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House of Lords

Friday, 17th October 2003.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark.

Animals in Scientific Procedures

Lord Smith of Clifton rose to move, That this House takes note of the Report of the Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures (HL Paper 150, Session 2001–02).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to present this report. All Select Committee reports deal with important matters of moment, but I venture to suggest that few have to tackle so vexed an issue as laboratory animals: it is a subject which polarises opinion. Excluding, of course, the extremists, whose activities all reasonable people deplore, it was heartening that the report has been generally well received by both sides in the debate. That is not to suggest that there is in any sense unanimity about our proposals—major and minor reservations have been raised—but the overall reception that the report has received indicates that, at the very least, it will have helped to shape future debate on the subject and will serve as a major point of reference and departure.

The committee was appointed on 13th March 2001 and reported in July 2002—the general election interrupted its early deliberations. Essentially, the membership was composed of lay people. Only one of us—the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior—has ever held a project licence for animal experiments. His considerable professional expertise was an invaluable source of interpretation and elucidation on technical matters for the rest of us. But I must stress that the other 10 members of the Select Committee addressed our terms of reference with little or no specialist knowledge of the subject. We were very much a lay jury and not in any sense, except the literal one, "a peer review". If we had any strength at all, it derived from our status as lay people coming to conclusions on a complex issue of great public importance.

At the outset, I wish to pay warm tribute to my colleagues. They are a very heterogeneous group of very independent minds, ranging from the distinguished philosopher, the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, to the noble Earl, Lord Onslow—if I may put it that way. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, has assured the Select Committee's place in history with the publication of her recent book, Nature and Mortality. In it, she describes the noble Earl as "ebullient", "irrepressibly talkative", and,

    "an excellent member of the Committee, though the chairman sometimes has to suppress him".

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I am not sure about the qualification "sometimes", but, that apart, the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, paints an accurate sketch of the character of the Select Committee and its mode of operation.

Despite our heterogeneous composition, we worked well together and produced a unanimous report. I thank my colleagues for their contributions and their assiduity: they collectively achieved an attendance record of 77 per cent. I also endorse the judgment of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, as to the,

    "outstanding excellence of our Clerk",

Dr Thomas Elias. He was brilliant and helpful. We were also well served by our special adviser, the Reverend Professor Michael Reiss of the University of London Institute of Education.

The committee drew six broad conclusions from its deliberations, together with 24 recommendations. We could, of course, have come up with many more, as the subject lends itself to that, but we deliberately chose to be as parsimonious in this regard as was feasible so as to focus on the priorities as we saw them. Our conclusions were designed to put our recommendations in context.

Other members of the Select Committee will draw your Lordships' attention to particular points that our report contains. I shall confine myself to what I think are our most important conclusions and shall comment on the reception that the report has received from the scientific and industrial community and the animal welfare community and on the Government's formal response to the committee's report.

At the outset, perhaps I may reiterate that, by and large, the report has been welcomed by both sides of the debate. That should have prompted the Government—by which I mean the Home Office—to have been bolder and more imaginative in framing their own response. Goodness knows, it took long enough to respond, scraping in only just within the conventional six-month deadline.

In many respects, the Government's response is negative and complacent and displays no sense of urgency whatever. The noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, who knows more than most about inquiries and their ultimate destinies, presciently concluded in her book:

    "Whether what we recommend will make any difference to the practices of the Home Office is doubtful".

Certainly, little action has been initiated in the past 14 months. It is also to be regretted that the government response is exclusively confined to the Home Office when other Whitehall departments have responsibilities for aspects of the committee's work, including health, education and work, and trade and industry. All impact on animal experimentation in different ways, and it is unfortunate that there is no evidence of any recognition of this intergovernmental dimension in the formal response.

However, I congratulate the Government on deciding, albeit at the 13th hour, that the Minister responsible for science, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, would reply to the debate. If I may say so—I appreciate it because he is extremely jet-lagged—it gives the right signal to both the scientific community

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and the welfare groups, and I hope it is a sign that the Government will now deal with the recommendations in our report more expeditiously than heretofore.

I turn now to the recommendations to which I wish to draw attention today. The first one that I want to emphasise is that which calls for a severe culling of the bureaucracy involved in the application and amendment of project licences. In evidence, we saw some applications extending to many hundreds of pages. That is unnecessary and time-consuming and places both the United Kingdom's academia and the pharmaceutical industry in an internationally uncompetitive position and, equally importantly, is deleterious to the welfare of animals. The government response says, rather reluctantly, that they will consider the simplification of project licences and, in classic Civil Service language, that they,

    "will revisit this matter with the research community",

adding ominously that,

    "Licences must be as long as they need to be for essential regulatory purposes, but not a page longer than that".

I ask the Minister what positive steps the Government have undertaken in the past 18 months in this regard. I doubt whether his answer will be encouraging. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry said yesterday that there has been no progress, and it looks as though the length of the licensing form may well increase.

A corollary to this proposal is the recommendation that local ethical review committees should be given delegated powers from the Home Office to approve routine or minor amendments to project licences. That would reduce time and bureaucracy and have important benefits for animal welfare. While the Government agree in principle, they argue that that would need primary legislation which,

    "would not in our view be justified".

Asserting that it would not be justified adds nothing whatever to the debate. It is simply using another classic, weasel-worded stalling device, which is all too common in the Home Office.

While on the question of local ethical review committees, the Select Committee advocated the appointment of an external lay member for each committee, whose term of office should be time-limited. That would go a long way to reassure the public that such committees, usually bereft of such genuine independent advice, are not mere rubber stamps. The Home Office flatly rejects that because,

    "some establishments, particularly the smaller ones, have found it difficult to identify and recruit lay members".

