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Maintaining protection

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DOCUMENTS with the words ‘EU directive’ in the title are unlikely to have mass appeal. However, a document published by the Home Office last week deserves attention as it will determine the protection afforded to animals used for research purposes in the UK for many years to come.

Specifically, it explains how the Government intends to transpose Directive 2010/63/EU on the protection of animals used for scientific procedures into UK law. The directive was agreed in 2010 with a view to raising animal welfare standards across the EU. Its provisions need to be transposed into national laws by November, and implemented by member states from the beginning of next year.

An important feature of the directive is that, while it sets minimum standards, it gives member states the option of retaining more stringent national provisions that were already in place when the directive came into force, so long as they do not inhibit the free market. This is significant as far as the UK is concerned because, with its existing Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, the UK already has what has long been regarded as one of the most robust and effective frameworks for safeguarding the welfare of animals used in research in the world. In updating this legislation in line with the directive, there is a danger that the protection currently afforded to animals in the UK could be weakened in some instances (although it could also be strengthened in some others).

The Home Office document makes clear where the Government intends to transpose the provisions of the EU directive directly, and areas where the current stricter UK standards will be retained. It also summarises the results of a public consultation on this subject, which was carried out by the Home Office last year (VR, June 25, 2011, vol 168, p 652).

The Government intends to copy most of the provisions of the directive directly into UK law. However, it is reassuring that, in announcing its plans in Parliament last week (see p 528 of this issue), ministers highlighted a number of areas where stricter standards will continue to apply. For example, it intends to retain special protection for dogs, cats and horses, as well as for non-human primates. It also plans to retain UK standards for the care and accommodation of animals in cases where these are higher than those set out in an annex to the directive. It plans to retain the current requirement that individuals carrying out regulated procedures on animals must hold a personal licence authorising them to do so, while exploring opportunities to reduce the bureaucracy associated with licensing so long as this does not weaken compliance and the level of protection afforded to animals. In addition, it plans to retain the UK's risk-based approach to inspection. It says it is committed to maintaining a strong and properly resourced inspectorate as well as a full programme of inspections.

Also reassuring are statements in the Home Office document about EU requirements relating to ‘designated veterinarians’ to advise on the well being and treatment of animals. Although the Government intends to transpose the relevant provision directly, the document acknowledges concerns expressed during last year's consultation that the role currently played by Named Veterinary Surgeons should not be diminished when the legislation is harmonised and states ‘We do not envisage any significant change to the role of a designated veterinarian compared to that of a Named Veterinary Surgeon under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act.’

In drawing up its plans, the Government seems to have taken many of the concerns raised during the consultation on board. However, as always, the devil will be in the detail and how the measures are applied – and in this case there is a great deal of detail and many practical issues to consider. It is important to ensure that there is no lessening of the protection currently afforded to animals when the new legislation is drafted and starts to be applied, not just from the point of view of animal welfare but also because this remains a sensitive issue and public confidence in the arrangements must be maintained.

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