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Medical Research

11.30 am

On resuming--

Dr. Michael Clark (in the Chair): Unfortunately, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) is not present. Oh, the hon. Gentleman has just arrived. I think I shall turn a blind eye to his lateness and, if he will take his place quickly, I shall allow the sitting to continue--although this is rather irregular.

Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon): Thank you, Dr. Clark. I apologise for my slightly late arrival.

I am very pleased to have secured the debate, which was preceded last night by a useful exchange of views on how we can control what is a significant threat to people pursuing legitimate business interests and carrying out legitimate lines of scientific research.

We need to be clear from the outset that what we are talking about is legitimate research--research that is necessary not just to the discovery of insights into human diseases, but to the development of insights into cures for those diseases. Moreover, much of the work done at the institutions we are talking about, and by some of the researchers we are talking about, is required by Government regulations. A particular responsibility is therefore placed on the Government to ensure that the individuals and businesses involved are protected from extreme actions taken against such people by those who resort to direct action.

I shall deal shortly with some of the concerns expressed by the scientific community about the Government's approach. First, however, let me say that direct action should be seen in the light of the fact that this country is a parliamentary democracy. Many of the comparisons that activists make between their actions, involving intimidation and harassment, and the actions taken by "liberation movements" throughout the world are invidious.

There is a parliamentary system. If people feel, as many genuinely do, that there is a basic reason why animals should not be used in this way, whatever the benefits, they have at their disposal methods by which to put their views to parliamentarians. That is why I think it legitimate for a parliamentary democracy not only to express concern about the methods used by activists, but to seek to ensure that, within the law, individuals and businesses carrying on work that is legal are protected from such actions. If necessary, it should be able to do that by improving the law, creating new laws and ensuring that sentences are appropriate, while also ensuring that the forces of law and order are given the facilities, resources and know-how that they need to tackle the problems.

Another curious aspect of the situation, however, is that the very forces of democracy that people can use to seek changes in the law are subverted by the fears of many parliamentarians for not just their own safety but that of their families and staff, because of threats--or perceived threats--from extremists and, indeed, people who are nothing short of terrorists. Several hon. Members, some of whom may be present, have had to

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take additional precautions because they wish to speak out. I myself have had to take advice, in the light of today's debate, to protect myself, those close to me and my staff from the threat of incendiary and other devices sent through the post. In the light of the possible effect on the ability or perceived ability of representatives of local people to put the case for their constituents, both individuals and businesses, the debate is even more important.

I hope that the Minister is aware that the concerns that reach him may amount to no more than the surface of what would reach him publicly if people did not feel so worried about their safety. The easiest option is often not to put one's head above the parapet. That is certainly the view taken by many scientists who are determined to get their work done, and not to put their colleagues and families at risk by drawing attention to themselves.

It is important to recognise that there are legitimate concerns about the use of animals. Some hold the philosophical view that animals should not be used, whatever the benefit to either animal or human health. I do not share that view, but we can accept that it exists. While I do not believe that it is the majority view in the country or that it is shared by many in the rest of the world, we must recognise that there are those who feel that way, for academic, philosophical or ethical reasons, or simply because of a gut feeling.

What is worrying is the fact that those arguments are supplemented by propaganda that, as well as being factually wrong, subverts our education system. Some people grow up with more sympathy than they would otherwise have had for those who oppose the use of animals, because of misinformation that they have been fed about the scientific merits of the work and the results obtained. Other hon. Members may wish to say more about that.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that newspapers have a role to play? Was he as horrified as I was when the Daily Mail devoted two pages to allegations about a breeding organisation, and when, although the allegations were found to be completely bogus and invented, it published not a word retracting them?

Dr. Harris: The hon. Gentleman, who has taken a deep and commendable interest in the issue, is absolutely right. "No Scandal at Scientific Establishment" is not a headline that will sell many papers; the opposite claim, whether true or false, will sell papers.

