19/02/2012 15:35 GMT | Updated 18/04/2012 06:12 BST

No Need for Newcastle University to Spend £250,000 in Legal Fees to Fight FOI Request on Monkey Experiments


Let us be clear. Newcastle University did not need to spend over £250,000 in legal fees in fighting the Freedom of Information request made by the BUAV. Newcastle students, and taxpayers generally, should be appalled that the university spent such a ludicrous figure, employing teams of very expensive lawyers and running absurd legal arguments - and this at a time of severe cutbacks in higher education funding and the furore about tuition fees.

One of those arguments - on which a great deal of time was spent - was that the university did not hold any information whatsoever about any of the animal experiments taking place at the university. At any one time, there are 70 Home Office licences in operation there. A single licence can involve hundreds or thousands of animals. Licences usually last for 5 years. Animal experiments are a major part of the university's work. This is what the Information Tribunal said about the argument:

"[The BUAV's advocate] submitted that the result for which the University contended was an affront to common-sense. He submitted it would be remarkable if the University did not hold important information about extensive animal research carried out on its premises by its employees, for which it received the funds, for which it provided the facilities, the training, the ancillary staff, the drugs, the routine equipment and the necessary insurances, in respect of which the University owed duties of care to safeguard employees and the local community from biosecurity risks, in respect of which the University claimed intellectual property rights, and for which its Registrar acted as the certificate holder representing the governing body and protecting the interests of the University. We agree ..."

No other university, faced with an FOI Act (FOIA) request relating to animal research, has claimed it does not hold any information. The university ran other ludicrous arguments, too, and repeatedly contradicted itself. It cannot blame the FOIA for its own behaviour and the legal bills it has run up. Had it dealt properly with the BUAV request - which simply asked for more detailed information, in anonymised form, about brain research on monkeys which the researchers themselves had already voluntarily published in journals - it would have cost the university very little money indeed.

As it is, the legal bill is truly astounding. The BUAV legal costs - and, remember, we were dealing with the same arguments at the same hearings - came to but a fraction of Newcastle's. There needs to be an urgent inquiry into how the university managed to be so profligate with public money.

But there is a more sinister point. Animal researchers always claim to be in favour of greater transparency. The BUAV's experience is that too many talk the talk but do not walk the walk - they always find a reason to keep particular information secret, except (at best) on their terms. The public is entitled to ask: what have they got to hide? And universities in general are in danger of giving the impression of undertaking a concerted attack on FOIA, as reflected by the article and resentment expressed about having to disclose information about research on other important areas of policy.

Progressive academics welcome scrutiny and debate, which is the very essence of research and intellectual endeavor, and while universities are right to seek to avoid burdensome bureaucracy, what should be common ground is a willingness to respond helpfully to reasonable enquiries about what research is being conducted - if only because, as the Newcastle example shows, that will greatly reduce both costs and time.

It is to be hoped that the Justice Select Committee and the Coalition, which has put greater transparency at the heart of its governing agreement, should see the concerted pressure for what it is and give a sharp message to universities that they should embrace FOI and not try to kill it for their own convenience. There are any number of exemptions in FOIA to protect secrecy where that is legitimate.