matter to the House today. Animal welfare transcends party politics, as we have seen in today’s debate. Respect and compassion for sentient beings are issues of morality and, as the debate has shown, of the utmost importance to the British people.
We have had an excellent debate, and I would like to highlight some contributions from hon. Members across the House. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Dr Spencer) demonstrated his knowledge of transgenic treatments, where the balance between practices and their benefits needs careful consideration. I thank him for that. My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) reminded us of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which is rapidly approaching the statute book, and the impact that it could have on testing, as well as the need for the Minister to respond to those points.
The right hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale), who has worked and campaigned on this issue in the House for many years, is right that progress has been too slow. He was also right to highlight the need to tackle the issue internationally and to talk about it at international and intergovernmental level. The hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) made a good point about setting an international example that I do not believe is in competition with the point made by the right hon. Member for North Thanet; they are complementary points.
My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) is right to remind us that many of the Government’s pledges on animal welfare come from Labour’s DEFRA team, and that ASPA regulations are considered way out of date for modern animal welfare standards. I hope that the Minister will address that. The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) was right to point out that animal testing has grown even though other methods have greatly progressed, and that all animals are equal and they feel no less pain in the lab than living at home with us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) is right that DEFRA and the Home Office might have different ambitions for animal testing and that we need to update the three R’s framework—that is well overdue. He has recently joined the shadow Defence team and speaks knowledgeably about the level of defence testing on animals. He is right to have those concerns, and I am sure he will pursue them in his role as shadow Armed Forces Minister. I congratulate him on his appointment.
I am pleased that the Government have a policy of limiting the number of animals used in science, and I am grateful that non-animal methods of research have developed and improved thanks to the work of brilliant scientific minds—not least those in the United Kingdom—and the tireless work of animal rights activists, many of whom have been mentioned in the debate. The development of alternative methods using human cells and tissues—so-called in vitro methods—and of artificial intelligence and advanced computer modelling techniques, or “in silico models”, means that we should have a greatly reduced reliance on animal testing.
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
However, putting those advances and public opinion aside, we need to go further, as the debate has reflected. First, we need a comprehensive review of animal testing. That means reviewing the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which the right hon. Member for North Thanet referred to at length, and a commitment to ending the severe suffering that is permitted under UK legislation. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point, as it was raised by a number of Members. We also require a stringent review of defined areas in regulatory testing with the aim of immediately identifying and eliminating avoidable testing. I would like to hear what progress has been made in that regard.
For transparency, we need an end to the opaque project licence applications for animal research programmes. For any research programme to be authorised, it must be supported by a project licence. A project licence is important in understanding the study. We need to understand the scientific rationale behind it and the details of the procedures that will be carried out, and, perhaps most importantly, know that the proposed procedures will have the minimum possible impact on the animal. I do not believe that is where we are currently.
Project licence applications seem like shadowy affairs with little oversight. Some charities suggest that fully anonymised versions of selected project licence applications could be shared with stakeholders with expertise in replacement methods, who could then suggest techniques that could replace animal testing, helping to ensure that the legal requirement to use non-animal methods wherever possible is being properly enforced. Will the Minister consider that and outline what other steps the Government will take to create a more transparent method for licensing applications?
Finally, as we have heard a number of times in the debate, the Government should commit to phasing out animal testing altogether. Labour is the party of animal welfare. We know that more needs to be done to protect animals, and ending harmful and unnecessary animal testing is imperative to that goal. Since we know that the Government will not commit to that at this time, will the Minister at the very least tell us what will be done to reduce the suffering of animals in research that is happening right now?
This debate is important and timely, and I am glad to have been afforded the opportunity to question the Government and amplify the Labour party’s message that we must work to end harmful and unnecessary animal testing once and for all.
It is a pleasure to appear before you, Mr Paisley. I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) for securing the debate, as well as all Members who have made contributions. The Government recognise that this is a challenging and important policy area, with a huge amount of public interest.
The use of animals in science lies at the intersection of two important public goods: the benefits to humans, animals and the environment from the use of animals in science, and the UK’s proud history of support for the highest possible standards of animal welfare. The balance between those two public goods is reflected in the UK’s robust regulation of the use of animals in science through a dedicated Act: the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, or ASPA. That Act specifies that animals can be used in science for specific limited purposes only when there are no alternatives, and it provides protection for those animals.
I will structure my comments around three key themes: the relevance and benefits of using animals in science; how animals used in science are protected in law through specific legislation and with oversight from dedicated regulators; and, specifically, the breeding or use of dogs in science, which has been mentioned by a number of Members.
The use of animals in science never occurs in isolation. Scientists use and integrate data from a wide range of different methods, including in test tubes, computer modelling, the use of animal or human tissues, and clinical trials in healthy volunteers or patients. Funding is seldom solely for one type of research, but rather for all relevant methods to answer particular research questions. It is therefore not a matter of choosing between different scientific methodologies, but of using the best method for the specific experiment, and ensuring that animals and humans are not used when other methods can give the information needed.
