Monday 25th October 2021

(9 months, 3 weeks ago)

Westminster Hall
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Julie Elliott Portrait Julie Elliott (in the Chair)
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Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please leave other Members and staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 581641 and 590216, relating to animal testing.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. The first petition, which calls for all animal testing in the UK to be banned, has attracted 236,000 signatures. The second, which calls for a phasing-out of animal experiments, has attracted more than 83,000 signatures and remains open.

Before I begin my remarks, I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my friend and colleague the late Sir David Amess. I am sure that everyone here will agree that it is particularly pertinent to remember him for, and praise his efforts in, fighting for animal rights. Indeed, on his last day in the Commons Chamber, he asked the Leader of the House to find time for a debate on World Animal Day. It is also relevant to note that he was a signatory to early-day motion 175, which, among other things, called on the Government to stop funding animal experimentation, which has been proven to be a failed practice, and to increase funding for state-of-the-art human-based research. I have no doubt that he would have been here to support the petitions, and it would be a fitting eulogy if the Government were to act on them.

The number of people who signed petition 581641 reflects how important the matter is to so many people. That is not surprising when we consider that every two minutes in the UK, a dog, cat, rabbit, rat, monkey, goat, sheep, mouse or fish is subject to animal testing, conducted on them against their sentience and welfare rights. Animal testing is a significant industry in the UK, where 3.4 million procedures took place in 2019. Let us not forget that animal tests have a 90% failure rate.

The UK Government responded to both petitions on 4 August, and, perhaps predictably, both responses used a very similar standard text. I hope that by opening the debate with a focus on the Government’s response to the first petition, I will also address some of the concerns raised in e-petition 590216. Before analysing the Government’s response, however, I will say a few words on how the petition came about.

Sarah Austin, who is here today, is a member of the collaborative partnership Merseyside Animal Rights. Sarah believes that the animal model for human medical research is outdated, and she is certainly not alone: her petition attracted signatures from the length and breadth of our countries, including 681 from my constituency of Linlithgow and East Falkirk. Indeed, there are a fair number of Scottish signatures, which is to be expected. Although animal welfare is a devolved area that the Scottish Government take seriously, animal cosmetics and scientific procedures are reserved to the UK Government.

Sarah’s work exemplifies how a single locally run voluntary group can influence like-minded people all around our nations. Without so many signatures, the debate would not be happening. It also shows how animal rights philosophy has advanced since the 18th century, when the English philosopher and legal theorist Jeremy Bentham wrote “An Introduction to the Principle of Morals and Legislation”, posing,

“the question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”

That is an early endorsement of the idea that the interests of animals are a moral and legal consideration.

Just last month, during the debate on real fur sales, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow), set out how the UK Government have

“introduced landmark legislation in this Session that will recognise animals as sentient beings in UK law”

and that they are

“establishing an expert committee to ensure that animal sentience is considered as part of policy making.”—[Official Report, 14 September 2021; Vol. 700, c. 320WH.]

That is a clear acknowledgment from the Government that animals can experience feelings and sensations. That is progress, but will it take another 240 years to acknowledge that animals, as sentient beings, deserve the same consideration as humans, and have the right not to suffer at our hands? We can exhibit social evolution sooner rather than later by taking steps now to ban animal testing across Britain. Will we be judged to have missed an opportunity in the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill, which is currently being scrutinised in the other place, or do the Government have the courage to step into the 21st century and urgently consider enshrining in law other viable options for scientific research that do not involve animal suffering?

We should be aware that it is not a new concept. In 2004 The BMJ published the article, “Where is the evidence that animal research benefits humans?” That called for urgent clarification on clinical relevance of animal experiments, yet here we are 17 years later debating the issue. Some 10 years on, the same journal published, “How predictive and productive is animal research?”, which argued that,

“our ability to predict human responses from animal models will be limited by interspecies differences in molecular and metabolic pathways.”

The BMJ is not alone in highlighting medical failures of animal testing. In 2004, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reported:

“Change is needed. Thirty years of experience with subcutaneous xenografts, human tumours implanted under the skin of the mouse, have satisfied few because so many drugs that cure cancer in these mice fail to help humans.”

