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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 21 January, 2003, 11:28 GMT
Row over animal test reform
Mouse, BBC
Rodents are the primary laboratory species
The UK Government agreed on Monday that fewer animals should die in British laboratories - but it indicated no change in the current licensing regime that would bring this about.

Ministers were giving their formal response to a controversial report published last year by an all party select committee of peers, which said greater effort should be made to reduce animal experimentation.

All we've seen is dithering and inaction from a government which doesn't really have a policy on animal experiments

Wendy Higgins, Buav
Animal welfare groups quickly rounded on the government, accusing it of trying to brush off the peers concerns.

The House of Lords report said that while many members of the public supported the principle of animal testing, some felt that the essentially self-regulated licensing process might mean unnecessary experiments were given the go-ahead.

The peers wanted greater openness in the system, with "substantial" details of proposed research available for public scrutiny.

They also wanted to see more money going into research to find alternatives to animal testing.

'Level of suffering'

The government in its response has suggested that only a non-technical summary, perhaps written by the scientists involved, might suffice.

Campaigners say this system would deliver precious little useful information to the public.

Monkey, Buav
The peers agreed there needed to be greater openness
Dr Maggy Jennings, head of the RSPCA's (Royal Society for the Protection of Animals) research animals department, said: "It is vital that hand in hand with the reasons for research there is more openness about the level of suffering caused to the animals used.

"The public needs to know the price that animals have to pay.

"Their proposals amount to little more than passing the buck to research councils, industry and others."

Currently, about 2.7 million animal procedures are carried out in the UK each year - the vast majority involving tests on rats and mice.

'three R's'

Home Office Minister Bob Ainsworth said the Lords report had been a "sound analysis of the issues" involved.

He promised further consultation with the research community on how the public could be kept better informed about what went on in laboratories.

The absurd anti-vivisection agenda of abolishing life-saving medical research involving animals is being systematically shredded before our eyes

Dr Simon Festing, Association of Medical Research Charities
But he said the current system of regulation was stringent and appropriate.

"The government and its agencies are working hard to improve the application of the three R's - to 'replace' animal use with non-animal methods where possible, 'reduce' the number of animals needed and 'refine' the procedures to minimise suffering.

"While the Government will explore the Select Committee's recommendation for a centre for research into the three Rs, their development must continue as a part of mainstream research programmes and not be seen as a separate activity."

Although the overall numbers for animal procedures have remained broadly static for several years now, the figures do hide large increases for certain species, such as dogs.

It is also expected many more rodents could be killed in the future as researchers attempt to work out what all the genes do in the human body.

'Old boys' club'

Dr Simon Festing, of the Association of Medical Research Charities, said patients suffering from appalling diseases like cancer or cystic fibrosis would be thankful that the minister had chosen to boost confidence in British medical research.

"The absurd anti-vivisection agenda of abolishing life-saving medical research involving animals is being systematically shredded before our eyes," he said.

But the animal welfare groups themselves were critical of the absence of real initiatives to address the peers' concerns.

The groups have argued that the licensing system operates like an old boys' club, with decisions being made in secret by scientists who are generally in favour of animal experiments.

They again called for more openness in the system.

"I see the government has promised consultation but I'm doubtful we'll get anything out of it," Wendy Higgins, from the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (Buav), said.

"All we've seen is dithering and inaction from a government which doesn't really have a policy on animal experiments."

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Pallab Ghosh
"Some thought that research licences were granted when they were not strictly necessary"
Dr Mark Matfield, Research Defence Society
"What we want to do is to have a more open system"
See also:

25 Nov 02 | Science/Nature
24 Jul 02 | Politics
23 May 02 | Politics
24 May 02 | Science/Nature
23 May 02 | Education
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