We face the problem of the media's potential irresponsibility. The media may name people involved in this work when the allegations are unproven, or even make an error of judgment when they are discovered to be well founded, because of the threat of retaliation. The media may also picture people in television footage, which will alarm those people, their immediate families and their employers. There are ways in which the regulatory authorities, which are very strong in this country, can investigate allegations of wrongdoing; we should ensure that that is done, subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

The intimidation is now so widespread, the harassment so frequent and the threats so clear and vivid that it is right for the Government to act. I have

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here a cutting from the Stop Huntingdon Animal Centre newsletter, which was on the web. It is an article entitled "Zero Tolerance", a report from the Kent group. I think it right to put the article on the record so that people know about the actions with which we are dealing--actions which, while falling short of violence, demonstrate a lack of respect for decency and for law and order. It says:

Yesterday, I was very pleased to hear the Home Secretary confirm the statement that he made in a press release last week--that the Government are minded not only to change section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, but to apply an objective rather than subjective test to the offence of malicious communication.

Other issues have to be considered, and some hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), have spoken very eloquently about them. The first question that needs to be answered is whether there will be an opportunity for full parliamentary scrutiny of relevant legislation, to ensure not only that the right balance is struck between the restriction of civil liberties and protection of individuals and the right to free speech, but that all options are considered and there is a full discussion of policing regardless of current legal provision.

The fear is that hon. Members who are not serving in Committee on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill will not have an opportunity on Report to debate those issues on the Floor of the House. Concern about the issues spans all parties and is felt on both sides of the House. I should therefore be grateful if the Minister could clarify the Government's intention on those issues, which various hon. Members raised in yesterday's debate on the Bill.

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It is important also that we are told the Government's thoughts on dealing with the international aspects of campaigns of intimidation and harassment. We know that activists plan to start using methods and techniques with such a dimension.

Ministers will also have to deal with some wider points, although I shall understand it if the Minister cannot specifically deal with them today. However, in the months leading up to recent events in Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, concerns were expressed to me that Ministers, particularly in the Department of Health, were very slow to defend the work being done both in breeding institutions and in laboratories, whereas the bulk of that work was being done to Department of Health specifications. Recently, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, Lord Hunt, has been very clear about the value of that work, and many people want the Government's assurances that Health Ministers' public support will continue regardless of the political climate and public mood.

The Department of Trade and Industry and Lord Sainsbury have been superb in their recent efforts to intervene and help Huntingdon Life Sciences. I am more than happy to commend the efforts of Lord Sainsbury and his staff; the Minister for Science is a true supporter of science.

I ask the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department at least to consider raising with his ministerial colleagues the issue of what message is sent to shareholders, workers and others engaged in fighting and resisting intimidation and harassment when, at the first sign of a request from the extremists, the Labour party superannuation fund sells its shares in Huntingdon Life Sciences--as it did last year, citing ethical reasons for doing so. That somewhat undermines the thrust of recent Government clarifications on the issue.

I also ask the Minister whether there is any chance of the Government establishing--of their own volition, rather than as a response to requests from extremists--a royal commission to examine the issue. The House of Lords has helpfully established an ad hoc Committee to examine the issue. However, the Liberal Democrat party's view--like that of the Labour party, I thought--is that it is important to create a royal commission to demonstrate that the matter is clearly under review.

I believe that a royal commission would back science, not anti-science propaganda. I also believe that a commission and the associated consultation would provide an opportunity to reassure the public, including people in our schools, that that research work is legitimate, benefits health and science, minimises animal suffering, maintains the world's highest animal welfare standards and is worth continuing. A commission may also discover that, with considerations such as those, unnecessary bureaucracy should not be allowed to impede that work. However, those two issues are separate.

I do not believe that the scientific community has anything to fear from a royal commission. If the Government fulfil their commitment before the general election to establish a royal commission, the debate will be advanced. It is important that the public see that there is such a debate.

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I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that there have been problems not only in Cambridgeshire, but in Oxfordshire. Well before Huntingdon Life Sciences was targeted by the extremists, Hillgrove Farm, a cat-breeding establishment in Oxfordshire, was also targeted. Although it conducted no experimentation work on the premises, had very high animal welfare standards, was inspected by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and met the RSPCA's standards for such an establishment, the business man concerned and local police were unable to prevent continued harassment and intimidation. Consequently, the institute closed, with job losses and a loss of breeding work for the United Kingdom's science base. Another consequence is that more animals may be imported for that work from abroad, where standards are lower.

