Conservative Party MP Jacqui Lait recently criticized the government’s response to animal rights extremists in Great Britain.
We are now seeing increased levels of animal rights activity. Most of us are familiar with the saga of Huntingdon Life Sciences, the way in which City shareholders were targeted and the damage that that has done to the company. I pay tribute to Brian Cass and his staff for managing to refinance themselves and continue their valuable work.
There have been many instances of animal rights extremism since then. In the most recent quarter, from April to June this year, there have been what are euphemistically called “home visits”Â—22 to employees and 32 to company directors. The director of the building company Montpellier, which is involved in the construction of the Oxford animal research laboratory, resigned from the business. There have been 24 instances of phone, fax or e-mail blockade, which are immensely threatening to employees and, more worryingly, to their families, including children. I have seen the effect on senior research scientists when their families have been targeted. It has led to divorce, mental breakdowns and distressed children who have been unable to benefit from their childhood.
There have been 46 instances of damage to property, 94 publicly advertised demonstrations and 164 demonstrations that were unadvertised. Almost 3,000 people have been involved in protests. My office overlooks Portcullis House, and I remember one evening when people demonstrated outside about Yamanouchi for about two hours, disrupting not only the business that I was trying to conduct, but that of many other Members and members of the public.
There have been 80 arrests at demonstrations and 43 occasions when vehicles have been damaged. In many cases, corrosive fluid has been used, and in 33 cases tyres were cut or pierced. When corrosive fluid is used, tyres have to be changed anyway in case there has been some damage, and it is estimated that the costs of those attacks in one quarter alone are Â£250,000. We know that Cambridge university has had to scrap plans for its primate research laboratory and that Oxford is facing real trouble with its research facility as senior staff receive home visits. Huntingdon Life Sciences and Hall farm, which breeds guinea pigs for the research industry, have also been targeted.
I recognise that a small number of people are involved in the terror tactics; the vast majority of people who take a strong stand against the use of animals behave legally. The Home Secretary reportedly supports the Humane Research Trust, which is a legal organisation. The problem is, however, that those extremists are causing immense damage to our scientific and research base, and the Government do not appear to have the resolve to address the issue effectively. In the US and Japan, which are our main competitors in many of the research, pharmaceutical and bioscience industries, the perception is that the UK does not treat the issue seriously enough and will not take substantive action.
A new group called Victims of Animal Rights Extremism was launched in the House of Commons in April to try to help resolve the problem. It is a coalition that includes Amicus, the Bioindustry Association, the Association of Medical Research Charities, the Research Defence Society and Huntingdon Life Sciences. A Bill has been drafted to deal with the situation faced by people involved in this area, but the Government have still not made their position clear. I want the Minister to clarify whether they want that Bill, and if not, what way forward they propose to deal with the issues. It is the right of people working in those industries to have that clarification.
Lord Sainsbury, in his recent evidence to the Select Committee on Science and Technology, of which I used to be a member, pledged to introduce legislation, but rejected a single Bill, saying that he preferred to amend other legislation. The implication was that that would be a quicker route to deal with the problem. Specific legislation already exists in the United States, and seven members of SHACÂ—stop Huntingdon animal cruelty, the group targeting HLSÂ—USA were recently arrested and charged under that legislation. It is therefore clear that such legislation does work.
For a while, I thought that the Government’s preferred method, which is Lord Sainsbury’s option of piecemeal legislation, might come to pass. There was a rumour that the Government were planning to amend section 14 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to deal with home visits by amendingÂ—this seems slightly ludicrousÂ—the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill, which has recently been in Committee. That rumour appears not to be coming true, but I hope that the Minister will tell us whether there is any substance to it. If not, what proposals does she have to deal with the issue of home visits?
If the Home Office is planning to amend that Bill in a piecemeal fashion, will the Minister also outline which legislation will be amended and how it will be done? For instance, is the Home Office planning to amend the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 in order to protect companies? There is no currently no protection for companies, and neither is there any requirement for companies to protect employees, even though they have an overriding duty of care to take appropriate steps to protect their employees.