That is risible. What real evidence have the Government for that assertion? How hard have establishments tried to recruit lay members; not very, I suspect. In the United States it is a legal requirement.

One of our most important recommendations was for the establishment of a centre for the 3Rs: reduction, refinement and replacement of animals. The 3Rs was a concept developed by Russell and Burch as long ago as 1959. It has been accepted internationally as the foundation of best practice. The

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problem is that positive development is not pursued as a focused activity. Most scientists claim that they assiduously apply the 3Rs in the course of their work, saying that it is intrinsic to their endeavours from both an ethical and an economic point of view. But the application of the 3Rs is often routine.

We believe that a centre for 3Rs should be set up, consisting of a small administrative hub, which would co-ordinate research units embedded in existing centres of scientific excellence. That would give a focus to the development of the 3Rs, would enhance the status of this important aspect of science and, most vitally, would be an earnest of intention on the part of both the scientific community and the Government to those animal welfare groups that may otherwise be sceptical. Moreover, in vitro and in silico alternative methods may well provide more accurate experimentation for, at best, animals are only imperfect models for humans.

That suggestion, I am pleased to say, found some favour with the Home Office. For its part, the Medical Research Council stated:

    "Although we do not agree with the Select Committee that a single centre (with hub and spokes) for the 3Rs is the right approach, we would support further co-ordination in this area. The MRC's Centre for Best Practice in Animal Research . . . is starting to fulfil this role . . . In addition to expanding the role of the CBPAR, the MRC is also keen to see more research directly aimed at the 3Rs and will be encouraging this through special funding arrangements".

That is heartening and the fact that our report has prompted that positive, if limited, reaction is welcome. By the same token it is gratifying to note that the Lord Dowding Fund and the Dr Hadwen Trust have strongly endorsed our proposal for a centre for the 3Rs.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister for a situation report on what progress has been made towards creating a centre for the 3Rs. His honourable friend, the then Minister in another place, Mr Bob Ainsworth, in a Written Answer of 10th June stated that a progress report is expected in the autumn. Is it expected any day now?

Another area of great importance is that of public information and ease of access to it. That was covered by two recommendations we made. First, we proposed that the substantive details of anonymised project licences, which describes the projected benefits of the research and harm to the animals involved, should be made public after they have been approved and funded. The Government would sanction publishing only licence summaries. Secondly, we argued for improved official statistics. To that end serious effort should be made to provide better figures on animal suffering.

The inspectorate should develop or approve a scoring system for animal suffering, which should be used for all project licences. At the moment the system of averaging out the range of suffering involved in a project obscures the degrees of serious harm inflicted. The Government agree with that in principle but again effectively kick it into the long grass, stating,

    "the difficulty of devising a method of capturing this information should not be underestimated".

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But they undertake,

    "as a first stage, [to] seek views on the information that would be of use as part of the wider review of the statistics",

for which the Select Committee had also called. The Government agree that these,

    "are not presented in a readily digestible form",

and will initiate a review. Again, I would ask the Minister to say what steps have been taken, first, with regard to devising a scoring system and, secondly, with regard to the more general review of statistics.

Is the Home Office on trend to get the desirable net increase in inspectors it aims at, and by what date will that be achieved? The inspectorate is the only specifically laboratory-animal trained one in the world and in the main does a good job invigilating the laboratories in its charge. My one criticism is that corporately it displays an over-bureaucratic mindset, which is too defensive of the status quo. It follows that the inspectorate is not really amenable to innovations it has not collectively made. This attitude can be vividly seen in the inspectorate's self-serving review of the ethical review committee system.

Finally, I want to mention one other important recommendation. We proposed that the inspectorate should convene a forum to meet regularly to discuss specific scientific and welfare issues related to the use of animals in experiments. That would assist in reducing the polarity of attitudes between scientists and animal welfare groups, which would be conducive to more rational and coherent debate. It might also contribute to a monitoring of future developments and, it is to be hoped, on occasions a more agreed and consensual approach as to the future course of action.

The Select Committee convened a one-day conference in the Moses Room that encompassed the most inclusive gathering of all the main parties on the issue of animal experiments, excluding, of course, animal terrorists. By general consent, it was deemed a worthwhile exercise, generating more "heat than light"—Freudian slip there—light than heat on my own cost/benefit analysis and it greatly assisted our deliberations. The Government agree that it should become a routine feature, but not one that the inspectorate should organise. Perhaps I may ask the Minister who the Government have in mind to initiate this worthwhile forum.

The issue of animal experimentation will continue to be, quite properly, an important topic on the public agenda. The report of the Select Committee, it is to be hoped, will have facilitated how best the public dialogue may profitably be progressed. It is to be welcomed that the Nuffield Foundation has recently created a council on bioethics, under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Perry of Southwark, to carry the issues forward, with similar terms of reference to those of the Select Committee.

The Royal Commission on Environmental Protection, reporting on chemicals in industrial products, echoed our views on the need for animal testing but, equally, the vital need to pursue the development of alternatives, so that animals would no

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longer be used. The membership of the Animal Procedures Committee has been strengthened. Such developments are good auguries. All that is now needed is greater energy, positive imagination and a quickening of the pace on the part of the Government.

An Early Day Motion of 12th February in another place attracted no fewer than 224 signatories from all sides expressing exasperation with the Government. It stated:

    "That this House is concerned at the Government's response to the House of Lords Report on the use of animals in scientific procedures; notes that this report received widespread backing from both the animal welfare and scientific communities; and calls upon the Government to implement the main recommendations of the report forthwith".

That says it all.

Moved, That this House takes note of the Report of the Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures (HL Paper 150, Session 2001–02).—(Lord Smith of Clifton.)

11.21 a.m.

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