I should also be grateful if Ministers recognised the fact that Oxfordshire police spent millions of pounds in their attempt to protect that businessman and the people who worked in his establishment, but that they have not had a penny in compensation. Although the £1 million for Cambridgeshire is welcome--I make no Oxford-Cambridge link--Thames Valley police are greatly concerned that they have had to bear the full cost of that operation with no compensation. The operation has had a significant effect on their ability to perform their general work and to protect scientists in my constituency and in surrounding constituencies who are still working on animals and are prepared to be open about the need to do that work.

It is a big subject and I know that many other hon. Members wish to speak. I thank the Government for their efforts in recent days to assure us that carefully considered legislation is on the way. Although my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I want to see the legislation's detail before writing a blank cheque in support of it, I hope that the Government will be taking a cross-departmental view on it. Some issues--such as the protection of shareholder information and the rights of shareholders and directors--are not subjects for debate with a Home Office Minister.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I speak for the Government, and not only for the Home Office, so I should be able to address some of the issues on shareholding that he has raised.

Dr. Harris: My time is up. Will the Minister therefore also address the issue of how we can ensure that company directors do not have to disclose their names and addresses in a manner enabling extremists to target them, particularly as little protection is provided to them? Shareholders in the constituencies of many hon. Members are similarly concerned about that issue, as they are about secondary targeting.

The article that I quoted above was from just one campaign in one part of the country, but it demonstrates the depth of organisation among the extremists. Methods must be established--a national police bureau, perhaps--to provide not only intelligence on the extremism, but operational advice to forces on how best to tackle a national but increasingly international problem.

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11.49 am

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing this much-needed debate. When he selected the subject, he was not to know that we would be debating the Criminal Justice and Police Bill yesterday, when we were able to discuss some of the relevant issues. Even so, today's debate allows us to expand on some of them.

I agree that the Government's recent performance on this matter has been good. They moved decisively to protect Huntingdon Life Sciences, and have made some encouraging announcements about their intentions in respect of the overall law to protect scientists. However, I do have some criticism of the Government: their action has come late in the day. More than 12 months ago, I received a letter from my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. He said that he was looking at the law in this area and that he was aware of the problems, but the proposed changes to the Criminal Justice and Police Bill still do not appear in the Bill. They will have to be introduced as amendments, and it is fair to criticise the Government for that.

A further criticism applies to the Labour party, and, as a member of that party, I accept a share of responsibility. I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon that the sale by the Labour party pension fund of its shareholding in Huntingdon Life Sciences was inappropriate, unhelpful and ill judged. However, I shall not accept too many lectures from Liberal Democrat Members, as we have no idea where their party's pension fund has shareholdings. If the fund ever held any such holdings, we do not know whether it sold them off before anyone found out about them.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): The Liberal Democrats have no money.

Dr. Ladyman: That may be true.

Labour party members must hold up their hands and accept that the sell-off was a mistake. The action being taken by the Government now may have saved Huntingdon Life Sciences but it is too late for many other small organisations, such as Shamrock Farms. It also comes too late for the many scientists who have left the business because of pressure from evil people--I maintain that they are evil, even though they may think that their motives are good.

I believe that animal experiments are vital and necessary. Unlike other speakers on this subject, I do not hide behind the legal requirement that many animal experiments must be carried out to develop medicines and to get permission to market them. Even if the law did not require such experiments to be carried out, many medical advances could not be made without the animal experiments needed to underpin the knowledge base on which they are made. The necessity of such experiments is completely independent of any legal requirement that they be carried out.

It is claimed that animals are a poor model for what happens in human beings. However, they are one model for that, and represent an important contribution to determining how a new treatment, therapy or drug affects human beings. Animal experiments offer part of the picture that scientists need to build up. They are not

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the whole picture--for that, experiments also have to be carried out on human beings--but they are a vital component. Without them, there would be no new medicines or therapies.