As part of the entire research system, animal testing and research play a vital role in understanding how biological systems work in health and disease. They support the development of new medicines and cutting-edge medical technologies for humans and animals, and the safety and sustainability of our environment. Animal research has helped us to make life-changing discoveries, from new vaccines and medicines to transplant procedures, anaesthetics and blood transfusions. The development of the covid-19 vaccine was possible because of the use of animals in research.
Although much research can be done in non-animal models, as a number of Members have outlined there are still purposes for which it is essential to use live animals, as the complexity of whole biological systems cannot always be replicated using validated non-animal methodologies. That is especially the case where the safety of humans and animals needs to be ensured.
Animal models are constantly improving to become more accurate and predictive, and scientists understand progressively more about which biological systems in which animals offer the most scientifically valid results. Improvements in understanding the genomes of animals and humans have been critical to ensuring that scientific research in animals is understood and applied appropriately. Data from animal experiments are fed into computer models that analyse their predictivity and enable scientists to use animal models in smarter and more predictable ways.
There have been reports in the media and claims in the debate that 90% of animal tests fail. That is incorrect. There is a high attrition rate in drug development, but there are many reasons why drugs that are assessed as potentially effective and safe in animals do not progress to market. It is an incorrect assumption to suppose that an experiment that failed was otherwise pointless. In many ways, that is the point of experimentation: to work out what works and what does not.
Information from animal studies has an important function throughout the drug development process. It allows for the identification of factors that can be monitored to assess adverse effects from potential new medicines in their first clinical trials and helps to establish the first dose that can safely be given in these human trials. That is a critical part of protecting the safety of the participants in those trials. Results of animal studies are used as the basis for extrapolation to indicate and manage possible risks to humans. Should animal testing not occur, more potential medicines would not progress to market, resources would be spent on potential medicines that would have been excluded through animal testing, and the risk to humans in clinical trials would be considerably higher.
I turn to the legal framework. ASPA is a specific Act to enable the use of animals in science while ensuring that there are specific protections for those animals. An assumption in the debate seemed to be that there are no protections for animals used in experimentation, but that is not the case. While animals used in science are excluded from the Animal Welfare Act, that does not mean that they are not protected in line with the underlying principles of the Animal Welfare Act.
To be clear, should this House seek to include animals in science in the Animal Welfare Act, as a number of Members have requested, no animals could be used for scientific purposes at all. That would result in increased risk to human and animal health and to the environment and a significant negative impact on the role of the UK in innovation and scientific progress. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) pointed out, that could increase global harm, as much of that testing would be offshored. In certain jurisdictions that have restrictions, evidence of such offshoring is clear.
ASPA protects animals used in science by requiring the operation of a three-tier system of licences: licences are required for each establishment in which animals are used in science, each project that uses animals in science and each person who performs regulated procedures on animals. In addition, the regulators operationalising and enforcing ASPA operate a system to ensure the compliance of all those who hold licences under the Act.
Since January 2021, the Government have been implementing a reform programme, which has resulted in improvements to the way compliance is assessed by the Animals in Science Regulation Unit, which is the regulator in Great Britain. That includes systematically reviewing reports required under ASPA and conducting systematic team-based audits, thematic audits across all establishments, inspections based on specific triggers and investigations of potential non-compliance. Collectively, the reforms seek to improve compliance and therefore the protection of animals used. We will continue to oversee the implementation of further improvements and monitor and report on the regulatory outcomes achieved.
As the Minister will be aware, and as I said in my speech, section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act makes it a criminal offence for the information about how the animals are treated during experiments to be disclosed. It seems that the Home Office consulted on section 24 in 2014, but has not published the outcomes. Does he know why?
I am not aware of why we have not published the outcome of the consultation. Section 24, however, only blocks public officials from releasing information given in confidence, and it came into place before the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It has never been used alone since the Freedom of Information Act came into effect, and information is released on a regular basis—a couple of times a week, in frequency terms—under the terms of that 2000 Act, so it is not correct to say that it is section 24 that is restricting access. I understand, from my officials, that the consultation response will be issued later this year, as part of the work of the policy unit, which I will say more about shortly.
I turn to the use and regulation of dogs in science. The use of purpose-bred dogs for research in the United Kingdom is not prohibited under the ASPA. However, the use of stray dogs is prohibited. Under ASPA, dogs, together with cats, horses and non-human primates, are specially protected species. That means that greater oversight is required of establishments holding those species, and of projects using them.
No dogs are authorised for use within the United Kingdom if the scientific objective can be achieved without using animals, or by using animals of less sentience. As with all projects approved under ASPA, all projects proposing to use dogs in research must justify why any animals need to be used, why dogs need to be used and why the specific number of dogs and exact procedures are required.
