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Commercial Breeding for Laboratories – [Clive Efford in the Chair] | Westminster Hall debates

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford, and to follow the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who made a compelling case for putting science first that should guide us all today. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for what I thought was an excellent speech, setting out the petition and its aims and the context in which we are having this debate; I also thank the 102,000 people who signed the petition, as other Members have, including the 128 in Croydon Central who did so. As a shadow Home Office Minister, I deal with immigration, police and security. Those issues dominate a lot of our time in this place, and it is good that members of the public push us to talk more about animals and animal welfare, because otherwise, I suspect we would not talk about them nearly often enough.

The e-petition we have debated calls on the Government to ban commercial breeding for laboratories, an issue that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington set out in some detail. As the Labour Front Bencher in this debate, I want to be clear that the Labour party believes that the unnecessary and prolonged suffering of defenceless animals has absolutely no place in a civilised society. That is part of the DNA of our party, and the history of our party is tied to the defence and protection of animal rights.

It is nearly 20 years since the Hunting Act 2004, when the Labour Government ended the cruel practice of hunting with dogs—a clear testament to the progress made since the days of bear-baiting, cockfighting and other awful things. The year 2006 saw the Animal Welfare Act, another landmark piece of legislation that put down serious protections in law for pets, livestock and wild animals alike. We introduced the offence of unnecessary suffering, mutilation and animal fighting, and we promised to end the testing of cosmetics on animals in our manifesto back in 1997.

The last Labour Government were, I like to think, the most animal-friendly this country has seen, and working from the foundations laid by our predecessors, that is what we would hope to be again if we were to get back into Government. This country should lead the world with high animal welfare standards. No animal should suffer unnecessary pain and degradation. It is not a binary decision to be for animal welfare or human welfare; they can and should exist alongside each other. Many hon. Members have set that out very clearly in the debate today.

It is welcome that animal testing practices have improved over many years and advanced over recent years, but as we have heard today we are seeing an increase in testing on some animals. I am concerned about the lack of transparency on animal testing project licence applications as well as the continued permissibility of “severe suffering” as defined in UK law. We heard that in 2021 there were over 3 million procedures involving living animals. Of those, around 1.7 million were experimental procedures on living animals, and the remaining 1.3 million were cases of the breeding and creation of genetically-altered animals. Over 160,000 animals were involved in procedures judged as “severe” or “non-recovery” in terms of harms caused. Some still argue that research on animals is a necessary evil and a key tool for scientific process, but as times, science and views all change, so too must our behaviour.

The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which we have heard much about, is now considered way out of date for modern animal welfare standards and is not properly enforced. We have talked a lot about the 3Rs, and I will not go into more about that now. The development of alternative methods using human cells, AI and modelling techniques was set out very eloquently by many Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) earlier in the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who had five very clear action points about the lack of necessity for experiments because of scientific curiosity. We heard much about the alternatives, which are very clear and in many cases much more effective than research on animals.

As the official Opposition and probably with support more widely across the House, we ask the Government to institute a comprehensive review of animal testing with a view to improving practice, limiting animal suffering and increasing transparency, as well as having a long-term objective of phasing out animal testing entirely. The Government must invest more in non-animal technologies as an alternative to animal testing. There are some very sophisticated technologies, as we have heard, which are becoming more sophisticated by the year. They are clearly the future.

The petition refers to licensing. It would be helpful to see greater transparency in the issuing of licences so that the public can see when and why animal testing takes place. According to the 1986 Act, wherever possible a scientifically satisfactory method or testing strategy not entailing the use of protected animals must be used. It is a requirement for those seeking a licence to demonstrate that they considered non-animal alternatives. I wonder if the Minister could clarify how that self-certification is then evaluated and whether licensing applications are assessed by a non-animal methods expert. It is important to understand the scientific rationale behind an application, to understand the procedures and to know that they will have the minimum possible impact on the animal in question. Will the Minister outline the steps that the Government will take to review the system and make it more transparent, and look at licensing applications in the round?

In 2016, Ipsos MORI found that 74% of people believed that more work is needed to find more non-animal alternatives. I am not quite sure why it was only 74%; I suspect it is now much higher. This is clearly a matter of great interest to the public, and this place should respond to what the public are demanding of us in this petition. Many other petitions on animal welfare issues receive hundreds of thousands of signatures each year. We can work harder. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) and her all-party group on their work—lots of good work is done across this place—but, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran said, there are people in this place who think the status quo is acceptable. What is their argument, what have they got to say and where are they today?

In our opinion, the Government have been dragging their heels on animal issues for years. I would like the Minister to indicate when they will announce a review to identify and eliminate at least avoidable testing, and in the long term testing in its entirety. Will the Government commit to eliminating every unnecessary test? Will the Minister clarify whether the Government are committed to upholding firm standards on animal welfare? We have heard some horrible stories. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) talked about the animal welfare side of things—I have not even touched on that—which is of course incredibly important.

I would be grateful if the Minister can set out where the Government’s views on higher and higher restrictions on animal testing sit in relation to the trade deals currently being negotiated and the post-Brexit world that we live in. We should remain firm in our commitments. We do not want to become more reliant on ingredients and chemicals that have been tested on animals abroad. The offshoring of animal cruelty and poor standards is unacceptable. It would be good to hear from the Minister about that.

Finally, the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire, the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), answered a written parliamentary question just a couple of weeks ago and said:

“The Home Office assures appropriate protection of the use of animals in science through licensing and compliance assurance under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. This legal framework, implemented by the Home Office Regulator, requires that animals are only ever used in science where there are no alternatives, where the number of animals used is the minimum needed to achieve the scientific benefit, and where the potential harm to animals is limited”—

and that was pretty much a full stop. There was no “We can go further,” “There are things we can do,” or “We can improve.” No inch was given on the status quo. I echo the view across the House that we can do better and go faster. Will the Government commit to that today?