What We Don't Know About Animal Experiments

18/07/2017 15:06 BST | Updated 18/07/2017 15:06 BST

2017-07-18-1500370165-3855508-dreamstime_xxl_4118619cut.jpg Image: Paul Hakimata

Little is known about what life - or death - is like for animals in British laboratories.

Last week the Home Office released their 2016 statistics of scientific procedures on living animals, a report that reveals a lot about the state of animal experiments in Great Britain, including the numbers of each species used, where they were bred, and ranks their suffering from 'mild' to 'severe'.

But far more information is withheld from the public than published. Specifically, we aren't told how animals are treated, and we aren't told for what exact purposes or products those animals were used and killed.

For example, 1,700 procedures involved the testing of household product ingredients on animals last year. But we do not know what species were used, or how they were tested on. Or what products those ingredients may end up in.

We're told that over 18,000 procedures on guinea pigs last year were classed as 'non-recovery'. But what was done to those guinea pigs that was so invasive they were killed while under general anaesthetic? We will never know.

And 1,400 animals were used in higher education and training last year - but we can't link them to particular training purposes or methods.

It's all because of an archaic law that makes it a criminal offence to disclose this level of detail about animal experiments.

Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 blocks access to information about animal experiments held by public authorities, even if the people or companies conducting the research have no objection to its disclosure. It's a legal exemption under the Freedom of Information Act.

Because of section 24, the Home Office does not release information they hold on methods for breeding, housing, transporting, feeding, training, testing or killing animals for licensed scientific procedures. It would be a criminal offence punishable by up to two years' imprisonment if disclosed.

As far back as 1999 various government committees have called for change, acknowledging conflict with the central principles of Freedom of Information. Finally in 2014 the Home Office conducted a public consultation on section 24. They received almost 5000 submissions from individuals, animal welfare groups and scientific bodies overwhelmingly calling for the clause to be repealed. But three years later the department has still not released an official response to the consultation.

What is taking them so long?

The Home Office has a mantra of 'openness and transparency' when it comes to animal experiments, recognising that the British public are deeply concerned about laboratory animals. So the fact this clause lingers on is mystifying.

It is in the interest of scientists and research organisations to be transparent about their use of animals - they want the public to understand why and how they use animals. Repealing section 24 would not enable disclosure of personal details, or information that may impact commercial interests of scientists. This would all be protected under the Freedom of Information Act. But even when they want details of what is done to the animals in their own laboratories shared, it is still a criminal offence to do so. Many institutions have even signed a Concordat on Openness on Animal Research to show support for increased transparency and communication, but this is limited by the legislation.

The latest statistics show that 3.87 million animals were used in scientific procedures last year, and around 114 thousand procedures were rated as causing severe harm to the animals. We are expected to trust the Government authorities that approve these procedures. Perhaps that trust is justified - but don't we have a right to make up our own minds about that?

Thanks to a portfolio reshuffle, there's a new Home Office Minister of State with responsibility for animal experiments: Baroness Williams of Trafford. Will she be the one to begin the process of repealing section 24, so the British public can finally become fully informed about animal experiments?

Or will next year's statistics be just as unenlightening?

Join Naturewatch Foundation in calling for transparency in animal experiments.