Our failure to implement European rules on medical experiments gives the lie to the government’s claim that Britain leads on animal welfare
Conditions for animals in Britain’s research laboratories fall short of new Europe-wide guidelines which came into force last month. These deficiencies contrast with the government’s frequent claim that Britain has the strictest animal welfare regulations in the world.
Widespread violations of the new guidelines have been highlighted by the Dr Hadwen Trust for Humane Research which funds non-animal techniques to replace animal experiments. It says university labs tend to be the worst offenders.
The new Europe-wide guidelines, designed to improve animal housing and care in medical research laboratories, are contained in a revised Appendix to Council of Europe Convention ETS 123 – European Convention for the Protection of Vertebrate Animals used for Experimental and Other Scientific Purposes which was unanimously adopted by signatory parties, including Britain, on 15 June 2006 and which came into force in June this year.
In many aspects, the British Codes of Practice (CoP) for the housing of laboratory animals are significantly lower than the new European recommendations.
In a letter to the Dr Hadwen Trust, the Animals Scientific Procedures Division of the Home Office admits it has not announced a revision of Britain’s CoP to meet the new standards nor taken measures to ensure that British laboratories will be compliant. In fact, the government has ignored requests by MPs to make Convention compliance mandatory within the UK.
Of particular concern, Home Office advice on minimum cage sizes for some primates falls dramatically short of what the Convention now recognises as best practice in the interests of animal welfare.
Britain is the largest user of laboratory primates in Europe, with more than 4,600 experiments performed on these animals each year.
It is widely recognised that primates are thinking feeling creatures with many human-like traits, including affection, intelligence and altruism. Evidence suggests that imprisonment and invasive experiments cause them physical and psychological damage in ways not dissimilar to that experienced by humans who are subjected to comparable suffering.
However, despite their genetic and social closeness to human beings, the government has repeatedly rejected appeals to enforce more humane conditions. Minimum cage sizes for some primate species in Britain’s CoP are up to eight times smaller than the new European recommendations.
For example, cages for smaller marmosets should be twice as big; for tamarins less than 0.7kg they should be six times bigger; for squirrel monkeys less than 0.7kg they should be eight times bigger; and for macaques and vervets the cages should be up to seven times bigger.
Dr Gill Langley, Science Director at the Dr Hadwen Trust says:
“Primates are highly sentient animals with complex social and environmental needs that will always be seriously compromised in any laboratory. Macaques and marmosets are denied the space and freedom of their natural forest homes and have to endure procedures like brain damage, force-feeding with toxins and the infliction of debilitating diseases. At the very least the government should have ensured that housing conditions met or exceeded the new minimum standards, but instead they appear to be treating the welfare of animals with contempt.”
Housing standards for other species are also now considered out of date. Guinea pigs, gerbils and rabbits should all be provided with more than double the space currently recommended by the Home Office, and enclosures for pairs of cats should be almost seven times wider and four times higher.
Dr Langley, who served for eight years on the Animal Procedures Committee (APC) which advises the government on animal research issues, warns that British universities and medical schools are likely to have the poorest housing standards for laboratory animals. They represent the largest single category of UK laboratory animal use (43.5% of the total) and yet are least likely to exceed even the current entirely inadequate UK Codes of Practice.
In its letter to the Dr Hadwen Trust, the Home Office admits it has merely advised research establishments to take note of the new recommendations when refurbishing their laboratory facilities, and that it has not pressed them to enforce the regulations. In reality, refurbishment is infrequent, particularly for universities which are more likely to be financially constrained. The consequence is that a large proportion of labs still fall far below the new minimum welfare guidelines.
Paragraph 7 of the Introduction to the Convention’s revised Appendix A states:
“If existing facilities or equipment do not conform to the present guidelines, these should be altered or replaced within a reasonable period of time, having regard to animal welfare priorities and financial and practical concerns.”
This was never intended as a get-out clause, to allow researchers to indefinitely postpone upgrades to animal housing conditions. Yet many research establishments are treating it as an excuse to delay the required improvements to some distant, unspecified point in the future.
Despite being a signatory to the Council of Europe Convention, the UK government has not made conformity with the new guidelines compulsory for British animal research laboratories and there is no penalty for non-compliance, so labs have little incentive to replace outdated, cramped animal housing.
“The government has taken no meaningful action to implement these new guidelines, despite ample time,” reports Dr Langley.
“That betrays a worrying lack of interest in the suffering of laboratory animals. Discussions in Europe have been on-going for more than eight years, and the new housing sizes finally agreed a year ago, yet the government has done little to improve conditions and laboratories are effectively free to ignore the new guidelines.”
“The government’s often-stated claim to have the highest standards in the world has always been a sham from the animals’ perspective. They endure months or years of experiments confined in small and inadequate conditions that we wouldn’t dream of keeping our own pets in. Flouting the Council of Europe Convention’s guidelines sends out a very clear message to the British research community that animal suffering simply doesn’t matter enough. If the government’s commitment simply to providing better housing for lab animals is so weak, what confidence can we have that its commitment is genuine in other areas it claims to prioritise, such as the replacement of animal experiments?”