Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1971 Mar 31 We
Margaret Thatcher

HC S [Experiments on Living Animals (adjournment debate)]

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Document kind: House of Commons Speech
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [814/1641-46]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 2157-2229. MT spoke at cc1641-46.
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 4292
Themes: Health policy, Science & technology
[column 1634]

EXPERIMENTS OF LIVING ANIMALS

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

Mr. Kenneth Lomas (Huddersfield, West)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter at such an early hour. I am sorry that there is no one on the Treasury Bench at the moment to answer the debate, but no doubt that will be put right in due course.

I begin by pointing out to hon. Members that before this 30-minute debate is over there will have been 300 experiments on live animals in this country. In 1960 the number of animals used in research was about 3½ million, and the number of vivisectors who could legally perform [column 1635]experiments was about 7,000. In 1969, the number who could legally perform experiments on live animals had increased to 13,791. This was matched by the all-time record number of animals used, a total of 5,418,929. If my arithmetic is correct, that works out roughly at 100,000 a week, 14,300 a day, 600 an hour, or 10 for every minute of the day and night, seven days a week, all the year round. I cannot believe that this is necessary.

I am not a total anti-vivisectionist. I accept that it may well be necessary to carry out certain experiments in the interests of research and science. But I question whether it is necessary to use so many animals.

In 1969 the total number of Home Office inspectors appointed to supervise this method of research was only 13. In 1969 there were 13 Home Office supervisors to look after 14,000 vivisectors performing 5½ million experiments.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Lomas

It is for these reasons that I suggest that there is a need to establish a research institute to study and develop methods not including the use of animals. I believe that the establishment of such an institute would be welcomed by scientists and the general public.

Hon. Members and especially the right hon. Lady know as well as anyone that there is tremendous concern about animals, and that if our postbags are full of nothing else they are full of letters about animals. But I am sure that the vast majority of constituents of hon. Members on both sides of the House would be horrified if they knew of the total number of live experiments in this country.

I like to think that such a research institute would be vested in the Medical Research Council, the Government's principal agency for the development of medical research, but if that is not acceptable, some alternative method has to be found. [column 1636]

It has been calculated by the National Anti-Vivisection Society that the cost of such a research institute, including running costs for the first five years, would be about £1 million. That is not an excessive sum of money to stop the needless cruelty and pain inflicted on animals and by the establishment of such an institute it might well be possible to increase our knowledge for the benefit of science and the future well being of the people of this country.

The functions of the institute, as I see it, would be to collate information from all over the world concerning techniques which negate the need for the use of animals, and to study, develop and expand their use generally in medical research. There is no doubt that there is concern in areas of medical research which are currently involved in the extensive use of animals, with the standardisation and testing of drugs and the manufacture and testing of vaccines and sera, and there is substantial evidence to suggest that such tests can be made effectively in vitro using cell and tissue cultural methods without recourse to live animals, and such techniques have been shown to be more reliable, quicker and cheaper. If the Minister would like me to send her a list of references appertaining to this aspect of the use of cell and tissue culture, I should be glad to do so.

I do not pretend to be either a scientist or a doctor, but from what information I have been given it would appear that we in this country are lagging behind many other countries in seeking an alternative method of research. We are certainly behind the United States of America, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Finland and Germany. We pride ourselves on being a nation of animal lovers, and yet there are 5½ million animals used for live experiments in the course of any one year.

If such an institute as I suggest were established, it would give tremendous impetus to the search for alternatives, which must be welcomed by all concerned on humanitarian and practical grounds. It could lead to the discovery of new methods of research far superior to those involving the use of animals both in terms of economy and reliability. It is sometimes said by Governments and organisations interested in such matters that the [column 1637]use of animals in experiments is a regrettable necessity. If that is so, and if the present Government are truly concerned at the increasing volume of animal experimentation, the establishment of a research institute along the lines I have suggested would be a practical demonstration of their sincerity and an enlightened step forward to deal with a situation which reflects credit on no one.

Since the Cruelty to Animals Act was passed in 1876, 95 years ago, not a single Amendment has been moved from either side of the House that would lessen the pain inflicted on the animals involved in experiments. The experimenter has been protected, but the animal has not. In the 50 years from 1919 to 1969 over 90 million animals died as a result of experiments, and almost every one of those experiments inflicted some pain or suffering on the animal concerned. It is time we found an alternative method. I understand from the National Anti-Vivisection Society that it has written to the 14,000 licensed vivisectors in the country asking for their views on the creation of such an institute, and the replies so far have been most encouraging.

