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23 May 2006 : Column 443WH—continued

The hon. Gentleman referred specifically and at some length to British Gas and its decision no longer to provide bills in the medium of Welsh to its business customers. We accept that private businesses have the right to make changes to their services on commercial grounds. However, it is disappointing when a prominent organisation such as British Gas takes such a decision. The company has informed my officials that it will continue to provide a bilingual service to all domestic customers who wish to communicate through the medium of Welsh. It has a voluntary Welsh language scheme, agreed by the Welsh Language Board, and a dedicated Welsh call centre based in Cardiff. However, this move is disappointing, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intends to raise the matter with the company. I understand that Alun
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Pugh, the Welsh Assembly Government Minister with responsibility for promoting use of the Welsh language, plans to do the same.

Hywel Williams: I welcome the Minister’s words about the Government’s stance on the issue. How does he respond to the point in the letter from British Gas that it is only through compulsion—through a change in legislation—that it would consider moving back to a Welsh language service for its customers?

Nick Ainger: That is one of the issues that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will discuss with British Gas. As the hon. Gentleman said in his contribution, a significant number of companies are in exactly the same position as British Gas but continue to provide that service, and I hope that British Gas will seriously reconsider its decision. It is not justified, and we shall make our view clear.

There are several other examples not raised by the hon. Gentleman; for example, the Football Association of Wales. It is worth putting it on record that Alun Pugh, the Minister who has responsibility in this area, has urged it seriously to reconsider its policy.

The decision of British Gas, which is extremely disappointing, is an example of the challenges that we face. However, such cases do not necessarily justify or demand sweeping new legislation that compels organisations to provide services in Welsh. They demand greater co-operation, understanding and determination on behalf of us all to promote the use of the language. The Welsh Assembly Government have set out clearly their desire to create a fully bilingual Wales in which use of the Welsh language sits comfortably with the day-to-day functions of life.

The Welsh Assembly Government have outlined their policies in “Iaith Pawb”, their national action plan for a bilingual Wales. It sets out how the Welsh Assembly Government will set about raising awareness of the language and encouraging more and more people to speak, learn and use it. The scheme will also ensure that Welsh language considerations are mainstreamed into other Welsh Assembly Government policies. That is a welcome move that I am sure will bring considerable benefits to the language.

Iaith Pawb has set a target of increasing the number of people able to speak Welsh by five percentage points by 2011. That will be an increase on the 2001 census figures, from 20.8 to 25.8 per cent. That is ambitious, but underpins the determination of the Welsh Assembly Government to secure the future of the Welsh language. Fforwm Iaith, which is a programme of public meetings and consultations taking place throughout Wales, has demonstrated further the desire to create a language policy that has the buy-in of all the people of Wales. It is no good having the ideas but not backing them up with resources. The Welsh Assembly Government have put their money where their mouth is and invested more than £28 million extra in the Welsh language since 2003.

It is not just in large-scale programmes of work such as Iaith Pawb that the Welsh Assembly Government are making progress, however. The UK Government are determined to promote the language. Nine Departments now have Welsh language schemes: the Department for
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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Transport, the Department for Education and Skills, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office, the Office for National Statistics, the Ministry of Defence and the Wales Office. Another three Departments—the Department for Constitutional Affairs, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs—are in the process of preparing those schemes in consultation with the Welsh Language Board.

We have announced that Welsh will appear for the first time on UK passports from this year. The Home Office has also demonstrated its commitment by introducing Welsh into the swearing of oaths and affirmations in citizenship ceremonies. Some of those commitments vary in size, but they are all significant.

Again, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising such an important issue. He has raised genuine concerns and again demonstrated his commitment to the Welsh language. I hope that I have done that as well. Although we might not agree on the need for new legislation, it is clear that we have the best interests of the language as our primary objective.

Wales is a special place and our language is to be treasured. It is an old language, with a rich history. It has been used to write some of the most magical and compelling literature and songs. Both the UK and the Welsh Assembly Governments are committed to the preservation and promotion of the Welsh language. We will continue to strive towards that through the initiatives that I have described. I am sure that we will do so by working with the hon. Gentleman, other elected representatives and the people of Wales.

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Medical Research (Animals)

1.27 pm

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I welcome you, Miss Begg. I think that this is the first Adjournment debate that I have had with you in the Chair, and I am pleased to see you. I also welcome the Minister, because this is the first time I have introduced an Adjournment debate with him in his new role at the Department of Health. He has long taken an interest in health, both before becoming an MP and in his early and brief days as a Government Back Bencher.

