VERO invites “the greatest man in politics” to speak in Oxford

Former LibDem MP and Home Office minister Norman Baker will be in Oxford on 19 October to speak for VERO on the title Animal Experiments: an Inside View from the Home Office.  The place is to be the Friends’ Meeting House at 43 St Giles, anDSC04759d the    time 7 p.m. The event will be chaired by VERO patron Sir David Madden.

Of course Norman Baker isn’t “in politics” any more, having lost his Lewes seat in the general election. The heading phrase was suggested back in 2007 by Peter Oborne in the Daily Mail (of all newspapers) when Mr Baker’s two-year campaign to make the House of Commons publish MPs’ travelling expenses had at last produced the requested information. As things turned out, that was only the start of the great expenses saga, throughout which Norman Baker continued to take a leading part. Even that was only one aspect of his campaign against secrecy and spin in British politics: a campaign which also led to Peter Mandelson’s second resignation, and to a book about the dishonesties and evasions which led to the death of the weapons expert David Kelly.

As to animals, Norman Baker’s concern for their interests was already there in the early days of his political career. In fact when in 2000 he formally asked MI5, under the Data Protection Act, what information that organisation held about himself, an anonymous letter (the only definite reply he ever got) told him that it was his part in environmental and animal campaigns in the 1980s which had earned him a file there. He says in his political memoirs Against the Grain, “I was uncomfortable with the Christian ethos of humans having dominion over all other living things. The key word for me was respect.”[1]

Accordingly he made sure that a policy of promoting alternatives to animals in scientific research was written into the coalition agreement which prepared the ground for the 2010-15 administration. In due course he was made Minister of State at the Home Office, with responsibilities which included animal experiments. During his short time there (early 2013 to late 2014), he made very clear his conviction that the “scientific and economic arguments to use alternative methods are now as strong as the moral one.”[2] Under his direction, the Home Office issued a substantial document entitled Working to Reduce the Use of Animals in Scientific Research. This was not placatory PR, but an attempt to set a definite course for the future, with required reviews of progress – such as the one that was published in March of this year (under the same title, with sub-title Delivery Report). Both publications can be read on the Home Office web-site. Neither makes thrilling liberationist reading, of course, but to have got this much that will make a lasting difference, out of a Conservative-ruled Home Office, is a notable achievement.

Also on the Home Office web-site you can see another part of Norman Baker’s legacy: published reports of the investigations conducted by the Animals in Science Regulation Unit into violations of the law. These reports, started during his regime, are anonymized in a style reminiscent of Yes, Minister’s Humphrey Appleby, and are in all sorts of ways unsatisfactory, but they provide the first systematic public viewing of laboratory practice, not as the Act idealizes it but as it actually goes on and goes wrong. It’s a very great pity that the review of Section 24 – the notorious secrecy clause of the 1986 Act – was not completed and acted upon while Norman Baker was still at the Home Office. There’s no doubt what he would have wanted to do with it. (Incidentally, where has that review got to?)

Norman Baker’s last speech in the House, on 3 March 2015, came during a debate which he himself had instigated on another aspect of the animals subject: endangered species. That was also the theme of an EP of his own compositions which he released in the same week: Animal Countdown. If you watch his performance of the title song (it’s on YouTube), you may or may not like the music but you will see that his theme is not just biodiversity, or our grandchildren’s prospects; it’s individual animal suffering. You’ll also notice that he means what he sings, just as he has always meant what he says, and pressed others in politics to do the same.

[1] Biteback Publishing 2015. The quotation is from p.362.

[2] Foreword to the 2013 report of the Animals in Science Regulation Unit

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