HC Deb 12 March 2001 vol 364 cc615-8
5. Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North)

What discussions he has had with trade unions representing work forces engaged in animal experimentation about the intimidation of such workers. [151702]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

I recently had a very productive meeting with representatives from the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union, which represents many employees in the biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical research industries. Officials were also in contact with the MSF when preparing drafts of the new measures to combat animal rights extremists that we have included in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. We welcome the strong support that the MSF has given these measures.

Dr. Gibson

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, and welcome his association with the MSF.

Many believe that the people concerned are a determined group who will stop at nothing to secure their aims. Does my right hon. Friend agree? Will he afford full protection to Home Office licence holders so that they can carry out vital research, and will he attempt to involve the Trades Union Congress in that process?

Mr. Straw

I entirely share my hon. Friend's concerns. I have had discussions with the chief constables of two areas where there is a high concentration of scientific research to assure my self that proper protection is being provided. One such discussion took place this morning.

My hon. Friend is right to say that unfortunately, as we know from the record, many of those involved in extremist animal rights movements are—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mr. Straw

Poisonous and worse—and willing to go in for any kind of totally unacceptable tactics against people who are simply carrying out lawful and important duties.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I recognise the severity of the intimidation, and welcome the proposals in the impending Act. Will the Home Secretary nevertheless consider sympathetically the need for an emergency round-table conference of interested parties—including unions and other laboratory technicians, the pharmaceutical industry, the MPs affected, the police and, of course, Ministers—to reassure the public about what can be done, concentrating on how the existing law can be better used, and on whether new laws in addition to those in the Bill are needed?

Mr. Straw

What the hon. Gentleman proposes has more or less taken place already. I have had substantial discussions with representatives of the pharmaceutical industry and the major scientific and medical research establishments, as well as with the police, both about the concerns of those involved in animal experimentation and about the response of the police and the Home Office.

I have been very anxious, at an institutional level but above all at a personal level, to offer the support of the Government—and, I believe, that of the whole House—for the work that those people are undertaking. As I have said before, without flat work, many important scientific and medical advances would never have been made and many people would have died prematurely or not been able to maintain the quality of their lives.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough)

Is the Home Secretary aware that it is not merely scientists who have been the targets of these vandals? The Horlicks factory in my constituency, for example, has been invaded by animal rights extremists. Will the Home Secretary congratulate Thames Valley police on their vigorous action against those responsible for the attack?

Mr. Straw

Of course I understand the concern: the fact is that those people are both bad and mad. I have no idea quite how targeting a Horlicks factory can help to propagate their aims; none the less, it was dangerous. I am very pleased that Thames Valley police responded as they did.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

The Home Secretary might like to know that only last week, there was another incident in my constituency, directed against individuals working in the pharmaceutical industry. This is intimidation verging on terrorism. Will the right hon. Gentleman join other colleagues in raising the profile of the issue even higher, so that the Public understand that the animal liberation people are thugs and terrorists who will use no tactic other than violence against those individuals? Apparently, the animal liberation people are also threatening two of the Home Secretary's colleagues because of a reasoned argument about hunting. The situation is getting out of hand. What worries me is that, in relation to the importance of experiments on animals, and the awful way in which the animal liberation people behave, we do not have all the public on our side.

Mr. Straw

It is incumbent on all hon. Members to make the points that the hon. Gentleman has just made. We have to say that that type of intimidation and attack—including the recent attack on Mr. Brian Cass, the chief executive of Huntingdon Life Sciences, but also many other less well-publicised attacks—is totally unacceptable.

We have a job to do in this place. However, the organisations that campaign for changes in animal welfare law also have a job to do. I believe that they should be much more vigourous in wholeheartedly condemning those animal rights extremists, and separating their perfectly lawful campaigns for change in the law from those who shelter behind them. I am sometimes very concerned indeed about the absence of a clear barrier between allegedly respectable organisations and those who go in for outright extremism and terrorism.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

When the chief executive of Huntingdon Life Sciences came to an all-party group, some of us were dismayed to learn the extent to which the cars of even relatively junior staff members had been vandalised. What can be done to protect junior members of staff? May I also ask, in the light of the Home Secretary's last answer, whether the Government are happy about the lack of backing from some who might be expected to show more courage in this matter, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland?

Mr. Straw

To deal with the last point first, I am certainly not happy about the response of some of the United Kingdom's financial institutions, which I believe were pusillanimous in the extreme. If financial institutions give in to that type of intimidation, it will wholly undermine those who are on the front line of that very important scientific research. People in the financial institutions are far less likely to come under personal attack than those who conduct the experiments.

Although I realise that the institutions have responsibilities to their shareholders—undoubtedly that was the excuse used by the Royal Bank of Scotland, and by Barclays, which sought to withdraw provision as a registrar of one of the companies because it might be intimidated or harassed—they also have wider social and business responsibilities. The banks would be the first to squeal if, because of their pusillanimous approach, part of our scientific base, and therefore part of their income, were reduced.

As for my hon. Friend's first point, I happened by chance to have quite a conversation with Mr. Brian Cass as he was on his way to that meeting. I applauded his own personal courage in dealing with that attack. I am also aware of the attacks on those at a much lower level in such companies. The Government and the police are doing our very best to provide maximum protection. That is one reason why, two months ago, I announced a special grant of £1 million to Cambridgeshire constabulary to meet the extra costs of policing these problems.