HL Deb 14 May 1975 vol 360 cc746-75

4.15 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has left us in no doubt of his own sincerity, concern and devotion to the cause of animal welfare. There were times in his long and rhetorical speech when I wondered whether he was not becoming a little counter-productive in your Lordships' House, but he has supplied us with a lot of extremely important and useful information and I know that he has taken great trouble to see that the somewhat alarming facts that he has put before us are based on documentary evidence. Therefore, I am sure that we must all be most grateful to him for raising this subject. Now that that is done, I shall be able to give a perhaps more objective account of the state of affairs as I see it at the present time from a large number of facets of my personal experience and thought on the subject. I will try particularly to make it clear why I think that urgent action on the part of the Government is now necessary. Nevertheless, while I shall try to be objective and factual, it is not a subject that can be treated in any way coldly, as it does involve important moral issues.

First of all, as to my own credentials, I feel almost apologetic in having been so many different people. I have been a licence holder myself and done animal experiments, though always reluctantly. Nevertheless, I thought that they were necessary. I have been a member of the Research Defence Society, which exists to defeat the propaganda of the extremist abolitionist anti-vivisectionist who, if he got his way, would almost abolish a great deal of medical research in this country and only succeed in sending the medical scientists abroad, where the rules about animal experiments are not usually as strict as they are here. I have been a professor of medicine and, as such, have had the duty of signing the applications of members of my department and neighbouring departments for licences and certificates under the Act of 1876, and as the President of a Royal College I have also countersigned a large number of those applications for certificates. Last, but not least, I was from 1961 to 1972 a member of the Home Office Advisory Committee on the Cruelty to Animals Act. I shall shortly say something more about my experiences in those various roles.

To come back to the extremists for a moment, I do not think that they are nearly as important now as they were some time ago. To be frank, I think that the Research Defence Society sometimes goes too far on the other side. After all, extremists are useful people in many walks of life. They shake us up and we say, "Is this really true?", and make us look into it with perhaps a rather more balanced judgment than they would use themselves. If you take the extreme view, that no animal experiments should be carried out at all, I have already said it would have the effect of sending many medical scientists abroad. Of course people who really believe that should deny themselves, and their children, the benefits of modern medical science—for instance, the giving of antibiotics to a child who has pneumonia—because no doubt in a stage in its progress, the antibiotic was developed with the essential help of animals used in experiments.

Leaving aside then the absolute extremists, the many societies which are concerned in animal welfare who expressed extreme views some years ago now agree—at least all those with whom I speak agree—and realise that animal experiments cannot be abolished altogether at the present time. In my profession we believe that in this country our legislation, based as it is on an Act nearly 100 years old, is probably the best in the world at the present time. But we must ask ourselves whether it needs altering now, and whether it is up to date. I am not entirely impressed by the figures. It seems to me as a matter of principle that if it is all right to carry out experiments on 20 rats, it is all right to do so on 2,000 rats.

While on the subject of figures, I do not extrapolate figures like that to deal with the question of the Inspectorate, although the Inspectorate should be increased and strengthened, a point the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, made, among many others. You cannot apply it as a mathematical sum. If it takes an inspector in a small medical department an hour to discuss the views and intentions of medical scientists using 20 rats, it does not take the inspector 100 hours to discuss the views and intentions of an enormous pharmaceutical firm which is conducting experiments on 2.000 rats. You do not need 100 times the number of inspectors or 100 times the amount of time they put into their work. Nevertheless, the figures show an enormous increase in animal experiments since 1876. We are almost in the position we should be in if our motoring laws and regulations were still those of 1900, or some such time when nobody could possibly have foreseen that in 70 years' time the whole country would be completely littered with motor cars, as it is.

Nor do I follow the rather worrying argument that is always made about a large number of these experiments being done without anaesthetics, unless this is qualified by a clear statement that the experiments carried out under Certificate A are those which do not need an anaesthetic of any kind—that is, a subcutaneous injection, or something of that kind, a change in diet, the giving of certain substances, poisonous though they may be. Nobody, even if they were going to carry out a dastardly experiment with a horrible poison, would be giving an anaesthetic in order to give the animal his dangerous drink. To say that a large number of experiments are carried out without anaesthetics is a useless statement unless it is highly qualified. But we cannot go to the other extreme and say that all the experiments carried out under Certificate A—that is, no anaesthetic required—are trivial, harmless and not pain-provoking. I agree with both speakers who have said that it is in that area that perhaps some of the most questionable experiments of the present day are being undertaken.

But, apart from the figures, it is important to consider whether the nature of animal experiments has changed in the past 100 years, and to that I give an unequivocal, "Yes". Not only are many new techniques now being employed, and many new chemical substances and drugs being used, but there has been the development of behavioural science with its psychological tests which many of us think are particularly in need of careful control. There has been this enormous change-over towards mandatory tests which I suppose were hardly considered at all when the Act of 1876 was originally drafted, the testing of drugs and food additives and, more lately, cosmetics; in other words, official and commercial research rather than academic research, to which the Act was really meant to apply.

I must remind your Lordships that a very large number of the drugs which are so efficient today, and which have so revolutionised the outlook of people with many diseases, including tuberculosis, have been largely developed by the pharmaceutical companies, and it is the greatest mistake to think that because an experiment is carried out under the auspices of a commercial firm it is therefore in some way undesirable. I might, if pressed, be tempted to go to the opposite extreme and question whether some of the curiosity of the academics is more questionable than the realities of commerce. In that context we must also realise that these large pharmaceutical firms are mostly, if not all, multinational, and that what we do about bringing in regulations in this country about animal research with reference to drug testing, and so on, will have repercussions all over Europe, if not all over the world, and that we must try to keep in line with what is happening in other countries. I am convinced there is an important change in the whole situation, not only in numbers but in kind.

