The speech made by Margaret Ferrier, the Independent MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West, in the House of Commons on 16 December 2021.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak today on this issue and for granting this important debate.
I have said many times, and in many debates in this House, how passionately I feel about animal welfare. I know I am not alone among my colleagues in that respect, and I know I am not alone in my constituency. We are a nation of animal lovers, and that is why animal rights consistently sits in the top ranking of issues I am contacted about. It was only two months ago that my constituency broke into the top 10 for the number of signatories to an e-petition that prompted a Westminster Hall debate on this very issue. We, as a nation, care.
Looking to the future of testing on animals, there are several angles of the argument we need to consider. First, does the scientific evidence support continued animal experimentation? Next, on the morality of testing, can we justify knowingly submitting animals to suffering in the name of science? There is also the international context to consider. Are we willing to go from a world leader on animal rights to merely following the law? I will do my best to cover those questions today.
It will come, I hope, as no surprise that public opinion overwhelmingly supports the replacement of animal experiments with human-relevant techniques. Now would be a good time to reflect on that fact as it is, after all, the public who elect us to this place, and it is both our responsibility and greatest privilege to represent their views here. In February, YouGov polled the UK in partnership with Cruelty Free International. That polling found that 68% of people support phasing out animal testing in favour of alternatives. In Scotland, 79% of adults found it unacceptable that animal testing continued while other methods were available. In September, further polling found 65% of respondents wanted to see a binding plan in place to phase out experiments. Two thirds wanted a target date for the end of testing. And if that does not convince you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will appeal to the politically minded among us. Almost 70% have a favourable view of MPs who support the phasing out of animal testing. Now is the time to step up.
Let me turn to the first of the questions I posed earlier, on the scientific argument for testing. In October’s debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), set out the justification for testing. I have great respect for the Minister and do not doubt his passion for these matters, but in my opinion the argument was hinged on a flawed principle. First, that animal testing is
“vital for identifying benefits for humans, animals, and the environment.”—[Official Report, 25 October 2021; Vol. 702, c. 41WH.]
I will make no comment about the contradiction there of animals suffering for the benefit of other animals. That it is the legal framework in which we currently work.
Let us look at the first point: that animal testing is a necessary evil. Some 92% of drugs that show promise in animal trials fail to reach the market, most commonly because of poor efficacy or safety that was not picked up in animal trials. For treatments for complex and poorly understood conditions, failure following success with animal trials is almost a certainty. For example, on Alzheimer’s, the chief science officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation has said:
‘We’ve cured mice engineered with this disease over 500 times. The mouse models don’t translate into humans.”
We would be forgiven for assuming that animal testing is only used as a last resort. We hear all the time that animal experiments are used only where there is no alternative, and it is true that that is the intent of the law. The duty is currently on the researcher applying for a license to prove there is no alternative to animal testing. Not only are applications not approved by experts in the subject matter, but analysis of Home Office documents show that this is treated as a tick-box exercise by some researchers. There are no rigorous checks and balances in place. There is the continued approval of mice testing for Botox products, despite the availability of approved non-animal methods, and the fact that most products are used for cosmetic purposes.
Dogs have a special protection in legislation and are allowed to be tested on only if there are no alternative suitable species. Last year, however, 4,340 licensed procedures were carried out on dogs in Great Britain. Dogs are mostly used for repeat dose toxicity testing, where they are given daily doses of test substances for about four weeks, sometimes longer. Once the experiment is over, the dogs are put to sleep so that researchers can examine the effects of the substance on their internal organs. Although continued research and development into viable and reliable human-relevant methods remains essential, and progress must be made at pace, there are existing methods available. I question, then, why 3 million animal experiments were carried out in 2020. In fact, no application for animal experiment was refused by the Home Office last year. In one specific case, a simple one-word answer was provided to justify why there was no alternative to animal testing. Perhaps that is why, in my recent pursuit of information on Scotland-specific animal research data and unnecessary animal deaths at testing facilities, the Home Office has been so reluctant to provide any meaningful responses at all.
