HL Deb 22 October 1981 vol 424 cc854-62

4.3 p.m.

Debate resumed.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, in resuming the debate I should like to acknowledge with thanks the kind references that the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, made to myself in connection with all the work that has been done by a great many people on the Bill. I am grateful to him for that and I express regret that we must impose additional burdens this afternoon on the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, who has had a very heavy ministerial load of late. We can all sympathise with a Minister who has to go from nationality to animals, from riots to the miscellaneous business of the Home Office. It is a most tiresome department to be in.

Indeed, one former Home Secretary told me, "The trouble about being Home Secretary is that when you wake up in the morning you never know what is going to be at the office". There have been some remarkable switches in the course of parliamentary business in the past through occurrences which were quite unexpected. I recall a former Leader of the House once saying, "Ten days ago I had never heard of Chief Enaharo, but he has lost me four days of parliamentary time". Undoubtedly the Home Office presents many problems to the Minister. Before I conclude, I may have a suggestion to make to relieve the Home Office of having to deal with this matter altogether, and I do not know how welcome that suggestion might be to the noble Lord, Lord Belstead.

Although we are discussing the final stage of this Bill, the real interest in the debate is in what will happen in the future, and I shall address myself to that briefly. It is however noteworthy that the Bill is about to go through your Lordships' House for the second time round, with all the additional thought and discussion that has gone into the Bill meantime. It is not an ill-thought out Bill; it is the product of six months' work on the previous Bill, introduced by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, in the Select Committee of this House. The noble Earl read out the comment made by a former official of the Committee of Experts at Strasbourg with his opinion of the Bill.

I would add in passing that I was disturbed to hear the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, say that this would be his swan song on this subject. He said he had been on it for a quarter of a century and it was about time he was put out to grass. Why should he give up so soon? He knows as well as anybody that a quarter of a century is a short time to spend on reform in this field, when we have on the statute book an Act which is over 100 years old and has not been amended in any shape or form since it was enacted in 1876. We have a long way to go yet and I hope the noble Earl will have the energy and interest to continue his invaluable contributions to debate in your Lordships' House on this subject.

I am afraid I must now be a bit rough with the noble Lord, Lord Belstead. The Government do not like this Bill, and that is the first point I wish to make. Therefore, the Government do not like the report of the advisory committee, which comes down heavily in favour of the structure of the Bill. That dislike is obvious from the press statement which was released by the Home Office at the time of the belated publication of the report of the advisory committee, when they went out of their way, while thanking the advisory committee for the value of the work they had done, to say that they had not produced a report which could provide a definitive basis for future legislation. There is nothing like a vote of thanks and a smack in the eye at the same time.

After all, that advisory committee was composed of persons who were appointed to it by the Home Secretary; it was not biased in any way and it was not weighted against the Home Secretary in any way, and he had referred the matter to the advisory committee. He expressly asked them to give their opinion on the subject and, what is more, he asked them to be as quick as possible in doing so. The advisory com- mittee had the advantage of two pieces of legislation on this subject, one in the House of Commons which did not make progress, and this one in your Lordships' House which is making progress for the second time in this House. They had the advantage of reading volumious evidence given by all interested parties to the Select Committee, and more than once noble Lords have paid tribute to the work of the noble Lord, Lord Ashby, as chairman of the Select Committee. It really was a fine job of work which I doubt will ever again be repeated on this subject. It was a substitute for a Royal Commission; it was an investigation which rendered it unnecessary for the advisory committee to go over the same ground again, and this provides the Home Office with a valuable further instalment of assistance and guidance on this complex subject.

The report of the advisory committee has provided an interesting second opinion about the work of the Select Committee, a second opinion on the contents of the Bill. It is as valuable as a committee appointed to examine a Bill before it makes progress in the House. It is a valuable aid to your Lordships' House on a complicated subject. Well, the question is: where do we go from here? In earlier debates on the subject we used to hear that the impediment to making progress on the part of the Government to fulfil their election promise was the proceedings in the Council of Europe, that it was difficult for the British Government to proceed to advise the House as to future legislation while the convention of the Council of Europe was still under discussion: the more difficult because a British representative on the committee of experts was an official of the British Home Office, and it would ill become a Government which for the time being had the chairmanship of the committee to proceed to legislation while the experts were still engaged in a task of important relevance to what that legislation would be about.

We sympathised with that view, however impatient we were about the lack of progress. But now I see the press statement issued by the Home Office that there is a new possibility—and that is that the introduction of a Bill might depend on parliamentary time being available. This is a new one; we had not heard this before. So what the Government are really saying is that they will fulfil their pledge on this subject given at the last General Election if parliamentary time permits. There are many qualifications to failure to fulfil election pledges, but usually the lack of parliamentary time is not one of them.

