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Westminster Hall Debate – Including Lab Animals In The Animal Welfare Act: FRAME’s Summary

On Monday 7th February, a Westminster Hall debate was held relating to laboratory animals and whether they should be included in the Animal Welfare Act. Ahead of the debate, FRAME produced a briefing for MP’s containing a summary of what the proposed inclusion of laboratory animals in the Animal Welfare Act would change, the challenges with this, and the next steps that could be taken based on this information. We also suggested possible questions that could be raised within this debate.

Many interesting points were raised throughout the debate that will require further focus, however, as with any Westminster Hall debate, no votes are taken on the subject.

Background

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 (AWA) is the principal law in the UK relating to animal welfare. It places a duty of care on owners and keepers to ensure their animals’ needs are met. The needs include a suitable environment to live in, suitable diet, ability to exhibit normal behaviour, ability to be housed with, or apart, from other animals, and protection from pain, injury, suffering and disease. The AWA protects any vertebrate that is commonly domesticated in the British Islands under the control of man, whether on a permanent or temporary basis, or is not living in a wild state.

Despite this, under section 58 of the AWA, the act does not apply to anything lawfully conducted under the Animals (Scientific Procedure) Act 1986. This means that no animal used or bred for scientific purposes under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA) is afforded the same protection as all other vertebrate species under the AWA.

The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 regulates the use of protected animals in any scientific procedure which may cause pain, suffering, distress, or lasting harm. This applies to any living vertebrate other than man and any living cephalopod, as well as any vertebrate in its foetal, larval, or embryonic form in the last two-thirds of their development. Whilst ASPA does aim to protect the welfare of laboratory animals and minimise any suffering, the nature of research involving animals means that they cannot be protected under a law like the AWA protects animals, hence their exclusion.

Key points from the debate

The main conclusion from this debate is that the government has no plans to amend the AWA. They stated that if laboratory animals were to be included in the AWA, no animals could be used at all for scientific purposes. This is true, and a challenge that we raised within the briefing sent to MP’s. Under ASPA, a regulated procedure is any procedure applied to a protected animals that may have the effect of causing a level of pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm equivalent or higher than that caused by the introduction of a needle. This would make ASPA obsolete as a piece of legislation, as by definition, all regulated procedures therefore have the potential to cause some level of pain or suffering, which cannot take place under the AWA. Whilst we recognise that this would be a huge step for the welfare of these animals, the government has stated in the past that they do not believe we are at a point scientifically to stop using animals in research. This was confirmed in this current debate, with the government going on to say that ASPA is in place to protect laboratory animals, and they are not prepared to end the use of animals in scientific purposes.  

Throughout the debate, there were several calls from MPs for a public scientific hearing on animal experiments. This stems from an early day motion (175) tabled in June 2021 by Dr Lisa Cameron. The call asks to “mandate a rigorous public scientific hearing, judged by independent experts from the relevant science fields, to stop the funding of the now proven failed practice of animal experimentation and increase funding for state-of-the-art human-based research, such as human-on-a-chip and gene-based medicine, to prioritise treatments and cures for human patients and stop the suffering of laboratory dogs and other animals.” This was not responded to by the government in the debate. 

Whilst summarising the government’s commitment and support for the 3Rs in the UK, it was stated that they have established an integrated policy co-ordination function, that is currently in the home office, across the whole of government to bring greater strategic oversight to the policy area of animal use in science. This has been established to allow the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) to focus on regulating, rather than assuming all policy responsibilities. The new policy unit, which will be separate to ASRU, will focus on ensuring the correct implementation of ASPA and improving communication channels for conversations around legislation and policy relating to animals research. As a brand-new initiative that is currently being established, we have yet to see it in practice and are currently unaware of the effect it will have on policy. With regards to the 3Rs, the government did state that it is necessary for work on a 3Rs strategy to continue in order to move towards less animal testing, and highlighted the 3Rs strategy that they have had in place since 2015. This, however, has not been updated since 2015, and realistically requires an update to show that the government really is committed to the 3Rs, and specifically, the replacement of animals in science. 