To those who say: "Everything is all right, the old Act was wonderfully drawn up; it served us well and there is no need to change it", I ask: Are you not really going back into your own past and thinking of your own department which was always faultless in its care in animal experimentation, and thinking, because of that, that everybody else is just as faultless?"

Let me now say how I feel the Act works and I will go back to my own experiences. As a Professor of Medicine I had to sign many of these applications. I soon found out that if I did not sign them they were sent to the Professor of Surgery and he signed them. That seems to be a kind of loophole somebody should be trying to close in some way. Either I was wrong or he was wrong, and there should be some neutral way of deciding. As a President of a Royal College, I soon found out that if I refused to sign an application for a certificate the President of another Royal College would sign the application. I was told by a President of a Royal College that when I became a President myself I would have a large number of these applications to sign. He said: "I suppose you will do them blind, as we all do." Those were the words he used. But I did not. I do not say that I scrutinised every one with the greatest of care, because a large number of them were just routine which we always passed. However, there were certainly others which I would not pass, but which later got a certificate.

Then—and this is the most important point of all—I was on the Advisory Committee of the Home Office for 11 years, and we met only five times and advised on 19 cases, five of them by correspondence. Out of the milions of experiments—I am now coming back to figures which I have just said do not convince me—only 24 in that time ever came before the Committee at all. We never met at all to discuss questions of principle; questions of how big the cages should be; the size of the smallest cage in which it it justifiable to keep dogs or cats; whether the regulations about the procurement of animals were adequate, and so on. We did not discuss questions of that type. We discussed whether a Committee of Inquiry should be set up and, as your Lordships know, we have heard today that the Littlewood Committee was set up in 1963 and reported in 1965.

Since my resignation from the Advisory Committee in July 1972—because there, again. I did not find myself in full agreement with most of my colleagues a lot of the time—it has met only once and has considered two cases. I think that the case is overwhelming for a reconstitution of this Committee, of its functions and duties and of the duties of inspectors to refer certain types of experiment to the Advisory Committee. To my great pleasure and, I am sorry to say, surprise, the Government have at last added four lay members to the present Advisory Committee and have themselves referred a matter to them. That is a start; but in my view it is not nearly enough by itself.

My Lords, with help which I freely acknowledge, I have been trying to draft a Bill to replace the Act of 1876. It may be that this is more an academic exercise than a practicality, because it is extremely difficult to do this; but it has taught me a lot. The kind of matters which I think should go into such a Bill are: methods of getting the licence, which I will not go into in any detail; questions of registration of premises and of inspection by members of the Advisory Committee; questions of publicity; what kind of reports they should give; to what extent the public should have access to papers and applications for licences; details of experiments and so on; types of experiment which should be compulsorily referred to that Committee; how often it should meet and the fact that it should have a duty not only to consider cases, but also to discuss these other questions of standards; and the difficult questions of special consideration being given to the use of animal experiments in the testing of cosmetics.

A very important point, too, is whether the mandatory tests which are so commonly being asked for at the present time are really appropriate to their purpose—especially the so-called LD50 case, where a drug or some other substance is given in very big doses, sufficient to kill off 50 per cent. of the animals on which it is tested. It is most extravagant in the use of animals; it is very questionable as to whether it is morally and ethically sound in most cases, and questionable as to whether it will give the results which we want to answer the questions we need to put.

My Lords, I must draw to a close. I have been speaking long enough in a short debate. I must come to my questions to Her Majesty's Government and they are these. Why has there been such a reluctance to implement the important recommendations of the Littlewood Report? Is it because they are frightened —I know that the research defence societies are frightened—of the wild men, of the extremists, getting to the Bill in the Committee stage and putting in all kinds of clauses which will make it impossible for medical scientists to do their work in this country? Would the Minister of State say whether the Government are now prepared to draft a Bill themselves?—which would be much better than I or any other private Member doing so. Would they feel that a new look by a Select Committee, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, should take place first? My only objection to that is that it puts off the day before we get any innovations and improvements. And, lastly, would they look kindly—if they do not want to take the initiative themselves—on a reasonable and rational Bill, largely on the lines of the Littlewood Report, introduced by a private Member? If their response to this is, unfortunately, No, would they please make it clear why they fail to take action?


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask whether, if he is considering continuing with the preparation of a Bill—and with his extraordinary knowledge I hope that he does so—he will consider putting in the point of caring for the animals in between the experiments on them; because from my own experience I found there was very often some deficiency there. The other matter is procurement of animals for this purpose.


Yes, my Lords. I think that those are two very important matters.

4.49 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to addres your Lordships briefly. I think that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for raising this subject. I feel that the 1876 Act was really quite a good Act, considering that it lasted 96 years before we had the first major explosions about it. But until we decide certain questions, I do not think there is very much future in amending it. The Littlewood Committee asked three questions to which it was not within their powers to reply, and they thought that for the public to give acceptance to any Act those questions should be answered. The first was: who can say whether, if certain biological tests were forbidden, satisfactory chemical or other methods of testing would not be developed? The second was: who is responsible for establishing whether modern medical techniques, with their emphasis on immunology and drug therapy, both inseparable front animal experimentation, are developing medical practice in the right direction? The third was: who is to take responsibility for moral or ethical judgment in the use of animals for experimental purposes as such?

