Millions of animals used in scientific experiments in Britain face extra suffering because of cutbacks after it was revealed that the number of inspectors charged with ensuring the welfare of the 3.5 million animals experimented on in British laboratories each year could be reduced to just 16.
The animal inspection budget faces a cut of up to 30 per cent in the drive to reduce Home Office spending by almost £2bn a year. Although the Home Office stressed last night that no decisions had been taken over staffing, sources in the department confirmed that job losses looked highly likely.
The cuts could leave each individual inspector responsible for ensuring that 250,000 animal experiments a year comply with regulations on procedures.
The number of experiments on animals has steadily increased in recent years, with 3.62 million tests carried out on 3.54 million creatures in 2009.
They included 2.6 million mice, 323,100 rats, 19,000 guinea pigs, 11,600 rabbits, 4,100 dogs, 3,600 pigs, 2,800 "non-human primates" (mainly macaques, tamarins and marmosets) and 170 cats.
Much of the increase in experimentation has been driven by the boom in the use of genetically modified (GM) animals to investigate a range of human diseases from the common cold and cystic fibrosis to cancer and Alzheimer's.
More than one million GM mice were created in Britain last year and, for the first time, tests on GM animals last year accounted for more than half of experiments in Britain. Critics argue that it is hard to translate lessons from animals into humans and that GM animals often suffer terrible deformities for minimal scientific benefit.
The Coalition Government has committed itself to "work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research". Responsibility for monitoring the standards at the 190 research establishments licensed to carry out animal experiments is divided between the 22 Home Office inspectors.
As well as making both announced and unannounced spot checks, they are also charged with considering new applications for licences to conduct animal research. Non-police funding to the department – such as its animal scientific procedures division and inspectorate units – is being cut by 30 per cent following last week's Government spending review.
Wendy Higgins, the spokeswoman for the campaign group Humane Society International (HSI), said: "The protection for the millions of animals used in laboratory experiments already leaves much to be desired.
"Home Office budget cuts can only make matters worse. There are simply not enough hours in the day for such a weakened Home Office inspectorate to carry out meaningful reviews of procedures and facilities.
"A significant proportion of animals are subject to highly distressing experiments that can involve disease infection, dosing with toxic chemicals, surgical implantation of brain electrodes, or genetic manipulation.
"How can their welfare possibly be assessed, much less protected, by an inspectorate operating at such markedly reduced capacity?"
Final decisions have not yet been made over exactly where the axe will fall, but sources within the department accepted that spending on animal protection work could be pared back by 20 to 30 per cent, implying a slimmed-down inspection team of between 16 and 18.
A Home Office spokesman said: "The Home Secretary will make decisions on the delivery of budgets as part of the departmental business plan, which will be published towards the end of the year."
HSI said it feared the cuts would increase the likelihood of breaches in the rules on animal treatment going undetected. Last year action was taken against 29 infringements, including a case of "unnecessary avoidable suffering in a marmoset".