Whether animals should have rights and to what extent is open to debate, but few people believe they should be denied legal protection from abuse and unnecessary suffering.
Those who defend animal experiments in the UK often quote our ‘strict regulations’, aware that the majority of British voters (over eighty per cent at the last count) are quite rightly against experiments on animals that cause pain, suffering and lasting harm. So they claim our tight regulations ensure animals are only used as a last resort and that those that are used don’t really suffer.
The BUAV (British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection) has shown through the courts that when these claims are actually tested they are proven to be at best misleading, and more often complete nonsense.
Next week the UK Government is set to try to overturn a 2007 High Court ruling that it has been unlawfully licensing animal experiments. The judge presiding over the Judicial Review brought by the BUAV ruled that the government had been misleading the public by licensing experiments that would clearly cause ‘substantial’ suffering as ‘moderate’.
The case was sparked by an undercover investigation undertaken by the BUAV in a Cambridge University neuroscience Lab in 2000/01. The resulting footage showing monkeys left without painkillers after having their brains exposed, and strokes induced during gruelling surgery, was featured by the BBC’s Newsnight and others and unsurprisingly caused widespread outrage and calls for an inquiry.
The judgement should mean fewer licences causing ‘substantial’ suffering are granted, as correctly categorised ‘substantial’ procedures will not pass the key cost (to the animal): benefit (to research) test. It should also mean that the percentage of licences categorised as ‘substantial’ – a wholly unrealistic 2 per cent at present - will be considerably higher, and therefore offer the public a more accurate picture of the extent of animal suffering that goes on in UK Government licensed experiments.
However, the government clearly believes it is a good use of tax payers’ money to continue to fight for its right to ignore public concern and continue to throw a smokescreen over the licensing process in order to pretend that animals don’t really suffer in UK laboratories.
It is also using public money to fight for the right to withhold details of animal experiments it licenses so it can continue to make claims about minimum suffering and tight regulations without ever being held to public account.
In a landmark ruling last month the Information Tribunal paved the way for much of the secrecy surrounding animal experiments in this country to be swept away.
The Tribunal ruled that the government’s interpretation of what information should be withheld as confidential was too restrictive and legally wrong.
Last month’s ruling was the latest victory in the BUAV’s long campaign to get the government to be more open about the animal experiments it licenses in the UK to allow proper and informed public debate.
True to form the Home Office is appealing this ruling too. The appeal will be heard by the High Court in April.
It is clearly unsupportable in a modern democracy for the state to defend a controversial practice without being required to provide evidence to support that defence. And an informed, reasoned debate is not possible unless the facts are available. But perhaps the last thing some animal researchers want is an informed debate?