Is the Minister planning to deal with home visits not by amending section 14 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, but by clarifying the Human Rights Act 1998, so that article 8 of the European convention on human rights, which deals with the right to respect for private and family life, takes precedence over article 10, which provides for freedom of expression? Is she planning to change the law so that companies do not need to spend significant amounts to secure injunctions, in addition to extra security costs that run to millions of pounds and reduce the UK’s competitiveness as a location for biomedical research? It cannot be right that the onus is so heavily placed on the victims to protect themselves from the extremists.
Will the Government address the issue of consistency in relation to convictions in the courts and encourage the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts to consider not only the one incidence of terrorism that has led to a person being in court, but the overall pattern of intimidation or terrorism, when they sentence someone charged with such offences? Could restraining orders such as antisocial behaviour orders be used? [Lait is informed that they are being used.]
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I am delighted to hear that ASBOs have been used. The Minister now has the perfect opportunity to advertise that fact and to ensure that more courts and the CPS are aware of it. We still have to see what force ASBOs will have in the long run. They are taking out some of the young toerags for a while, but I am not certain how long that will last.
Given the draconian powers and lengthy sentences that have been introduced to deal with the war against terror, I ask the Minister what makes animal terrorists different. Should they not also be charged under that legislation, making their sentences longer?
The Government’s argument may be that specific legislation takes too long to introduce. With a general election imminent, I am sure that the Minister will agree that any postponement would mean waiting at least two years, because it is doubtful whether legislation could be passed before what is generally understood to be a proposed general election next May. It would take two years whoever won. Will she explain what the Government plan to do in the interim? If they do not wish to amend the legislation that I have mentioned, which legislation are they planning to amend? What ideas did Lord Sainsbury have? Which ones will the Minister advance? Will the Home Office or the Department of Trade and Industry take them forward?
What co-operation is there across Government to ensure that different Departments act in a concerted way so that a coherent body of law is produced instead of one specific measure? Does she plan to amend the legislation andÂ—this may be a bit of a nerdy pointÂ—will that be done by statutory instrument or by amending Bills? Perhaps the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill could be amended as it goes through the House. Will the Government amend proposed legislation?
Who is gripping the issue to ensure that it is covered across Government and what time scale is envisaged to get a reform in place? Will the issue be dealt with before we prorogue in the autumn or before we rise for any general election next year? The previous Home SecretaryÂ—now the Foreign SecretaryÂ—was clear about the issue:
“We will not tolerate a small number of criminals trying to threaten research organisations and companies.”
This is an opportunity for the current Home Secretary to send out an equally clear and authoritative statement that he will not tolerate such activity.
At the most basic level, that would help to protect the Government’s own investment and the development of new medicines and research funding for life sciences. If we look closely at the pharmaceutical research base in the UK, we find that it has shrunk during the last two decades. Jobs and companies have moved quietly away. The decision to move is a complex one, but one factor in the equation is undoubtedly the unpleasant environment created by animal extremists. The irony is
that the countries to which the companies move often have less animal-friendly protection laws than we have in the UK. We need a strong skills base to take advantage of our innovation abilities. That means that the issue of animal extremism needs to be gripped and clear remedies proposed.
This is the opportunity for the Minister to come forward with clear proposals about what the Government plan to do to ensure that people who work in science, who are our lifeblood in this country, no longer need suffer the terror of phone calls in the middle of the night, attacks on their cars, being attacked with baseball bats, as Brian Cass of HLS was, or being terrorised, as a pensioner in my constituency was. That man’s pension came from a company which, following a complicated series of takeovers, acquired shares in HLS. That elderly gentleman and his elderly wife received phone calls right through the night. Posters were stuck on their garden gates. Posters were put on the streetlights down their road, saying, “This murderer lives at . . . ” and featuring their photo.
In this day and age, it is not acceptable that people who carry out a service to this country in any way, shape or form should face horror and terror from a small number who take extremism to its extremes and terrify, hurt and maim people physically and mentally. The Minister has the opportunity to set the record straight about what the Government wish to do to ensure that those people are not affected.
Ah, if only there were Jacqui Laits in the Labor government.