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23 May 2006 : Column 450WH—continued

1.43 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Andy Burnham): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing the debate and I am grateful to him for the measured and informed way in which he spoke. It is characteristic of his approach on these matters, about which he is well informed.

I am also pleased that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) has made an effort to be here. During my remarks, I hope that those outside who pay attention to these proceedings will see that there is a consensus between the three of us and, more broadly, between our political parties. That shows that mainstream opinion is firmly on one side of the argument and sends an important message to the public.

I am pleased to be back at the Department of Health and I was grateful to the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon for welcoming me back. During my time dealing with identity cards and other matters, I also had responsibility at the Home Office for the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, so, usefully, I saw the licensing side of this issue and I have acquired experience that I hope will inform how I do my current job.

I agree with almost all of the hon. Gentleman’s points. He made some challenges to the Department, and I will want to address them. However, let me begin by saying that animal research and testing has played a part in almost every medical breakthrough of the last century and is vital to the functioning of our national health service. In recent times, research using animals has led to new treatments and therapies for many conditions including stroke, which is the third largest cause of death in the United Kingdom and the largest single cause of severe disability. Studies with mice and rats have shown the complicated cascade of events that takes place during and after a stroke and have led to successful treatments being developed. These include drugs that prevent or inhibit the harm caused by glutamate, which damages the brain cells and is released in huge quantities during a stroke. New treatments being tested on animals include stem cells and bone marrow injections, which appear to restore much of the brain’s function.

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In introducing my remarks, I want to take head-on the hon. Gentleman’s challenge. If I interpreted correctly, there was a criticism that the case for animal research and testing was not made strongly enough across all arms of government. I refute that by saying that it is evident that the Government from the very top down—from the Prime Minister downwards—have been steadfast in supporting necessary animal research and testing. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he made reference to that. Support for that comes from the top, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that there are no differences of opinion between the Departments of Government.

It is also important to introduce a note of balance by saying that it is Government policy to support what is called the 3 Rs agenda—reduction, refinement and replacement. Where possible, we should work to reduce the number of animals used. The hon. Member for Castle Point made that point. We see the need for this balance; we support animal research and testing, and we robustly and resolutely defend that principle in many forums, but we also say clearly to the public that where necessary and where possible we will support the reduction of animal use.

Bob Spink: Will the Minister clarify that the refinement element of the 3 Rs addresses the welfare of the animal by making sure that that is as high as possible in all circumstances?

Andy Burnham: I gladly confirm that.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point in his intervention on the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon. Speaking from the Home Office perspective, as I used to do, it is right that the British regime for the conduct of research and testing in this area is, I would go so far as to say, perhaps the best and the strictest in the world. We set the standard for many other countries to follow; they look to us for standards of animal welfare in science and in research and development. One of the great ironies of the actions of so-called animal rights extremists is that if they achieve their goal and drive this work from our shores, they could drive it to countries that have a far less strict regime for the conduct of such research, and by implication they could therefore cause more suffering to animals in the long run. They would do well to think about that point.

That is not to say that, as the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon mentioned, there are not groups that legitimately apply pressure in respect of reduction, refinement and replacement. We should hear that pressure and respond to it wherever we can, but without losing sight of the central point that is being made in this debate: that we should strongly, clearly and, if possible, in unison defend the use of animal experiments to the wider public. That is certainly the position that I am here today unequivocally to support.

The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister wrote an article published in The Sunday Telegraph on 14 May, setting out the Government’s position on animal testing and our determination to stand up to animal rights extremism and to protect those targeted by it. The article sets out
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the importance of as many people as possible standing up to extremists; recognises that British scientists and companies are at the forefront of research that saves and improves the quality of countless lives; and affirms that we should be proud that the UK leads the way in the robustness of our licensing regime and in developing new testing techniques.

I wholeheartedly endorse those sentiments. The Government, police and courts are making increased efforts to stamp out illegal and intimidatory conduct by animal rights extremists. We have a comprehensive strategy, with the Prime Minister taking overall charge, and we have made excellent progress in better co-ordinating our efforts. The Government have injected significant new resources into that work. At national level, a specialist team has been set up to co-ordinate operations against extremists. At local level, awareness has been strengthened through workshops with local police, and the issue is being flagged as a key priority in the national policing plan.

More people, including health professionals, are now prepared to speak out on behalf of research using animals, as the hon. Gentleman said. In February 2006, the “Pro-Test” campaign attracted twice as many demonstrators on to the streets as the anti-testing demonstration on the same day. I believe that the former demonstration was attended by many of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, if it did not go through part of his constituency. I commend the courage of the demonstrators in defying the bullying and intimidatory tactics of the small number of extremists.

