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Secrecy over government's provision of services to Huntingdon Life Sciences

Katy Brown | 24.12.2012 12:46 | SHAC | Animal Liberation | Bio-technology | Liverpool

Back in 2001/2002 respectively the government took the unusual step of providing notorious animal testing laboratory Huntingdon Life Sciences with banking and insurance services - the pariah company being unable to source these services commercially. Ten years on a Liverpool woman is trying to find out the details of why, but the government is refusing to share what it describes as this 'highly sensitive' information.

In 2001/2002 at the peak of the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty campaign, Huntingdon Life Sciences found itself unable to commercially source banking and insurance services. Companies did not want to be associated with the laboratory, which was exposed by a Channel 4 documentary that showed a worker punching a beagle puppy and has been exposed of ongoing animal cruelty on a number of occasions since. At this point HLS, on its knees financially, should have been forced to close. Step in the UK government – so desperate to prop up the Life Sciences industry that it took the unusual step of providing the company with banking and insurance services.

Parliamentary questions have been asked and answered about this, but in April 2004 Rhonda Moorhouse decided to find out exactly why the government had decided to take this unusual decision and submitted an information request, asking some questions, to the department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), the government department responsible for providing these services.(1)

Her questions were only partially answered so Ms Moorhouse asked for an internal review. This upheld the decision to only release some of the information. Undeterred, Ms Moorhouse made a complaint to the Information Commissioner.

In attempting to answer her questions Information Commissioner Tony Dickson put in a request for full information disclosure to BIS. Although some further information was provided to Ms Moorhouse, Mr Dickson decided that full disclosure was not in the public interest.

Still not satisfied, Ms Moorhouse chose to appeal this decision and on Thursday 20th December at Liverpool's Family and Civil the appeal was heard by an Information Rights Tribunal - a panel composed of a Tribunal Judge and two other non–legal members.

The information under dispute was considered so sensitive that the tribunal panel had not even been provided with it, and instead were invited to go and see it in person. The judge said this was “most unusual” and took the view that it was “not acceptable” One of the non-legal panel members said that he had sat on the tribunal panel over the weapons of mass destruction freedom information request and this approach was not taken. The tribunal was uncomfortable about making a decision regarding information they didn't have in front of them.

Some of BIS's justification for non-disclosure of the majority of the information was due to its 'candid nature' arguing that there is 'a need for Ministers to have a safe space to be able to discuss sensitive policy issues in a free and frank manner.' It has also argued that the 'communications would have been far less candid had the author known that the information would be disclosed into the public domain.' The BIS considered that the sensitivity of the information is still pertinent, despite the decision being made ten years ago, and that disclosing the information would have a 'chilling effect on the provision of policy advice in relation to issues concerning the Life Sciences sector.'

An outcome was not arrived at on Thursday, both Ms Moorhouse and Edward Capewell - the barrister defending the information commissioner's decision to withhold the information - were each asked to provide a further written submission. A decision will be made some time early next year.

The tribunal has to decide whether on balance it is the public interest to disclose the information. Given the way the information is being handled so far one has to wonder what exactly it is that the government wants to hide from us.

Ms Moorhouse's questions were:
1. For what purpose have banking and insurance services been provided to HLS since 2001?
2. If the banking and insurance services provided to HLS by your department since 2001 were provided free of charge or has a charge been applied?
3. If the banking and insurance services were provided free of charge to HLS, what the monetary value of the services was; ie how much has it cost the taxpayer? How much would the services etc have cost HLS if a charge had been applied?
4. If the banking services provided to HLS included any loans or grants?
5. If any pay-outs have been made to HLS under the terms of the insurance services?

These have now been modified to the following two questions which are being considered by the tribunal:

1. For which purposes have banking services been provided to HLS?
2. How much has been paid out by the government as a result of the insurance provision?

Katy Brown
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