Amendment 97

Part of Environment Bill - Committee (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 28th June 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 9:15 pm, 28th June 2021

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. Guess what—I am going to argue the opposite.

Dame Sarah Gilbert received a well-deserved standing ovation at Wimbledon today for her pioneering work on vaccines. I echo those cheers and that standing ovation, but I note that that achievement required experimentation on monkeys and mice. I oppose these amendments—a whole range from Amendments 97 to 297 and in between —because, in one way or another, they seek to make animal testing ever more regulated. There is even an inference, by positing it in an animal welfare context and with this emphasis on the last resort, that this vital part of scientific research is somehow a necessary evil that should be abolished and is morally dubious.

The UK system of regulating animal testing and experiments is already the tightest in the world, and researchers complain that they can obtain licences only if they clearly demonstrate that there are no alternatives. Some have to wait so long to secure approval for small amendments to research licences that the research becomes outdated and has to be abandoned. The whole field is too heavily bureaucratised; certainly, no more bureaucracy is needed. I am worried already about the Bill, without it being tightened up by these amendments.

I have long felt queasy about the “reduce” and “replace” elements of the three Rs. Endless attempts at placing restrictions on the types or numbers of animals used in experiments can, I fear, only stifle medical and human safety progress, with their positive benefits for humanity. For the record, and I know this is medical research but I want to remind people of the kind of benefits we mean, the use of dogs to extract insulin to treat diabetes, the experiments on armadillos that helped develop a cure for leprosy, and the wonder drug levodopa used on people with Parkinson’s—if you know anyone who has had that disease and taken that drug, you will know what a wonderful gain it is—would not have been developed without the insights gained from research involving animals. Think of a world without pacemakers, heart transplants, open-heart surgery, safe anaesthetics, polio vaccines and cancer treatments that mean survival rates have doubled over the last 40 years. So many people alive today—in fact, so many in this Chamber—are here only because of the role of animal research in the battle against nature and natural diseases. That is even before we talk about Covid vaccines.

Reducing the use of animals in testing or medical science would be a backwards step. The truth is that, if we are to fully understand and find more treatments for Covid-19, we will need to do more animal research, not less—not reduce the number of animals, but use multiple species. There will be lots of failed experiments, which some will say is a waste, but that is what will eventually mean that we find answers and cures. As outlined in Nature magazine recently:

“Monkeys and mice tell researchers different things about infection, shedding light on factors such as … the immune system or how the virus spreads.”

Whatever the testing is for, we have to say that this is one result of human ingenuity, of life-saving problem-solvers, and it should be celebrated and encouraged.

Instead, there is a faintly misanthropic whiff to this constant demand to reduce animal research, as well as a focus on animal welfare rather than human welfare. We all know how animal rights activists have adopted anthropomorphic language to discredit animal research: mice are “tortured”, pigs are “sacrificed” and dogs are “mutilated”—we have heard about “barbarity” today. This leads to a narrative of scientists portrayed as though they get perverse pleasure from sadistically experimenting on animals.

I am not trying to sugar-coat vivisection or this kind of testing. I know that it involves gore and, ultimately, destroying animals. But this is not wanton animal cruelty; it is driven by a desire to save human life and have a safer society. That is why I have so objected over the years to the way that these scientists and researchers, and the research institutions and the chemical and pharmaceutical companies, whether private or public, have been vilified and harassed—named and shamed in a culture of fear. These scientists and researchers should have nothing to be ashamed of; indeed, I want not only to reject these amendments but to go on the offensive about the moral good of research on animals. If Sarah Gilbert deserves a standing ovation, so do they. I rather feel as if these amendments are a bit of a dispiriting slow handclap.

Let us not get muddled up here. We should not allow rhetoric about animal welfare to stand in the way of human welfare and the alleviation of human suffering or making the world safer. Some may think this human-centric and unsympathetic to animals but, rather, I am rather worried about affording a moral equivalence between animals and humans. I refute the caricature that this equates to indifference to animals.

As it pays attention to wildlife and with its focus on biodiversity, the Bill inevitably also has a focus on animal protection policies. That means our gaze is on animals, but we must resist seeing issues through an animal rights framework that upgrades and exaggerates the capacity of animals, while logically and philosophically down- grading and diminishing the agency and consciousness of humans—capacities that animals do not possess. This careless interchangeability between human and animal rights and capacities has been raised as a problem in relation to the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill by a number of noble Lords.

I hope that the Minister and the Government will reject these amendments and, without rehearsing Cartesian dualism, note that it is precisely human consciousness that allows us to legislate for how we should better organise our relationship with the natural world. It also allows us so much progress and scientific innovation, so necessary to much in the Bill and vital to post-Covid prosperity and health.