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 Howards 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 companys 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
Cambridgeshires 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 companys 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 companys
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
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 Alzheimers, AIDS,
cancer and heart disease.
Weve 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 banks deputy chairman, Sir George Mathewson,
in reply to a letter by the RSPCA appealing to the bank to withdraw its loan
* 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
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.