The figure with responsibility for ensuring that Imperial College London complies with legislation on animal experimentation has stepped down from the role following a “discussion” between the institution and a Home Office minister.
The discussion followed the publication last week of a report by the government’s advisory Animals in Science Committee into alleged breaches of animal welfare regulations by Imperial.
The report concluded that Imperial broke the rules “on an unacceptable scale”, creating an “unacceptable risk” of “appreciable” harm to animals. It also advised the minister responsible for animal welfare legislation, crime prevention minister Norman Baker, to “consider whether he can continue to have confidence” in Imperial’s establishment licence holder, college secretary and registrar John Neilson.
In response, Imperial said that since taking up the role in 2012, Mr Neilson had “strengthened the college’s governance and operational management of animal research”, and pledged its “full support” for his continuation in the role.
However, in a written ministerial statement, published today, Mr Baker says he has discussed the report with Imperial and has “now been informed by them that the current establishment licence holder has agreed to step down from holding that responsibility with immediate effect”.
“It is not acceptable for individuals to fall short of the obligations placed upon them as duty holders under the [Animals (Scientific Procedures)] Act. The provision of a licence entrusts duty holders to uphold their legal obligations and to ensure the highest standards of animal care and welfare at all times. In this respect, I need to have total confidence in all those responsible for compliance,” he says.
Mr Neilson’s resignation from the licence holder role will enable Imperial to “make a fresh start and move forward”, and Mr Baker is “pleased to note that that significant progress has already been made by [Imperial] in addressing the matters identified”.
He also says the committee had made “several sensible recommendations” on how Home Office inspectors could “achieve improvement in establishments where a pattern of low-level concerns is apparent”, which he intended to accept. “The outcome of all the [committee’s] recommendations should be to drive better practice across all licensed establishments and I intend to ensure these improvements are made,” he says.
The main purpose of Mr Baker’s statement was to announce a 0.3 per cent rise in the number of animal procedures carried out in the UK in 2013.
The total figure was 4,120,000, but Mr Baker says that only just over 2 million of the procedures were performed for purposes other than breeding genetically modified and mutant animals. The latter figure has risen by 573 per cent since 1995, while other procedures declined by 16 per cent over the same period, he notes.
From next year, statistics will also record the severity of procedures. According to a small pilot study, 82 per cent of procedures were mild, 11 moderate, 2 per cent severe and 5 per cent below the reporting threshold.
Procedures involving dogs, non-human primates, cats and horses have decreased by 23 per cent since 1995 and accounted for only 0.4 per cent of all procedures in 2013, Mr Baker adds.
But, in response, the Humane Society International UK noted that the figures include a 7 per cent increase in the use of non-human primates in 2013.
Troy Seidle, the charity’s director of research and toxicology, said: “With over nine out of ten new medicines developed using animal experiments failing when they reach human trials, drug development is in crisis. A primary reason is that much of our research is dominated by animal models of human disease that simply don’t work, and that has to change if we want better quality medicine. In years to come we will look back on this era of animal experiments and wonder why we tolerated it for so long.”
In February, Mr Baker and David Willetts, minister for universities and science, launched a delivery plan for replacing, refining and reducing the use of animals in research – known as the 3Rs. The ministers declined to commit to an overall reduction in the number of animal procedures carried out, but, in today’s statement, Mr Baker says he “fully supports the drive to develop methods to reduce the use of animals”, and commits to reporting on progress in early 2015.
He also intends to legislate in the current parliament to “make changes” to Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, which prevents the Home Office from disclosing information about animal procedures.
“I am committed to enhancing openness and transparency about the use of animals in scientific research,” he says.
A spokesman for Imperial said ministers “needed to be entirely confident in internal and external procedures and processes pertaining to the Home Office. It is in line with this that the ELH agreed to step down”. He added that James Stirling, Imperial’s provost, had been appointed interim ELH “while the College takes a short period of reflection over the choice of a replacement”.
“The provost acknowledged that this had been a difficult period for Imperial and all of the college’s staff and students involved in these issues,” he said.
“The college recognises past shortcomings in its governance and organisation of animal research. It has committed to and made a substantial investment in addressing the issues identified in the Brown review”. That review was the original independent report Imperial commissioned soon after the original allegations were published in The Sunday Times in 2013.