The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, asked: are we to get a Government Bill in the next Session? Here we come up against the well-known convention of Ministers being unable to anticipate what might be in the Queen's Speech. That is all rubbish. The Government have already anticipated some things that will be in the Queen's Speech. They were politically so sensitive and important that it has already been announced that they are to introduce legislation to implement certain policies upon which they have already decided. There is no absolute bar against mentioning what the Government have in mind to introduce in the next Session. I was on the Queen's Speech drafting committee more than once, I know the drill, I know how it gets there. The Government have a completely free hand—let us be honest about it—to put in the Queen's Speech what they want to put in, and to leave out what they want to leave out. So if the Government wish to reassure the House this afternoon, they are perfectly free to do so by saying that it is their intention to introduce a Bill in the next Session.

However, it might be that the uncertainties in the Council of Europe still inhibit them from making any such promise, and I could understand that if it were to prove so, though from the Government's point of view one wonders how much longer they can go on making the same excuses for not making progress.

I am wondering whether the Government's intentions are worth bothering about. Let us look at the situation for a moment in political terms. There is a by-election taking place today. Tomorrow we shall be a little wiser about the likely fortunes of the Conservative Party. I believe that if the Government do not make progress in 1982, they will not make progress in this Parliament anyhow on this subject. However, I am not at all sure that in view of what I believe to be the present political situation I care tuppence whether or not they make progress. I am coming to the conclusion that it is probably better that they should not, because I am quite convinced that the Conservative Government cannot possibly recover the confidence that they will need to return as the Government after the next general election. I believe that whoever else constitutes Her Majesty's Government after the next general election, they will be more favourably disposed than the present Government to reforms in this field. So it might be that in the interests of getting the kind of Bill that many of us want to see, or indeed in the hope of getting any Bill at all, we have to pledge our faith in the outcome of the general election.

I am sorry to be so unfriendly about this matter to Her Majesty's Government, but there comes a time when it is no good beating about the bush, and I now have to gather together very quickly friends who will be able to consider how they are to conduct the campaign for animal welfare at the next general election, and this takes time to prepare. Frankly, I believe that the interval between now and the next general election will give such a golden opportunity for the mobilisation of public opinion on this subject of animal welfare as to require Parliament to go further than the Government at present contemplate going. If that is so, delay might well come to the aid of reform.

That is merely a political assessment. I do not want to place any difficulties in the way of the Government in getting on with the job if they wish to do so. If by their own pledge they feel impelled to update the 1876 Act in this Parliament, I must not try to dissuade them. I might criticise what they try to do, but I shall not try to dissuade them. I would never encourage any Government to default on their election pledges whether they are good or bad. I think that election pledges should be fulfilled but I think it far better that political parties should make fewer of them. Far too many hostages to fortune are included in the manifestoes of political parties at general elections. They should have enough self-control to leave it to the good sense of the electors to understand that from time to time events occur which Government find unexpectedly difficult; and the idea of going forward with pledges which have been conceived at party conferences years earlier very often proves to be a dangerous nonsense. However, that is by the way.

On the prospects of getting a European convention, the opinion that we get from Brussels is that there are difficulties there which it might not be possible to overcome at the next meeting in January. Indeed, we are advised that there is a strong possibility that the resistance throughout Europe to the proposals that are under consideration by the committee of experts is so strong that it might be necessary to refer back the whole matter to the Assembly. The fact of the matter is that in the course of discussion on the draft articles of the convention it was necessary to give publicity, or at least publicity followed the exposure of proposals for discussion, and that publicity has resulted in a very strong reaction throughout many interests in the European countries. I understand that thousands of letters are being sent to the Council of Europe protesting at what is under consideration. I have no means of confirming that, though I hear it on very good authority. In those circumstances, what prospect is there of present difficulties being overcome at their next meeting in January, and will there be a prospect of this matter being referred back to the Assembly?

I hope the Minister can be candid with us about this, this being the last opportunity in this Session to be so. I hope that we do not have to return to this topic in the debate on the Queen's speech; I really do. We want to get on, if we can, towards a settlement of our problems. Meantime, I am sure the noble Lord the Minister will be glad to hear what the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said about the new liaison, the new form of consultation, under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Cross, between the Research Defence Society and the Committee for the Reform of Animal Experimentation, of which I am chairman. We have been brought together, mutually desiring to meet together, to see how far we can overcome the problems of reconciliation of the different interests involved. That is a notable step forward.

Good heavens alive! we are doing everything for the Home Secretary except hold his hand to write this Bill. He cannot get much more help from any quarter that is worthwhile, however much he may rely on the advice he is getting from permanent officials. Where else can he go for help and advice but among those who are directly concerned on both sides of the argument? Where else can be go but to the guidelines, the examination of this subject given by the Select Committee, the study of the problem by the advisory committee and the new form of co-operation to which I have just alluded? No Home Secretary could hope for greater co-operation than that.