We debate the role of animal research in health care and medicines against a background of animal rights extremism, and there is no denying that. I do not want to talk too much about animal rights extremism, as I want to discuss the broader issues that we need to address to win the hearts and minds of the public over the value of, and therefore the need for, well-regulated animal research. However, it is worth saying a few things about what has happened recently in the context of Oxford, but not to concentrate on them too much.

I certainly recognise that animal rights activists have an ethical position that is coherent. That position is that we should not use animals as a means to benefit humans. That is not a position I agree with, but I recognise that one can hold it and that to do so is not wholly outlandish or irrational. However, if one argues on that basis, one must look first at the use of animals by the million—indeed, by a multiple of those used in medical research—for human consumption and other uses by humans. There is less value in using animals in that way, as it provides menu choice but is not essential for saving human life in the way that animal research in the biosciences is essential for finding insights into diseases and for safety-testing medicines that save life and significantly improve the human condition.

The part of the animal rights movement that I strongly disagree with is that which attacks science and has a pseudo-scientific justification for its position. However, those involved take that position because they know that it is hard to argue against the use of animals in medical research, particularly as it is so tightly regulated in this country and is used only in the context of the3 Rs—the aim to reduce, refine and replace.

For reasons that I shall come to later, people in that part of the animal rights movement choose not to concentrate their fire on the farming, abattoir and butchery industries, but resort to anti-scientific methods. I feel very strongly that we need to expose that as wrong, irrational, unfair and anti-scientific.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this important subject and for giving way. Does he accept that the animal rights movement has not attacked the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals regulations—the REACH regulations—in Europe, although those will mean about 3 million animals being bred for research, with very little defined benefit for mankind? Will he draw attention to that?

Dr. Harris: It is fair to say that the broader animal welfare movement is split, with the WWF supporting, and indeed instigating, the REACH regulations. However,
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to be fair to anti-vivisection organisations—I am always keen to be fair—have made representations to the Science and Technology Committee, on which the hon. Gentleman and I serve, opposing those regulations because of the number of animals used.

I want to concentrate on the false arguments used by the animal rights lobby on the validity and value of animal research for the production of medicines, and, before that, on getting insights into the development of disease, both veterinary and human.

It goes without saying that I condemn unreservedly the violence, intimidation and harassment used by animal rights activists. I urge the mainstream animal rights organisations to condemn unreservedly violence, intimidation and harassment, and not by saying, “We condemn violence against both people and animals,” because there is a difference, even if some choose to define research using animals as violence. One is lawful and sanctioned by Parliament, and tightly regulated; the other is wholly unlawful criminal behaviour. The two should not be mixed. Therefore, condemning violence against people and animals, in the way that some organisations do, is not an acceptable way of claiming to condemn those techniques.

Mainstream organisations need to condemn that violence, because it will enhance them and their cause if they dissociate themselves from what they must recognise, and many do, as not representative of the vast bulk of people who care about animal welfare, nor even of those people who describe themselves as animal rights activists.

To turn to the general issues of which I have given the Minister notice, the Department of Health, the NHS and the pharmaceutical industry need to do far more to explain to, and educate, the British public—through the media, but also on occasion by educating the media—about the value and essential nature of research using animals. That is not done sufficiently.

Perhaps the Minister can help me with this, but I have not found a speech by a Secretary of State for Health in which the main issue was the value to our health service of the work done by beleaguered scientists, including those in Oxford, who work in basic science or do pre-clinical work to produce new insights into disease, new targets for drugs and new drugs.

People working in the NHS, who I accept are hard pressed, do not recognise that they, too, have a roleto play in taking every opportunity, within reason, to make it clear what work has been done on animals to help to provide the health care that they deliver. Clinicians are busy people, so there is the following strong argument to be made about research, whether it is sponsored through NHS research and development funding, or worked on by the Department of Health or the Medical Research Council: somewhere in press releases about breakthroughs in human—that is, clinical—trials, there should be, perhaps in the notes to editors, a statement that the therapy was developed through animal models.

That statement should detail what those models were, and, when applicable, what animals had been used to test efficacy and safety before the relevant medication was put into man. It should also point out
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that the use of animals was an essential part of the process. The onus would then be on the media to report that part of the story.

We should make the provision of such information a general rule, so that individual scientists would not feel singled out when it was provided. When I volunteered for tests on a putative HIV vaccine, I made it clear, as best I could, in live interviews—otherwise it was edited out—that I had done so knowing, and being grateful for, the fact that the vaccine had been developed using animal models. It had been tested on animals for efficacy, at least in respect of immunogenic impact; primate models had developed the immune response that researchers were looking for.