As we have seen over the past few years, no Act of Parliament can be effective without the support of the public. The public must be satisfied that any Act in this line will give protection so far as possible to the animals which are used. The public conscience is always aroused when cases are brought up which appear to be totally unnecessary. The beagles and the testing of material for smoking appears to be such a case. I must confess that I am with the public in this. I do not see how testing a new quality of smoking material can be said to be prolonging life or alleviating suffering. There is nothing in the Act which asks for experiments on dogs to stop a person maiming or killing himself, which is what this activity is solely designed for. In any event, who can say whether such an exercise as this, when completed, will have been justified or whether the public will accept the product? The experiment in question appeared to me to be a most wasteful one in the animal world. Unfortunately, I have very little knowledge of the experiments which take place on animals but when we hear the figures which are quoted for the number of experiments which take place and an experiment such as that with the smoking beagles is thrown up, it brings all the rest of the experiments, however justified—and I have no doubt that a number of them are justified—into doubt. If the public is to support any form of experimentation on animals to advance the cause of science, that doubt must be allayed. I join with the noble Lords, Lord Platt and Lord Houghton of Sowerby, in feeling that the quicker we can get the Advisory Committee operating efficiently and effectively, the better. The Advisory Committee may ultimately be the sole instrument with which to convince the public that certain experiments are necessary. If it has public confidence, it will allow those who do experiments to carry on their work without always having to look over their shoulder to see whether they are to be chased.

Further, the noble Lord, Lord Platt, mentioned one of the reasons why the public cannot believe that the Act is working. He described how the certificates which were given in response to applications were signed. He said that he considered them, but that if he did not do it, somebody else down the road would. He told the House that somebody had said to him that he no doubt did it in a routine manner. Very properly, he replied that he did not. However, the whole point is that at the moment the public considers that these certificates, which are issued in such vast numbers, are issued merely as a routine exercise. Therefore, I feel that the Advisory Committee when it is working properly, must dispel this view. Until then, no Act will be trusted by any member of the public.

I should like to make two more points. I refer first to the Inspectorate. The number of inspectors is, to my mind, paltry, when one considers the number of experiments. If the number of experiments which can be supervised by one inspector is considered as a percentage, it looks absolutely ridiculous. I believe that we should drop this consideration of numbers of experiments and should consider groups of experiments. It would be interesting to know, if one took groups of experiments by type, for how many experiments each inspector is responsible. It does not give much confidence to read in the Littlewood Report that, under the Act, the inspectors spend 50 per cent. of their time in administration and only 50 per cent. on inspection of experiments. I trust that in future we can be assured that the visits of inspectors to persons and places can be far more frequent and that their administrative duties can be cut down.

My Lords, I am also rather perturbed about the method of producing animals for experimentation. Once again, public disquiet shows itself repeatedly in this matter. It is particularly so with pets which are in common ownership by the public. There is an idea that if a pet is lost, it will instantly land up in an experiment. The Littlewood Report gives some credence to this view, for it says that the dealers who provide animals for experiments can very easily cover up where they get them from. I believe that the future of experimenting on animals must be provided for by animals bred and specifically supplied from known sources for this purpose. I do not believe that any other provision of animals can really be acceptable or, ultimately, will be accepted by the general public.

My Lords, animals, particularly dogs, have been in the public eye just lately. I was horrified the other day to see in a magazine or paper a picture of beagles which were being bred for experimental purposes. They were being bred in containers in which one would normally expect to find turkeys kept for intensive feeding. Could the noble Lord who is to answer the debate possibly tell us whether these kennels which produce dogs for experimental purposes are subject to the Act dealing with the breeding of dogs, and whether they are inspected by local authorities as such? It would be most interesting to know this, because a greater control could be exercised over these people and the public might be able to obtain greater knowledge of the actual conditions under which the animals are kept for breeding.

I should also like the Government to consider dividing their Inspectorate, with perhaps part of the Inspectorate being used for the supervision of the experiments which are taking place and the other part being used for the care and husbandry of the animals which are being used. One hears reports from time to time that the care of these animals, during, between, and after experiments is not to the standard which one would wish. It would be most helpful if this Inspectorate could ultimately be divided as I have suggested.

My Lords, I do not intend to speak any further on this matter. I end by hoping that the 10 years since the Littlewood Committee reported cannot be said to be too long a period before we get some action.

4.52 p.m.


My Lords, although his words were expressed clearly and forcefully, as is usual for the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, their meaning was neither clear nor convincing, nor did I find his argument acceptable. The noble Lord is saying that things are wrong because tests are being done on animals to observe whether certain substances are harmful to human beings and that the perpetrators should not do these things. The point is that these tests are commanded by Act of Parliament with the object of protecting the public. The legislation to effect this is not contained in the 1876 Act, but in various later Acts, such as the Food and Drugs Act 1955, the Pharmacy and Poisons Act 1933—which deals especially with pesticides, insecticides and weed killers—and the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which deals with industrial chemicals and the avoidance of toxic effects, including the later development of cancer. A rather slighting remark was made to the observations on asbestos. Many people—some of them women working part-time—were involved for a short time in the last war in the production of various respirators in which asbestos was used, and 15 or 20 years later they died from a form of cancer produced by asbestosis. I do not think that one can brush these things aside.

Requirements under these Acts need animal tests and the tests are strict and precise. Tests are needed on two species of animals; one is a rodent and one not a rodent, for instance a monkey. If firms which make the various substances covered by these Acts do not carry out the animal tests laid down by Parliament, they are breaking the law. I do not see how any such action can be advocated. Parliament in its wisdom has framed the laws, and it is not possible to ignore the instructions of Parliament laid down precisely in the various Acts I have mentioned, as well as others.

It appears that the noble Lord and his supporters feel that the law should be changed to suit their own views, even though the statutory requirements are precise and were carefully thought out and accepted by majority opinions in both Houses. I note a glossing over, or non-presentation, of the particular statutory requirements that are unacceptable and which it is intended should be withdrawn. We have a generalisation that the experiments, the tests laid down by Parliament, have very few medical purposes. It is maintained that only one out of three tests have any medical purpose whatsoever and the intention is to amend these Acts to exclude non-medical experiments. This could be a simple way out of the difficulty, if it were feasible; but it is difficult to see how it can be substantiated.

