This is the conclusion of a report by the Animals in Science Committee, which advises the Home Office on the use of animals in scientific experiments.
A working group of the committee has today published a report into allegations of mistreatment of animals at Imperial published in The Sunday Times in April 2013, following an investigation by the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.
The report draws on a report by the Home Office Inspectorate, which has not been published, and an independent report, known as the Brown Review, commissioned by Imperial soon after the allegations were made, which was published in December 2013.
The working group’s report, Lessons to be learnt, for duty holders and the regulator, from reviews and investigations into non-compliance, notes that the independent review highlighted “a number of systemic failures” at Imperial, including cultural and communication failures, inadequate management staffing at its Central Biomedical Services division and failure to follow up animal welfare concerns adequately.
Meanwhile, the Home Office Inspectorate upheld a number of the BUAV’s allegations, although “the identified infringements were not judged to involve unacceptable welfare costs to the animals”, the working group says.
“There was nonetheless a systematic pattern of infringements, of which the [working group] notes that at least two involved tangible welfare costs [to animals], and there is no reason to believe that this was confined solely to the six-month period covered by the [BUAV] investigation,” the report continues.
“The pattern itself reflects underlying failures in the mechanisms that should ensure appropriate levels of animal welfare, and the report could not be confident that the consequences were limited to technical infringements of the kind detected by the [inspectorate’s] investigation.”
The working group concludes that “it may reasonably be inferred that: i. infringements occurred on an unacceptable scale for an unknown, but extended, period; and ii. there was an unacceptable risk that some might involve appreciable welfare costs to the animals”.
It advises the minister responsible for animal research, Norman Baker, to “consider whether he can continue to have confidence in the current establishment licence holder at [Imperial] retaining this role”. Establishment licence holders have ultimate responsibility for institutional compliance with animal welfare laws.
The working group also observes that academics at Imperial were “insufficiently involved in [animal] procedures and post-procedure recovery”. It suggests this is because the move to the full economic costing of research has given universities intent on securing grants a “powerful incentive” to minimise what they charge funders for animal maintenance. It says institutions should consider topping up funding from their central budgets.
In a statement, Imperial says it is “disappointed” that its offer to meet committee members was not taken up, and that the report was published “without the committee… having any direct contact with the college”.
It is also “surprised” the report “does not refer to Imperial’s comprehensive Action Plan for World-Class Animal Research”, which was published in January.
“The college has made substantial progress in implementing changes set out in the plan. These build on the good standards of animal husbandry identified in the Brown Review and are enabling the college to build a new culture around animal research by establishing and promoting best practice, and taking ethical, welfare and 3Rs [the replacement, reduction and refinement of animal experimentation] issues into account at every level,” the statement adds.
The statement also pledges Imperial’s full support for its establishment licence holder, John Neilson, the college’s secretary and registrar.
Michelle Thew, chief executive of the BUAV, called for “strong action” to be taken against Imperial.
“If such criticisms can be levelled at one of the world’s leading universities, then it is inevitable that similar issues arise in research establishments all over the country. Significantly, only the BUAV investigation accelerated action despite ‘a pattern of concerns’ having been identified by the Home Office Inspectorate as early as 2012,” she said.