Over recent weeks, some people have tried to defend animal rights activists from a position of ignorance. One annoyed me so much when I heard him on the radio the other day that I feel entitled to name him and annoy him back. Michael Mansfield QC said, "We don't need animal experiments. Hammersmith hospital has just announced a new cure for leukaemia. It is entirely cell-based and does not require animals to be used in the development of a drug."

The cure is not a drug-based therapy and so might not require animals in the development of a drug, but every bit of research on which it is based was conducted on animals, mostly mice. Mr. Mansfield speaks as a respected member of society. He is considered to be learned and intelligent. When people hear him on a popular radio programme, they think that he must have some information that is worth knowing. Yet he speaks from a position of absolute and total ignorance.

When idiots such as Mr. Mansfield say such stupid things, they promote in society a body of opinion to the effect that animal experiments can be done without. The truth is that they cannot. The bioscience and pharmaceutical industries would do without animal experiments tomorrow if they could, as they are very expensive. Those industries spend a fortune trying to find alternatives, but so far with no success. Until alternatives are available, animal experiments will be needed.

We need to protect people who carry out animal experiments, as they do important work on behalf of the economy and our health. In my constituency alone, £1 billion has been invested in the pharmaceutical industry. That investment comes not from the UK but from the United States of America, and 5,000 people are employed in the industry in my area as a result. That investment will come to an end tomorrow if we cannot convince people that we mean business and intend to protect scientists.

We need to protect scientists in all sorts of ways. The criminal justice legislation needs to be improved, as the House discussed last night. In addition, I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister, who I know is very concerned about these matters, that the Home Office needs to look at some of the measures that could be taken.

For example, bogus allegations were recently made against an animal breeding organisation. The Home Office spent £36,000--and 1,000 hours of officers' time--investigating the allegations, only to find that they were completely false. Moreover, the inspectors found only one person who might have committed a crime during the events included in the allegations, and that turned out to be the undercover operative who made the allegations in the first place.

However, the Home Office was unable to try and recover the costs involved from those who made the allegations, or to prosecute anyone for making false allegations. As far as I know, the undercover operative was not charged with the crime that may have been committed at the time. Only when legal action is taken against them will those involved in obstructing science realise that they must abide by the rules.

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I shall not repeat too much of the detail of what I said in the debate last night about the need for other and more extensive protection. We need to look at how campaigns are organised so that we can ensure that their leaders are responsible for the actions of the people who take part. We need to look at the legislation on harassment, and to define the limits of peaceful protest.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon spoke of the security measures that he is having to introduce for his staff. I can tell him that I have a personal security alarm that was issued by my local police force. I might be prepared to risk going without it, as I am responsible for my words and actions, but members of my staff also have to have personal security alarms. Whether they are the result of over enthusiasm or deliberate intent, threats against MPs and their officers, and against scientists and others working in the industry, cannot be right. We need to define clearly what is meant by the term "peaceful protest".

In addition, we must make sure that people are protected from secondary targeting. Consideration must be given to what should be done with regard to the addresses of shareholders and company directors, and with regard to malicious communications and protests outside people's homes. We should review the available legislation across the board, and we should do so very soon.

Finally, I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon in that I still believe that there is merit in the possibility of a royal commission to look into animal experiments. However, the terms of reference would have to include the possibility that any such commission could find that the status quo was appropriate. In other words, a royal commission would have to be able to agree with me that the present legislation in this country is the best and tightest in the world, and that it does not need to be changed.

A royal commission's terms of reference should also allow it to conclude that the current regulations are too tight, and that their administration is too onerous for scientists trying to carry out experiments. It would be bogus and inappropriate for the terms of reference to state that the only possible conclusion for a royal commission was that the regulations had to be tightened.

Science has nothing to fear from explaining what it is doing. So long as it is given a fair opportunity to do so, I believe that it will be able to make its case. It is up to the Government to protect the scientists who do this vital work.

