HC Deb 13 January 1977 vol 923 cc1798-808

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Harper.]

11.6 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)

On the motion for the Adjournment of the House I beg to raise the subject of the non-implementation of the recommendations of the Littlewood Report on Experiments on Living Animals. The Littlewood Committee reported as long ago as 1968, and the major burden of its report was that there should be no tinkering with previous legislation on the subject. The Report said that what was necessary—I shall not quote it verbatim—was the total redrawing and replacement of the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876. Rather unusually, the Committee made a positive recommendation against tinkering with that Act. The Committee said that, apart from a couple of particular items, it would be wrong for the Government to seek to improve the situation within the existing legislation and that it should be totally replaced by fresh legislation.

Since then, successive Governments have done precisely what the Committee said that they should not do and have not done what the Committee said that they should do. They have tinkered with the legislation and carried out administrative reforms, some of them good and well- meaning. But Governments have failed to legislate where the Committee said that they should legislate.

It has been the fate of most reports that I have ever seen or had anything to do with that their recommendations have never been carried out or put into effect. It is rare for anything to be done about the recommendations of the committees that the House sets up, but it is even rarer for a committee to be acted against and to have its major recommendation overthrown, and for the Government to insist upon doing exactly what the committee has said should not be done. That is a question not of non-implementation but of anti-implementation of the recommendations of a committee.

In these circumstances, 11 years have passed by. The so-called Cruelty to Animals Act has never prevented cruelty to animals. It is an Act which licenses the inflicting of pain on animals. It protects from prosecution the people who do that.

In the past 11 years, not only have those who inflict pain on animals—for the best possible reasons, let us assume for the sake of this argument—been given a licence to do so; they have been protected from other forms of remedy. Those connected with animals have been prevented by legislation from pursuing alternative courses of action to remedy what they consider to be wrong. As a result, there has been continuous propaganda from animal societies—some quiet, reasonable and impressive, others perhaps less reasonable and more inclined to shout—but nothing has been done.

I accept that I am venturing into a territory to which I am not accustomed, but perhaps it is desirable that hon. Members should venture into fields in which they are not customarily seen. We should not become too specialised, and become known as arts, defence or foreign affairs men and women.

We may err or repeat what others have said, but when we venture into these strange pastures, we may sometimes bring a new approach to an old problem. We may even be heard with a little more patience because we are not committed in our attitude than if we were speaking on a subject on which we had a committed view and what we wished to say was known in advance.

I am not very fond of animals, but I am against such barbarities as hare coursing and fox hunting; they are defended only by animal lovers. I am a human lover, and it is as a human being that I know that we must not use animals as though we were not animals ourselves. The animals with which we are concerned may be of a lower order than ourselves, but that is all the more reason why we should not degrade or torture them, as the Ac permits. The Act does not prevent cruelty to animals; no prosecution has ever been brought under it. It permits, perhaps even encourages, cruelty to animals.

I am not an anti-vivisectionist. If it can be shown that the human race benefits from experiments on animals, I believe them to be justified, but they ought to be justified and overseen in every case. They should be the exception rather than the rule. As it is, the experiments are carried out wholesale and without adequate supervision. Why is it that what may not be done to a human being may be done to a monkey or a dog, and so on down the scale, until the most terrible things are done to fully-conscious guinea pigs and rats?

There are 5 million unsupervised experiments every year, and in more than 4 million there is no anaesthetic. I used to think that anti-vivisectionists were emotional, hysterical people, who would do better to concern themselves with the pain and misery of humans rather than bothering with animals. I was wrong. There are some hysterical people among them, I have no doubt, but since I have been studying the subject I have come to the conclusion that in recent years a change has taken place. It is that the reasonable people seem to me to be those who think that there is something wrong. Those who defend the present situation with astonishing passion, even virulence —who pretend that closer supervision of what is going on in some fields constitutes a total rejection of all research—seem to me to be verging on the irrational.

I was brought to study this matter by a constituent who wrote to me, came to my surgery, and finally persuaded me to give it real attention instead of the routine processing which Members are inclined to regard as the appropriate way of dealing with subjects on which they are not expert. Usually it is a reliable way, because the Minister is an expert, or is advised by experts, but this is a classic case where the experts have taken us all for a ride for years. When I say "us" I include Ministers of all parties, not excluding present Ministers.

The experts' attitude is typified by that of the recently-retired Chief Inspector, one of the 14 inspectors who are supposed to ensure that over 5 million experiments are all necessary and done without undue infliction of pain on living animals. Let us hope that they manage to do the job thoroughly, though one may doubt whether it is possible.

Lord Houghton, Lord Platt and a distinguished group set up by the RSPCA have reported to the Home Secretary, making a number of recommendations that fall short of the Littlewood Committee's recommendations in 1965 that the Act should be totally rewritten. The present recommendations are for interim improvements, without legislation.