The question goes beyond the boundaries of Britain. Earlier this year the Consultative Assembly of the Council of Europe, following a recommendation from its Science and Technology Committee, argued the case for a thorough study of the whole question of experiments on live animals. It suggested that a Commission should be appointed to draft international legislation setting out the conditions and the scientific grounds on which experiments on live animals could be authorised. It also argued that there should be a documentation and information centre open to all interested parties to collect information on the types of experiments carried out, the kind and number of animals used, and the alternatives to the use of live animals, and that experiments on live animals in schools for teaching purposes should be forbidden, and that such experiments in universities should be limited by replacing them with new visual methods.

I am deeply honoured that the Secretary of State for Education and Science is to reply to the debate. It is a great privilege that we should have someone from the Cabinet who is interested in the subject here tonight. In far too many [column 1638]schools—I speak as a father of three children—children are being taught to love, care for and look after animals which at a later stage are being used as subjects not necessarily for vivisection but certainly for dissection and experiments of one kind and another. I deplore that.

I return to my main point, the need for the establishment of a research institute to study and develop methods not including the use of animals. Will the Secretary of State give a firm assurance that such a proposition will receive sympathetic consideration, and assure the House that she is in favour of reducing, if not totally abolishing—which I accept we cannot do, the number of vivisections in this country, in the interests of humanity, the animal kingdom and the people who love animals?

10.5 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas) for not having been here when he began his speech. The debate came on a little sooner than I expected. May I also explain that although I am speaking from the Dispatch Box I am not speaking on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends; I simply did not know where else to speak from. I want to add a personal word of support to my hon. Friend and to join him in congratulating the Secretary of State on giving the debate her personal attention.

I regard the treatment of animals by human beings as one of the great moral issues of the day. I am sorry that this House does not take a great deal more interest in this side of research and experimentation and the treatment of animals. Members of the public are rightly shocked when they read of cases of extreme cruelty and neglect of animals and see television programmes on the subject. What they do not know is what is going on behind the scenes. They would be appalled if they could see the fate of many laboratory animals.

When we read the report of the Royal College of Physicians on the health hazards of smoking, many of us, I am sure, were horrified to learn that animals were compelled to smoke cigarettes for hours a day, for weeks, for months and possibly years on end, in order to show [column 1639]what the effects of the smoking of cigarettes would be on live tissues. The spectacle of animals with cigarettes tied to their snouts and compelled to breathe in tobacco smoke in this way in order that human beings might know whether addiction to tobacco is harmful to their health is really a monstrous form of experiment.

If human beings want to know whether things are bad for them they should try them on themselves and learn from their own experience. The enormous growth in the number of experiments is something to which Parliament should give attention. The real difficulty is to find out what is really going on. This is a closed shop. The cameras do not get there. Personal inspection is frequently refused not only in medical research establishments but in defence research establishments also, dealing with poison gases and noxious liquids of one kind or another. We are really using animals to find out what damage things do to them in order that human beings may be saved and in order that we may know what damage certain things will do to our enemies in the event of war. This matter deserves a longer debate on some future occasion, and I hope that we shall have one.

I am deeply moved by this kind of thing. It is quite untrue for many people to suggest that those who take an interest in this matter are either cranks or sentimentalists, or for some reason or other love animals more than children. That is the kind of snide suggestions sometimes made against those working for animal protection.

Experimenters should not be hidden away or their work shut off from public gaze or independent inspection by those who can convey their findings to the public. Numbers are not enough. The long standing Act of Parliament on this matter needs to be rewritten and brought up to date in order to conform to modern standards on this great moral issue.

When I read of animals being used in order to see whether certain cosmetic treatment for women will be harmful to the eyesight of animals, I find it quite horrifying. One may justify using animals—but it is difficult to do so—in order to discover some of the secrets about dread [column 1640]diseases which are afflicting the human race, and especially perhaps diseases which afflict animals themselves. But to use them as a basis for testing out cosmetics is an abomination.

I fully support my hon. Friend's plea to the House and to the right hon. Lady to consider every conceivable means of finding alternatives to the use of animals for experimentation. That is all I have to say. I am obliged to my hon. Friend for raising this subject and I hope that, in all the great issues confronting Parliament, this one will not be lost sight of. It is one of the great moral issues of civilised society.

10.15 p.m.

Sir Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

I should like to support the plea made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas), as the honorary secretary of the Animal Welfare Group in this House. One point he did not touch upon is that the reaction of animals to experiments is not always the same as that of human beings.

Therefore experiments on animals are not always reliable in giving guidance as to whether a drug will be safe.

I know that this is a Home Office matter and not my right hon. Friend's responsibility, but it is now six years since the Littlewood Committee reported to this House. Not only have we not had a debate on it but no steps have been taken to implement its recommendations. Some of them are probably out of date now. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could make representations to the Home Secretary about this and see whether something can be done.