I come finally to an idea which I throw out for the consideration of your Lordships and, indeed, of the Minister himself. Is the Home Office the most suitable department to deal with this subject in future? Should it be taken away from the Home Office altogether; and, if so, where should it go? I remember a time when the Home Secretary, in the course of discussions on the future of the social services, was concerned to hear that some of us thought, that Ministers thought, that the subject of children should go to another department. I remember how grieved he was that almost the only emotional appeal of the Home Office might be taken away, and that it would be left with the police, crime, prisoners, riots, immigration and all the other subjects which give rise to squalid differences of opinion. However, the subject of children went; and I do not suppose he would feel that keeping the protection of laboratory animals was essential to the reputation of the Home Office.

Some people might suggest that this subject would be better suited to the Department of Health and Social Security. I would not hold that view. I think that, although it is very close to the DHSS, they have too vested an interest in it. After all, the Department of Agriculture has an interest, too—a very important one. The Department of Education and Science might appear to be a suitable department for this. After all, science is science and that is where it is supposed to be, although much of it seems to be in other departments. So some department independent of the DHSS and independent of the Department of Agriculture might well be the suitable one to deal with this subject in the future.

While that is an arguable proposition, I have been speaking for longer than I intended and so I will leave it there. I hope that the noble Lord, after his weary task of recent days, will not feel that the atmosphere has been made less congenial to him by my speech. I wish him well, notwithstanding.

Lord Peart

My Lords, first of all I should like to pay tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and to my noble friend Lord Houghton. I believe they have done so much. Then, again, I must pay tribute to Lord Ashby as chairman of the Select Committee. May I say to my noble friend Lord Houghton that I think he is being a little pessimistic. I am glad he mentioned my old Ministry, agriculture. I was once involved in this argument, and I took the view that inevitably a departmental Ministry, like agriculture, with all the great veterinary services we have, is a shining example to the world, and they do not like cruelty to animals. It is as simple as that. However, I pay tribute to the work of all those who have helped in the passage of this Bill. I know that my noble friend has been at it a long time and I really pay him a sincere tribute; and the noble Earl, as well. They were sparring partners on different occasions, but I think that basically they are as one.

The Laboratory Animals Protection Bill is, I think, a Bill of great importance. No doubt there will be problems with regard to Strasbourg, but I hope they will not prevent this Bill passing into law. I think we should be pleased with the progress which has been made. I know it has involved a lot of work by many people and bodies who have shown concern over some years. The public has for much time been very concerned about conditions under which animals have been treated in laboratories. There has been a tremendous press on this over a period of time. Although we have new legislation, much depends on how the safeguards are used and on adequate inspection. I believe very strongly in the importance of inspection.

While welcoming the Bill, we say that this is not the end but the beginning of a period for further vigilance, to see how the Bill is operated to ensure the wellbeing of animals. In the last general election my own party sought more safeguards, and this Bill goes some way towards our goal. As my noble friend Lord Houghton says, there is need for international co-operation. We hope there will be speedy progress there, too. So I conclude, because I believe much has been said many times on this. The two noble Lords who have spoken today have done remarkably well. I think they have done a marvellous, positive job. Lovers of animals must be very proud of them—and I regard myself as a lover of animals, too.

4.28 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, our previous discussions on this Bill, the last of which took place in Committee on 2nd April, have given us an opportunity to consider a number of the fundamental issues which arise in moving towards new legislation to control experiments on animals, and have definitely contributed to a wider understanding of the problems; and in this I certainly agree with the last words which were spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Peart. We are, therefore, indebted to the Select Committee for its work, and to its members, particularly to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for the impetus that they have brought to the deliberations on the Bill—albeit, may I say, in the speeches which they have made in recent months, approaching the subject from perhaps rather different directions.

The first thing I must reiterate is that it remains the Government's intention to update the 1876 Act when parliamentary time permits; but we remain of the view that it would be preferable to await the outcome of the negotiations at Strasbourg on the Council of Europe convention. The noble Earl asked about the state of preparedness for the next meeting of the ad hoc committee. As I informed the House on 5th June in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, the ad hoc committee of experts, under United Kingdom chairmanship, completed its consideration of the full text of the draft convention at its meeting last May. This included the articles concerning the circumstances in which procedures should be terminated because of the suffering to the animal involved; the circumstances in which an animal may be used more than once; the performance of procedures in the course of education and training, and the provision of statistical information.