Dr. Michael Clark (in the Chair): Order. There are only two other speakers before the Minister. I hope that whoever I call next will bear that in mind and keep their contribution appropriate so that the other speaker may be able to get in.

12 noon

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): I thank you for allowing the debate to go on, Dr. Clark. That was very courteous of you.

I represent Harrogate and Knaresborough, where there is a major laboratory, Covance. I wish to thank the Government for taking the issue seriously. I agree with the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) that

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it is rather late in the day in many respects. We had been promised that there would be action much earlier, but we welcome it even at this late stage.

Many people with genuine concerns about animal welfare have a right to be involved in the debate. It is a debate for the whole country, not simply for scientists. We should take seriously issues of animal welfare brought up by organisations with a genuine commitment to see as little suffering to animals and as little experimentation on them as possible.

There could be greater control over some experiments, particularly repetitive ones, often on the same drug for different companies. I believe that we could cut down considerably on experiments for 20 different types of aspirin, for example, or other products.

Much of the debate so far, and much of yesterday's debate, seemed to centre around Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratories and the tremendous level of activity there. I know the chief executive--Brian Cass-- well because he was the chief executive of Covance laboratories in Harrogate before going to Huntingdon Life Sciences. Although there is a lot of interest in Cambridgeshire, many laboratories throughout the country also need the sort of support given to Huntingdon Life Sciences.

Covance in Harrogate is a major laboratory--in fact, it is the major private sector employer in my constituency. We were particularly disappointed that the Minister could not find time to visit Covance and meet the staff who were suffering enormous harassment earlier in the year and are continuing to do so. It is unacceptable that my constituents, particularly relatives of people working at the laboratories, should be subjected to continuous harassment. They receive threatening letters and threatening telephone calls in the middle of the night; their children are followed to school and excrement is put through their letter boxes. Such behaviour occurs not just in Huntingdon but throughout the country, and particularly in my constituency.

I am enormously worried that not only are the scientists at Covance harassed but so are the cleaners, the secretaries and the people who deliver the sandwiches. We have to look beyond the scientific community and consider the community as a whole.

The assurances from the Home Secretary yesterday, when introducing the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, went some way towards allaying our fears. No doubt tightening up the Public Order Act 1986 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988 will have an impact. However, the existing legislation could have been applied more vigorously. There are sufficient powers under both Acts to have dealt with many of the worst effects of the present protests. I suggest that one reason why that has not happened is because police forces such as ours in North Yorkshire do not have the resources to deal with the level of protest that occurs from time to time. The £1 million given to Cambridgeshire police is very welcome, but will the Minister accept that forces such as that in North Yorkshire also need resources to police the Covance laboratories in Harrogate and offer the necessary protection to individuals and their families?

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On some occasions, when police have been called to support a family, virtually the whole force for Harrogate has been involved in the incident, leaving the rest of the patch unpoliced. That is unacceptable. The Minister knows that the deputy chief constable of North Yorkshire is heading the taskforce and bringing the information together, yet North Yorkshire has to pay for that work. That matter needs to be addressed.

There is a basic right in this country that people's homes and families should be protected by the law. I do not know what arrangements are being made under the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, but could we have an early look at the amendments that are being proposed so that if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) said, they cannot be debated on Report, at least we can have fair wind of them so that we can make representations to the Home Secretary?

It is my understanding that, as well as going international, as my hon. Friend says, the organisations are going on the internet in a big way. Given that there will be a massive rolling out of the internet in the next couple of years, that could be a major problem. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that point.

Finally, one concern on the other side of the argument is that we should provide people with greater certainty about animal welfare in terms of inspections and, in particular, the RSPCA's access to animal laboratories. It is a respected organisation, and giving it greater access would be a help.

Ultimately, this is a legitimate business, and, as such, I will support my constituents. I hope that the Home Secretary and his Department will do so too.

12.7 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing the debate and raising the subject.