The centrepiece of the hon. Gentleman’s comments related to Health Ministers and the Department itself being on the front foot and supporting the agenda that he has outlined. I strongly welcome the “People’s Petition”, registering support for the properly regulated animal testing that takes place in this country. It has attracted thousands of signatures and gives voice to the majority position in this country. The hon. Gentleman is doing a great deal to ensure that that position continues to command majority support from the public, and I commend his efforts in making the public argument, as he does whenever he has the opportunity.

The hon. Gentleman expressed a need for Health Ministers to defend, promote and support essential medical research. That is what we do. Wherever possible, the Department of Health—together with the pharmaceutical industry, the scientific community and funders of research using animals—makes the case strongly for the importance of such research. All those partners have a role to play in explaining its legitimate and responsible use.

Ministers from my Department, the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry have spoken many times on that subject. The hon. Gentleman said that he had not found such a speech. I can refer him to countless speeches and comments from Ministers not only in the Department of Health but across the spectrum. In those speeches and comments, he will find unanimous support for the position that I am outlining. We set out, and will carry on setting out, the benefits of medical research and the fact that the UK has the strictest regime in the world for animal testing, designed to minimise suffering and to ensure the highest welfare standards.

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The Government are committed to developing alternatives to animal testing wherever possible, and fund work to reduce, refine and one day replace the use of animals in research. UK universities and companies have an excellent record of developing and using alternatives.

As a Health Minister in April 2002, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath set out in full for the first time the Government’s policy on the use of animals in medical research. Two years later, at the first Coalition for Medical Progress parliamentary reception, my ministerial colleague Lord Warner of Brockley spoke about why research using animals is essential. That is a speech to which I can refer the hon. Gentleman. The Government welcome and support the work of the coalition, which presents data from scientists engaged in biomedical research in order to explain how animals help research on the causes of disease and enable new treatments to be developed. The coalition communicates with a range of audiences, including nurses.

I shall touch on some of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. He said that he understands the position taken by some people who believe that it is defensible to say that animals should not be used to benefit humans. I believe that the vast majority of people would find that position difficult to sympathise with or agree with and it becomes completely unacceptable when combined with violence and intimidation against those who do not hold a similar view. He was right to say that it is important not to suggest that the groups that indulge in such extremism are in any way representative of the huge number of people in this country who care about animal welfare, and it is right that we make that distinction here today. There is a long and respectable tradition in this country of campaigning on such matters and many people take a strong personal interest in them, but there is a major difference between wanting a reduction in the unnecessary suffering by animals and those who understand the need for medical research for the benefit of humankind. It is important that the hon. Gentleman put that distinction on the record.

I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s point about press releases. It is important to make the case whenever we have the opportunity. I will not flinch from doing so and I do not believe that a single ministerial colleague in the Department will flinch from doing so. The hon. Gentleman may have given us a useful jab and he was right to say that we should carry on making the case clearly and unequivocally.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was a volunteer for the HIV vaccine, which demonstrates a personal commitment, and I want to make a brief comment about the Northwick Park issue which is commanding so much attention at the moment. People have asked whether that demonstrates that animal testing is
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unnecessary because it did not prevent the incident. There will be further announcements in due course about the reasons for what happened—and some expert work is necessary—but it demonstrated the danger of putting people into early clinical trials when there has not been sufficient animal research. That makes the point that animal testing is important; it does not make the reverse case. It would be a dangerous world if people were not confident about going into such trials and it is very important, if we are to maintain public confidence in clinical trials, that we continue to use animal testing when necessary.

Dr. Harris: I back the Minister’s support for the idea that press releases on clinical trials should refer to animal research and I hope that it is fair to say that there is now Government support for funders to ask for or even to insist that researchers do that.

Will the Minister use the last two minutes to refer to the labelling of medicine packs because I know that many people want to hear his views?

Andy Burnham: I will. I heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments and have read the transcript of his interview on the “Today” programme. He is making an interesting proposal. I know that it has been discussed before and I have an open mind about it. I am prepared to consider the issues further, but I urge him to recognise that a cost-benefit analysis is required because there are risks—it has been suggested that some people may be deterred from taking medicines—and there is a financial cost to the NHS of doing so. There may be other risks in following such a course.

At the same time, the benefit that the hon. Gentleman wants is public confidence and acceptance of the need for animal testing so there is a benefit, but I hope that he recognises that there may be dangers also. The matter should be considered in the round before a firm commitment can be given one way or another. I do not have a closed mind on the issue and if he wants to do further work and to engage us in further debate, I am happy to do so. However, the matter is not as straightforward as it may seem initially, although I am not saying that I have a real desire or a closed mind.

In the short time remaining, I want to congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on the debate. He mentioned young people, who are an important audience for the issues that we have discussed today. We would do well to think more about how we can communicate some of the messages that we are sharing today with that audience. I believe that most young people would accept the position that we are outlining, but let us communicate with them.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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