(Updated 30/01/01)

Siege Lab saved at eleventh hour

THE FUTURE of discredited research lab Huntingdon Life Sciences was secured for at least the next six years thanks to an 11th hour financial lifeline from an anonymous US source.

The Royal Bank of Scotland was set to pull the plug on the beleaguered animal-testing laboratory after receiving threats from animal rights extremists.

Bank chiefs took the decision following clear warnings that the extremists would target staff and branches around the country - including those of sister bank Nat West.

HLS, situated in Alconbury, near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, achieved national notoriety when, in early 1997, it was the subject of the TV expose in 1997 when secret footage was filmed of staff abusing Beagles kept there for experimentation. Conservative Home Secretary Michael Howard suspended HLS’ license and ordered an inquiry. However, Mr Howard’s Labour successor Jack Straw endorsed this move, then reinstated HLS’ license two months ahead of the November 1997 deadline set by the Home Office for it to meet 16 conditions to improve operations.

Almost all of HLS’ finances had been provided by the Royal Bank of Scotland, in the form of an estimated £22.2 million overdraft facility. Without this facility, HLS faced certain closure, much to the delight of the animal rights group which had targeted the facility over the past year.

Andrew Baker, the millionaire chairman of HLS furiously denounced the bank for its “cowardice” saying that RBS had “allowed itself to be cowed by a small group of insignificant bullies,”

A group calling itself Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) has targeted the company’s scientists with death threats and hate mail. There have been 11 firebomb attacks on cars owned by staff, while two days before Christmas, a senior manager had ammonia sprayed in his eyes in front of his wife and children.
Cambridgeshire’s Chief Constable, Ben Gunn fears that it is “only a matter of time before somebody is killed.”

The dramatic rescue of HLS came about last Friday when RBS made it clear that it was so desperate to sever its links with HLS that it agreed to write off all of HLS’ debts on receipt of a token payment of just £1.

RBS held £11 million of the company’s overdraft, while two associated American banks, Allfirst and Comerica had £11 million of loans ‘laid off’ to them. Both will get their share of debt repaid by RBS.

HLS then announced that it had secured a new loan from an anonymous US source which would fund the company until 2006 - and SHAC have no idea who the company’s mystery benefactor is.

Company Managing Director Brian Cass declined to name the new backers, but told the press: “The money is coming from a group of investors that we have known for some time, who have great confidence in the company. They have confidence in our industry and we are delighted to be further associated with them.
The new deal was also welcomed by health Minister Lord Hunt who said that HLS had played a critical role in medical research and the development of new forms of treatment for illnesses including Alzheimer’s’, AIDS, cancer and heart disease.

“We’ve all got to wake up to the fact that animal research remains absolutely essential to the discovery of medicines, as well as the assessment of safety and efficiency of new treatments,” declared Lord Hunt.
SHAC, meanwhile, refused to concede defeat in its campaign against HLS.

Spokeswoman Heather James said: “We have planed for this. We always said this would be a three-year campaign and we are only 12 months into it. We have our strategy planned, we know what we are doing and we will close Huntingdon Life Sciences. It is as simple as that.”

It also emerged last week that the Royal Bank of Scotland may still be a target for animal extremists. It has financial links with another animal research facility, Inveresk Research International, at Tranent, near Edinburgh. The centre is understood to have a £37 million loan from RBS, due to be repaid in 2007.
HLS may be taking legal action against the Royal Bank of Scotland for breached its duty of confidentiality when it admitted to the RSPCA that it shared concern over the work being carried out by the firm.
The disclosure was made by the bank’s deputy chairman, Sir George Mathewson, in reply to a letter by the RSPCA appealing to the bank to withdraw its loan facility.

* The Government came under fire early last year in its link to HLS. Animal rights campaigners accused the Labour Party of double standards by investing its staff pension fund in HLS, which came under fire for cruelty to dogs only three years previously. At the time, the Party held 75,000 shares in Huntingdon Life Sciences.

Ronnie Campbell, Labour MP for Blythe Valley said, “Now that the Government is aware of this particular investment, I would expect them to pull the (pension fund) money out of Huntingdon.”


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