What has happened? There has been correspondence. The Committee has been abused by the retired Chief Inspector in an article in the New Scientist in such a manner as to give cause for concern rather than to reassure us. The response of the Research Defence Society is also hostile and not constructive.

I may be wrong, but I believe that the human race owes a great deal to animals and to those scientists who have used them to the benefit of mankind. But must the indefensible be defended because good is also done? That is the question that worries me. The general blanket approval—"It's a good thing"—is more to be condemned than the opposite blanket approach— "It's all a bad thing. None of this is justified." Neither attitude is defensible, but the attitude that it is all justified is even worse than the attitude that none of it is.

Must Ministers write letters, which I, for one, would have refused to sign, pretending that the degree of pain was acceptable in a certain case, when it was admitted that what was called "gross tissue damage" was done to the animals in question? There was gross damage to their eyes, noses, mouth parts and hairless parts of the feet. The rats were killed on humanitarian grounds some time after 24 hours, but the surviving guinea pigs were kept for a week. That was a case in which there was no question of personal profit. It was not one of those cases in which things were being done purely for tests.

I am sure that the motives of all concerned were entirely of the best. I am sure that this was an example of an experiment carried out with the best possible motives. Yet undoubtedly—and it is not denied—the animals were caused great distress and had to be destroyed on humanitarian grounds. Perhaps the experiment was justified. We do not know. Perhaps it was necessary. Perhaps the animals had to go without an anaesthetic. But I agree with Colonel Vine, the retired inspector, about one thing—the Act should be re-titled. It is an Act to permit the infliction of pain upon animals provided the cause is good.

What is a good cause? Are cosmetic testing and weapon testing good causes, justifying the pain and death of animals? We eat them, and that causes pain and death, so perhaps they, too, are good causes.

We need immediate action by the Home Secretary to tighten matters up. We need much firmer use of his existing powers and, simultaneously, the whole matter should be referred to the Select Committee on Science and Technology with a call for an urgent, up-to-date and definitive series of recommendations.

I propose to give my hon. Friend who is to reply to the debate an opportunity to do so in a few moments. He is not the Minister who normally deals with these matters. To that extent he has my sympathy, because I experienced similar occasions when I was a Minister. If the Minister responsible were here I should make my argument stronger than I am able to do in her absence.

What is cruelty? It is hard to define in this context, as the row at the Cancer Research Laboratories demonstrated. Two senior scientists quarrelled bitterly. Scientists have been set against technologists because things were being done that some felt were indefensible and others thought were justified because the cause was good.

Everyone admits that pain is suffered by animals and that this pain is deliberately inflicted. Whether this is cruel or not, can it be denied that to allow animals to suffer unnecessarily is cruel? Unhappily, therefore, we are forced to admit that we have among us some cruel scientists, who should be stopped but who are not stopped—scientists whose cruelty is excused and denied by Ministers because they are working in a good cause.

Does the end justify the means? If we believe, as I do, that means condition ends, something should be done. I hope that the Minister will reassure us that at long last something will be done.

11.24 p.m.

Mr. Michael Clark Hutchison (Edinburgh, South)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins). I am with him all the way. I hope that the Home Office will appoint many inspectors to witness experiments on animals. That would be acceptable to the public. The hon. Member has done a service to the people of the country.

11.25 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Brynmor John)

I am obliged to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Hutchison) for his brevity. I join with him in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) on having raised this matter.

My hon. Friend talked about venturing into strange pastures. As he said, so have I for this purpose. In apologising for the absence of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, let me say about her that she is personally involved and very interested in the way in which experimental animals are treated and in the welfare of animals generally. The fact that on some issues she comes to conclusions that are different from those of my hon. Friend does not mean that she is any the less concerned.

My hon. Friend raised the matter in the context of the Littlewood Report. The Littlewood Committee reported in April 1965. Apart from the debate on 11th June 1971, this debate is the only opportunity that the House has had of considering the matter. My hon. Friend raised, on behalf of the animals concerned, the question of their suffering. He raised it not on an anti-vivisection basis but on the basis that we have to take care of and guard the welfare of those animals which are used for the relief of suffering, not only of other animals but of ourselves.

I think that everyone has a great deal of sympathy when my hon. Friend talks about the scale of experimentation. However. I think that he must acknowledge—this is my view; it may not be his—that no scientist involved would not prefer to dispense with animal experiments—or at least those which cause animals discomfort, distress or suffering—if it were possible to do so. However, if we are to make advances in medical science, these are at present unavoidable. Our object must, therefore, be to see that as little suffering as possible is experienced by animals.

Let me deal with three points about the Littlewood recommendations on which I think that there are misconceptions. The first is the view held by some that there is a great deal of duplication of effort, of unnecessary testing, of gross wastage of animals, or of cruelty. My hon. Friend did not directly raise all these points, although he touched on two of them.

