19/08/2015 18:36 BST | Updated 19/08/2016 06:59 BST

The Seven Veils of Animal Experiments

One of the requirements for any public debate is that the facts are clear. We may have different views from animal researchers, but if the public is to have a sensible discussion about animal experiments, they need some basic facts:

• What is permitted by animal experiment licences?

• Does what happens in laboratories always correspond to what the licence says?

• If the licence is not followed correctly, what happens?

• How much suffering was inflicted on the animals, and what did the experiment achieve?

The reality is very different. There are seven veils across animal experiments in Britain:

Veil 1: Secret applications

Animal researchers do not need to publish the application for research. It is illegal to deliberately cause suffering to animals in Britain, unless you have a Home Office licence. However, if the researcher applies for a licence, the application is not made public.

Veil 2: Secret process

The final decision for deciding on the application is an internal Home Office procedure. In some countries, animal welfare and other external experts help with the decision on whether the application should be permitted. Not in Britain.

Veil 3: Secret decision

The fact that a researcher receives approval is not made public. It is a matter between the researcher and the Home Office. Instead, a very short "non-technical summary" by the researcher will be published by the Home Office at a much later date explaining the main objectives, often omitting details about what is done to the animals.

Veil 4: Criminal law protects the secret

Most documents held by Ministries are open to Freedom of Information requests (with reasonable restrictions - personal and commercially confidential information can remain private). However, there is special exemption for animal experiments. Not only is the Home Office unable to disclose animal experiment licences, they would be committing a criminal offence if they did.

Veil 5: One inspector for every 180,000 experiments

Whether the animal researcher goes beyond what the licence allows is monitored by internal procedures and occasional Home Office inspections. There are 22 inspectors who, between them, review over 4 million experiments a year.

Veil 6: Secret "punishment" for violations

If the animal researcher breaches the licence, penalties are normally mild and no details are published. Typically a "letter of admonition" is sent, telling the researcher not to do it again. In more serious cases, a training course might be required. Prosecution is almost unknown, unlike in Italy where managers of an establishment breeding animals for research recently received prison sentences for failure to meet the law. Very rarely does anyone even lose a licence to practice animal experiments in Britain.

Veil 7: The outcome goes unreported

The outcome of the experiment need not be reported. If animal researchers think useful results have been achieved, they may tell the press, or write for an academic journal. Otherwise, the results may be thrown away. Other researchers may pursue the same blind alley - unaware that the experiment has been done before, and that it failed to produce useful results.

This dance of the seven veils needs to end, so that the public has a clear picture of what is happening to animals in British laboratories.

What does Cruelty Free International propose?

We've argued for many years that full project licences should be published by the Home Office, with personal and commercially confidential information removed. We don't need to know who conducts the experiments, but we need to know what is being approved - otherwise, how can we have a sensible debate?

This means letting Freedom of Information rules apply. After prolonged discussion, the Home Office in 2015 finally said they agreed with this approach, and had legislation ready. This came so late that there was no time to introduce it before the General Election. Will they do it now?

Additionally, the outcome of animal experiments should be published - as is the case for clinical (human) experiments. If some experiments never see the light of day, how can scientists take a balanced view?

Finally, we reserve the right to compensate for the failures of inspection by undercover investigations. Three major investigations in the last year have shown the need. At Imperial College London, we found breaches of licence so severe that the staff member in charge of all the experiments was pressed to resign by the Government. Our investigations range abroad as well - at the Max Planck Institut in Germany the Public Prosecutors were so shocked by our findings that they raided the establishment to seize documents and are now considering prosecution.

Sometimes a research institute claims to be "transparent" by taking a journalist on a conducted laboratory tour. However, this is not transparency - simply a public relations exercise. Genuine transparency means:

• Admitting what is happening

• Publishing the outcomes

• Agreeing to public debate with all the facts in the open

That's why Cruelty Free International fights for transparency. If you agree, please add your name to our petition calling for the Home Secretary to implement the Government's promised changes.

Not everyone agrees with animal experiments. But animal suffering under licence is legal and often done with taxpayers' money. The full picture should be known, so that people can draw their own conclusions. Democratic debate can't exist without facts.