It is difficult to define what is a medical and what is a non-medical preparation. How can the substance contribute to human wellbeing and safety, which is the theme of the 1876 Act, as has already been stressed by noble Lords this afternoon? In general, this can apply to the testing of substances that, if used on man, will cause shortening of life, or cause suffering. Thalidomide has been fully quoted, but that is only one. Although the requirements of overseas firms are brushed aside as being rather pedantic, the experience with thalidomide is one of the best examples for the justification of the action of insisting on proper testing. Recently I was speaking to a doctor who used a particular dusting powder. He found that it was not being made by Boots from whom he used to buy it, and he discovered that it was also used as a dusting powder for babies in France, where it originated. Between 12 and 20 babies died from absorption of poisonous material from the use of this powder. One can quote many other examples of a similar nature, as have already been quoted on the other side. If there were no such protection as a means of determining toxic effects and how they could be prevented, there would be a public outcry. It is important to know—


My Lords, may I possibly bring to the attention of the noble Lord one fact, that the Alkali Inspectorate exists to protect the public in regard to asbestos and other substances mentioned? I think that this should be borne in mind.


I thank the noble Lord. It is important to know what harm the use of proprietary preparations can do. Each year a large number of calls on the National Poisons Information Service are concerned with various substances being applied or swallowed. In the first year there were 2,000 calls, and in 1974 there were 20,000—two-thirds of these arose from incidents with children, and about 800 of them referred to cosmetics which had been misapplied. Very often a mother uses a cosmetic correctly, but a child makes some abuse of it.

Smoking is an example of a self-inflicted hazard. Certainly we should know the ill-effects of smoking and that 50,000 people die each year, or are disabled. But human nature being what it is, the habit persists. We were informed the other day that it is an example of national drug addiction. The Government recognise this and issue firm warning to the public. But the Government cannot refuse to treat them when they fall ill, and must support—or not place difficulties in the way of—attempts to produce non-toxic cigarettes.

My Lords, I have something to say in connection with research into the effects of smoking cigarettes and the recent severe attacks on the use of beagles and of monkeys for this purpose. I am sure that many of your Lordships saw a horrific picture in the centre page of The Times on Thursday of last week, attached to an article commenting on animal experiments. The picture was of an unfortunate monkey held in a restraining device, wearing a mask which was presumably meant to force it to smoke a small cigar. I repeat that it was a horrific picture. It did exactly what was intended; it caught and drew attention to the article. It had no caption and no source was ascribed to it. The author of the article did not refer to it, but the implication was that it was derived from him and illustrated what he was talking about in his article. In fact, it is doubtful whether it was published with the knowledge of the author; and it was in the nature of an undeclared or undisclosed editorial comment.

I have learnt to be suspicious of such pictures and thought that it was odd that the poor beast was smoking a cigar and not a cigarette. Moreover, it was unusual for a scientific worker from England to publish such a photograph. The picture certainly implied that our Cruelty to Animals Act permitted such procedures and was therefore basically derogatory to our Home Office control, even though it appeared as a silent comment. I made it my business to find out whence the picture originated, and certainly whether or not it originated from this country. In fact it was a Russian picture distributed by the Tass News Agency. I think I need make no additional comment, except to say that it reflects on the ethics of certain forms of journalism.

Another avenue of objection is that many of the substances being tested are cosmetics. Here again, we have difficulty in defining what is a cosmetic. It is in fact almost impossible to define it. Many substances used as cosmetics are the basis of some form of medical treatment: for example, many creams for the treatment of skin conditions also serve as the basis of cosmetic substances. Cracked lips may not be a serious lesion, but ointments are supplied for it and used in cosmetics. Is it suggested that these should not be tested for any toxic effect they may have? Even toothpaste could be classed as a cosmetic, and numerous animals are being used to test toothpastes and so exclude harmful preparations. Hair dyes form another example of application for cosmetic purposes, but they can cause great harm. Let us remember that some substances found to be toxic are eventually fatal; some, for example, produce cancer. Is it correct that we should forbid firms to try to seek out such substances, either by flouting the law or by changing the carefully planned Acts made by Parliament with the intention of protecting the public?

Finally, it is suggested that the 1876 Act should be amended. It is a good Act and has stood the test of a hundred years. Its age alone suggests there must be some ways in which it could be improved, and common sense would support the setting up of a Select Committee to go into this matter more fully and completely, but not guided or controlled by sentiment and without common sense. Such a Committee should certainly not be composed entirely or predominantly of those opposed to vivisection. One thing that would not be acceptable is the addition to the Act of matters other than the control of animal experiments. There are many other matters related to the care of animals, such as transport, breeding, feeding, medication, and so on. These would involve a whole new series of administrative activities and a whole army of inspectors. Let us keep them separate under the Statutes designed to guide and control them, and allow the experiments on animals to continue as a separate and precise commitment.

5.3 p.m.

The Earl of COURTOWN

My Lords, I must declare an interest, in that I am a member of the board of a contract research organisation. I should add that it is a non-profit-making organisation and that I myself derive no pecuniary remuneration from it at all.

We are discussing today abuses of the 1876 Act. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, correctly read out the part of the Act which said that an experiment could be performed: …for the advancement by new discovery of physiological knowledge, or of knowledge which will be useful for saving or prolonging life or alleviating suffering, …". He did not, however, add to that the additional types of experiments which are referred to at the top of page 3 of the Act, where it is said: Experiments may be performed … for the purpose of testing a particular former discovery alleged to have been made for the advancement of such knowledge as last aforesaid, on such certificate being given … and so on. I suspect that much of the testing goes on under that portion of the Act rather than under the former portion.

This Act is the Charter on which all use of animals for research and test purposes is based. It provides considerable powers for the Secretary of State and, through him, for the inspectors. He has to approve the licensee and the place, and can at any time revoke the licence or any certificate which has been issued by one of the appointed persons under Section 11. The Act is supported by a booklet running to 90 pages, entitled Guidance Notes on the Law Relaing to Experiments on Animals, which can be brought up to date if necessary, in accordance with changing requirements. To my knowledge, research institutions take their responsibilities very seriously indeed. Apart from the fact that the scientists who are licensed under the Act are humane and conscientious people, compliance with the law is vital, because if they lose their licences they lose their livelihood and the ability to attain their scientific object.

