Motion to Take Note

Part of EU: Directive on the Protection of Animals Used for Scientific Purposes (EUC Report) – in the House of Lords at 4:03 pm on 10th February 2010.

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Photo of Lord Skelmersdale Lord Skelmersdale - Shadow Minister, Shadow Minister 4:03 pm, 10th February 2010

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Carter of Coles, on securing this debate so promptly after the report was issued. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I should perhaps declare an interest in this subject. When I was comparatively green in your Lordships' House, I sat on the Select Committee on the late Lord Halsbury's second Private Member's Bill, entitled the Laboratory Animals Protection Bill. I should also perhaps declare a non-interest in that my daughter is a junior lecturer at Sheffield University, working in the cancer lab. It will perhaps be instructive for this debate if I say that, as she had neither training in laboratory animals nor, unlike my noble friend Lord Soulsby and the noble Lord, Lord Winston, a licence from the Home Office, she had to get someone else to pursue her PhD research.

At first blush, it may seem a surprise that responsibility for consideration of the subject, and therefore of the report, falls to the Home Office. However, I quickly reminded myself that the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 was a Home Office creature, as was its predecessor by 110 years, the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876-the first law passed anywhere in the world aimed at regulating animal testing. This country should be proud of that. However, given the subsequent changes in ministerial responsibilities, it remains surprising that the Home Office is still the sponsoring department.

Leaving that aside, it is legitimate to reflect that the United Kingdom has led the world in legislation that promotes and protects animal welfare. I tell my noble friend Lord Arran that we spent a lot of time investigating mathematical techniques, with a view to the ultimate abolition of animal testing. We came to the conclusion that we could not envisage such a thing happening. That may please certain noble and scientific Lords who have spoken this afternoon.

The 1986 Act was designed to implement an EC directive that harmonised measures to regulate any experimental or scientific procedure applied to a "protected animal". As the noble Lords, Lord Carter and Lord Sewel, told us, the harmonisation has not been realised. It was intended to set a common minimum standard across the Community, and it is arguable-indeed, I do argue, and I hope that noble Lords will agree-that our 1986 Act went further than was strictly required by the Commission.

We are now confronted with proposals to update the 1986 rules. I congratulate your Lordships' European Union Sub-Committee D on giving such close scrutiny to the European Commission's proposed revision of the 1986 directive. I agree that the changes in scientific methods and understanding in the past 20 years mean that the rules on animal experimentation are due for an overhaul. I also agree that the exercise should be a levelling-up, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, reminded us, rather than a search for the lowest common denominator, and that the high standards achieved and observed in the UK should not be diluted. Therefore, I have no objection to a process that seeks to raise standards across the EU to create a level playing field.

As I have indicated, there is a long-standing acceptance in this country that the testing of animals is regrettably necessary to help advance our understanding and treatment of diseases, but also that it must be conducted in as humane a manner as we are able to achieve. Unless we have a common approach to protecting animals used for scientific procedures, there is a risk that the good practices espoused in this country may be undermined if research is simply transferred elsewhere in the EU to places with less stringent standards. The question that my noble friend Lord Caithness put into my mind, therefore, is: what would be our legal position if our arrangements in this area went further than the directive? Are we likely to be taken before the European Court? I cannot understand how harmonisation will be achieved without a central EU inspectorate. I hope that the Minister will tell us how the Government reached their conclusion.

The draft revised directive is a step forward from the original proposals, and I am heartened to see in the Government's response to the report of your Lordships' sub-committee that the positions espoused by the directive, held by the Government and advocated by the sub-committee are becoming aligned. Some of the more objectionable measures have been reined in. For example, the idea that projects that should be subject to prior authorisation might be permitted by,

"tacit approval instead of authorisation", has been dropped. I welcome that step. Ideally, when implementing the changes in the directive, administrative burdens should be kept to a minimum, and those that are imposed must be justified by a gain in animal welfare. This must be the right approach.

As we have heard this afternoon, the sub-committee and the Government both support the promotion of the three Rs-the replacement, reduction and refinement of the scientific use of animals-and so do we on these Benches. The updating of animal welfare legislation is necessary as scientific procedures and our understanding of the physiology of animals advance. It is my hope that, by taking into account such advances when we put these rules in place, we are increasingly able to reduce the need for animal experimentation. An example of this responsiveness can be seen in the inclusion of new categories of protected animals.

That said, I am curious to know why, in the list of protected animals, decapods are excluded but cyclostomes are to be included. Decapods include creatures such as lobsters and crabs, which I am well aware can meet an unfortunate, if sudden, end in restaurants, but is it proven that they feel less pain than cyclostomes? Indeed, do they feel any pain? Our researches all those years ago on the late Earl's Bill concluded that fish, including hagfish, did not feel pain That was accepted by the scientific community at the time, so what has changed since, or perhaps what scientific physiological progress have I missed in the intervening 30 years? I cannot be so certain that the absence of a sense of pain is true of cephalopods, such as the octopus, which are also included in the list. I may be incorrect in that assessment but it is an interesting distinction none the less, and I should be grateful if the Minister could enlighten me further.

My major concern with the directive, which the sub-committee has highlighted and which I do not think has been adequately dealt with in the government response, is how any future changes to the control regime in the directive will be made. If new scientific understanding emerges that necessitates protection being extended to other categories of animals, how will this be effected? The Government admit in their response to the sub-committee's report that comitology will not allow changes to an essential element of the directive, but that the Government will,

"explore further whether this might be achievable".

Can the Minister please elaborate on what the Government have done, or intend to do, to allow flexibility into the system where it would plainly be beneficial?

I was the Whip on the Bench in 1985 when my noble friend Lord Glenarthur introduced the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Bill to your Lordships' House. I was struck then, as I am reminded now, of a dictum of the RSPCA, which as long ago as 1980 observed in a written response to the late Lord Halsbury's Private Member's Bill that the aim of any new legislation should be to provide a comprehensive system of control which can easily be interpreted, is readily applied and is applicable to current animal usage. I believe that that is what we should be striving for in applying any changes to the directive, and I congratulate noble Lords on the sub-committee who have sought to untangle the provisions of the updated directive and officials who have evidently worked hard to make sure that the standards that are to be applied across Europe will rise to meet the high standards of animal welfare that we expect of our scientists here. I therefore concur with the sub-committee that this new directive should now be agreed and implemented effectively.