How can we recognise the sentience of animals and not recognise the hypocrisy of allowing them to suffer in the name of medicine, when those medicines are not even reaching the market? How can that be justified? Not by the existing legislative framework, to start with. Although it may be legally permissible, it is not morally permissible. It is time for the Government to commit to a reform of the animal testing law. Although they acknowledge that, actions speak louder than words, as the old adage goes. If they do not do this, the UK risks falling behind our international partners.
We have heard this Government’s exclamations about how Brexit presents opportunities untold. Whether that is true remains to be seen, but I ask them to seize this moment: let us make this issue one of those opportunities to cement ourselves once more as a world leader. The European Parliament recently voted in favour of an action plan to accelerate the move away from animal testing across the bloc. It backed the establishment of a high-level group to work with member states to draw up an ambitious plan, with concrete actions. Germany has committed to a plan to support innovation through animal-free research. The Netherlands has initiated its transition programme for innovation without the use of animals, in order to become a front runner in this area. The US Environmental Protection Agency has released its first update to its plan for reducing animal testing, with concrete steps towards its goals and metrics to monitor progress. We must be proactive here.
So where do we start? Funding is crucial. Current funding through NC3Rs is not enough if we are to replace animal testing. Its annual budget is about £10 million. By comparison, it is estimated that in 2019 the Medical Research Council and the National Institute for Health Research together provided £1.8 billion in funding for UK medical research, and medical research charities provided £1.9 billion. NC3Rs does not even focus solely on animal experiment replacement. The Chancellor’s autumn Budget committed £5 billion to health research. I encourage the Minister today to commit some of this funding to the development of human-relevant science.
In tandem with funding, a clear and ambitious strategy is essential. That means a joined-up approach across Government and stakeholders. We can see the approach the international community is starting to take. Some good suggestions from animal charities that I have heard include the use of target setting, as we have seen with our climate change commitments, and the immediate discontinuation of funding for projects using animal experiments in areas that have proven poor translation rates to human trials. Research techniques need the space to continue modernising. Continuing to rely on outdated principles, legislated for half a century ago, is stifling development. If we look back into history at all the advances made in medicine and technology, we see that they are filled with methods and practices that were seen as innovative and state-of-the-art at the time, but that we would not dream of using now. That is precisely where animal testing should lie: necessary in the past maybe, but necessary no more—it is not ethical.
I also agree with calls for a dedicated Minister with the sole portfolio of accelerating animal-free science. At the moment, lines of responsibility for these issues are too muddy. They are divided up between the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and, even then, there is overlap with a number of other Departments. The Home Secretary has statutory duties to support the development of non-animal testing, but it is often overlooked, which, when we think about the knock-on effect on drugs, economic policy and public health, is difficult to accept. Stakeholders say it is difficult for them to know which Minister they should be engaging with—a clear sign of how low this is sitting on the list of priorities. It must be addressed urgently.
I mentioned earlier my own difficulties in obtaining specific animal testing data from the Home Office, where the responsibility for this policy is supposed to lie. When I tabled a written parliamentary question asking for the number of unnecessary animal deaths at licensed testing facilities, the answer was:
“No such estimate can be made”.
When I followed up to ask what plans there were to record this information in future, the answer was that
“the Home Office does not hold information on, nor has plans to record future deaths of animals that occur at licensed scientific testing facilities.”
That demonstrates the urgent need for better oversight. How can we accurately assess the legitimacy of animal testing and the associated suffering and death if the Ministers responsible do not even register the full necessary data?
In conclusion, I thank the charities that work so hard for change in this area, and I thank them for the information that they have made available to aid this discussion. They are Cruelty Free International, Animal Free Research UK, OneKind and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
I reckon the Minister and I are the last two in the Commons today, or among the last three. I thank him for taking the time to respond to my Adjournment debate, and wish him a very happy Christmas break.