On Sunday lunchtime, I debated for two hours with Stop Huntingdon Animal Centre on local BBC television. Surprisingly, I found it quite mild and entertaining; I had been expecting the talk to be violent. SHAC members condemned the violence--a fact which I welcomed. I also welcomed the contribution of Brian Cass from the Huntingdon Life Sciences laboratories. He said that the Government had reacted positively and well.

It was also very interesting to hear Roger Spiller, the local regional officer of the Manufacturing Science and Finance Union, which represents most of the workers in Huntingdon and also those in Occold near Eye in Suffolk, who are suffering the same kind of intimidation and threats. The movement has gone from Huntingdon to intimidate the workers at Occold, and I am very pleased that the unions have taken up an issue that traditionally one might not have associated them with. The issue has the full official support of the union, and such support will gradually, I hope, move across the whole trade union movement.

I should like to say a few things about the need to use animals in biomedical research. I am grateful to friends such as Professor Nancy Rothwell of Manchester university, who is an outstanding scientist, and other members of the scientific community with whom I have

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debated these issues over the years. They have made it clear that advances in the prevention and treatment of disease over the past 50 years have led to dramatic improvements in the quality and quantity of all our lives, yet major diseases still remain to be conquered--heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer's and cancer. There is no cure and no useful treatment; much remains to be done on infectious diseases and drug-resistant micro-organisms.

A great deal of research is needed. We need to understand the normal biological processes of cells. Despite the magnificence of our molecular, cellular and human studies, the use of experimental animals will have to continue for the foreseeable future. That is agreed by organisations such as FRAME, or the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments--there is no substitute for some degree of animal experimentation.

I realise that the issue is sensitive and complex and that public opinion is divided, but 80 per cent. of the population support the use of animals for the possible treatment of human diseases. Recently, during debates in both Houses on stem cell research, many members did not understand the issues and were confused but were able to make up their minds based on an open, proper, educated and intelligent discussion.

It is often forgotten that well over 96 per cent. of experimental animals are non-human primates. We use such animals to investigate medicines, biological functions and so on. I offer an example of an animal experiment that led us on to a new path of treatment. I am sure that it will interest you, Mr. Winterton, as it led to a cure for prostate cancer.

A major company developed a drug that acts like a natural hormone and was expected to stimulate the ovaries, testes and sex organs. However, during long-term animal studies it was unexpectedly found that the drug caused the sex organs to shrink. That paradoxical discovery would not have been made in the planned clinical use in infertility treatment and it might simply have been concluded that the drug had failed. In fact, the scientific understanding that it brought led directly to its use as a highly successful, reversible treatment for prostate and, indeed, breast cancer. As calculated by Professor Rothwell, it has already offered more than 3 million patient years of valuable treatment.

Professor Rothwell has also carried out research on interleukins. Animal experiments gave an extremely interesting result that has allowed us to develop new cures for strokes and brain injuries. There are other examples that do not tell such an exciting tale, but we have to use those approaches as well as considering alternative methods.

Scientists constantly try to replace, refine and reduce the number of animals used. The Government made a majestic strike on animal experiments when they took on the cosmetics industry. Many of us thought that useless experiments were being carried out merely to make us all look prettier. The Government took a huge step forward; almost from day 1, they took on that silly use of animal experimentation.

Despite strong regulation and much discussion, it is true that, now and again, some apparently inappropriate experiments are approved. However, that is being cut down as more debate takes place. Laws are

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in place; projects are considered; and there are Home Office visits. Indeed, if one starts to conduct an experiment in a university laboratory as much as one minute before the time specified on the Home Office certificate, the lab can be closed down by the Home Office. I was the boss of such a department and had to monitor these matters. Although I was angry when I had to stop people conducting experiments, I made it clear that the rules were firm and that they had to be obeyed.

The public need information, and explanation of these issues. Many scientists spend much of their time talking to various groups. For example, the Women's Institute has strong views about animal experiments and is often visited by scientists. Major funding bodies, such as the Medical Research Council, devote copious sums of money to the investigation and justification of alternatives to replace the use of animals in experiments.

