Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 611810, relating to commercial breeding for laboratories.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. The prayer of the petition states:
“Revoke all licences (PEL) for commercial breeders of laboratory animals. Require all Project Licences (PPLs) applications be reviewed by an independent Non Animal Methods (NAMs) specialist committee. Revise s24 ASPA 1986 to allow review. Urge International Regulators to accept & promote NAMs. We believe the use of animals is scientifically, ethically, morally and financially (taxpayer funded) unjustifiable. Defined in 1959, UK law enshrines the principles of the 3Rs. The UK must abandon these old principles and focus on the development and use of Non Animal Methods. Having an independent NAMs specialist committee review applications for Project Licences (PPLs) prior to their approval, so that a licence is only granted if there is no replacement method. Commercial breeders of laboratory animals are profit rather than animal-welfare focused.”
The petition received over 102,000 signatures and counting, including 144 from my own Carshalton and Wallington constituency. I thank the petition creators for taking the time to come and speak to me about why they set up the petition and why they thought it was so important. I also thank everyone who signed the petition and in particular everyone in the Public Gallery.
The inspiration for the petition, while broadly focused on the policy of animal testing, relates to an individual case, which I am sure hon. Members will want to reference, of the ongoing peaceful protest organised by Camp Beagle of a laboratory just outside of Cambridge. Activists have been sitting outside the MBR Acres site in Cambridgeshire for over 18 months. The petition is another way of supporting those trying to raise awareness of commercial breeding and animal testing. The petition creator also took the time to tell me that this is a first step in a campaign to try to change the law so that animals in facilities such as MBR Acres are protected by the Animal Welfare Act 2006, instead of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which they currently fall under. There is a lot of interest in the debate, so I will try to keep my remarks as brief as possible so that everyone can have a say. I will set out the current regulations and processes for animal testing in the UK, before talking about the asks of the petition in more detail.
The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 requires research establishments to use scientifically satisfactory non-animal methods wherever possible. The premise of my speech is the fact that this requirement is not being properly enforced or regulated. The UK legal framework should ensure accordance with the principles of the three Rs, which stand for replacement, reduction and refinement. Under the law, a licence cannot be granted to a testing laboratory unless the Home Office is satisfied that a non-animal approach could not give the desired scientific answer. Applicants are asked to demonstrate that they have considered non-animal alternatives for the tests they propose to do, but in reality this is treated more like a box-ticking exercise, providing only the most cursory information, such as how opportunities to replace animal testing with non-animal methods were considered. The application is then evaluated by one of a very small number of inspectors—a medical doctor or veterinarian who is not necessarily an expert in that area of testing—and inspectors often have a background in animal testing themselves.
The reality is that applications are very unlikely to be refused. According to some research, no licences were refused for animal experimentation between 2018 and 2021. That is a problem, because analysis of the licences granted during the first half of 2020 showed that researchers often failed to adequately explain their strategy to search for non-animal methods. In one example, only a one-word answer was given on the application. Simply put, the legal framework to uphold the principle of the three Rs is not being effectively enforced. The implications of that cannot be overstated.
I came across a shocking statistic when preparing for this debate. In 2021, over 3 million scientific procedures were conducted on animals. If that figure was not large enough already, it was a 6% increase on the year before. The use of dogs increased by 3%, cats by 6%, horses by 29% and monkeys by 17%. I can only speculate why those increases occurred. Will the Minister share any data collected by the Home Office on the reasons for that increase? It seems counter-productive, because only a small proportion of animal experiments are conducted to satisfy regulatory requirements. In 2021 again, around 21% of experimental procedures fell into that category. That is a really low number.
A recent report from the animals in science regulation unit described deeply troubling animal welfare failings in British laboratories between 2019 and 2021. I am sure colleagues have been sent videos, pictures and links to many of them, especially regarding the MBR Acres site in Cambridgeshire. Those failings include a non-human primate dying after becoming trapped behind a restraint device, boxes of 112 rats being moved in error to a compacter, where they were crushed alive, and numerous incidents of animals being left without food or water.
In my view, the UK cannot claim to have high standards of animal testing welfare when we allow animals to die of starvation, suffocation or asphyxiation—whether they are used for testing or whether they become one of the numbered surplus that get slaughtered every year. To give some numbers on that, in 2017, 1.81 million animals were either bred for laboratory use and discarded as surplus, or killed for their body parts to be used for testing.
On a more positive note, the number of procedures being carried out by commercial organisations has fallen, although the number conducted by medical schools has risen. For example, 60% of procedures were commercial in 1988, compared with just 27% in 2020. However, no information is published about which establishments are primarily engaged in the breeding and creating of genetically altered animals, as opposed to experimental procedures.
The Government stopped publishing detailed information on procedures by establishment type in 2021. That means we do not truly know how many surplus animal deaths there have been. To be clear, that is animals bred only to be killed without any testing. This used to happen under an EU regulation, but since leaving the European Union, the UK is not required to publish statistics on the number of animals that die within the system without having undergone any testing procedures.
Currently, aside from the annual publication of non-technical summaries for projects granted licences for regulated animal research procedures, the Home Office is not obliged to release details of licence applications. Some information is actually prevented from release under section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. That lack of transparency is concerning. A Government consultation took place way back in 2014 to consider amending that legislation, but no action has been taken since and the consultation results remain unpublished. Section 24 prevents an open debate and wider scientific scrutiny of the use of animals in research. I hope that the Minister can update us on the Government’s position on the future use of section 24.