Our delegation, however, formally reserved our position on the revised version of Article 8(3), otherwise supported by every other delegation, which would allow an animal to be subjected to severe and continuing pain where it was judged exceptionally necessary in the pursuit of human or animal health, or scientific problems. United Kingdom practice has not allowed such a waiver of the relevant safeguards, and we are at present considering very carefully the implications of accepting that article. We are also considering the implications of the article on which the West German delegation reserved its position. This would allow an animal which had already undergone severe or continuing pain to be subjected to a further procedure which would either dispense with anaesthesia or allow the animal to survive the procedure, or both.

Since the May meeting of the full ad hoc committee which is drafting the convention, two smaller working groups have made good progress on two important but detailed ancillary documents—the draft appendix on recommended standards of care and accommodation of animals covered by the convention (which, I think, the noble Earl asked me about) and the draft explanatory memorandum to the convention itself. It is hoped that this work will be completed at a meeting in November. It will then be possible for the full ad hoc committee, when it meets early in 1982, to have these two documents before it; and to consider also further views on the two key articles on which formal reservations have been made and which I have just mentioned. In addition, any delegations that wish to do so may make fresh observations on any other part of the draft convention.

The work of the committee at Strasbourg has therefore been proceeding according to plan. There are still the two key issues to be settled and some minor matters to be resolved. However, with the exception of these points, a draft exists which has commanded the support of most delegations, including our own. The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, asked me about the possible effect of the change of chairmanship of the committee which will take place at the end of the year. I should like to make it clear that the United Kingdom, through the chair of the ad hoc committee, has pressed for progress and this, on the evidence of what I have said, has been achieved. It would be wrong to suppose that the chairman who will take over in 1982 will be any less assiduous.

The draft of the convention when it is finally agreed is not going to meet every point of view. Such an outcome is inconceivable. Nevertheless, it is a sincere attempt to strike the right balance in what would be the first international instrument in this field. In this connection, it must be borne in mind, as the noble Lord, Lord Peart, I think was bearing in mind in his speech, that a convention to which there are few, if any, signatories represents little, if no, progress at all. It is our intention to continue to give constructive support to the preparation of the convention as it stands drafted at present. I understand that the view is being expressed in some quarters that there should be a return by the committee at Strasbourg to a consideration of certain fundamental matters which were the subject of full deliberation there at the outset of the negotiations. I hope that my understanding will prove to be wrong. I believe such a course would give rise to serious difficulties. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, mentioned the possibility of the convention being referred back to the Parliamentary Assembly. My understanding is that a reference back could be made only by the Committee of Ministers. Certainly, the Government have no reason to believe that the Committee of Ministers would agree to a reference back to the Parliamentary Assembly.

My Lords, in moving towards its aim to update present legislation, the Government also have the benefit of the views of the Home Secretary's advisory committee on the framework of legislation to replace the 1876 Act, which was mentioned by both the noble Earl and Lord Houghton. Their report was published early in September. It is an especially important and informed document to which we shall pay careful attention when drawing up proposals. Some 25 main recommendations have been made as a basis for a new Act. It is clear that these are the result of careful thought and are intended to take proper account of the requirements of science and industry, and of the protection of animals against avoidable suffering. While the Government consider that the report itself does not provide the definitive basis for the whole range of proposals which would be necessary for new controls, the recommendations of the committee will be most carefully studied and will be taken fully into account, although I am not able, in answer to the noble Earl's speech today, to announce conclusions which we have reached on the recommendations which have been made. However, in the expectation that the report will be of similar value to the negotiations at Strasbourg, the secretariat there has recently been asked to circulate the advisory committee's report to other delegations for their information.

My Lords, may I reply to a question which the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, asked me. He asked whether there will be facilities for parliamentary debate before the convention is ratified, when it comes to be ratified.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, I did not ask a question. I reminded the noble Lord that he had undertaken in an earlier debate that there would be facilities.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, let me reply in any case in this way. I do not think there is anything between the noble Earl and me on this. The fact is that circumstances will dictate to the Government, to the noble Earl and to any other noble Lord interested in this, that there is bound to be debate because when the draft of the convention is agreed and the Committee of Ministers has decided to open the convention for signature and the United Kingdom have decided to sign it, it would not be possible for the United Kingdom to ratify it until we were satisfied that our legislation was in conformity with the convention's provisions. On the basis of our present expectations, ratification would require new legislation here and that would be bound to require debate in both Houses during the normal parliamentary process. Meanwhile, our debates on this Bill have been most valuable. The fact that the Bill cannot progress further in this Session does not detract from that value. The views expressed on all sides have been carefully noted by the Government and will be weighed carefully when we come to draw up our own proposals.

Lord Peart

My Lords, may I say how important it is that the Government should act reasonably. The Government are really mainly responsible for these matters and I hope this will be taken into consideration. I know the noble Lord did well on this and I should like to pay him a tribute.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and I take into account what the noble Lord has just said.

On Question, Bill passed and sent to the Commons.