The issues surrounding section 24 of ASPA were also raised by MPs. Section 24 concerns the protection of confidential information surrounding the use of animals in science. The Home Office cannot release any information received in confidence, which in turn prevents the sharing of licensing assessments, inspector visit reports, review papers, and what licensing applications consist of. It is also a criminal offence under section 24 to disclose any of this information. This is incompatible with the government’s policies on openness and transparency, and the central principles of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which ASPA outdates by 14 years. During the debate, MPs questioned why this section was still in place and questioned why the results of the public consultation on this section carried out in 2014 still had not been published. In response to this, the government representative stated that he was not aware of why the results had not yet been published, and that he understands that they should be published later this year as part of the new integrated policy unit. This is the first time a time frame has been given for the publishing of these results; however, we question how reliable and worthwhile they will be, considering it will be 8 years out of date by the time of publishing.

As shown with this debate, and past debates on similar subjects, the response from the government is always the same – ASPA is in place to protect laboratory animals used in research and ensure that the 3Rs are followed by law, and funding is given to projects relating to the 3Rs via the National Centre for the 3Rs.

There are currently two active petitions that are calling for similar bans on the use of animals research – one calling for a ban on all animal experiments and to redirect government funding to human-based research, and the other calling for a ban on research and testing on dogs in the UK. It is great to see the topic of animal research being raised and supported by the public, demonstrating the support for moving away from reliance on animal research. The resulting debates provide insight into government views on the issue and opportunities to challenge policy makers. Debates also provide opportunities to raise awareness among MPs regarding strengths and weaknesses within current animal research legislation, and where improvements could be made. Whilst these broad petitions have great intentions in calling for changes that we would all like to see and helps bring the topic of animal research to the attention of the public and parliament, we have to question have much effect they will actually have. Both petitions could be, and in fact have been initially, responded to by the government in the same way – referencing ASPA National Centre for 3Rs.

his can also be said for the recent vote that took place in Switzerland regarding a complete ban on animal testing. This has been voted on 4 times since 1985, with the most recent being 13th Feb 2022. Each time, the proposal has been overwhelmingly rejected. Prior to the most recent vote, the government recommended citizens vote no, and the proposal failed to receive support from a single member of parliament.  

By receiving a similar response to every petition or debate that focuses on the overall aim of banning animal experimentation, we do not get to see what areas of opportunity there really are, and what we can focus on to make a difference. To address the issue of reducing and replacing animals in science, there needs to be considered thought into the topics that are raised and brought to debate. It needs to be considered whether they are specific enough and will elicit a worthwhile and clear response from the government that can shape the focus of future work and create real pathways for change.  

With regards to the UK, we need to focus on strengthening the resources and requirements prior to ASPA being implemented that will help encourage the uptake of non-animal methods. The 3Rs must be applied under ASPA when submitting and reviewing licensing applications for research using animals. However, by the time licensing applications have been submitted and reviewed, researchers have already made the choice to use animals. Whilst judgements can be made on reducing the number of animals in studies and refining procedures, it is very difficult to judge whether viable replacements exist at this stage, and more challenging for researchers to access and implement them. The current regulatory framework for animal research is designed to ensure that when applying for licenses all other avenues have been explored and discounted. This, however, is not completely robust as it is impossible to stay abreast of all possible ways to answer a research question, particularly when there is a lack of confidence in, or knowledge of some modern, non-animal approaches. This can lead to animal procedures possibly still being approved, even when non-animal methods exist. 

Alongside this, we need to understand how the government is ensuring that available non-animal methods are being sought out and checked in a transparent and efficient way. Transparency of how non-animal methods are sought out has a direct link to section 24 of ASPA and how repealing this section would allow proposed procedures to be reviewed by outside scientific bodies and other organisations who could provide expert input on methods that do not involve using animals. Finally, we need to ensure the government will be held to account if this process fails. The government has stated several times, including during the most recent debate, that work into a 3Rs strategy must continue. To show that there is a real commitment to this, specifically with regards to replacement, the government must be more specific about the details of its 3Rs strategy and start setting clear targets and goals for progressing with the replacement of animals in specific areas of research. This is something that would be vitally important to share with stakeholders and the public. Without this level of commitment to prioritising replacement in particular, it is difficult to understand how change in this area will be achieved.  

Ahead of the debate, FRAME produced a briefing for MPS, including the questions we suggested could be raised. Read FRAME’s briefing.

Read the full transcript from the debate.

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