It is right to point out that in paragraph 543 of its report the Littlewood Committee rejected these suggestions. It said: the risk of unnecessary repetition of experiments is small and the scale of duplication not serious…there is no evidence that mandatory tests are retained longer than is necessary…there is no evidence of serious wastage of animals in recent years…there is no foundation for any general suspicion of the concern of licensees for their animals. I come to the second point that I wish to make. My hon. Friend said, in terms, "The Act is no good." The Littlewood Committee did not find that the Act was an outdated instrument for the regulation of experiments, nor did it feel that its administration left a great deal to be desired. I should like to quote what is said in paragraphs 238 and 239 of the report: In present circumstances therefore we conceive the aim of legislation in this field of animal welfare to be three-fold: (1) to prevent objectionable activities; (2) to encourage humane practices; and (3) to provide for the accountability to the public of all concerned. That is my judgment. By this standard we think the 1876 Act has been generally effective; no licensees appeared to regard it as a piece of useless bureaucracy; many left us in no doubt of their high respect for it. The Act has been effective partly because it has commanded the ready support of those subject to it, partly because the Home Office has adopted a wide interpretation, insisted on humane standards and administered the law conscientiously. When we are talking about matters that concern us——

Mr. Hutchison rose——

Mr. Hugh Jenkinsrose——

Mr. John

I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Hugh Jenkins

I did not deal with the point that my hon. Friend has raised, as it seemed that Lord Houghton and his committee effectively dealt with it. I shall not take up any more time now.

Mr. John

I think it is right that the point is on the record.

My third point—this is a matter that my hon. Friend raised in the context of the restriction on the number of experiments—is that the Committee made no proposals concerning numbers.

Mr. Hutchison rose——

Mr. John

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman. I have been left with less than the normal time that is given to a Minister in an Adjournment debate. For the hon. Gentleman, who did not raise the debate, to seek to intervene when he has already taken some of my time is. I think, an abuse of the House.

Mr. Hutchison


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Order. Mr. John.

Mr. John

The hon. Gentleman can seek to raise the matter in an Adjournment debate in the approved way if he feels so strongly.

Mr. Hutchison rose——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not desire to waste the time of the Minister.

Mr. Hutchison

No, I do not, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but any Member is entitled to intervene in an Adjournment debate.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is normally done only by advising the Minister.

Mr. Hutchison

Is that a rule of the House?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It is a custom.

Mr. Hutchison

I know that it is a custom, but is it against the rules of the House to seek to intervene?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I shall put it in another way. If the hon. Gentleman catches my eye, I shall call him.

Mr. John

By the same token, it is well within the rules of the House that anyone who does not wish to give way to another Member need not do so.

Mr. Hutchison

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I call a count.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

There is no provision for a count. Mr. John.

Mr. John

The hon. Gentleman is a disgrace.

I apologise to my hon. Friend. I am afraid that in all the circumstances my dealing with this matter will be rather less than adequate.

My third point is that the committee did not deal with the number of experiments to be carried out——

Mr. Hutchison

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I want to call a count.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I shall read Standing Order 29, which states: The House shall not be counted at any time. Mr. John.

Mr. John

I do not know what the provision is for interruptions of this kind but I hope that it may be possible to extend very slightly my time for answering this debate, although I fear that your answer, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be in the negative.

I pass on to the Houghton Report, in which I think my hon. Friend has a particular interest. Although a letter has been sent in reply to the memorandum, contrary to my hon. Friend I believe that the recommendations of the Houghton Report would involve legislation. We have no plans to introduce legislation of that kind. That is why we have not moved more quickly towards an acceptance of the memorandum. Nevertheless, it is right to say that a further memorandum from Lord Houghton has been received today by my right hon. Friend. He met the noble Lord today and he is giving sympathetic consideration to the contents of the memorandum.

I shall now tell my hon. Friend very briefly what we propose to do to make progress on this matter. We believe that the 14 inspectors are adequate for the inspectorate, because of the restrictions to which my hon. Friend has referred. Over 90 per cent. of the experiments are performed in about 65 registered places. Therefore, it is possible for the inspectors to visit. Secondly, the advisory committee has been extended by the appointment of four non-scientific members. For the first time we are referring to the advisory committee a matter of general principle, namely, the question of LD 50 testing. That is the first reference of a matter of general principle. It may well be the sort of development which for the future can help the advisory committee even further to keep its eye open in this sphere.

A matter of concern is the absence of adequate statistics, or of incomplete statistics. My hon. Friend will know from the questioning that he has advanced already that we are moving towards a position in which, during 1977, more adequate statistics will be provided, and that from the summer of 1978, when they are provided, we shall have statistics on a much more thorough or complete basis. From then onwards people will readily be able to understand and to see how much work is going on.

I think that that will be somewhat reassuring to my hon. Friend. I hope that he will feel that what we are doing is moving towards a situation in which——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-four minutes to Twelve o'clock.