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Striking the right balance

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THE UK’s Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA) has been in place since 1986; it has done much to improve the welfare of animals used in research and has long been regarded as providing the most detailed legislative framework in the world for research involving animals. European legislation to protect animals used in research has also been in place since 1986; currently, the European Commission is in the process of developing a new directive to harmonise the regulation of animal experiments across the EU and bring the European legislation up to date. Last week, the Home Office, the Government department responsible for administering the ASPA, issued a consultation document seeking views on the EC’s proposals and how the UK’s arrangements might be affected.

Announcing the consultation, Home Office minister Shahid Malik said the Government welcomed the opportunity to look again at how best to regulate the use of animals in scientific procedures and to ensure that their welfare is safeguarded effectively. It supported the aim of harmonising regulation across the EU, believing it essential for Europe to set high standards for animal welfare and to promote the development and use of alternatives to animal procedures. At the same time, it remained convinced that animal experimentation continues to be necessary to make improvements in healthcare, and to protect people and the environment from other hazards.

The Government, he said, needs to strike a balance in this area: ‘Our key priority in negotiating the revised directive will be to develop practical, proportionate and enforceable legislation that makes proper provision for the welfare of experimental animals, facilitates their responsible use, and can adapt to further technical progress. We will also work hard to ensure that the new directive does not impose inflexible measures which add disproportionate or unjustified regulatory burdens and undermine the success and sustainability of European research.’

The Government supports the main objectives of the draft directive, which include making the ethical evaluation of proposed animal use a mandatory requirement and promoting the ‘3Rs’, that is, measures to replace, reduce and refine the scientific use of animals. It also supports many of the main provisions, many of which reflect those already applied in the UK. It notes, however, that there are some significant differences between some of the proposed provisions and those applied under the ASPA. It expresses concern that a number of these would add to the UK’s administrative burden and costs without benefiting animal welfare, and could damage research in the UK and the rest of Europe. It further suggests that some of the proposed requirements could compromise animal welfare and hinder scientific outcomes. As is so often the case, the devil will be in the detail, and the consultation document provides an article-by-article analysis of the proposed legislation, seeking comments on each proposal in turn.

The BVA’s policy on the use of animals in research is discussed on its website at www.bva.co.uk/atoz/1319.aspx. Among other things, the Association notes that responsible use of animals in research has improved human and animal welfare through the advancement of scientific knowledge and the development of safer and more effective medicines. However, it believes that animals should only be used in research when no non-animal alternative is available and the work is justified through independent ethical scrutiny. Having been involved in its inception, the BVA supports the ASPA and its rigorous system of controls on scientific work on living animals; it also supports the traditional principles of the 3Rs. Noting that the veterinary profession has a legal and ethical duty to care for animals used in research, it endorses the requirements under the regulations for researchers to seek and act on veterinary advice in the planning and conduct of procedures.

The Government is right in saying that a balance needs to be struck in legislating in this area, although the question will always arise as to where precisely the balance should lie. This is an area where regulation and veterinary involvement will always be necessary, but where progress must be measured in terms of practical outcomes, not just in terms of levels of bureaucracy. There must be no lessening of the protection afforded to animals by the ASPA when the new directive comes into effect. The overall aim must be to achieve continuing improvement in the care and welfare of animals used in research and to further the 3Rs, not just in Europe, but internationally

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