I do not want to blow my own trumpet, but we need more people to seize every opportunity to make that point. If they do not, we shall not convince the public of the need to safeguard animal research. We can rejoice—if that is the right word—in the recent convictions and long sentences. We can welcome, as I certainly do, the actions of the young people in the Pro-Test movement in Oxford. They put the case positively for research using animals, rather than simply opposing the extremism. We can welcome all that, but those acute, short-term effects have to be sustained.

I worry about polls that reveal the high number of school leavers who have a negative view of animal research, think it cruel and unnecessary, and have read and accepted the propaganda of the animals rights movement. I speak generally; the counter-argument has been more successful among those who have been exposed to debates on the subject.

There is an overwhelming argument for using the opportunity of medicines labelling to make the case for animal research. It has two bases. First, the educative one: it is right that the key role that animals have played in the development of the therapeutic option, in identifying what the drug is targeting and in testing for the efficacy and safety of it—any and all of those, as they apply—should be explained to consumers at the point of use. That is important; it is not done, but it needs to be.

Secondly, informed consent means that people are entitled to know about the contentious issue of whether drugs have been tested on animals. People are entitled to know that, whether or not it would make a difference to whether they would choose to use a drug. We label as to whether food is GM-derived, even if there is no GM product left in it, on the basis that consumers have a right to know and should be able to choose whether they want to support GM technology.

I do not think that many people would refuse to use animal-tested medicines if such labelling were introduced—I hope that very few or no people would—but it is important that people should have that right. The argument that we should not label in that way because people might choose on ethical grounds not to have treatment only proves me right. That view is paternalistic; we must recognise that competent adults have a right to make such decisions for themselves. That paternalistic argument is the worst that could be used, because it sells the pass on the right of people to give informed consent for their treatment.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has said to me, and said on the radio this
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morning, that the issue is difficult. Well, labelling is difficult. It would involve legislation, and it might be difficult or inequitable for it to be introduced in this country and not others, but we have requirements for labelling in this country and in the European Union. I want the Government to say that they accept that a good case has been made and that they will explore what can be done to bring such labelling about.

I come back to the point I made at the beginning of the debate. One reason for animal rights activists not targeting the food industry is that they know it would be difficult to argue, as they have on animal research, that such testing is useless. Everyone who eats meat, and presumably enjoys doing so, recognises that there is a direct benefit from having the meat industry. However, what they do not see—unless and until, sadly, they are ill, and it might be explained to them—is the direct benefits of research using animals. They see it as testing things for other people, not for them.

In the same way, as the Minister will be aware, people do not necessarily correctly quantify the risks, if there are any, from mobile phones and mobile phone masts. They see the benefit of the mobile phone that they use, so they discount their fear of the risk, even though the dose from their phone might be greater than that from a mast. They do not see a direct benefit from mobile phone masts, even though they might use a mobile phone—one might consider that a little quirky, to say the least—so large numbers of them campaign against the masts.

Animal rights campaigners recognise that there is a similar issue here, which is why they do what they do, and we must counter that. I fear that the climate will not always be such that the vast majority of the public believes that animal research is essential. However, if we can conquer animal rights extremism and unlawful behaviour through the efforts of the police and the intelligence services, that will bolster public opinion in support of animal research. If we are successful, we can then go back to the battle, which I am happy to have, to secure public support for animal research that does not rely, in a strange way, on the animal rights extremists’ counter-productive activities.

I hope that the Minister will offer me some comfort on the points that I have made, particularly on the lead that Health Ministers can take by backing the admirable work done by Lord Sainsbury, the science Minister, and, on occasion, by the Prime Minister. I also hope that there will be action on the design of press releases to ensure that the press have the option of reporting on animal research.

Finally, I hope that the Government will look seriously at allowing patients to give informed consent and at educating the public generally through medicines labelling.

Bob Spink: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on how he has presented his comments. I agree with everything that he has said, and he has said it very well, but would it help his case and help to win over the public if he confirmed that the UK has one of the strictest licensing regimes in the world for using animals in medical research? Research can be conducted in the UK only if no non-animal options are available. Only essential research takes place, and the animal’s welfare is always at the forefront.

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Dr. Harris: I certainly endorse the hon. Gentleman’s comments. The key point is to recognise that work is being done on finding replacements, refining animal experiments and minimising the number of animals used. However, we must recognise—this is my only criticism on the issue—that as more animal modelsare created as a result of transgenic research, more breeding pairs will be produced. That is particularly true of mice. More mice will be used, so we need to lower expectations on whether there will be a reduction in the overall numbers.

That technique is powerful, and as more genes are identified, more animal models may be used. We will continue to see an increase there, but minimisation of the numbers is still possible within that, and I wholly endorse the strategy of the three R’s. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

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