Animal experiments will have to continue for the foreseeable future for one major reason: the human genome project will necessitate an understanding through the use of transgenic mice of the genes that cause cystic fibrosis and many of the problems that afflict humanity. There may be a small increase in the use of mice for the best medical reasons--to develop new cures. There is interaction between Government, industry and the scientists who are absolutely committed to that work. The loyalty of those scientists under pressure demands full Government support.

12.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I join hon. Members in congratulating the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) on securing the debate; the way in which he made his case does him great credit.

The use of animals for medical research will always give rise to strong feelings. I am grateful to hon. Members who spoke in the debate for their reasoned contributions on what can sometimes be a difficult and emotive subject.

I condemn without reservation the violent and intimidatory behaviour of so-called animal rights campaigners. They do no good to the cause of animal welfare, whereas more reputable organisations such as the RSPCA have achieved change through argument and debate. On the other hand, by the use of violence, the extremists have prevented change that might have taken place--for example, on freedom of information. When there is a clear threat of violence, it is difficult to agree to greater freedom of information if it might result in intimidation of and violence towards individuals who work in animal research.

The extremists have damaged their own cause, whereas those who try, by argument through the proper democratic process, to set out how change can be achieved have brought about some progress--as I shall explain. The Government are determined that extremist organisations will be opposed. We are equally determined that organisations undertaking legitimate and valuable work and the individuals who work for them should be protected. That is why we have allocated additional funds of £1 million to the Cambridgeshire police, as extra resources to police the protests against Huntingdon Life Sciences.

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We are conscious of public concern about the use of animals in experiments and in other scientific procedures. We are aware that many people want to stop all such work. Unfortunately, that cannot yet be done without halting important medical and scientific research and without compromising public safety. We need to get that message across to the public loud and clear.

We often see newspaper advertisements with a picture of a monkey with electrodes on its head. That is an extremely emotive image and causes people to wonder whether such experiments are necessary. However, if a photograph of a child suffering from a serious and painful cancer was placed alongside that image, thus confronting us with the question of whether animal experiments are necessary to cure that child, the public would have to consider the serious--yes, emotional--but deep philosophical issues involved.

People feel uncomfortable about the issue. I especially noted the comments made in yesterday's debate on the Criminal Justice and Police Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) who has also spoken today. He said that when he began to conduct experiments on animals, he felt uncomfortable about doing so. As a Minister dealing with such matters, I, too, feel uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable that animals may be hurt during some experiments, but I should feel much more uncomfortable if I stopped necessary research and people died or suffered as a result. There is thus a clear moral issue for everyone in the country. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) suggested, a wider debate is needed so that people confront the serious issues involved.

We intend to ensure that animals are used only where fully justified, where no alternative exists and where the benefits outweigh the costs to the animals involved. A total of 2.57 million animals were used in scientific procedures in 1999. With the exception of 1997, that is the lowest figure since 1955. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) said, the Government have taken steps since 1997 to ensure that we respond to people's discomfort about animal experiments.

We have announced our intention never to allow the use of great apes. We have secured an end to the testing of cosmetics on animals. We have announced our intention never to allow the testing of alcohol and tobacco products on animals for the use or promotion of those products. We have ended the licensing of the lethal-dose 50 test and tests for skin corrosivity and phototoxic potential. We have started phasing out the use of animals in monoclonal antibody production. We have promoted the principle of data sharing to reduce the duplication of testing on animals. All that shows that we have done everything that we reasonably can to ensure that animals are used only where absolutely necessary, and that where animal testing takes place, it is carefully monitored and controlled.

The Government have brought about those changes as a result of discussions with the scientific community and several animal welfare groups. We have considered the issues very carefully. Those discussions have produced changes, but no change in our legislation or

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procedures has resulted from intimidation or violence. I give a commitment that we will not allow those who promote violence and intimidation to change our laws or procedures.

The research needs to be carefully monitored. The system has operated for several years and imposes strict regulations on animal welfare during research. However, it is essential that that research is carried out. Medical research saves lives. It improves incomparably the quality of life and life expectancy of people who have debilitating diseases, but it is also important because it enables veterinary science to improve. However, some animal welfare organisations ignore the fact that some of the research benefits animals in the long term.

