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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth) indicated assent.

Mr. Baker: I welcome that; the cuts have not gone ahead. Credit where credit is due--but, even with that restoration, there will still be a great shortage of inspectors under the Act.

I have other concerns about the openness of the system, and I am unhappy that so much of the information on animal experiments is secret. We are not allowed to know details about the establishments and individuals licensed under the Act. The Government's commitment to freedom of information, which I greatly welcome, means that we should open up the process far more. How does the Minister intend to combine the freedom of information commitment with the secrecy inherent in the 1986 Act?

I must wind up my speech now, because the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) and the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea want to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. They have cleared that with me, and have my permission to intervene in the debate.

We must aim for animals to be respected, with the legitimate rights to dignity and protection that we, as human beings, would expect. They have real feelings and can experience real pain. It is unethical for animals to be seen as a resource to be used as we please, and I await the day when all except the most essential experiments have been brought to an end. The Government should make a clear commitment to starting towards that aim now, by setting a target for reducing animal experiments.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West) rose--

Mr. Alan Clark rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Is the Minister happy to allow the two other Members to be called?

Mr. George Howarth indicated assent.

1.41 pm

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on securing the debate and thank him for his generosity in allowing me to take part in it. I also congratulate him on his skilful and persistent use of parliamentary questions to reveal much new knowledge about the secretive business of animal experiments, especially those taking place at Porton Down.

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I, too, exonerate the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) as regards any suggestion that I might have made that he could have been responsible for any increase in experiments. Indeed, as I understand the figures, he was entirely responsible for a decrease in the number of experiments during his period in office, when he had some influence over such matters.

As someone who worked in laboratories all my life until I entered Parliament, I emphasise that animal experiments are poor science; they are unreliable and ineffective. I agree with every word that the hon. Member for Lewes said, and I advise those who claim that animal experiments give reliable results to consider any one of dozens of cases that I could cite.

I could mention Eralden, Opren and other drugs, but it was thalidomide which caused one of the most painful experiences that we have had with a chemical drug. Thalidomide came on the market having been tested not only on many other animals but on rabbits, which are regarded as being more sensitive, and even on pregnant rabbits, with no sign of difficulty. Only when, after the terrible deformities occurred in human babies, the scientists went back and tried the drug on another breed of rabbit did they reproduce the fault. It is nonsense to believe that there is any kind of exact science involved in that. Far more reliable alternatives already exist. There are simulations and the use of tissue outside the body, both of which are far better science.

We all agree that those experiments represent the abuse of animals on a scale that dwarfs all the other animal abuse about which we get so excited. We have no right to conduct them. It is true that a tiny number of experiments can be defended, but that is all. The scale on which experiments are practised, mostly for commercial purposes, cannot be defended.

As an intelligent species, we stand accused of using defenceless animals as though they were inert chemicals with no feelings. We have no right to do that, and I hope that the Government will hear the debate and there will be a practical and swift response.

1.45 pm

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea): I join in the tributes to the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), who has a good record on this topic. I always listen to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) with interest and enjoy his contributions, even when they relate to subjects that we are not allowed to talk about or expand on in the Chamber. I was interested to hear that his comments today were founded on personal and scientific experience, and they are all the more valuable on that account.

I have two questions to ask the Minister. The first is about the so-called commercial confidentiality, which was raised by the hon. Member for Lewes, and which involves tremendous and horrendous repetition of experiments. There should be some way of ensuring that a particular experiment occurs only once, and the results are then put into a pool from which anyone can draw by paying a fee--preferably to a Government agency to fund more inspectors. Results should not be kept private within whatever corporation funded the experiment, so that the experiment has to be repeated 10, 20, 30 or 100 times to produce the same result on 10, 20, 30 or 100 wretched animals to verify what may happen if an identical or a similar product is marketed.

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My second point is about the conditions in which animals are kept. The hon. Member for Lewes talked about primates being brought here in crates in holds on 55-hour journeys, but many of the conditions in which animals are kept in laboratories are by no means perfect, either. Conditions are inhumane both before and after the experiments, when animals are usually simply destroyed.

A serious lack of humanity creeps into the treatment of animals the moment they are regarded as something for commercial and industrial exploitation. They lose their identity as living creatures. Surely this area should be better regulated?

The Minister and his party gave assurances in their election manifesto, which were greatly welcomed by many people in the electorate, including myself, that they would do something about the problem. I cast no aspersions on the way in which the Minister plays his part in the Department, but I know about the pressures that exist when one is behind a ministerial desk, and the way in which officials produce arguments along the lines of "On the one hand . . . on the other hand . . . but in conclusion, Minister, we really feel that . . . ".

