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IN the autumn of 2011 the EU agreed a new directive aimed at enhancing the welfare of animals used in research. Member states have until November this year to transpose the directive into national law. Aimed at raising standards across the EU, the exercise is relevant as far as the UK is concerned because, in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, the UK has what has long been regarded as one of the most robust and effective legislative frameworks for safeguarding the welfare of animals used in research in the world. An important feature of the directive is that it gives member states the option to retain more stringent national provisions that were already in place when the directive came into force as long as these do not inhibit the free market. This leaves scope for discussion about the extent to which some of the measures currently applied in the UK should continue and, in June last year, the Home Office issued a consultation document seeking views on how best to proceed (VR, June 25, 2011, vol 168, p 652). More recently, in December, it issued a related consultation document seeking views on a draft code of practice on the care and accommodation of animals used for scientific purposes and it is currently in the process of developing draft legislation for publication in the spring.
As is so often the case with new legislation, the devil will be in the detail, but in this instance some important principles are involved. In its June consultation document, the Home Office said that its main objective would be to transpose the provisions of the directive into UK law ‘fully and appropriately’, with additional objectives being to adopt measures that are ‘proportionate; provide for efficient and effective regulation and appropriate standards of animal welfare and protection; promote the use of alternatives to animal use; avoid unnecessary administrative and regulatory burdens; and support the success, sustainability and competitiveness of the UK research and science base.’ All these objectives are admirable but the word ‘appropriate’ is always open to interpretation and questions remain about how, exactly, they will be achieved. Also, until the Home Office produces its draft legislation, it is difficult to be sure about which of the stricter measures it plans to retain.
The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act has done much to improve the welfare of animals over the past 25 years and it is vital that the protection it provides is maintained. Responding to the consultation in September, the BVA, in conjunction with the Laboratory Animals Veterinary Association (LAVA), made the important point that the higher standards and requirements currently applied in the UK should be retained when the European legislation is implemented unless there is clear evidence to show that there would be no reduction in animal welfare as a result of simply meeting the minimum requirements of the directive. This, the two organisations pointed out, is important not just in terms of animal welfare, but also for ensuring that public confidence in the arrangements is maintained. They drew attention, too, to the crucial role that Named Veterinary Surgeons play in the current arrangements, arguing that both the role and the ability of vets designated to carry out this role should not be diminished as the legislation is harmonised. With this in mind, they suggested that the designated veterinarians required under the directive should be full members of the local animal welfare bodies advising on animal welfare matters, and that this should be recognised in the UK legislation. They also recommended that the UK's system of Home Office inspections should be retained.
Regarding the consultation on the draft code of practice, the BVA and LAVA have a number of reservations about what is being proposed. In particular, in a response submitted in January, they point out that the legal and operational status of the document needs to be clarified. They express concern that the draft code does not address the roles and relationships between the various people with responsibility under the legislation; they are also concerned that it adopts too rigid an approach to the control of environmental variables to minimise variability in study outcomes. Some of the proposed standards fall below what is currently required in the UK and the associations believe that the codes should include a requirement for a veterinary health plan for each species, to be reviewed at least annually.
Part of the problem is that effective operation of the existing arrangements depends on a range of measures, legislative or otherwise, each of which is dependent on the other, and you can't change just one of them without affecting the system as a whole. It's a bit like a jigsaw puzzle where altering the shape of one piece will affect how it fits with the others and could spoil the whole picture. There is a need to be clear about the basic principles before the details can be resolved.
■ The BVA and LAVA's responses to the Home Office consultations are available at www.bva.co.uk/activity_and_advice/Consultation_responses.aspx
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