It has been remarked that there have been no prosecutions under the Act. This is not surprising, as all work can be stopped on an inspector's report, without a prosecution. Visits from inspectors are not known beforehand, and it is my information that these inspectors are extremely knowledgeable and thorough. It has been said that there are only 13 or 14 inspectors but millions of animal experiments. These figures are misleading because the number of licensed premises, outside the universities, is not large, and many animals may be, and in fact are, used in one experiment. I know of one experiment which is going on today which involves several thousand mice. Such an experiment is not unusual. There may also be some degree of double counting, as records are kept according to licence-holders, and if one series of experiments involves more than one licence-holder then the number of experiments—and an experiment, for record purposes, refers to one animal, and. as I say, there may be thousands of animals involved in one experiment—are allocated to each licence-holder concerned.

In the organisation with which I am connected the inspectors call without notice every two months or so. They are highly qualified and they are consulted by the management on the design layout of new buildings and on all sorts of other points relating to the humane and hygienic keeping of animals. The recommendations of the Littlewood Committee have been taken into account by most, if not all, reputable laboratories. In any case, the powers of the Secretary of State and, through him, of the inspectors are such that any sub-standard operations can be dealt with. This does not mean that no abuse ever takes place. We know how cases of cruelty to children occur, in spite of all the legislation we have to prevent them. But I suggest that the existing legislation provides the means by which any abuses can be taken care of. If the instructions issued to the inspectors are not stringent enough, they can be altered under the existing Act. Also, the fact that an Advisory Committee is available to assist the Secretary of State would seem to provide a situation in which amendment to the existing Act is not really necessary.

The word "vivisection" is often used in an emotional way, as though it applied to all animal experiments—indeed, I think it has been referred to in our debate today. In practice, only a tiny proportion of animal experiments involve vivisection and an even tinier proportion involve any vivisection without anaesthetic. I was speaking on the telephone this morning to the director of a research establishment, and he could not remember any case of vivisection having taken place without the use of an anaesthetic. The great majority of tests, as has been indicated by some of the speeches made this afternoon, are conducted by means of injections or by skin-painting of some sort or another.

A distinction is sometimes made between experiments for medical and those for non-medical purposes. I submit that this distinction is misleading. For example, the testing of toxicity of weed killers or fertilisers, which has been referred to today, is often termed "non-medical"; but the main reason for such testing is to establish whether or not such materials, if sprayed on the land, would be toxic to wild life of various sorts or to animals and birds. Food additives have to be tested for possible side effects. The noble Lord, Lord Brock, gave particulars of some Acts of Parliament which force upon manufacturers the need for proper testing. New skin lotions and creams may bring advantages over previous materials but nevertheless have to be tested for unexpected secondary effects. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has said in quoting letters he has received from cosmetic manufacturers, many materials are now know to be irritants and no reputable cosmetic manufacturer would think of using them. No new material can safely be used without testing. Most tests have to be carried out through the use of animals, and indeed involve no harm at all to the animal.

I would emphasise, too, that animal testing is expensive, especially with the larger animals, and no manufacturer is likely to proceed with a course of animal testing unless he is sure that it is necessary to comply with his legal requirements and the responsibilities which he has to the public. If he can be assured that the result will be achieved without animal testing he will probably tackle it in some other way. There are many examples in our history of unexpected results. Thalidomide is the one best known to the public, but there are many others as well.

With regard to smoking, I would say that I myself am a non-smoker and can understand well how one can survive without smoking. However, no Government, to my knowledge, has altogether banned the smoking of tobacco; yet the morbidity and mortality associated with the smoking of tobacco form the main 20th century plague. It places a greater load on the Health Service than any other single cause. There are 50,000 deaths every year from lung cancer, 8,000 to 9,000 cases of chronic bronchitis, and 35 million working days are lost annually from respiratory complaints. I am not suggesting that all of these occur as a result of smoking, but smoking is generally regarded as the main cause, and it places a tremendous load on the Health Service. In view of this I cannot believe that we should allow these effects to continue without research into adequate substitutes for tobacco. The substitutes clearly have to be properly tested on a broad base. This inevitably involves animals, mainly rats and mice but also, to a lesser extent, animals with respiratory organs which are nearest to those of man. In any case, if we do not do this research other countries will, often with much less stringent regulations to protect the animals. At present our research activities in this country are a source of foreign revenue which would disappear if the research could not be done here, apart from the effect on the British industries concerned.

Finally, I would say that I have the greatest sympathy with those who, on moral grounds, object to the use by man of animals as a means of helping to ensure health and hygiene. However, I find it difficult to extend this sympathy to those who, at the same time, would expect that the medical sciences should produce the various benefits to human life which have been produced over the last generation or so. It is generally accepted that these results would not have been obtained without animal testing. My sympathy for those people who object on moral grounds is also somewhat reduced if they have no objection to exploiting animals by killing them for food.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think any of your Lordships who have had the misfortune to be in the Chamber when I have spoken over the last few years will have any doubt that I am very anxious to promote animal welfare. But when it comes to the question of animal experiments, I conduct myself with the greatest care. I cannot deny that I dislike these experiments, but on the other hand there is something which perhaps one must dislike even more, and that is human suffering. It is a curious thing that the suffering of animals raises a wave of indignation throughout the country, whereas the suffering of human beings arouses very little reaction. If we can reduce human suffering by animal experiments then I think they are justified.

