Flashback: 20 January 2001 – HLS saved from the brink

The first in a new series of posts which look back at past events on a particular day.

14 years ago today the notorious Huntingdon Life Sciences, which tortures thousands of animals in cruel and unscientific experiments, was teetering on the brink of collapse. Outstanding loans were due to be paid back on Friday 19 January, leaving HLS facing insolvency.

As the hours counted down to bankruptcy, articles in the press and statements from scientists and politicians called on the government to step in. MP for Huntingdon and former Prime Minister, John Major, said: “The worst outcome would be for violent protesters to win. The real damage here is the domino effect.”

Only the last minute intervention of Lord Sainsbury, the New Labour science minister, allowed a deal to be brokered. Negotiations went on into the small hours of 20 January and eventually Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) wiped off the £11million owed to it for just £1. Meanwhile another financial institution, whose identity was kept secret, handed HLS a lifeline by extending the remaining loan.

In context: The campaign against HLS, Europe’s biggest contract-testing laboratory,  intensified following an undercover investigation shown on Channel 4 in 1997. Horrific footage of beagles being punched in the face led to the prosecution of four “animal technicians” for cruelty and a four month inquiry during which the company’s licence to vivisect was suspended.

Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) was formed in November 1999 and said HLS would close within three years. In 2000, SHAC obtained a list of HLS shareholders, including the pension funds of the Labour Party and Camden Council. The list was passed to The Sunday Telegraph and the Labour Party sold its 75,000 shares in January 2001. As a result the share price sank to just 1p. Also in December 2000 HLS was dropped from the New York Stock Exchange because its market capitalization had fallen below NYSE limits.

Throughout 2000 activists kept up the pressure by demonstrating at HLS’ three sites and at the homes of its workers, as well as against Nat West Bank and RBS who had given it the loan. Direct action increased as well with cashpoint machines a favourite target.

What happened next: The identity of HLS’ saviour was revealed as Stephens Inc., an Arkansas-based investment firm. Greg Avery, co-founder of SHAC, was defiant, saying: “Anyone who funds them, we will destroy. The government can do what they want, they will not save HLS.”

In February a massive mobile demo of 1000 people attacked the facilities of Glaxo, Bayer and Eli Lilly, who were customers of HLS. The same month managing director Brian Cass was assaulted outside his home. In March the company lost both of its market makers and its place on the London Stock Exchange. Shortly afterwards it moved its HQ to the United States, incorporating as Life Sciences Research

In July 2001 it was revealed that HLS was using the Bank of England as no commercial bank would go near it. The following year “global leader” Marsh Inc quit as insurer and the government had to step in to provide that service as well.

By 2003, however, the tide was turning. That year HLS won an injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act and eventually nearly 20 companies who used HLS did likewise, limiting the effectiveness of protests against them. Demonstrations outside peoples’ homes were banned and the offence of aggravated trespass was extended to buildings.

However, these measures did not stop over 100 companies severing links with HLS in 2004 and the laboratory was even forced into doing its own laundry. Finally in 2005 the government introduced new laws against SHAC activists. This meant much harsher penalties of up to five years for offences that previously might have resulted in just a few months imprisonment or even a fine.

This had a chilling effect on protest but worse was to come in 2007 with mass arrests in a police operation known as Operation Achilles. In 2009 and 2010, 13 members of SHAC, were jailed for between 15 months and eleven years on charges of conspiracy to blackmail HLS and its suppliers.

SHAC carried on for another four years until Debbie Vincent was convicted of conspiracy to blackmail in April 2014. In a final statement in August it said it had run the “biggest and most effective grassroots animal rights campaign the world has ever seen” but now was time “to reassess our methods, obstacles and opponent’s weaknesses, to build up our solidarity network for activists and to start healing the effects of repression.”