The Home Office last week released a statement on its plans to bring in a new EU law on animal experiments. The plans, such as maintaining larger minimum cage sizes than strictly necessary, have been heralded by some as good news. The overall picture is very different.
The Home Office proposes for the first time to allow stray pets to be caught and used for experiments, for "environmental" or scientific reasons. This was despite unanimous submissions by animal welfare groups supported by many research establishments that the change was both unnecessary and unwelcome. No proposals are made for ensuring that an attempt be made to rehome lost pets rather than subject them to laboratory testing.
Furthermore, by refusing to ban particular experiments, the government is content that grim procedures which would be more at home in a chamber of horrors than a civilised country may continue to be allowed.
For example, the new EU law specifically contemplates that animals in laboratories can be given electric shocks they cannot escape from, to induce "learned helplessness". Highly social animals such as dogs and primates can be locked in "complete isolation for prolonged periods". Organ transplantation where organ rejection is "likely to lead to severe distress or impairment of the general condition of the animals" is allowed, as are all manner of poisoning tests and surgery leading to severe pain or distress and "forced swim or exercise tests with exhaustion ...". The consultation heard not only from animal protection groups but also researchers that there should be a list of experiments that would never be sanctioned, but the Government has refused to rule anything out. Thousands of animal experiments for trivial purposes will continue.
To top it all off, a review of secrecy in animal research begun in 2004 has been further extended, leaving animal experiments hidden from public scrutiny, despite the government's admission that current law is insufficient in terms of EU transparency.
As taxpayers, we have a right to know what goes on, in our names, behind the closed doors of our laboratories - with due regard being paid, naturally, to personal and confidential information. As things stand, we risk lagging behind other European countries in maintaining our obsessive secrecy. Most respondents - including the animal research industry - favoured amending or repealing the clause that allows researchers to hide information about animal experiments from Freedom of Information requests. The government claims to have been reviewing this clause for the last eight years but still refuses to come to a decision. What does it have to hide?
The European public has made it overwhelmingly clear, in a YouGov poll in 2009, that it wants to see far greater openness and bans on all experiments causing severe suffering and any suffering for primates, dogs and cats. Even those respondents who will tolerate some animal testing want experiments which are not for serious medical conditions banned. Once again, the Government is intent on disregarding public opinion. But at this late hour it is not too late for the Government to bring the animal research industry into line with public opinion. If you think it is wrong to electrocute and poison animals, which could now include lost pets, please write to your MP.