None the less, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for having raised this subject today because I think it needs looking into. It is possible that there are abuses, though I am unable to say what they are because I am not expert enough in that field. I think that many abuses are due to the enormous number of animals used in a single experiment. The noble Earl who has just spoken mentioned that some thousands of mice are used in a single experiment. Is that really necessary? A member of the Research Defence Society to whom I was talking a short time ago said that one cannot establish anything from a single animal. I accept that of course, but there is a difference between a single animal and several thousands. I should have thought that 10 or possibly 20 would be ample to give a sufficient cross-section. That, again, is a subject which I leave to those who are more scientifically expert than I. It is forgotten that many experiments today are merely the testing of new supplies of well-known drugs before they go on the market. For example, supposing a new delivery of aspirin comes into the country, it has legally to be tested before it can go on the market. That is the origin, so I am told, of a large proportion of experiments.

There is one great danger that I think I should mention. I have been told from a source which I have every reason to believe is reliable that one well-known pharmaceutical firm—I was not told its name but I believe it is quite a prominent one—has moved its laboratories abroad because of the stringent regulations covering experiments. That will mean that the animals may well he experimented on in circumstances which are far less satisfactory to them than they are here. That is something that we should bear strongly in mind. If more firms do that, they will still have the English market but the experiments will be done abroad. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, was speaking chiefly of what he termed non-medical experiments, cosmetics and so on but several cosmetics are, or can be, very toxic.

Consider, for instance, my Lords, lip-stick. When applied in the ordinary way it is perfectly harmless. But children are unreliable and when their parents are absent they may try tasting it, often with dire results. Weed killers, again, can be extremely toxic. What is more, they can have serious effects on the very creatures we want to protect—animals, our own pets. That is an absolutely undeniable fact. I do not mind saying that I avoid using weed killers on the ground in my own garden for the sake of our cat, which means a lot of extra work. These experiments are necessary and they will have to continue however much one dislikes them. I admit that I dislike experiments; I have done so already. But I realise that this is a subject on which one must not be guided by one's emotions. It is necessary to be guided by certain knowledge and a realisation of all aspects of the problem.

I sincerely hope that if a committee is set up to examine the Littlewood Report it will have the necessary expert knowledge. I should like to see on such a committee at least two members who are expert in animal defence, and possibly at least two from the Research Defence Society, who are expert on that side so that there might be really informed argument. Until then, my Lords, I feel that we shall continue to explode with indignation but get nowhere.

5.22 p.m.


My Lords, I think that this debate does not have to conclude until 5.50 p.m.


My Lords, we have until 5.30 p.m. and then the Government speaker must have an opportunity to reply.


My Lords, I shall not speak for more than two minutes. I wish to raise just one small matter. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, referred to the case of a professor who had been proceeding with experiments without being in possession of a licence or a certificate. He then applied for a retrospective licence or certificate, and obtained it. Was that infra vires?—because, if it was, it would seem to me that this might happen. A scientist might be conducting experiments without a licence; a private prosecution might be launched against him, and the jurisdiction of the court could then perhaps be ousted by the granting of a retrospective licence. I cannot believe that that is a consequence which Parliament would ever have considered or entertained when the legislation was passed. I wonder whether the noble Lord who is going to reply to the debate could deal with that point.

5.24 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, the Government and, I am sure, the whole House are grateful to my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby for having put down this Motion for debate today. The issues raised by experimentation on live animals never weigh lightly upon the conscience of the community and at certain times they become a matter for public debate. This is, indeed, one of those periods. It is therefore right that this House should have had this occasion to review the areas of concern, and on behalf of the Government I much welcome the opportunity to make some points in response to the debate. What I want to do is to try to distil from the present debate, both inside and outside Parliament, what seem to be the central points at issue; to review the various courses of action which are being advocated against the background of what has happened in the recent past; and to sketch out what the Government have done or propose to do.

Anyone who has heard the debate today would be able to identify certain key points of public concern. First, there is the sheer size of the number of experiments which are carried out each year. This, after climbing rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, had levelled off at about 5½, million for the five years up to 1973. The 1974 figures will be available a little later this summer. Secondly, arising from this increase, there is concern that there is unnecessary use of animals, that experiments are duplicated and research is repetitious. Thirdly, and more fundamental, many people consider that experiments on animals should be confined to what they call "genuine" medical research; experiments should not be permitted unless they are essential to solve some specific problem of human or animal suffering, and the definition of "suffering" should exclude self-inflicted suffering. Thus, the use of animals to test cosmetics, food additives, pesticides or new smoking materials should be banned, so it is argued.

I should say, in passing, that I do not want this afternoon to discuss in detail the question of the use of dogs to test tobacco substitutes, which has been mentioned, inevitably, by a number of noble Lords. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has referred this matter to the Advisory Committee on the Administration of the Cruelty to Animals Act, whose chairman is the noble Lord, Lord Cross of Chelsea. The Committee have already begun their work and I do not think it would be appropriate for me in any way to prejudice their deliberations.

Fourthly, there is the belief that the controls in the Act upon the infliction of pain are waived in the majority of cases by use of the certification procedure which allows experiments to be carried out without anesthetic. Fifthly, there are complaints—indeed, my noble friend referred specifically to this point—about the lack of information on the working of the Act. Lastly, there is a feeling that an Act framed to deal with surgical experiments almost a hundred years ago is inadequate for the proper control of experiments without anæsthetics; and the size and the composition of the Inspectorate appointed under the Act are criticised as being inadequate and unsuitable to supervise so many experiments and licensees.

The solutions that are proposed to remedy the situation—and they have been canvassed by a number of noble Lords this evening, including the noble Lord, Lord Platt—are, first, ad hoc legislation which is aimed at diminishing by different means the number of experiments. Alternatively, a full inquiry into animal experimentation is advocated, presumably in anticipation of legislation. My noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby has proposed that a Select Committee of this House (in his words) be appointed to inquire into the law relating to cruelty to animals and the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876. Others press for the implementation of more of the recommendations of the Departmental Committee on Experiments on Living Animals—the Littlewood Committee.

