HC Deb 11 March 1998 vol 308 cc526-34 1.29 pm
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I welcome the fact that we are having the first debate this Session on the important matter of animal experimentation, which is of considerable importance to many people in this country and to many hon. Members from all parties. I hope that the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, during the debate.

I have given notice to the Minister's office of one or two of the points that I intend to raise. I hope that he will find that helpful, and that it will mean that the debate is fuller than it might otherwise have been.

In the United Kingdom, 2.7 million Home Office-approved animal experiments are carried out each year. These are likely to cause…pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm. according to the "Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals". In addition, the Ministry of Defence conducts around 11,000 experiments a year, a figure which has almost trebled since 1992, when the present right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) was Minister of State.

Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

I intervene to clarify for the record that it was after I had left the Ministry of Defence that the number of experiments trebled. As the hon. Gentleman put it, it might have sounded as though they increased during my period of tenure. While I was there, I did my level best to keep them to an absolute minimum.

Mr. Baker

I am grateful for that clarification. I was going to make the point that the number of experiments has risen—unduly, in my view—since the right hon. Gentleman left his post.

Can we as a human race feel comfortable that we are using animals in this way to such an extent; that we place them in unfamiliar surroundings and often subject them to painful and gruesome experiments? I intend to show that the experimentation carried out in this country is excessive, the results are unreliable, and that alternatives exist that have yet to be fully and properly exploited.

I welcome the Government's decision to end the testing of cosmetics products, but, in reality, it has made virtually no difference to the numbers, stopping only about 800 procedures out of 2.7 million. What is more, cosmetic ingredient testing has not been banned, and it accounts for most cosmetic testing on animals. Almost 2,000 cosmetic ingredient tests took place in 1996. A supplementary note from the Home Office, published in November last year, talked about cosmetic ingredient testing. I would welcome clarification from the Minister about whether the Government have reached a conclusion on that matter.

As all cosmetic products can be classified as vanity products, do the Government agree that a comprehensive ban on all cosmetic ingredient testing is essential?

Will the Government set a target to reduce the number of animal experiments that will be carried out during the lifetime of this Parliament, and give an absolute guarantee that fewer experiments will be carried out each year at the end of it than at present? That commitment is terribly important, and I hope that the Minister will respond to it when he replies.

At a fundamental level, animal experimentation rests on a view of reality that sees living beings, in all their individuality and unpredictability, as a set of interchangeable and predictable machine parts. It examines one aspect of the body in isolation from the huge range of influences, both environmental and subjective, that affect it. It ignores the whole picture and focuses on a small detail.

That strictly limiting and short-sighted viewpoint seeks to justify the extrapolation of data from one species of animal to another. I question the very basis of the value of animal experimentation in certain circumstances. There are plenty of examples to show that the logic is fundamentally flawed. All animals are different. It is patently obvious that a mouse does not resemble a human; neither does a rat or a rabbit, yet all those animals are used in experiments, in the claim that they will benefit humans.

The fact is that all animals, including humans, react differently to different substances. They metabolise substances in different ways. They can tolerate different levels of any given substance. They obtain and need vitamins in different ways. They have different life cycles. They have different digestive and circulatory systems. Most important, all species suffer from different diseases. So how can we be sure that the experiments are reliable?

I give the Minister examples of where these experiments are unreliable: lemon juice kills cats; parsley kills parrots; penicillin kills guinea pigs; strychnine is harmless to monkeys, as is arsenic to sheep; insulin causes malfunctions in chickens, rabbits and mice; aspirin causes birth defects in monkeys; and thalidomide is safe to guinea pigs. The list is substantial and clearly demonstrates that we are foolish to rely on the reliability of animal experiments. What will the Minister do to tackle the uncertainty of the results of animal testing?

I deal now with some of the animal experiments that take place, and will look at the matter from not a human-centred but an animal-centred point of view. One of the common procedures is the LD50 test. Animals are dosed with various quantities of a substance to find out how much is needed to kill half the animals in a particular batch. The test is crude and unscientific, and causes immense suffering to animals, yet such tests have risen dramatically in recent years, to almost 200,000 in 1996.

The Government said in November that they would press for the LD50 test to be used only when "absolutely necessary". What does absolutely necessary mean? What steps is the Minister taking to eliminate that test? Why can he not simply ban it? When is it necessary? I am not convinced that it is at all necessary. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 requires animal suffering to be weighed against the benefit of the research before a licence is made. I suggest that, on that basis alone, the LD50 test should be banned.

Another common and particularly painful experiment is the Draize test, which is used to measure irritation. As the Minister will know, rabbits are often chosen for eye studies because they cannot blink. How appalling that animals that cannot blink are used to measure irritation in the eye. Guinea pigs are used for skin experiments. Other tests are simply beyond belief. One has to ask what on earth is the motivation behind them. Rats are forced to breathe smoke bomb fumes to investigate the effects on the lung to see whether oxygen treatment is beneficial. It is beyond belief that such tests continue.

