Government sidesteps concerns over animal testing deregulation
Yesterday (27 March 2012) the House of Commons had a half-hour ‘Westminster Hall’ debate about the implications of the new EU Directive on animal experiments which the Home Office is currently transposing into UK law. Six key factors were discussed:
- Will there be sufficient Parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s draft legislation?
- Will there be legal protection for Great Apes?
- Will the Government define the term ‘debilitating clinical condition’, which the Directive says are the only conditions that might permit primate experimentation?
- Will the Government ensure reasonable transparency on animal experiments and their regulation?
- Will current licensing and inspection levels be maintained?
- Will current institutional ethical review processes be protected?
Nic Dakin, the Labour MP for Scunthorpe and Chairperson of the all-party FRAME group, opened the debate by raising concerns that the Government was seriously curtailing Parliamentary scrutiny, despite the enormous level of public interest in the new law. He then went on to highlight the Government’s reluctance to legally enshrine the long-standing administrative ban on experiments on Great Apes as a illustration of the Government’s willingness to lower UK regulations to those in the new Directive. The fact that experiments on Great Apes in the UK are to all intents and purposes practically impossible makes the Government’s desire to leave the door open to such practices all the more disturbing.
But in actual fact, this conforms to a deeply-entrenched pattern I’ve discovered in this area of Government regulation: the interests of the research industry – no matter how tenuous or self-serving – are almost always allowed to trump animal welfare. Indeed, it is this deeply biased approach to balancing animal protection and researchers’ goals – proven by evidence leaked from behind the wall of secrecy surrounding animal research – that fatally undermines the empty mantra that the UK has a world-leading strict and effective regulatory system.
I’ve been informed in no uncertain terms by an official from another EU country that the Home Office – acting on behalf of animal research interests – sees the transposition process as an opportunity to weaken UK regulation. In reality then, it is a case of a terrible situation getting even worse. Meanwhile, the Home Office has indicated its aim that no current research should be prohibited once the new Directive comes into force (see, for example, paragraph 52 of the Home Office Consultation Document). This exposes the professed commitment to the 3Rs as yet another PR-inspired sham.
One of the main problems is that animal research interest groups love the image of ‘strict regulation’ as a means of public manipulation, but abhor the reality. For example, while publicly expressing vague concern for animal welfare, behind the scenes they have lobbied to ensure that the legal restrictions on severe and prolonged pain are interpreted in a feeble way that will allow them to inflict such agony on animals, in pain research for example (see page 3 of this industry briefing, under heading ‘Upper threshold restriction’).
If animal research interests perceive that a regulation may constrain them, they and the Government (who basically act as their agents) always place the burden of proof on animal protection. Yet, providing unequivocal quantitative proof of animal welfare benefits of, say, larger cages, is intrinsically very difficult because these things are, by their very nature, hard to measure. As Dakin argued, the burden of proof should instead be placed on the research industry to prove that plausible measures to show a little mercy to animals would not actually work. Unfortunately, that would require reversing the power structure in animal research regulation that has enshrined industry domination since 1882.
In response the stand-in Minister, Damian Green, gave scant reassurance. On the question of sufficient time for parliamentary scrutiny, he merely expressed his ‘hope’ that would happen, which tends to be government-speak for ‘we would really like you to think we support the concept of Parliamentary scrutiny, but we’re not really bothered’. I hope I’m proved wrong, but don’t be surprised if the Government publishes the draft legislation as a last minute fait accompli. Green also said that the ‘best possible standards’ would be safeguarded. ‘Possible’ here is entirely subjective and, in reality, what the Government means is ‘whatever industry will tolerate’.
Green continued by asserting the ‘vital role’ of animal experimentation in health care and safety testing, without acknowledging the serious problems (or admitting any slight difficulties, for that matter) with translating animal research data into human beings, or the various studies demonstrating that most animal experiments do not lead to medical benefits (see here and paras 4.2.5, 4.3.5 of the Bateson review of primate experimentation). This rhetoric – standard Government fare for many years – confirms that they do not regard unnecessary cruelty to animals as anything intrinsically undesirable (and animal welfare isn’t directly incorporated into the Government’s Impact Assessment of the new law). It’s also a nice example of ‘the infallibility syndrome‘ that infects Government. As they have always given the impression that they are perfect regulators, they must therefore reject any suggestions for improvement – especially from the animal protection/democratic perspective.
Green also referred in passing to the Government’s two key policy pledges when they came into power – ending household product testing on animals and working to reduce the numbers of animal experiments. In fact the Government has already backed away from both promises.
The Minister let the deregulatory cat out of the bag when he professed a desire to rely on ‘good practice’ rather than legislation. Yet given every undercover investigation reveals a cavalier attitude to animal welfare and the law on the part of animal testers, the Government’s reluctance to give welfare protection legal backing indicates a worrying disregard for millions of vulnerable animals.
Another manifestation of the drive to undermine regulation was the intention not to define the term ‘debilitating clinical condition’ that would set new tougher limits on primate experimentation, in preference for a ‘case-by-case’ approach. This is another classic ploy with a long tradition in this field. By not pre-defining this key rule, it allows researchers much greater leeway to decide themselves (rubber-stamped by the Inspectorate) what experiments they want to perform, for whatever trivial or incoherent purpose, free from serious public concerns about painful experiments on primates.
The Minister did (sort of) promise that there would be a ban on Great Ape experimentation in the legislation, and indicated that the Government had changed its mind and now intended not to implement some controversial methods of killing permitted by the Directive, such as clubbing the heads of new-born puppies and kittens. While any positive steps are to be welcomed, in these cases the Government is merely reversing a previous intention to weaken current practice.
The Minister had nothing substantive to say to the issue of transparency. The obvious approach would be to rely on the Freedom of Information Act which incorporates protection on grounds of personal safety and commercial confidentiality. The fact that the Government still won’t commit to this approach suggests they are intending to maintain as much secrecy as they can get away with.
So, apart from the possible exception of Great Apes, the Government was unwilling to give a clear positive answer to the key concerns in the debate, reflecting this cosy policy clique’s attitude to animal protection and independent regulation for 130 years.