Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have been campaigning for the disclosure of more information on animal research in the United Kingdom. Credit: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty

The government of the United Kingdom wants to jettison rules that prevent it releasing any confidential information it holds about animal research, as part of a continuing push towards openness about such work.

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Animal-rights groups have long complained about what they characterise as a 'secrecy clause' that prevents details of animal research in the United Kingdom being made public. The UK Home Office collects huge amounts of information, such as the type of work done, the people and institutions doing it and the results of inspections at laboratories. However, it is currently prevented from revealing anything that might be considered confidential, under ‘section 24’ of the rules governing animal research.

Today the government said that it would like repeal this blanket ban on information disclosure, as it has previously promised, and requested comment on its proposal. In place of section 24, it would like to introduce a new rule prohibiting disclosure only of information relating to “people, places and intellectual property”.

Home Office minister Norman Baker said in the consultation document released today, “To maintain public trust, we must be as open and transparent as possible about activities under the regulatory framework.”

If implemented, the new rule would still keep names and locations out of the public domain — a key concern of many researchers who fear protests or even violent attacks from extremist animal-rights activists. The government is also proposing the establishment of a new criminal offence of 'malicious disclosure' of information about animal research. This seems to be aimed at preventing attempts by activists to ‘out’ researchers online with the aim of encouraging harassment of them or financial damage of their employers, which has happened in the past.

“There is no question section 24 is not fit for purpose any longer,” says Dominic Wells, a neuromuscular-disease researcher at the Royal Veterinary College in London, and one of the people working on a forthcoming concordat, or consensus statement, on animal research, in which various organizations will lay out how they will be more open about animal work.

Wells says that section 24 could prevent the spread of details of best practice among those with licences to do animal research, as the Home Office might not be able to provide a list of all those with licences.

“Everybody is agreed” that removing section 24 is a good thing,” says Wells, and the safeguards proposed by the government should ensure the safety of researchers and their intellectual property.

Although groups opposed to animal research have also welcomed the move to repeal section 24, the London-based National Anti-Vivisection Society said that it feared the potential new malicious-disclosure offence could limit their ability to conduct undercover investigations of laboratories, such as the one that led to changes at Imperial College London’s animal labs last year.

In a statement, the society’s chief executive Jan Creamer said that the clause should be repealed without the addition of new legislation. Section 24 is a “ ‘secrecy clause’ that shrouds animal experiments from public and scientific scrutiny”, she said.

Chris Magee, a spokesman for the London-based Understanding Animal Research group, which campaigns in support of animal research, says that the sector in general is already moving towards being more open. However, he says such changes have to be carefully implemented, especially so that people are not able to work out confidential details. For example, even when a researcher's name and location are redacted, the rest of the information released on the type of work could still be enough to trace it to one group or individual.

“We’ve always been of the position that as much information as possible should be made available, whilst ensuring the safety of staff and the protection of intellectual property,” says Magee.

The government consultation is open until 13 June.