Most dogs used in science are required for the safety testing of potential new medicines, in line with international requirements designed to protect human health. Dogs are a species often used in research because of their genetic similarity to humans, which means that they suffer from similar diseases, such as diabetes, epilepsies, and cancers. The dog genome has been sequenced and mutations mapped, so dogs are incredibly important in basic research such as on muscular dystrophy, where there is a known mutation in dogs.
Research using dogs has been instrumental in the development of more than 95% of all new chemical medicines approved for use in the European Union in the last 20 years. That has included medications for use in treatments for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and specific genetic disorders. Establishments that either breed dogs for use in science elsewhere or conduct regulated procedures on dogs are required to provide care and accommodation to those dogs in line with the published code of practice for that purpose. Adherence to that code of practice, and to all other standard conditions applied to any establishment licence, is assessed by the regulator as part of its compliance assurance programme.
Establishments breeding, supplying or using dogs in science are contributing to critical activities to protect human health and advance scientific progress. They are operating legally within a regulatory framework that requires licensure and assessment of their compliance.
That is a long litany of justification, but perhaps the Minister would address just one specific point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk raised: what is the scientific or ethical justification for pouring chemicals into the stomachs of puppies without using anaesthetics? Could he address just that point?
The hon. Gentleman obviously uses emotive language to describe a practice that, I understand, is called gavage, where the feeding of compounds into the stomachs of dogs is done in such a way as to ensure a consistent dose at a consistent time for a consistent assessment. As the hon. Gentleman will know, very often the use of those chemicals is to assess two things: first, dosage and efficacy, and secondly, toxicity. I understand that that is the best method, scientifically.
During the debate, a series of claims have been made about dogs being bled or force-fed, and I would be more than happy to correspond with Members on the scientific basis for those activities. While I understand that this is a very emotive and difficult issue—these are not pleasant practices that anybody would necessarily enjoy—there are sound, scientific reasons for their being employed. I would be more than happy to correspond with Members to explain how and why.
I thank the Minister for giving way; he is being generous with his time. As hon. Members have pointed out, the language may be emotive but it is the truth. I fear that the Minister has failed to answer the question why anaesthetics cannot be given to those animals suffering.
There are lots of circumstances in which anaesthetics are administered. Obviously, everybody is under an obligation to minimise whatever suffering may be incurred as part of an experiment. For example, reference was made to beagles being bled for scientific purposes. As I understand it, that happens from time to time but under terminal anaesthetic, and is not to be confused with the taking of small blood samples, akin to a human being giving a blood test.
The UK’s aim is to become the world leader for the development, access and update of new and innovative treatments and technologies. We also need to protect the health of humans, animals and the environment. To achieve these important outcomes, we will continue to need to use animals, including dogs, in science, until such time as alternatives are achieved for all purposes.
The Government remain committed to robust regulation of the use of animals in science. That continues to be achieved by a specific, targeted exemption from the Animal Welfare Act and the operationalisation and enforcement of the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act, which exists specifically to regulate and protect animals in science.
We are committed to supporting and funding activities to replace, reduce and refine the use of animals in science. We accept that continuous improvement is always necessary, and therefore we are sponsoring a change programme to optimise the performance of the regulator for the use of animals in science in Great Britain. Additionally, we have established an integrated policy co-ordination function, currently in the Home Office, across the whole of Government to bring greater strategic oversight to the policy area of the use of animals in science. That will give the Government more effective management and assertive control over that area.
To conclude, Members have raised a number of issues, some which are historical, some of which, I am afraid, they are mistaken about and some of which require clarification. I am more than happy to correspond with all the hon. Members here today and answer many of those questions.
However, I finish with three points. First, it is currently the case that no human medical trials are possible anywhere in the developed world without safety testing in animals first. Notwithstanding the claims made by a number of Members today about comments made by particular scientists, that reflects the global scientific consensus at the moment, as I understand it.
Nevertheless, it is necessary for us to work on our three R’s strategy, to move towards less animal testing. Since 2015, we have had a three R’s strategy in place, devised by organisations such as the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory and medical research organisations. That is doing great work across the industry and ensuring that we get this right.
It has been a very good debate. We have heard a range of views, all of which were rooted in animal welfare. As I reflect on what was said, I cannot help but think that there is a lucrative industry around animal testing that is well entrenched in the current systems, and that the animals in laboratories do not become any less sentient than the animals that are not in laboratories. We need to do something about that.
I hope the Minister will take on board and take back to Government the need for a public scientific hearing, because we need to go forward with a facts-based approach. That is something that everybody could perhaps unite around, and it would help us move this debate forward.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 591775, relating to laboratory animals and the Animal Welfare Act.