There was a debate in the House of Commons yesterday about the update of UK law governing research using animals. Animal research is a small but important part of medical research to better understand disease and develop treatments that improve and save lives. The Home Office governs this research and Home Office Minister Damian Green outlined their plans for how the law will be updated including:
- ensuring the UK’s high animal welfare standards are maintained
- simplifying project licenses
- continuing the UK’s stringent inspection process
- continuing to ban the use of great apes in experiments
Damian Green confirmed that the Home Office will respond to the consultation they held last year on how to update UK law shortly. This will give us more detail of their plans. They will then draft legislation which will go before Parliament before it can become law.
Animal research in the UK is strictly regulated, only conducted where the research is necessary and no alternative exists. The regulations demand high standards of animal welfare and include specific requirements for work to replace, reduce and refine of the use of animals.
The EU Directive governing animal research has recently been revised. The UK must now update our regulations in line with the revised directive by January 2013.
The Home Office has consulted on how to update the UK regulations - AMRC responded as part of a coalition of bioscience organisations. The Home Office has been pulling together all the consultation responses and will publish their response soon. Following that we expect them to publish draft regulations that will go before Parliament as an affirmative Statutory Instrument before they can become law.
What came out of yesterday’s debate?
This was a half hour debate in Westminster Hall called by Nic Dakin MP. Nic Dakin is chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the replacement of animals in medical experimentation and in this role has been following the update of UK law closely.
He raised a number of concerns about the update, including that UK law might be watered down as some of the EU standards are lower than those currently in place in the UK.
In a debate in the Lords last year, the government minister Lord Henley confirmed:
I can give an absolute and categorical assurance that we will not be dropping our standards in any way whatever.
and Damian Green confirmed this, saying both:
The Government are strongly committed to ensuring the best possible standards of animal welfare.
and suggesting that this is an opportunity to improve animal welfare further:
The directive thus provides us with an opportunity to confirm the best aspects of current UK regulation and to make improvements where we can do better.
On the Home Office consultation, Damian Green confirmed we can expect to hear from the Home Office soon:
We are currently completing our analysis of the responses and will announce our decisions shortly—I hope shortly enough to leave proper time for parliamentary scrutiny, which the hon. Gentleman reasonably mentioned.
He mentions time for proper parliamentary scrutiny. This was a concern raised by Nic as there is a deadline for updating UK law – January 2013. With a consultation response and then time needed to draft legislation time is getting tight.
He then went on to tackle some specific issues that have been raised by the update:
The government are planning to simplify project licences:
We are planning to focus on simplifying the details of personal licences, and making further improvements to the project licence application process and to the format of the project licence.
Damian Green also addressed concerns over watering down of inspections:
We are committed to maintaining a strong and properly resourced inspectorate, and a full, risk-based programme of inspections.
On the detail of UK welfare standards, Damian Green clarified that the government’s priority is not to weaken UK standards, but in some cases, they will not keep stricter UK standards if there is no evidence that they result in better welfare for animals.
That is not our intention, and we are determined not to weaken UK standards, but that does not mean retaining stricter UK standards when there is no clear evidence that they translate into better welfare
On great apes - the UK currently has a policy ban on the use of great apes in research. The EU directive does not directly ban the use of great apes in research but sets the bar very high – so this would only be permitted for
research aimed at the preservation of those species or where action is warranted in relation to a life-threatening or debilitating condition endangering human beings where no other species or alternative method would suffice
The bioscience coalition felt that this bar was high enough to mean that it would be an effective ban on this research. Damian Green confirmed yesterday that the government intend to put a ban on the use of great apes into the updated UK law.
On the size of cages for animals which there has been some debate about as the EU suggests different dimensions to some of the current UK cage sizes, Damian Green confirmed that:
when there is good supportive evidence, we are minded to continue to mandate the UK dimensions. For others, the difference in dimensions may be so small as to make little difference to the welfare of the animals, but sufficient to add significantly to the costs for the life sciences community if they were retained, which would risk making the UK less competitive than other countries in Europe and beyond. Instead, we are considering ways of using the revision of our current UK code of practice on care and accommodation to encourage voluntary improvements in standards of housing.
On section 24- legislation which places restrictions on the publicly available information on research using animals which was introduced to protect individuals in the light of violent attacks by animal rights extremists. There are concerns that this is too far-reaching and does not allow for the level of transparency we should expect.
On freedom of information, which the hon. Gentleman brought up at the start of the debate, most responders to the consultation recognise that section 24 in its current form is not compatible with the directive’s commitment to transparency, and many also recognise that it may be a barrier to the sharing of best practice and information on the three R’s. At the same time, personal details, intellectual property and commercial information will continue to require protection. We will consider how best to provide that protect under the new legislation, at the same time as meeting the aspiration to greater transparency.
Damian Green finished by summing up the UK government’s position on research using animals, their ongoing support for such research where it is necessary and their strong commitment to maximising animal welfare, reducing animal suffering and developing alternatives:
Animal experimentation is an area in which Government policy must recognise a wide range of opinions. Our current policy is based on the belief that there are real benefits to man, animals and the environment that can, at present, be achieved only with the use of animals, but it reflects the need for all animal use to be fully justified, and for animal suffering to be minimised. Any suffering must be carefully weighed against the potential benefits. Those are the foundations of our current legislation, and the directive provides us with the opportunity to build on them.
There were a few questions raised by Nic Dakin which Damian Green didn’t tackle – we can expect more detail in the Home Office response soon.
As touched on in the debate, we expect the Home Office to respond to the consultation on how they should update UK law soon and following that, we expect them to draft legislation which will come before the Houses of Parliament as an affirmative Statutory Instrument which will need to be passed by both Houses before it can become law.