Despite the now tired refrain from government that Britain has some of the strictest vivisections rules in the world, we experiment on more animals than any other EU member state – scarcely a record to be proud of.
In 1996 Labour’s pre-election animal policy manifesto, New Labour: New Life for Animals, symbolised for many a government in waiting ready to make a real difference for animals.
But eleven years on, little more than early token gestures has been achieved with arguably minimal impact.
Most of Labour’s initiatives on ending animal experiments fizzled out after 1999 and in any case they largely halted tests that were either virtually finished in Britain anyway, such as cosmetics and tobacco product testing or great ape research.
In a new report, Animals in Laboratories: Let Down By Labour, the Dr Hadwen Trust has revealed the total known number of animals saved due to these government initiatives are an estimated 2,236 each year.
In fact, far from heralding a ‘new life’ for animals in labs, we’ve actually seen a massive increase in experiments since Labour came to power in 1997, from 2.1 million to 3.2 million. The number of military animal experiments conducted at the Ministry of Defence’s Porton Down facility has also virtually doubled.
So what went wrong?
We believe that numbers have continued to spiral because of a lack of overall strategy by the government. Labour had the opportunity in 1997 to implement a sea-change in attitude on animal research, root and branch reform that would have set us on a path of replacing outdated and unreliable animal methods with advanced, modern non-animal techniques.
Instead it chose a handful of one-off headline-grabbing symbolic gestures so that after a short-lived flurry, Labour’s action for laboratory animals was exhausted and eleven years on we have on average 532,239 more animals being used in British labs than in 1997.
The government’s record on investment to develop the sort of cutting-edge non-animal techniques that will replace animal use into the future, has also been lamentable.
We calculate 2006 government funding for non-animal replacement research (excluding research on refining existing animal models) across the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) and government departments) was a mere £1,173,606.
That’s only marginally higher than the amount spent by those voluntary sector organisations dedicated to alternatives research, including the Dr Hadwen Trust.
Without any doubt we can have a more humane and compassionate science that dispenses with animal experiments, if we are willing to truly prioritise it. The government must now pledge its active support for a national, strategic approach to achieving replacement for the benefit of people and animals alike.
Wendy Higgins is communications director at the Dr Hadwen Trust