Medicine has made enormous strides during the past century, but that progress can be maintained only if we have strong, active pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. We all want breakthroughs to be made in the treatment of diseases, such as Alzheimer's, leukaemia, arthritis and multiple sclerosis--the list goes on--but the animal rights extremists threaten those breakthroughs. They want to destroy an industry that saves lives.

As we have heard this morning, animal rights protesters are not warm, sentimental people who love animals; they are not prepared to use democratic processes and peaceful protests to present their opinions. They are aggressive terrorists who are happy to use violence against anyone with whom they disagree. They pursue ugly campaigns of intimidation and harassment. They are indiscriminate about harming the innocent friends and families of those whom they target.

I understand that people are concerned about animal research, and the Government are actively engaged with the groups that are prepared to use peaceful means to present their views, such as the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, the National Antivivisection Society and the RSPCA. It is harder for them to press the points that they want to make when they have to dissociate themselves from the illegal and extreme behaviour of other groups. Those actions have only hardened the resolve of the Government, the pharmaceutical industry and the medical research organisations to resist the pressure from extremists.

The Government welcome the fact that Huntingdon Life Sciences has successfully found new long-term financial backing. If, as the result of animal rights extremists' actions, such industries were driven out of this country, we would all be the losers--patients, the national health service, employees and the United Kingdom economy--but the irony is that the animals would be worse off. In this country, the use of animals in experiments and other scientific procedures is strictly regulated under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986--the most rigorous legislation of its kind anywhere in the world. Nowhere else is animal welfare so carefully controlled.

The 1986 Act operates on the principle of the three Rs--replacement, reduction and refinement. The principle involves the replacement of animals by non-animal methods wherever possible; the reduction of numbers to the minimum necessary to obtain valid results where replacement is not possible; and the refinement of all procedures to minimise suffering and

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harmful effects. A series of special licences must be obtained before a researcher can use an animal. Researchers must have the necessary skills, training and experience. The establishments must have facilities to care for the animals properly and are subject to regular inspection, often without notice, by a team of Home Office inspectors. I cannot guarantee that a mistake will never be made in any research establishment, but their regulation is as rigorous as possible to minimise the problems that may arise.

We are considering how to give more protection to those who have been targeted by extremists. Tough laws already exist to protect individuals and businesses from violence and threatening or intimidatory behaviour, but we are keen to find out whether more can be done. We are urgently considering the scope for strengthening the law to prevent extremists from intimidating people by protesting outside their homes or sending them threatening letters. As the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has said, the extremists sometimes target their victims by looking up the names and addresses of company directors and shareholders. We shall examine what can be done in company law to protect directors and shareholders.

At present, directors' names and home addresses must be filed at Companies House, and shareholders must also provide a contact address, although it may be a nominee account. That requirement is being reviewed as part of the independent review of company law, which will report to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in May this year. I hope that it will provide a means by which we can safeguard not only the proper requirements of company law, but the personal protection of those who work in such companies. The Government therefore share the hon. Gentleman's aims, and we shall consider how to deliver them.

It is particularly unsettling for people to be intimidated by protesters outside their homes, and we are understandably concerned about the safety of their families. We are considering the possibility of creating an offence of demonstrating outside a residence in a way that is likely to cause intimidation or distress. Another favourite ploy of the extremists is to bombard their victims with hate mail. We are considering whether such can be addressed under the Malicious Communications Act 1988.

I have not been able to deal with all the issues raised during the debate. However, we have had several meetings with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the various other organisations that seek to control the extremists. They are developing not only guidance on how those who may be victims can register their shares and protect themselves, but a much more proactive approach to targeting extremists and ensuring that they are discredited, and we shall prosecute them where possible.

I hope that the concerns expressed today are recognised by the police, but I assure hon. Members that the Government are absolutely determined not to let the extremists succeed. We will not hesitate to do whatever needs to be done to protect the public and support the freedom of a legitimate and important industry to pursue its business. It is right and proper that people express their opinions, but they should do so peacefully under this country's democratic parliamentary system.

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