A shake-up in the way animal research is regulated has been recommended by a House of Lords report.
The select committee report on animals in scientific procedures, published on Wednesday after a year-long inquiry, calls for measures to cut the bureaucracy that bogs down applications to conduct such testing. It also advises that project details be made public.
It concludes: "It is morally acceptable for human beings to use other animals, but it is morally wrong to cause them unnecessary or avoidable suffering.
"On balance, we are convinced that experiments on animals have contributed greatly to scientific advances, both for human medicine and for animal health."
The report says that the UK has the world's tightest system of regulation. Every application to conduct animal research is subjected to a cost-benefit assessment and is examined by a local ethical review process and by the Home Office inspectorate. Inspections are frequent.
It notes that although most scientists are content with the system, there has been criticism of the delays associated with it. Gaining approval for research in the UK takes 31 weeks, compared with 17 in Germany and six in the US. Some scientists argue that the delays have halted research or driven it abroad.
The Lords' report says the Home Office is considering simplifying the "unnecessarily complicated" project licence application procedure.
Nevertheless, it adds: "We still consider that, overall, the Home Office has not given enough consideration to the effects of bureaucracy on the science base in the UK."
It also calls for the rules to be relaxed to allow visiting scientists and students in higher education to work on animal experiments as long as an established licence-holder takes responsibility for their actions. At present, scientists have to attend training modules before a licence is granted.
Patrick Bateson, vice-president of the Royal Society, told the inquiry that this was a concern. "If we cannot get visitors to come here, that is really going to affect UK research," he said.
The Lords says that levels of secrecy surrounding animal experiments are excessive and calls for section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 - dubbed the "confidentiality clause" - to be repealed.
The report says that details of anonymised project licences should be made public after approval and funding. Researchers' personal details would be kept confidential, but expected benefits of the work and harm to the animals would be listed.
"We consider that the debate surrounding animal experiments has been stifled for too long, and with damaging results, by the overly restrictive nature of the act," the report says.
The Lords' report also called for the setting-up of a small administrative hub to champion alternatives to animal experiments and to coordinate research units embedded in existing centres of scientific excellence. This would be funded by the government, charities and industry.