In considering these proposals I want first to focus the attention of the House on the Report of the Littlewood Committee. The matters that were causing concern in the early 1960s, and which led to the appointment of this Committee, were in fact identical, or nearly so, to those I have listed as being the main points of debate at the present time. They were the matters to which the Littlewood Committee addressed themselves—a Committee which comprised an experienced combination of professional and lay elements in their membership and who certainly produced a comprehensive, cohesive, clear and sensitive Report. Their findings are unanimous and unambiguous. They are contained in detail in Part 5 of the Report and are summarised in paragraph 543. I will give just one quotation. Their findings include:

  1. "(6) The risk of unnecessary repetition of experiments is small and the scale of duplication not serious.
  2. (7) There is no evidence that mandatory tests are retained longer than is necessary.
  3. 769
  4. (8) There is no evidence of serious wastage of animals in recent years.
  5. (9) There is no foundation for any general suspicion of the concern of licensees for their animals".
The Committee also found that: The increase in the number of animals used in research is largely to be explained by the expansion of biological science and the mandatory testing of biological substances. Since 1965, the safety testing of products has been a feature of a number of Acts, notably the Medicines Act 1968 to which the noble Lord, Lord Sandys, alluded. He asked whether or not it is right that some sections of the Act are not in force. Indeed that is so. The noble Lord asked when they are likely to be implemented. I will go into this point and will write to him if I have anything helpful to report to him.

There are other Acts. There is the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Noble Lords will know that there is now a Department of State, one of whose responsibilities is consumer protection. All of this points in the direction of a continual growth in Parliamentary concern for the protection of the public from potentially harmful products. Unfortunate though it may be, it is a fact that animals still provide the main way of testing such products.

As regards the general working of the 1876 Act, the Littlewood Committee Report said: We conceive the aim of legislation in this field of animal welfare to be threefold—

  1. (1) To prevent objectionable practices;
  2. (2) To encourage humane practices;
  3. (3) To provide for the accountability to the public of all concerned.
By those standards we think the 1876 Act has been generally effective. No licensees appear 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 and insisted on humane standards and administered the law conscientiously. Despite its finding that there was no evidence of serious wastage of animals in recent years, the Committee gave very serious consideration to measures for reducing the numbers of animals used in experiments. One approach, which was advocated by the RSPCA and which is still being urged, would be to prohibit experiments, except for purposes of essential and immediately demonstrable utility. This would involve a fundamental limitation on the freedom of British research workers, which could frustrate work of potentially very great value in the longer term.

The Committee rejected this approach. An alternative approach, which was again proposed by the RSPCA and which is still regularly urged as a solution to the problem, would be to prohibit experiments designed to exclude human beings from suffering some self-imposed risk—for example, smoking tobacco, the use of cosmetics, food additives, unnecessary drugs or, indeed, military weapons. The Committee rejected such discrimination as unrealistic, pointing out that new knowledge did not recognise any classification of purpose, that a discovery in cosmetic science could also benefit medical science and that it would be hard to enforce a prohibition on research into the cure of conditions caused by the use of untested and possibly unsafe products.

The Committee also gave consideration to the possibility of alternatives to animal experimentation gradually diminishing the number of animals used. They found that such methods are actively sought and, when found, are readily adopted and that the discovery of an alternative laboratory test on the isolated organ or tissue which will satisfactorily replace a test on the living animal is always welcomed. They concluded, however, that discoveries of adequate substitutes for animal tests had so far been uncommon and they said they had not been encouraged to think that they were likely to be more frequent in the future.

I have given this brief account of the findings of the Littlewood Committee because, as I have indicated already, the problems that it considered are similar to the ones that are exercising public opinion today. There are still very substantial numbers of animals being used. Broadly the same types of experiments are being conducted, and the same régime of control under the Act, with some modification and improvement as recommended by the Littlewood Committee, is still imposed.

What did the Committee have to say about the solutions which are now being advocated? Noble Lords will have noted from my account of the Committee's Report that they found that some of the problems were unreal. They rejected the possibility of legislation arbitrarily to restrict certain types of experiment. They took the view that alternatives are used when these are available. They saw the increase in the use of animals, which has levelled off in recent years, as reflecting the expansion of biological science and of the testing for safety of substances with which the public are brought into contact. Indeed, this is the point which the noble Lord, Lord Brock, made in his speech. In fact, their recommendations did not relate to those matters.

At this stage there are three points which I should make. First, the implementation of Littlewood, for which a number of noble Lords have called in this debate, would have had little effect on most of the major issues which are the object of public concern today. Secondly, the Committee reviewed authoritatively those very issues, and its findings upon them were unequivocal. At present, the Government are not persuaded that the position in respect of the matters which are the focus of attention today has changed in substance since the Littlewood Committee reported. For that reason, we see no grounds for setting up a further Littlewood Committee once again to traverse the same terrain. May I remind noble Lords that short of examining the fundamental issue of whether to prohibit all animal experimentation for any purpose whatsoever, the Committee gave detailed consideration to the major ethical issues which were raised within the framework of the existing Act, and on the fundamental issue they took the view that public opinion has accepted in principle the necessity for, and the value of, animal experimentation.

Thirdly, the attempts which have been made in recent years to amend the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 do not accord with the findings of Littlewood. Having analysed this matter in some detail, I think it is right to come towards the conclusion of my speech which I recognise will not wholly satisfy my noble friend, but at least I want to indicate the Government's feelings on this matter in the light of today's debate. We fully recognise that the Committee found that in the administration of the 1876 Act there were areas which had not kept pace with the times. The Committee made recommendations for improving that situation, and we readily concede that successive Administrations have proceeded only slowly to give effect to them.

