Ann Widdecombe wrote this article in the Guardian a few weeks ago. It’s another prime example of things that we know go on and things that deep down we know that if we know more about them we would probably want them to stop happening, but yet we allow ourselves to go on not knowing and being compliant in the consumption and therefore compliance of such beauty products, household cleaning products and medication.
Here’s the article…
Animal testing should not be shrouded in secrecy. We need real reform now
Behind closed doors, and out of the public eye, the number of animals used in experiments has been steadily rising. In 2012 – the most recent figures available – the total exceeded 4 million animals.
Despite the eye-watering number of animals used in experiments, we know very little about what is done to them and why, and about the pain and suffering they endure in laboratories across the UK in the name of science. This is due to section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which enables animal experiments to take place in complete secrecy and makes revealing any information, even with the researcher’s consent, a criminal offence carrying a two-year prison term.
I was still in parliament when the Labour government passed the Freedom of Information Act. As the then shadow home secretary I queried whether in some areas it did enough to open up the work of government to public scrutiny. Similarly, I am hesitant to welcome the government’s proposals in the long-awaited consultation on reforming secrecy in animal research, launched earlier this month.
The intention of the freedom of information act is to enable the public to scrutinise the workings of government, but this does not seem to apply to animal experiments. These are exempted from the act, so we have no way of knowing if the governing body responsible – the Home Office – is fulfilling even its basic duty to ensure that animals are not used in experiments where non-animal alternatives are available.
This secrecy surrounding animal experimentation has been examined – and sidestepped – by successive governments, but there continues to be widespread support for reform. As far back as 2002, a House of Lords committee called for section 24 to be repealed, and last year, the National Anti-Vivisection Society (Navs) visited Downing Street to call on David Cameron to act, supported by a number of celebrities. In parliament, MPs from all parties have supported motions calling for reform and even the minister responsible at the Home Office, Norman Baker, said recently that the provisions in section 24 are “now out of step with government policy on openness and transparency and with the approach taken in other legislation”.
New European legislation has now rendered the status quo untenable and the government has launched a consultation on this issue. Acknowledging the disparity that exists, it seeks to repeal the secrecy clause. However, the government’s preferred option for reform is to replace section 24 with further legislation to restrict disclosure of information relating to people, places and intellectual property. But why is new legislation needed when the freedom of information act already protects businesses, the NHS, police and schools on these issues, and has been bolstered further by the new intellectual property bill?
The proposed legislation gives cause for concern, potentially gagging whistleblowers and organisations such as Navs, which expose wrongdoing in laboratories, under a new criminal offence: “malicious disclosure of information about the use of animals in scientific research”. This raises the immediate question of how “malicious disclosure” is defined. A raft of “ag gag” laws in the US criminalised whistleblowers and trampled the right to free speech last year. It would be a mistake to begin travelling down this dark road in the UK, especially at a time when the government seeks to achieve better openness and transparency.
Greater transparency and accountability could be achieved by opening up animal experiment applications to review before they are approved. Sadly, this seems to be where the door of openness and transparency slams shut. The government has decided that it is the only judge capable of weighing the cost of the experiment to the animal against the potential benefit. It is worth pointing out that out of more than 4 million animal experiments conducted last year, not a single application was turned down.
The Home Office has resisted opening up applications to perform experiments, rather lamely claiming that it is not possible to provide all the relevant information regarding each experiment. One sad fact that we can be sure of, even with a full repeal of the secrecy clause, is that animals will continue to die in duplicate experiments: in tests for drugs that are already on the market, for diseases we can already cure, and where modern, faster, cheaper and more accurate technology can be used instead. Proper scrutiny is the least the public expects while animal experiments are happening.
It is vitally important that the government gets this reform right, as this issue is unlikely to be revisited for years to come. Meaningful reform will protect researchers, animals and science, but we can only achieve this by opening up the animal experiment industry, allowing organisations to help identify duplicate experiments and highlighting where non-animal technology can be used to benefit humans and animals alike. Tinkering around the edges will do nothing for transparency, public confidence in the system or, most importantly, for the millions of animals suffering in laboratories.