Those views are reproduced in documents, and I hope that the Minister will be strong enough to override them and discharge the obligation that his party undertook in its manifesto, which gained it many votes. I hope that, in the 12 minutes that remain, we shall not be treated to the Minister's simply reading out a brief composed by his officials to cover everybody's tracks and to explain that "There is really nothing much that can be done for a bit--because . . . "

1.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth): That might have been the kind of response that the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) gave when he was a Minister, but I hope that I shall not fall into that trap.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) on his success in obtaining the debate. He has asked 27 written parliamentary questions this year alone on animal experimentation. I make no criticism of him for that; it is a measure of how assiduously he pursues his interest in the subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) is also a regular correspondent with my Department on the subject.

I am not entirely confident that, in the time available to me, I shall be able to cover all the points that have been made, so I issue a public invitation to the hon. Member for Lewes to come to the Home Office to discuss the issues that he has raised. My noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State, Lord Williams of Mostyn, and I would welcome such a meeting, and I hope that he will take up that invitation.

I acknowledge, as I am sure will the hon. Gentleman, that my noble Friend, who has prime responsibility for this area, has assiduously pursued the Government's agenda and we are making some progress. The hon. Gentleman was good enough to acknowledge that with regard to a couple of areas.

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We seek to ensure that the highest possible standards of animal welfare are implemented and that animals are used in scientific procedures only where there is a clear justification for so doing.

We are promoting what the Department calls the three Rs--reducing the number of animals used, refining procedures to minimise suffering and, where possible, replacing animal use. In particular, with respect to primates, we are making progress on LD50 testing and cosmetic testing.

As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, we have increased the budget that has been made available to the Animal Procedures Committee to develop alternatives to the use of animals from £182,000 to £259,000. In the greater scheme of things, that may not be an enormous sum of money, but it is a considerable increase in what was a quite small budget. It is fair that that should be acknowledged.

We also intend to pursue relevant measures throughout Europe rather than risk exporting animal experimentation to countries with less rigorous controls than ours. We must ensure that measures are sustainable and do not unnecessarily disadvantage United Kingdom research, medicine and industry or compromise public safety.

The hon. Gentleman acknowledged that we have secured an end to the testing of cosmetic products on animals and we are now exploring the possibility of extending that ban to the testing of cosmetic ingredients intended primarily for vanity products. No new licences to test cosmetic products or ingredients have been issued since May. Our legal advisers have cautioned the Secretary of State that he has no grounds, at this time, to revoke the existing licences.

No new licences to test tobacco or alcohol products have been issued since 1 May, and no new licences are in force which would allow such testing. On 6 November, we announced a ban on the testing of tobacco and alcohol products.

Three new inspectors have been recruited since June and further funding has been secured for a further three inspectors, bringing the complement to 21.

We have announced that some form of ethical review process will be required in all establishments from 1 April 1999.

The review of biotechnology and the patenting of animals is a matter primarily for the Department of Trade and Industry, but it follows such matters closely.

In addition to the pre-election pledges to which the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea referred, we have also announced a ban on the use of great apes, that the use of ascitic animals in monoclonal antibody production will be phased out, and that the number of animal welfare experts on the Animal Procedures Committee will be increased. New appointments are expected shortly.

The hon. Member for Lewes asked about the transportation of live animals. We shall allow the catching of wild primates only if there is a specific and exceptional justification for so doing. Therefore, the onus is on proving that that is necessary. If shorter journey times are possible and animals can be flown directly to the UK, we would welcome that. As the hon. Gentleman will know, many airlines have already stopped such work as a result of public pressure.

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The hon. Gentleman, like the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, referred to the commercial gain of companies engaged in such work. Some suggest that nearly 50 per cent. of experiments are carried out purely for commercial gain. Nearly 50 per cent. are carried out in commercial establishments, but, in many cases, company profitability is not the factor most often taken into account in making a cost-benefit assessment. Hon. Members will be aware that that process goes on. Many experiments carried out in commercial establishments are to meet the requirements of international regulators that products be proved safe for use, manufacture and distribution. Most commercial organisations exist to make a profit--they would not be developing new drugs or other products if they were not profitable--but that fact militates against the argument that such commercial undertakings are entirely profit driven.

With regard to cosmetic ingredient testing, the hon. Member for Lewes referred to previous undertakings. We are exploring the possibility of a ban on ingredient testing, on which I hope to be able to make an announcement in due course. That is a complex area, but one which we are taking forward.

We are considering whether section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 should be amended, but no decision has yet been made. We are pressing international regulators to dispense with the need of LD50 tests, but, at the moment, they are, more often than not, almost entirely the requirement of international regulators.

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