I have a feeling that there is a resistance to something being done about this. Some of those engaged in research using animals become hard-boiled in their attitude towards those animals. This is inevitable, and it is no criticism of these people, just an unfortunate fact of life. That seems to create resistance towards reducing experiments. The scope of these is appalling and it is increasing every year. There must be an enormous amount of duplication. I support the hon. Gentleman's plea for this research institute to be established to consider alternative methods and I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to give some encouraging information. [column 1641]

10.17 p.m.

Mr. Harold Walker (Doncaster)

In 1966 I had the pleasure of raising a related matter on the Adjournment, and I have it in mind now because when we consider this matter we must realise it is not only a question of the distress caused to the animals involved.

There is also the wider distress which often arises from the number of animals used. So long as this experimentation takes place and so long as the practice grows there will be a need for animals, and, as was indicated in the Littlewood Committee Report, so long as there is a shortfall in the number of animals coming from breeders for this purpose there will be an inducement and incentive for criminal elements to obtain animals improperly, animals which are often children's pets.

There is unquestionably a traffic in illegally obtained animals, often stolen. This also is a matter which causes distress to the owners of the stolen animals. While I accept that this is not the right hon. Lady's responsibility, I want to put this in support of the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas).

10.19 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Lomas), my hon. Friend the Member for Wembley, South (Sir R. Russell) and other hon. Members for raising this matter. My time is brief and I will try to get as much information as possible into the reply.

The statistics given by the hon. Member are very striking and arouse strong feelings. But there may be good reasons for them, and I should like first to examine them.

At present the use of animals is essential not only for the advancement of bio-medical research but also in routine safeguards for the health of the community. An increasing number of drugs and food additives have to be initially screened and tested on living animals, often as a legal requirement, before they may be administered for clinical purposes. It would, clearly, not be possible to use human subjects for such purposes, in view of the toxic hazards involved. [column 1642]Again, some diagnostic tests carried out in hospitals and public health laboratories are dependent on the use of animals.

The development of vaccines and drugs for use in veterinary medicine is similarly dependent upon screening and testing in other animals. Indeed, advances in veterinary medicine and surgery and particularly in the prevention of communicable disease, are no less dependent on animal experiments than their counterparts in human disease.

Again, fundamental knowledge of the nutritional requirements of domestic animals derived from animal experiment has made it possible to prevent much sickness and misery. Any unnecessary restrictions on animal experimentation would thus be deterimental to progress in veterinary science—the progress of agriculture and the welfare of domestic animals and pets—in just the same way as it would hold back research into the problems of human disease.

Furthermore, to maintain the present rate of progress in the bio-medical field as a whole, but particularly in such subjects as cancer research, toxicology, ophthalmology, pulmonary diseases and mental illness, the use of experimental animals will continue to be essential in the foreseeable future.

Although advances continue to be made in the search for effective alternatives to animal experimentation, it is the view of the Medical Research Council that the use of animals remains essential for the advancement of medical and biological research. The progress of medical science—and consequently of medical practice—on the scale and rate that has occurred in recent years would have been impossible but for such experiments.

The hon. Member has laid particular stress on the present scale of animal experimentation. It is true that in recent years there has been a steady increase in the number of experiments on living animals. The background to this trend was reviewed by the independent Departmental Committee of Inquiry the Littlewood Committee, which, in 1963 to 1965, examined very thoroughly and in detail the working of the present controls over animal experimentation. After reviewing the enormous expansion of biological science since 1876, and all the operational factors involved in the use of animals for [column 1643]experimental purposes, the Committee pointed out that

“the increase in the numbers of animals used in research is largely to be explained by the expansion of biological science and the mandatory testing of biological substances.”

In paragraph 73 the Committee further said:

“Our general conclusions are that, in spite of strong incentives to the avoidance where possible of animal experimentation, the discovery of substitutes for animal tests is not likely materially to affect the demand for animal experimentation.”

The hon. Member referred to the controls and safeguards in this country over the use of animals for experimental purposes. Although our legislation dates back to 1876, its basic principles are not out dated. The essential feature is that the person who conducts the experiments must hold a licence, which is only issued on certain stringent conditions. If he does not continue to satisfy these conditions he may lost it. Restrictions are imposed by the Act on the purposes for which animal experiments may be carried out. It prohibits absolutely the performance of any experiment liable to cause pain unless it is undertaken with a view to the advancement by new discovery of physiological knowledge or of knowledge which will be useful in saving or prolonging life or alleviating suffering, or the acquisition of such knowledge by persons attending lectures at medical schools, hospitals or elsewhere. Experiments of this kind are not, and would not, be permitted in schools in this country.

Restrictions on the infliction of pain are imposed by and under the Act with the object of ensuring that no animal under experiment suffers severe pain that is likely to endure, or avoidable pain of any kind. Within the Medical Research Council's organisation the majority of animals are specially bred in the Council's own laboratories. When requirements cannot be met from internal sources, all M.R.C. establishments are under instruction to purchase animals only from sources accredited or recognised by the Laboratory Animals Centre.

