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Cross-Party MPs Urge Home Office to Abolish Forced Swim Test On Animals

Laboratory mice and rats are forced to swim in containers to induce panic (Alamy)

3 min read

A group of cross-party MPs have called on the government to ban the use of forced swim tests on animals, with animal rights group PETA calling the practice “outrageously crude and cruel”.

In laboratories across the UK, small animals are forced into inescapable cylinders of water, where they are left to swim or float for around five minutes – the purpose being to induce a sense of panic as the animals attempt to escape. Multiple university websites state that the animals are then "humanely killed" in order to analyse their tissues and blood.

PETA, along with a dozen MPs including former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs George Eustice and Green Party MP and former leader Caroline Lucas, is calling for licences allowing the swim tests to be revoked and for the practice to be ended in the UK. 

The MPs sent an open letter, seen by PoliticsHome, on Monday to Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Home Office Lord Sharpe of Epsom OBE urging him to prohibit the use of the test. 

The Home Office is carrying out a review of its policy on the forced swim test following advice from the Animals in Science Committee that suggested that many licences to conduct the test had been granted without proper scrutiny. 

The independent advisory body also concluded that the test, which is carried out in order to analyse the impact of stress on the brain, has significant limitations when it comes to revealing anything about mental health conditions in humans.

In the letter, the group of MPs wrote: “Continuing to authorise its use undermines the integrity of scientific output and public confidence in the regulatory framework. Please end it now.”

Labour MP Rachael Maskell, who also signed the letter, said that carrying out “worthless tests” would do a “disservice” to people with mental health conditions, as well as causing suffering for the animals involved.

“The forced swim test is rightly rejected by more than a dozen top UK universities and numerous pharmaceutical companies for being fundamentally flawed and ethically unacceptable,” she said.

“Conducting these worthless tests in an attempt to study human illness is a disservice to those suffering from debilitating mental health conditions. 

“The only acceptable conclusion of the Home Office policy review, based on the science and animals’ suffering, can be to end this experiment in the UK.”

She urged the UK government to “not fall behind” other countries such as Australia, where a ban has been placed on using the test as a model for depression in humans and for studies of anxiety disorders and their treatment.

Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council recently announced that the forced swim test has a significant adverse impact on animals, and that as well as banning it for modelling human depression or anxiety, it must not be used for other uses without compelling justification.

In Australia, any organisation currently using the test must conduct a review of their project within three months.

Numerous pharmaceutical companies have already committed to not using the test, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca, as well many of the UK's top Russell Group universities.

PETA Senior Campaigns Manager Kate Werner urged the Home Office to “act immediately” to “end the use of this outrageously crude and cruel test”.

“Abolishing the forced swim test could spare thousands of animals a terrifying ordeal and encourage scientists to use innovative, human-relevant research,” she said.

Other MPs who signed the letter included Conservative MPs Tracey Crouch, Caroline Dinenage, and Henry Smith, SNP MPs Martyn Day, Patricia Gibson, Stuart McDonald, Kirsten Oswald, and Tommy Sheppard, and Labour MP Sarah Champion.

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