The principal role of the Animal Procedures Committee is to advise the Secretary of State on matters to do with the operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Work completed and planned covers matters of current importance concerning the use of animals in scientific procedures. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I greatly value the committee's advice and we consider that the reform of the membership that has taken place since the election gives the committee a more balanced membership.
Although I accept that the current Government have done more for animal welfare than any previous Government—the number of animal welfare experts on the committee has increased and cosmetics testing on animals has ended—does the Minister accept that, with 2.5 million animals affected, there is a great deal more that the committee needs to do to protect the welfare of animals?
The committee recognises that a large amount of work can still be undertaken; its members are anxious to get on with it, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I encourage them to do so. What is important is that those who have responsibility—whether at individual institutional level, as a member of the Animal Procedures Committee, or as a Minister—should be constantly vigilant to ensure that animals are used in such procedures only when no reasonable alternative exists. Measured against that simple test, we are doing well; however, we must always apply that test, because there are occasions when extremely important benefits to medical science and public safety can be derived from the procedures.
Does the Minister agree with the Animal Procedures Committee's conclusion in its recent report, that the 1986 Act
provides a good framework for a well regulated and responsible use of animals in experiments within the UK"?
Does he agree with the committee's recommendation that the
working of the Act can be improved further
by, for example, enhanced training, better cost-benefit analysis and acquiring animals for experiments only from countries whose welfare standards match our own?
To anyone who is concerned about animal welfare, does not that report show that there can be no justification for any further independent review, such as a royal commission? Would not that only delay and hamper the progress towards higher standards that is already being achieved under the existing Act? Does the Minister now regret his party ever having promised a royal commission—a promise that had all the appearance of being aimed at winning votes—and will he take this opportunity to confirm that the Government have abandoned that pledge?
The Government have an open mind about whether a royal commission would be the best way of achieving a reduction in the number of animals used in such procedures. For the present, I am content that the time and energy that we devote to these issues is aimed, where possible, at reducing the number of animals involved in the procedures or at least ensuring that the procedures are appropriate.
The hon. Gentleman is correct about the conclusions of the review of the 1986 Act conducted by the APC. As part of that process, from the first of next month we will require establishments that conduct the procedures to carry out an ethical review. When considering embarking on such experiments, a committee within the institution will be required to consider whether that is the most important form of action. Most sensible people have welcomed that move, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will.