With these few examples in mind, allow me now to discuss the Government’s response in some detail. They state that scientific research using animals is vital in understanding how biological systems work in health and disease. I have already touched on how there is a long-standing and growing body of evidence showing that non-animal methods of scientific research are superior. I am aware that the charity People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—PETA—recently produced literature highlighting other available methods for research into brain diseases and disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. These include neuroimaging techniques, which can be done non-invasively in diverse groups of patients and healthy volunteers, and can be coupled with tissue and cell sampling, micro-dosing, epidemiological analysis and other human-centred research methods. It is simply logical that human-based studies provide human-relevant data as well as sparing animals from immeasurable suffering.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy response said that the Government were overseeing the development of the three Rs technique, referring to replacing, reducing and refining the use of animals in research and its delivery of robust regulation. I can think of many words to describe regulation that allows factory-farmed puppies to be daily force-fed chemicals directly into their stomachs for up to 90 days with no pain relief or anaesthetic, but robust certainly is not one of them. I have not seen any evidence that the use of animals in research is being replaced, reduced or refined. The Minister might cite the top line in the publication of the most recent Government statistics, which states that in 2020 there was a decrease of 15% in scientific procedures carried out on living animals from the previous year. In case we forget, the report reminds us that the national lockdowns affected activity at research establishments last year.

Alarmingly, there was also an increase in the number of regulatory practices involving cats, dogs and horses in 2020 compared with 2019. According to the BEIS response, the Government

“believes scientific research using animals plays a vital part in our understanding of how biological systems work in health and disease.”

The response further states:

“The use of animals in science supports the development of new medicines and cutting-edge medical technologies… Many products which would be unsafe or ineffective in humans are detected through animal testing thus avoiding harm to humans.”

Unfortunately, however, there is growing scientific criticism of those statements. Let me bring one quote from another peer-reviewed journal to the Minister’s attention, which was published two years ago. A ScienceDirect article asserts that:

“Human subjects have been harmed in the clinical testing of drugs that were deemed safe by animal studies.”

That is a very sobering thought. Given the evidence for viable options that are now available, the Government response is certainly ambiguous when it states that,

“animals must only be used where there is no alternative.”

They say that, in addition to “robust regulation”, the Government achieve this through

“support/funding for non-animal alternatives.”

I and, I am sure, others here today would be most grateful if the Minister gave us the detail of how funding for “non-animal alternatives” has been increased and how that correlates to a decrease in animal experimentation. And when I say “detail”, I do not mean the headline figures that are mentioned in the Government response. I mean: tell us the minutiae of the funding that has been targeted towards human-based research.

My final question on the Government response is directed at where it says:

“Under UK law no animal testing may be conducted if there is a non-animal alternative available.”

As the limited examples that I have cited today show, non-animal alternatives are available, so my question is this: are animal testing establishments breaking the law? The elephant in the room is of course:

“In the UK, no animal testing may be conducted expect for a permissible purpose enshrined in law.”

In short, the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act needs to change. That is the nub of this petition, of the petition that is still open and of early-day motion 175, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) tabled.

If this Government really are

“committed to supporting, funding, and accelerating cutting edge technologies that allow animal use to be replaced or avoided”,

as they say in their response, let them put their money where their mouth is and enact that commitment. At the same time, they should remove animal experimentation as an “alternative” in scientific procedures, and simultaneously expedite effective cures and treatments for humans. I certainly hope the Government will take on board the petitioners’ request to ban all animal experimentation.

--- Later in debate ---
Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day
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On behalf of the Petitions Committee, which scheduled today’s debate, I thank all Members for their attendance and their contributions. It has been a very well-informed debate and an extremely consensual one, and I am grateful for the tone in which the Minister responded. I am sure that I speak for the other Members present when I say that if there is anything we can do to assist him in accelerating the quiet revolution, we will be happy to do so, because with 3.4 million procedures taking place, that revolution needs to be turbo-charged. I remain of the view that animal testing should be banned, because it is cruel and ineffective.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 581641 and 590216, relating to animal testing.