My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, on chairing our committee so very ably, and I thank him for his generous remarks about me as a barman in Brussels. It is always a great privilege to serve on one of your Lordships' Select Committees, since our discussions frequently touch upon issues in which the public have a very considerable interest. Today is no exception.
Opinion polls suggest that a majority of people in Britain are conditional accepters of animal experimentation for medical purposes-that is, they can accept at least some forms of animal research, provided that there is no unnecessary suffering and/or that no alternative will do. It is very clear that people place importance on avoiding the use of animals where possible, with a majority of those polled-70 per cent in the most recent survey-also agreeing that there needs to be more research into alternatives. Clearly, it would be wrong to carry out an animal experiment if another method, not using animals, could achieve the goal. That ethical imperative is recognised in both the UK and EU laws, which prohibit the use of laboratory animals if another method is available. Yet what if another method has not yet been identified or developed? How can we enhance progress in finding substitutes for the use of animals?
One key aim in revising the EU directive on the use of animals for scientific purposes is to promote,
"the development ... and implementation of alternative methods".
Those methods span all the three Rs, namely: the reduction, refinement and replacement of animal use. The Commission has shown ambition in asserting that,
"the ultimate goal should be to replace the use of animal experiments altogether", but is also realistic in its view that,
"with current knowledge a complete phase out of animal experimentation is not yet achievable".
As witnesses called to our inquiry emphasised, future progress will need to capitalise on new technologies such as tissue engineering, advances in computer technology, non-invasive imaging techniques and understanding of gene function, to name but a few. Identifying, adapting and bringing new approaches on stream will in large part depend on the proactive efforts of researchers themselves. The scientific challenges should not be underestimated. Further progress will require lateral thinking, bringing a wide range of expertise to bear.
For this reason we took the view that the Commission's initial proposal that each member state should set up a national reference laboratory for the validation of alternatives would not provide the required impetus towards reducing the use of laboratory animals across the EU. It is unlikely that a single centralised laboratory can provide the breadth of scientific experience upon which any further progress will depend. More fundamentally, a focus on validation ignores the need to develop new methods in the first place. Instead, we were persuaded that a system of national centres across the EU would be a better approach, each working as a forum, aiming, like the UK national centre 3Rs, to bring together a wide range of experts and other interests to explore the potential of new technologies to reduce the use of animals; to think creatively about potential new approaches; and to serve as a source of inspiration and information about alternatives.
Since our report was published, the requirement for national reference laboratories has been removed from the draft directive. In the current draft, Commission and member states will be required to contribute to the development and validation of alternative approaches, the Commission to consult member states in setting priorities for validation studies, and member states to assist the Commission in placing validation studies in suitable laboratories. There will also be a Community reference laboratory covering all 3Rs.
It is my hope that these provisions will lay the foundation for an overarching strategic approach to the development of non-animal methods across the EU, which ultimately will help further to reduce the need to use animals in scientific research and testing. I noted very carefully the wise and experienced words of the noble Lord, Lord Winston, but I hope and think he will agree that it is most important that science and society continue to concentrate on this highly sensitive issue.