There are three areas which we feel merit further and closer attention. The first is the Advisory Committee. Noble Lords will know that, as Littlewood recommended, the Home Secretary has recently appointed, four independent, non-scientific members to the Committee. At present, the Home Secretary does not intend to extend its functions and terms of reference quite in the way that the Committee proposed, because it would duplicate unnecessarily functions which are already competently and efficiently performed by the Inspectorate. However, he believes that its previous function of looking only at experiments which presented novel, or unusual, scientific or technical features was limited and that the Committee's advice should be more readily sought about proposals that raise other difficult issues; for example, the use of dogs to test new smoking materials.

Another issue to which my noble friend Lord Houghton has specifically referred is the question of stress. My right honourable friend is also prepared to look at the possibility of asking the Advisory Committee to consider this. We shall need to examine, with the aid of advice from the Inspectorate, whether it might best be done in general terms or by reference to the Committee of particular cases. In the course of his speech my noble friend then came to the question of information. We acknowledge that the information provided in the Annual Return of Experiments could be fuller and more comprehensible. We shall set in hand a review of the return forthwith. Noble Lords should not, however, underestimate the complexity of what is involved. We shall make progress on this as rapidly as the availability of staff permits.

Lastly I turn to the Inspectorate, on which a great deal has been said in the course of the debate. The Littlewood Report rejected as misconceived the idea that inspectors should be a kind of police force which spends all its time supervising experiments and making spot checks to detect cruelty. They endorsed the view that the inspector's task is to ensure that licensees understand and fulfil their responsibilities under the Act. Many of the Committee's detailed recommendations for the Inspectorate have been implemented. In particular, it is now recruited equally from the medical and the veterinary professions it has been regionalised, and its number has been substantially increased. The noble Lord, Lord Sandys, raised this point. I think there were 6 inspectors in 1963 when the Littlewood Committee was set up and the number now is 14. The number of inspectors' visits to licensees has continued to increase annually. But we believe there is potential for yet more effective deployment of the inspectors' time so that they can achieve a still closer and more regular contact with their licensees and an overview of their experimental work. Already a review is in hand which we hope will relieve the inspectors of some of the burdens of desk work, to which also reference was made, and which keeps them at present in the office and away from visiting laboratories.

Perhaps I may now come to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, who asked about places where dogs are bred for experimental purposes. I understand that such places are subject to inspection under the provisions of the Breeding of Dogs Act 1973, which makes them liable to inspection by local authority inspectors. Finally I come to the suggestion made by my noble friend Lord Houghton that a Select Committtee of the House should be established to inquire into the law relating to cruelty to animals and the 1876 Act in particular. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary is quite sympathetic to considering the case for changes in the law or its administration, but he is not presently persuaded that a Select Committee is the right way in which this should be tackled. Nevertheless, if my noble friend Lord Houghton so wishes, my right honourable friend is willing to discuss with him both the question of stress and wider matters relating to the Act.

My Lords, I think we have had a useful discussion this afternoon. In the time available to me, which I see is rapidly drawing to a conclusion, I hope I have said enough to make it clear that although the Government cannot accept the need for some of the action which is currently being proposed by the critics of the present law or practice relating to the use of animals for experimentation, we are by no means complacent about the situation, nor do we wish to ignore the implications of the current expression of public concern. We are as concerned as anyone in the community to ensure that those animals which still unfortunately have to be used for experimental purposes should get proper protection from unnecessary suffering and from cruelty, and, as I have explained, we are taking positive steps towards that end.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether he would refer to one matter in regard to licensing which he dealt with in the course of his remarks. I shall of course read with interest in Hansard tomorrow what he has said, but I gather he suggested that there was no criticism by the licence holders of the present system. I would refer him to paragraph 333, where the Universities' Federation of Animal Welfare said—and I quote their words: archaic, inconvenient and wholly unrealistic —that was their comment in Chapter 18 on the licensing system—and, further, Recommendation 34 in the Littlewood Report, which was: the statutory procedure for signature of applications for licences should be abolished and replaced by a new system of sponsorship". That was in paragraphs 335 and 339.


My Lords, I will look into the point raised by the noble Lord although I think we could probably exchange quotations from the Littlewood Report to prove our respective cases.

5.46 p.m.


My Lords, I have just a few moments before this debate must close, and first I must thank my noble friend for the statement he has just made. I think there is a movement on the part of his right honourable friend the Home Secretary which will be welcomed in the House—in all quarters of the House, I think—and certainly by me. It gives me the opportunity of further consultations with him and to take more advice on how the best use may be made of the Home Secretary's willingness to consider certain matters. I am particularly thankful that he brought within the scope of his review psychological experiments and the inducement of stress. I have expressed my gratitude to my noble friend and it would be churlish of me to say that he has not gone far enough or that I hope he will consider going a lot further. I know the difficulties, and for the moment I am content with what he has said. I am grateful to noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Platt, asked me to refer to the fact that he had intended to support the idea of further investigations into alternatives, but his agitation to conclude his speech in reasonable time led to its being omitted.

I never mentioned the word "vivisection", from the beginning to the end of my speech. I am particularly anxious to keep emotion and sentiment and even morality out of it. My Lords, this is the last place in Britain I would come to for emotion. This is where the value of seniority and experience is brought to bear on emotional issues. This is the institution which will be swept before the emotion, the indignation and the demand of people. However, it will come.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. I wish I could say to the noble Lord, Lord Brock, that I valued his intervention years ago in support of implementing the recommendations of the Littlewood Committee. I heard the speech of the Establishment on several occasions during the course of the debate, and people who will not recognise that there are strong feelings that need to be satisfied. Why is it that the information is forthcoming only when the matter is raised and then we get involved in these defensive exercises? I plead for more information as we go along, for more public education, and then there will be more public understanding and more public acceptance. However, I am content with the debate and with the progress made. More will come later, but there is time, and I am grateful to my noble friend for his concluding remarks. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.