In spite of everything I have said, research workers generally will always prefer experimental methods which do not involve animals where such methods are effective. The reasons are first [column 1644]humanitarian, secondly economic, and thirdly convenience. We do not have to persuade scientists not to use animals if other methods are effective. They would be anxious to do so for those three reasons. Any new procedures which give equally successful results are taken up rapidly. British scientists—not least those working under the auspices of the Medical Research Council—have made steady progress in introducing alternative methods. In recent years, many techniques have been developed for tracing and measuring biological substances which have helped to reduce the need for animal experiments.

I quote as one example among many the development of immunofluorescent assay. This is the method of measuring the concentration of a substance by combining it with a suitable antibody, the concentration of which can be measured through its property of fluorescence under ultra-violet light.

Originally this method arose out of studies of immunology but research workers at many centres have developed the technique for different biological substances, and it is now in widespread use.

Again, much effort has been concentrated on the rôle of human diploid cell substrates in the production of virus vaccines. Diploid cells are those with a full complement of chromosomes. As a result, both rubella and measles vaccines based on human cell cultures have been licensed for sale in the United Kingdom.

Methods involving human material have their own problems. Clearly, it is possible unknowingly to transmit disease by this method while trying to cure another disease.

Quite recently scientists at the M.R.C. Clinical Research Centre have developed a method for detecting the toxin produced by cholera bacteria which is responsible for the disease. The method is based on the effects of the toxin on cultures of living cells and is simpler and more sensitive than previous methods in which animals were used. Progress has thus been made towards identification of the active principle of the toxin and its molecular structure.

Apart from work on living cell systems, the introduction of computers has paved the way towards introduction of mathematical models. A measure of success [column 1645]has been achieved, but the great complexity of biological systems inevitably means that difficult problems remain to be surmounted in devising valid analogues.

These are but a few examples of alternatives to animal experimentation. I would however strongly emphasise that all such developments arise from a particular research problem. Indeed, work of this kind is more likely to be fruitful if pursued in close conjunction with the scientific research activity to which it may be applied.

Results become widely known through scientific literature and are, therefore, adopted by other workers in relation to their own particular research problems. This is well illustrated by the technique of immunofluorescent assay mentioned earlier. Its wide area of application was achieved despite the fact that each new extension of its use has required further research effort, even though the basic technique was well established.

I have stressed this aspect since it has a crucial bearing on the subject under debate. The fact is that progress is likely to be quicker through existing scientific channels than by pursuing the search for alternatives outside the main stream of research.

On all the evidence from work in the field, and progress with alternatives so far, an institute created with the primary object of reducing animal experiments would be unlikely to be as effective as existing approaches mainly because of the difficulties of ensuring that the staff of the institute kept in day to day contact with the specific problems for which animal experiments are needed. Indeed the Medical Research Council is not in favour of establishing an institute for the development of alternative techniques in isolation from other research; rather, it has chosen to encourage new methods by the development of specialist sections and divisions within its establishments where staff with special technical skills can work with other scientists to the best mutual advantage. The Council gives active support to the development of new techniques when they show promise of improvement on existing methods, and I should be glad if the hon. Member would let me have details of the instances where he thinks we are behind other countries. [column 1646]

The need for collaboration between disciplines is one of the principal facets of the Medical Research Council's research policies; this policy, which has been justified by the many scientific advances which have been achieved over the years under the Council's auspices, contributes to the development of alternatives to animal experiments. Moreover the Council's policy of placing its own establishments within universities whenever possible ensures both that the Council's staff have access to the widest possible range of scientific disciplines and also that any developments achieved by the Council's staff are rapidly communicated to a larger scientific community. I do not, therefore, feel able to accept the hon. Member's proposition that the addition of a new institute, which might well find itself out on a limb, would be of any significant help.

I repeat that scientists are anxious not to have to use these methods when proper alternative methods are available, and the search for those methods continues, and will go on as it has in the past.

On final point. The hon. Member mentioned that other countries are ahead of us in this. This general assertion is often made, but it has never been backed up by detailed examples and facts. If the hon. Member has any we should be very grateful if he would forward them to us.

Mr. Lomas

The right hon. Lady tonight has read from a brief and not spoken from her heart. I think she will agree with me that we have to do something about the position which we have in this country and experimentation with animals. The Council of Europe is on record as proving that the Soviet Union, Germany, Finland, the United States are ahead of us on this, and I am very upset that the right hon. Lady has decided tonight that she is not in favour of a research institute to find alternative methods.

Mrs. Thatcher

I may have read from a brief, but I myself carefully studied it, and I did it myself, because I have a scientific background and felt that I might even understand the brief.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.