In the coming days, MPs and Lords are expected to pass new UK legislation on animal experimentation. Since a new European Directive on this issue – the catalyst for our own new law – was agreed back in 2010 there has been much concern that we might see a weakening of existing UK controls and standards.
Now the dust has settled on 18 months of campaigning from all sides, it would appear that for the most part, the government has chosen to maintain the status quo. Not the backwards step once feared then, but not really progress either.
Home Office figures released in July show that more animals are now being used in research than at any other point over the past 20 years. At the same time, a poll commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and released in October, found that public support for animal use has been steadily falling by around 2 per cent each year since 2009.
The same poll also shows a drop in public confidence that the rules on animal experimentation are being well enforced (from 56% per cent in 2010 to 43 per cent in 2012). Confidence is likely to fall even further if recent reductions seen in the number of Home Office inspectors, and in the number of visits they make to research and testing facilities, both continue. It is certainly not unrealistic to predict that these reductions could result in standards slipping in some establishments.
Promises and platitudes
Both the government and the scientific community have recently set up initiatives that attempt to convince a sceptical public that their concerns are understood and taken seriously. When the coalition government came to power, it fan-fared two pledges to help laboratory animals.
The first intention – ‘to ban the use of animals to test household products’ – was risible, because it will have little or no effect in practice (zero animals were used for this purpose in 2011 anyway).
The second pledge, however, was to ‘work to reduce the use of animals in research’, which could – if properly resourced and implemented – actually make a difference. But disappointingly, no new overall strategy has been forthcoming to facilitate this pledge.
Honesty and openness
In another move designed to win public confidence a new declaration on openness in animal research was recently trumpeted by a number of bodies including major funders of animal research, establishments and companies using animals.
Openness is to be welcomed, but only if people are honest about why and how research is conducted; the likelihood of achieving real benefits; and the serious costs in terms of animal suffering. We had hoped that this initiative would avoid simply repeating the usual platitudes that everyone involved in animal research always does everything to the ‘highest possible’ standards. But the signs so far do not encourage optimism.
It is all very well for the declaration to make bold assertions that the UK has ‘the world-leading ethical framework’ and that all research ‘meets the highest welfare standards’, but this has to be backed up with evidence. If the standards referred to are no better than those explicitly set out in legislation, as is usually the case, then they are anything but the ‘highest possible’ in animal welfare terms.
We need to see real commitment to reducing animal use and suffering, not just more banal attempts to play down animal suffering and overhype the benefits of research.
A way forward for lab animals
There is a clear need for a robust, challenging and well-enforced regulatory system which ensures that animals are only used where there is an urgent need and absolutely no other alternative, and that everything possible is done to avoid, or at least minimise, any suffering.
This must be coupled with honesty about why animals are used and how much they actually suffer, along with meaningful action to back up the fine words in ‘pledges’ and ‘declarations’.
Only this will ultimately lead to a better outlook for science, people and animals.
Barney Reed – Senior Scientific Officer