Animals suffer not only during the tests but before and after. I draw the Minister's attention to early-day motion 802, which I tabled, with other hon. Members who are present today, to draw attention to the fact that primates have been transported to this country from Indonesia and other places, with journeys lasting up to 58 hours, in small wooden crates in aeroplane holds. The animals suffer considerably before they even arrive in a laboratory. That early-day motion has been supported by 61 hon. Members from all parts of the House.

So what great human endeavour justifies the imposition of this suffering? Forty-nine per cent. of experiments are carried out for commercial gain, not for health purposes but to produce a washing-up liquid that is more competitive, or a "new improved" scourer, or a shoe polish that cleans more effectively. The other main source is university work, which accounts for a further 29 per cent. A great deal of university work is, of course, funded by commercial concerns. In other words, animals are being made to suffer purely to improve the financial profitability of private companies. That is totally unethical.

Furthermore, the drug industry's involvement cannot be overstated. The structure and context of medical research are such that its fundamental priority is to satisfy the pharmaceutical industry's thirst for profit, which is now the largest in the world. That is the motivation. It seems that, as far as the drugs companies are concerned, a pound of flesh equals a pound of profit.

Large numbers of experiments on animals, many of which are repetitive, are carried out to test weapons—experiments such as firing a bullet into the skull of a monkey or blasting body armour worn by a pig. I have already mentioned the near trebling of the number of experiments by the Ministry of Defence at Porton Down.

Here is another question for the Minister. Will the Government honour their pre-election pledge to forbid the use of animals in the developing and testing of weapons? I hope that he heard that question. It is most important, and it is a matter of ethics.

As I have said, we as a human race are foolish to trust the reliability of medical experiments on animals. I also want to draw attention to the fact that many of the experiments are geared towards the elite end of the market, designed to perfect expensive operations such as organ transplants, from which most of the world's population will never benefit.

Such experiments are for the benefit of a small minority, and do nothing for the basic human health of most people, either in this country or in the rest of the world. While we are busy experimenting and perfecting organ transplants, millions of people lack clean water, basic shelter and food. Perhaps we should devote more of our resources to those purposes.

The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 has been subject to some review, but I am still concerned about the work load of the inspectors. In 1996, there were only 17 inspectors whose work load included monitoring 14,870 licence holders, granting 2,202 new licences, assessing progress in 3,869 projects, assessing and approving 667 new projects and inspecting 300 establishments covering 2.7 million experiments.

It seems to me that we need a new super breed of inspector to carry out all those functions. If the 1986 Act, flawed as it is, is to work properly, we need to appoint more inspectors and ensure that they are given the proper resources.

To be fair, I must admit that the Government have recognised the problem. I believe that something is being put back into the budget.

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)


Mr. Alan Clark


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Mr. Alan Clark


Mr. Howarth

In view of the time, I shall not give way, but the right hon. Gentleman may wish to correspond with me.

Mr. Clark

Will the hon. Gentleman give way for just half a second?

Mr. Howarth

For half a second.

Mr. Clark

The hon. Gentleman said that the Government were considering the argument. Why cannot the Minister share the arguments, pro and con, with the House? I should have thought that the whole matter could be settled in a matter of hours.

Mr. Howarth

I have only three minutes to respond to the points that have been made, and it would not be sensible for me to pursue all the arguments in the sort of detail that the right hon. Gentleman might like.

The number of procedures have been reducing steadily since the 1970s. However, in recent years the use of transgenic animals has put pressure on the total number. Transgenic animals allow new lines of important research to be followed. We are aware of the target set in the fifth European environmental action plan to reduce the number of animals used by 50 per cent. by 2000. We have made considerable progress in reducing the number of animals used over the years.

In only 10 months, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary has set out on an ambitious and, I think most people would accept, caring agenda. I hope that hon. Members will agree that a great deal has already been achieved and, characteristically, my noble Friend has done that in a thoughtful but usually effective manner.

Mr. Baker

May I ask the Minister a question?

Mr. Howarth

I have one minute left and it would be impossible.

There is more to do, but I am confident that we shall continue, as we have begun, to deliver positive improvements to the supervision and regulation of animal welfare. I assure the House that we take that commitment seriously and I ask hon. Members and the wider public to judge us on what we achieve over a reasonable period of time. We are serious, and we appreciate the interest in the subject in the House and among the general public. I hope that the hon. Member for Lewes will take up our intention and that we can make progress and reach a better understanding.

Mr. Baker

Can the Minister guarantee that, by the end of the Parliament, fewer experiments will be carried out each year? Yes or no?

Mr. Deputy Speaker


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

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.