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Regulating procedures on animals

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LAST autumn, after more than eight years of discussion, the European Union agreed new legislation aimed at enhancing the welfare of animals used in research (VR, September 18, 2010, vol 167, p 429). European Directive 2010/63/EU came into force last November, replacing an earlier directive dating back to 1986. EU member states have until November 2012 to enact its provisions and, in the UK, the Home Office has just launched a consultation on how best to transpose its requirements into national law.

In the UK, the welfare of animals used in research is protected by the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (A[SP]A), which implemented the previous directive and has long been regarded as providing the most detailed legislative framework in the world for research involving animals. The UK Act has done much to improve the welfare of animals used for scientific purposes over the past 25 years, and changes could affect what happens for years to come, so how it gets updated is clearly important.

A key element of the European directive is that, while it sets minimum standards that all member states must comply with, it also 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 these are not used to inhibit the free market. This means that there is scope for discussion about the extent to which some existing measures should continue, and this forms the starting point of the Home Office's consultation document.

One of the aims of the directive is to raise standards across the EU, and many of its provisions are similar to current UK legislation and practice. For example, it places strong emphasis on minimising the use of animals and promoting the ‘3Rs’ (refining scientific procedures, reducing the number of animals used and replacing the use of animals where possible). It also requires establishments and projects to be authorised and inspected, and procedures to be classified according to their severity.

Although some of the provisions are new or go further than current UK legislation, others are potentially less stringent. For example, the A(SP)A provides special protection for non-human primates, cats, dogs and equids, while the directive extends special protection to non-human primates only.

According to the Home Office, the principal objective will be to transpose the provisions of the directive into UK law ‘fully and appropriately’. In doing so, important additional objectives will be 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’.

Animal welfare must be the primary consideration but other considerations may come into play. Fortunately, given the Government's commitment to keeping costs to a minimum, an initial impact assessment by the Home Office suggests that retaining some of the UK's higher standards will be less expensive than just applying the minimum requirements of the directive.

As with any legislation, the devil will be in the detail. The consultation document considers each of the provisions in turn, comparing the requirements of the directive with those of the A(SP)A and, where there are differences, seeks views on whether the UK legislation should be changed. Any changes will need to be considered carefully, not least because they could affect, for example, the composition and function of statutory animal welfare committees, the role and function of Home Office inspectors and the way inspections are organised (see Letters, p 673).

This is an area in which regulation and veterinary involvement will always be necessary and in which progress must be measured in terms of practical outcomes, not just in terms of the levels of bureaucracy involved. It may well be, as seems to be suggested in the document, that there is scope for some of the current bureaucracy to be reduced. However, there must be no lessening of the protection currently afforded to laboratory animals when the UK legislation is revised. Also, because of the strength of feeling on this issue, it is essential that public confidence in the system is maintained.

■ The Home Office consultation can be found at Comments have been invited by September 5.

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