Huntingdon may lose its licence

Huntingdon Life Sciences, the controversial group which tests drugs on animals, may have its operating licence revoked, following a Home Office investigation into allegations of animal cruelty which revealed "extremely serious" failures within the company. Removing Huntingdon's licence could shut the group down with the loss of 1,400 jobs.

The Home Office began its investigation in March following a disturbing Channel 4 documentary showing scenes of cruelty to dogs at Huntingdon's Cambridgeshire Laboratories.

In a statement to Parliament, Lord Williams, Home Office Minister said yesterday that inspection of Huntingdon's laboratories had found "short- comings relating to the care, treatment and handling of animals."

The report criticised Huntingdon's delegation of health checking to "new staff of undetermined competence" which showed its laboratories were "not appropriately staffed and that animals were not at all times provided with adequate care".

However, the Home Office report was more designed to give Huntingdon a humiliating, public ticking-off than prevent the company operating, according to some observers.

The statement said that the Secretary of State would not revoke the licence immediately, but from 30 November to avoid the destruction of an extraordinary array of animals. "We estimate that up to 1,000 dogs; 10 baboons; 200 marmosets; 450 macaques; 13,000 mice; 35,000 rats; 2,000 rabbits; 4,000 guinea pigs; 3,000 birds; 4,000 fish ... would have to be destroyed," Lord Williams said. Also, because of the potential loss of jobs, Huntingdon may be granted another licence "if the Secretary of State can be assured that measures have been put in place to prevent any recurrence of the events shown in the television programme".

Mike Baker, chief executive of BUAV, the respected animal rights campaigners said: "Although we welcome this action, it raises more questions than it answers. The suspension of Huntingdon's licence should be permanent to show the seriousness of the breaches. This is not an isolated incident."

Christopher Cliffe, Huntingdon's chief executive said he was surprised that the Home Office had made its views public. "We recognise we had weaknesses, but we can respond constructively to this. However analysts were concerned that the reprimand would further damage Huntingdon's business. In June, the group's shares crashed 15 per cent after it warned that full- year profits would be hit by a loss of customer confidence and "disappointing orders" following the allegations.